Mother of the World, against the world and outside of it

I have long known that the contemporary Egypt in which I was raised could easily produce a figure like General Ibrahim Abd al-Ati and his ill-famed sham device for vanquishing AIDS and hepatitis C. I knew that Egypt’s security doctrine could enable the killing of a young man like Giulio Regeni under torture, without the slightest trace of guilt. I also knew that Egypt’s strategic experts could believe that Freemasons actually rule the world. I was aware that the mentality of education officials in Giza would let them burn books deemed insulting to the nation. I was not surprised that a former chair of the Federation of Industries and a member of the board of trustees at a foreign university could say under the dome of that university that intellectuals are the greatest threat to society; or that state antiquities officials could destroy archeological inscriptions on a temple wall thinking that a foreign archeological mission had carved them.

All these things were theoretically possible, but there was a brake in place to stop them from slipping out of control, to prevent them from becoming realities. The problem, I think, goes beyond the current administration, or particular influential cliques within it. Rather, the current situation is more about the conditions of the elite, the dominant temperaments within this group, and the core inclinations and historical choices of the Egyptian intelligentsia. Contemporary Egypt as a whole is like a satellite spinning out of orbit, in danger of being lost in the ether. Perhaps for the first time in its modern history, Egypt seems to be purposefully isolating itself from the world.

In this rather long article, I’ll try to answer two central questions: Why has Egypt only come untethered in the last three years? What are some of the roots of this dangerous and disgraceful situation? And finally, is there a way back?

The Egyptian bourgeoisie: Public image and self-image

Since the establishment of the modern state in the 19th century, Egyptian elites have been obsessed with the nation’s image in the world, leading them to expand great effort and investment in fashioning and fixing a particular façade for outside observers. As is the case with any country that recently won its independence from a foreign colonizer, Egyptian elites wanted to show the colonial power that their country was worthy of independence. The national elite and bourgeoisie wanted to prove their entitlement to the colonial state, and affirm their legitimacy and right to represent the local populace. In a more anxious, impetuous turn, the elite sought to prove that they were no less advanced and modern than their former colonizers. The nationalist desires of those elites at certain critical junctures produced an image that combined a sense of greatness with feelings of persecution and historical injustice, mingled with shame and embarrassment at the local populace of backward peasants and urban poor.

While this mindset is characteristic of most post-independence states, it was particularly stark in Egypt, where it gained a life of its own.

Egypt’s modern conceptions of its national identity were based on an imagination of a glorious legacy spanning thousands of years, and grounded in a widely shared perception of a historical continuity from ancient to contemporary times. This imagined nation first took shape under King Narmer in 3200 BCE. We learned in school that Egypt was occupied, and was never ruled by one of its own from the 30th Pharaonic Dynasty until Nasser took power in 1952. That is, the country saw no Egyptian ruler for some 2,400 years. But this did not preclude “Egyptianizing” everything that happened between these two dates. According to this nationalist narrative, every conqueror and occupier was swallowed and consumed in the crucible of Egyptian civilization, to be broken down and fused into its own civilizational amalgam — or so we were told.

Today’s Egyptian army sees the genealogy of its own battles and conquests as dating back to the battle of Qadesh led by Ramses II in the 13th century BCE, followed by the battle of Meggido (15th century BCE) when forces under the command of Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated the Canaanites led by king of Qadesh. The contemporary Egyptian army claims King Ahmose’s liberation of the Delta from the Asiatic Hyksos in the 16th century BCE as part of its own historical victory. This genealogy is exhibited in the mural outside the Egyptian Military College that includes scenes from these ancient battles in addition to depictions of Ibrahim Pasha’s conquest in Syria in the 19th century, all the way to the 1973 war with Israel.

The implicit corollary of viewing history on such a continuum was simple. Its goal was to perceive Egypt’s current backwardness as just a minor detour from a path of greatness stretching over thousands of years, temporarily interrupted because of the wickedness of others. This perception draws from both the history of ancient Egypt and Islam. Thus, our civilization becomes both the “the dawn of the human conscience” and the heart of “the best nation ever brought forth to men to enjoin the good and forbid the evil,” as stated in the Quran. The contemporary Egyptian self, as it sees itself, is the oldest and most complex national identity, the legitimate heir of a past whose greatness is the object of international consensus and celebration.

