In one of his sweet speeches, the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, justified executing a military coup on the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history. He said his (unmentionable) predecessor Mohamed Morsi “took the ladder up with him.” He questioned Morsi’s presidential legitimacy and how much he really believes in the ladder of democracy that brought him all the way to the position he and his gang had dreamt of since the cretaceous era. Egyptians — famous for a democracy fetish — rejoiced at the colonelgeneralfieldmarshalpresidentbigman’s courage and will to do what it takes to save Egypt’s infant democracy.
Since Sisi took power his efforts to strengthen democracy have been more invisible to those who are far away than to those who are near. If those who are far away say there’s no democracy in Egypt, it’s obviously out of jealousy and ill will, or as Sisi explains ointmentally: People in Europe don’t understand precisely what is happening in Egypt.
So who understands? Other than the president, and the 20 or so guys who have his landline number? It’s our brothers in Arabhood of course, because “Egypt is close” to them. And when we say Arabs or Arabism in the post-Camp-David world we by no means mean our brothers in history, language or struggle for freedom, we only mean those sitting on wells of fortune, the providers of blessings, the patrons of bread, “semi states” as they’re described in a leaked voice recording believed to belong to Sisi and his office manager in which they talk about countries that own rice-like amounts of money.
We’ll talk about them later, and “them” here doesn’t generally mean the millions of people destined to have been born between the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea — “them” is a stereotype in many Egyptians’ imaginations about who is a Gulfie human being, and how much of a role they play in the creation of the Middle East’s — and the Egyptian people’s — present and future.
One rationale of the coup or the revolution of psychological warfare carried out by the Morsi-appointed minister of defence was to rescue “Egypt’s identity.” Sisi and other government bodies’ intellectuals were worried that “Egypt’s identity” was threatened by Islamism and about to get slaughtered by the swords of modernity’s enemies.
“Identity” is a term Islamists don’t need to use much. For them it’s a very simple concept — practicing it and spreading it around doesn’t require anything that you can’t easily find in a shop adjacent to a Salafi-packed mosque. I’m not talking about volumes of Quran interpretations, or the famous references for aspiring Muslims who want to learn about their religion, Mohamed bin Abdel Wahab style. I mean the modern consumer Muslim bundle, a miswak and short galabiya and polyester burqa for a modern Muslim woman, a small brochure for menstruation laws, and a cassette (CD nowadays) about sexual modesty and/or the prefered sexual positions in Islam.
Identity, then, is a word at war with political Islam’s project. Like any other social project, this project aspires to change people and the way they live as it sees fit. Its war is meant to be against society, which in a better situation than ours has its own agenda, priorities and choices. But these are habits of societies that learnt through experimentation and trial and error. We can’t afford trials and errors. We only do the right thing, and the right thing is what older and bigger people say is right.
When state intellectuals talk about identity they have to shove in Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Abdel Wahab, Abdel Hay Salama, right up to the end of Egyptian identity’s golden-era army of Abds. I watched Souad Hosni movies when I was young, loved and enjoyed them, but I never saw, either in my house, my aunts’ houses, my uncles’ houses, my parents’ friends’ houses nor any house I was in growing up, the shelf of alcohol bottles in every black-and-white movie, and people meeting guests with the casual question “Can I make you a drink?” I’ve never seen young men in convertibles pick up girls and end up with a love story and a kiss on the corniche. I never saw this Egyptian identity or its more modern clones in the fancy flats of Ahmad Helmy’s movies, the expensive cars of Ahmed Ezz (the actor not the politician), and the repeated break-up dramas of Hany Salama.
Throughout my studying years I saw poor young people dreaming of escaping the small town to the capital, then escaping the capital to anywhere. Our discussions in high school were not about Arabic literature over the last 20 years. They were about whether it’s okay to get married to a non-veiled woman. Most friends I went to school with use Facebook to share morning prayers and stories of scientific miracles in the holy Quran, not classical symphonies or even Oum Kolthoum or any other component of what the state calls “Egyptian identity.”
Egyptian presidents have used Islamism along history to serve their own political interests. They formed alliances and made deals with the Brotherhood to crush other mutual enemies. Then they created alternatives to the Brotherhood, easier to control and use when needed — the Salafi Nour Party is a good example. None of Egypt’s presidents have invested in reducing the fertile ground in society for reactionary understandings of religion or political Islam by increasing spending on education or at least ceasing to oppress intellectuals or art. Exile, marginalization and straightforward jailing has never stopped. The distortion of any liberating ideas that might one day help attract young people toward a social model that automatically rejects medieval mindsets continues. Simply because a model of that sort would eventually also reject a pre-World-War-II mindset, military republics and nationalist security fascism.
No Egyptian president invested in a sustainable mature “identity” for Egypt. One that discusses its society’s problems honestly and ambitiously. Opens debate around worn-out fundamentals that have proved their failure more than once. An identity that calls for a real change in the patriarchy we all live in. Because no president would invest in an “identity” that would get rid of his enemies but also get rid of him and value set he represents.