Egyptian nationalism is nowhere more clearly articulated than in its constitutions. The preamble of the 1923 Constitution — Egypt’s first Constitution, given by King Fouad I to his Egyptian subjects — presents the charter as a step taken “to advance our people to the highest rank, as fit for its intelligence and readiness and as is consistent with its ancient historical greatness, and to allow it to assume its rightful place among the civilized peoples of the world.” Exactly 90 years separate King Fouad’s 1923 Constitution from Egypt’s most recent Constitution of 2014 — plenty of time for the development of vulgar chauvinistic impulses and a tawdry self-regard. The preamble of the Constitution adopted in 2014 says that Egypt is the “Egyptians’ gift to humanity,” “the heart of the entire world,” “the meeting point of its civilizations and cultures and the crossroads of its maritime transportation and communications.” It is “the head of Africa,” “the dawn of human conscience,” “the first centralized state,” “the cradle of religion and the banner of the glory of the revealed religions.” Egypt is the home of “the best soldiers of the earth struggling in the path of God, and we carried the message of truth and the religious sciences throughout the two worlds.” According to my dear friend and novelist Ahmed Naji — who is unjustly serving a two-year prison sentence in relation to the publication of a novel — some Quranic exegetes state that these two worlds are the world of men and the world of jinn.

But such grandiosity does not project the full story of how the elite guardians of Egyptian nationalism perceived themselves. While the local bourgeoisie saw itself as heir to this greatness, it still confronted the reality of leading a backward country and representing a mostly ignorant population, one that consists largely of dirt-poor peasants. The bourgeoisie’s image of itself, of Egypt, was therefore created in tension between the outside world (which was implored to recognize our obvious greatness) and the world in Egypt (mostly farmers who inspired a sense of shame and impeded the march toward the reclamation of the ancient glory). At the same time, the bourgeoisie was invested in the misery of the populace, generally preferring to maintain their ignorance as long as it ensured the perpetuation of an abhorrent, inequitable social order. In my view, then, this chauvinism is not simply an ideological impulse with no purpose. It provides justification for the perpetuation of the structure of backwardness, while relieving the national bourgeoisie of any real responsibility for it. It allows them to bemoan the sad state of affairs while placing the blame for it on the ignorant masses or some external conspirator.

This historical evolution produced a complex relation with the world and us, one that brought us to the present moment evident in our alienated relationship with the rest of the world and our national identity. Egyptian nationalism has acquired its own distinct prejudices, inherited by generations raised in its shadow. Believers in the nationalist ideal daily bear the weight of its greatness and swim in seas of arrogant pride, impervious to the daily reality that defies such a belief. How can the result be anything but perilous? How can it not unleash the torrent of irrational hatred we see today that indiscriminately lashes out at those at home and abroad?

For decades, we have been beset by a singular obsession: Egypt’s image in the world. It’s a stifling, even disgusting obsession because of the sense of inferiority and falsity it conceals. It entails putting on a bright face for the world by keeping the poor out of sight of foreigners, even if it means temporarily locking them up in police stations while the pavements are painted and streets are cleaned for some visiting foreign dignitary. This was especially the case in the 1970s, when the official and private press decried a growing wave of realist cinema, arguing that it besmirched Egypt’s image and aired our dirty laundry to the world. Realist novels were subject to the same charge. At the most absurd moments, improving Egypt’s image becomes more important than improving Egypt itself. One striking example that took place about a decade ago was when the Ministry of Tourism produced a public service announcement cautioning Egyptians against talking about sexual harassment lest it undermine tourism and sully Egypt’s image in the world.