The state invested in an “identity” slightly more modern that the Islamists’, but not too modern. Progressive ideas were linked — through the states’ media horns — to the infidel west, societies of moral decadence, fourth-generation wars and global division conspiracies. Those who now oppose a law that sends people to prison for demonstrating get the same treatment as spies or terrorists.
On Friday a pathetic music video came out to remind Gulfie tourists that Egypt is Close, written by Nasr Eddin Nagy, composed by Ahmed Farahat and featuring multiple Egyptian and Arab singers.
In 2010, Egypt achieved a tourism revenues peak of US$12.5 billion, according to Wikipedia. Only 5 billion more than Morocco’s tourism revenues. Morocco doesn’t have a third of the world’s artifacts, a river Nile, 80 million people who are mostly young and could build seven pyramids a week with the money they spend in unemployment cafes. I’m not comparing Egyptian tourism to the French, British, Italian, Japanese or any kind of tourism where people go look at things people do now, not thousands of years ago.
When the Brotherhood came to power, one of the loudest debates was: How will the Brotherhood handle tourism? Will they shut down thousands of businesses providing hundreds of thousands of jobs? The truth is Morsi actually extended the licenses of Haram Street’s famous night clubs. (And after him, Sisi didn’t change Morsi’s law that banned alcohol in new cities.) So neither Morsi nor Sisi had any intention of changing how much tourism affects the country’s income, and neither had a plan to change Egypt’s relationship with the dollar coming from a poor cold European tourist who finds nothing in Egypt other than a cheap warm beach far enough from the annoying locals.
Egypt is Close addresses a smirking Gulfy tourist that the camera follows around Cairo, surrounded by “traditionals” showing the simplicity and hospitality of Egypt’s original people. The people adored by Lebanese female singers, as the myth goes. The Egyptians in this video are famous actors and actresses pretending to be poor Egyptians charged with happiness the moment they see the Gulfie’s shiny white galabiya. Cairo’s streets, blocked during shooting to keep the disgusting locals away, are washed and ornamented with dreamy fairy lights. Everything looks like a bad, deceptively filtered Instagram picture.
The actors grin around the Gulfie, jump around like clowns, just like they do in real life, with the Gulfie producer who funds most of their movies and stipulates that they do not kiss, so a new term is born (“clean cinema”) that reflects our Egyptian/Gulfie identity. The identity of “look with an eye of mercy at me, may God look at you with the same eye, sheikh!” The song doesn’t say Egypt is beautiful, or you’ll love Egypt, or Egypt loves you regardless of where you’re from. It says “Egypt is close” with a businessman’s mentality and a travel agent.
The message: Come to Egypt instead of Turkey. Egypt is close, everybody there is poor, you’ll be a king in it.
The video is humiliating and embarrassing, and it’s an extension of a low vision for what making a living and sorting things out means in the minds of those who decide how Egyptians will live. If this country’s foreign policy is going to totally rely on begging and aid, and if the people living in it are not going to have a say in who’s going to rule them or plan for their lives, it’s even more miserable that those who decide everything will also decide the image and reputation of their subjects as well as the channels through which their relationships with the surrounding world will happen. I don’t want people from the Gulf to see me as a potential beggar or prostitute. I don’t want the image of a person from the Gulf in my brain to be of an arrogant person who throws money to me on a car seat after a ride to a cabaret, or a sponsor who controls my life in a country of alienation — or even in my own country. I want everybody to respect me the way I respect everybody.
I’ve met many people from the Gulf. I’ve had the most interesting conversations with them about the history of that area and the human relationships in it. I discovered how politics have created preconceptions and specific paths for people’s interactions that they might not want, even if they benefit from it. I met artists and intellectuals from the Gulf who wanted to change their countries and make them freer. They shared my anger against those who run things and try to design citizens’ characters. We also shared a will to learn and get out of the social casts we’re expected to fit into.
Encounters of that sort were not incited by government promotional videos. Very few videos were spent on them. Nobody encouraged me to have a relationship with a Gulf citizen based on mutual respect and appreciation, as much as the state encourages me to bow, like the state, to whoever pays more, and to be, like the state, a silent servant to my bread provider.
If this is the identity Sisi and his advisors want to keep in Egypt, let’s at least do it in a more professional way. Re-open the brothels that served the British soldiers during the occupation, do regular medical checks on sex workers, put up a price list for foreign, Arab and Egyptian customers, if there are any. Say in the video that “Egypt is cheap” and structure our media campaign around this economic concept. People always want to pay less than more if possible, for a hotel room, taxi ride, friendship or relationship with a human being. A cheap human is always easier to deal with and gives you more than it takes.
Tell the world clearly that we are a cheap country, and stop filling people’s heads with the “7000 years of great civilization” nonsense. Contradictory messages of this sort don’t just evaporate into the air. Citizens turn on the TV one day, get told they are great and the world is learning the principles of freedom from them and bla bla bla. The next day “Egypt is close.” We have to lock on a direction to stabilize. Are we going to be begging from the world or teaching the world? We need to know so we don’t end up mugging it.