Ahlam Hind we Kamilia

Ahlam Hind we Kamilia

The false choice between authenticity and modernity

Ever since its inception, the idea of Egyptian modernity was imagined as a choice between authenticity and modernity. In the popular consciousness, modernity had to be scrutinized by a lens of virtue and propriety. In short, we must take from the advanced West what suits us and abandon the rest — “we” referring to the dominant classes, their interest and lifestyles. So things like ballet, malls and American consumption patterns are marks of advancement, but democracy and gender equality are alien concepts that undermine the identity and particularity of the nation.

Over many years of successive missteps of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s state project, our relationship with the world became more complicated and fraught. We spent a very long time caught up in the intricacies of the authenticity-modernity duality, while questions of progress grew ever more distant. At the beginnings of the post-independence state, modernizing tendencies and manifestations had some degree of popular resonance and truth. The questions of progress and joining the developed North were real, serious and as yet unsettled. But as the blunders and defeats piled up, republican values decayed. Reactionary elements assumed control of the state project, and preserving the trappings of modernity became just another act to embellish the face of the bourgeois authorities and ensure their continuity. As the nationalist project came undone and lost its core component — the inclusion of the vast majority of citizens — the nation became more insistent in its demands that the West recognize our worth as an independent nation (the nation having been reduced to the bourgeoisie and its capacity to rule).

We must also consider that we have spent the last four decades under the influence of the discourse of an Islamic awakening, whose popular literature views the entire nationalist modernist project and its obsession with putting on a good face for the world as an expression of inferiority and groveling to the West. In contrast, it posits, we must take pride in our local backwardness as a form of resistance, awareness and trueness to our identity. This exposes the magnitude of the moral blame to be shouldered by the modern Nasserist state: it adopted the trappings of Western modernity with the full knowledge that it was all for show. And how could it truly believe in it, especially given the reactionary nature of its dominant social coalition, which employs much of the same lexicon as the Islamic awakening?

Wagdi Ghoneim

Wagdi Ghoneim

In a context like this, democracy, human rights, full gender equality or the free organization of labor become foreign agendas. The nationalist state is forced to adopt them as a pretense, all while detesting and deploring them (since they are a result of international pressure). Under Mubarak, for example, the state allowed civil society some room for action and it adopted the rhetoric of democratization. But it would not allow any independent entity or individual to adopt the same rhetoric — such people were foreign agents or a “fifth column” until proven otherwise. And when push came to shove — as in the present moment — the state had no qualms about prosecuting those who dare call for democracy.

The fetters come off after June 2013: How the Egyptian nationalist project broke free of the world

When former President Anwar al-Sadat stated in the mid-70s that the US held 99 percent of the cards in the region, he set a destructive political and analytical precedent in our relations with the superpowers. Having created his world and bequeathed it to his successor, and in the wake of more internal defeats for the state project, this notion dominated the imagination across the political spectrum, regardless of its truth. This central idea even came to govern the domestic political game. Mostafa al-Fiqqi, Hosni Mubarak’s former secretary for information affairs, once said that the US must approve any new president of Egypt. This doctrine of Sadat continued to hold sway in elite political circles in Egypt until the January 2011 revolution. However, the events of both January 2011 and, even more so, June 2013 were to prove the utter falsity of this doctrine and its departure from reality.

The uprisings 2011 and 2013 demonstrated that domestic powers, if they possess the ability to mobilize, have the final say, and the US doesn’t hold 99 or even 50 percent of the cards, especially after its failed adventure in Iraq. It took quite a long time for the political elite in Egypt to realize that they had a large margin of action. This realization came at a very high price for some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and was extremely profitable for others, such as the Egyptian military.

Although the motto of the post-June 30 world has been framed as protecting Egypt from external interference and eradicating the domestic “fifth column,” the victors have come to realize that outside parties have little influence over critical domestic decisions. This realization freed local decision-makers of the strictures of Western demands — conditions previously thought to be ironclad requirements — and that I’ve previously described as Egypt’s tether to the world.

Developments after June 30, 2013, and the military’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, freed Egyptian nationalism from more than one fetter. The first was the weight of US dictates on domestic politics, which proved to be trivial, at least in comparison to the relative importance it assumed in the state’s mind. Second, the Egyptian state no longer had to pay lip service to the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood, the core of the Islamic awakening that had long branded the republican state as a tool in the hands of the West. The post-June order upended the equation, ejecting the Brotherhood from the national body entirely, using the same accusation of being a tool in the hands of the West, but this time with massive popular support.

The debate over our image in the world — or rather, over the limited veneer of modernity that continued to exist trapped between the nationalism of the republican state and the Islamic awakening — shifted dramatically. Where once it was about preserving our image as a mark of progress, preserving this image became a mark of submission and lack of national independence. In the end, the logic of the Islamic awakening was victorious, but it prevailed against the Muslim Brotherhood itself, as the nationalist state, in a fascist turn, adopted the same logic to crush the group in an impressive historical irony.

Education Ministry officials burn books

Education Ministry officials burn books

As Egyptian nationalism was finally liberated from these restraints of preserving our image, it was finally released from its obligations to the international community and its trappings altogether, which, as I noted earlier, were often adopted in bad faith, in any case, and under extreme duress. Moreover, the dominant Egyptian actors on the domestic stage understood that this conflict was existential and that the revolutionary tides made preserving the interests of these hegemonic blocs a matter of life and death. This internal conflict was so critical — a matter of life or death for those elites — to the extent that the question of preserving their external image paled in comparison, especially since the outside world had no decisive role to play in the conflict. The ferocious attempt by the post-June 30 order to marginalize the January 25 revolution also had a clear impact on Egypt’s connection with the outside world. After all, the January revolution possessed the credibility that the June order lacked.

All of this came together to unleash the current levels of unprecedented Egyptian national chauvinism, one that borders on the xenophobic, as I elaborate below.

The web of enemies expands and shifts

When we speak about our image in the world, we must first specify which world we’re referring to. During the early days of Nasser’s post-independence state, friends and foes were determined on the basis of a set of rational, moral standards. As a newly independent state, Egypt was a friend to all the nations of the Third World striving for national liberation. It was one of the founders of the non-aligned movement, and ordinary Egyptians truly felt affection for the people of India, Yugoslavia and other nations seeking independence. Most of all, they were well-disposed to Arab and African peoples, while being more hostile or wary of former or newly minted imperial states. The hostility against Israel, for example, was largely based on the idea that it was the spearhead of imperialism in the region. In turn, its existence was a threat to our own development, progress and well-being.

But again, as the disappointments and failures of the nationalist state piled up, the standards by which friends and enemies were chosen became increasingly muddled. During Sadat’s reign, ties with the US — the new imperial power— were strengthened for pragmatic and financial reasons. Sadat also began cozying up to Israel (only yesterday’s existential enemy and spearhead of imperialism). At the same time, however, a rhetoric of defiance emerged, denigrating the two states while deepening our ties with them. This neo-nationalist project sought to affirm our eternal civilizational and cultural animus. The Islamic awakening helped to shape the antipathy to the West, particularly the idea of its immutable nature — “the Jews and Christians will never be satisfied with you,” as the Quran says. The problem with this idea is precisely that the hostility is seen as eternal. In practice, it means preserving the status quo of under-the-table cooperation with our implacable foes, while deepening the well of popular hatred through media propaganda.

Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin

Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin

At the same time, Sadat’s motto of “Egypt first” signaled a turn to hateful, patronizing rhetoric about other Arabs and peoples of the Third World. Repudiating Nasserist demagoguery and cooperation, the “Egypt first” discourse blamed the Nasserist discourse on Egypt’s regression and impoverishment. The shift entailed a new aversion and distaste for the Palestinians, the Sudanese and a long line of other peoples, from the Algerians to any non-wealthy Arab or African populations. This anti-Nasserist rhetoric, set in motion by Sadat, could have been a passing phase, but it has planted roots deeper than many imagined back then.

The decades-long evolution of identity conflicts has produced a strange tangle of psychological grudges that can be recalled at any moment as fuel for political feuds with an astonishingly diverse array of countries and peoples. These politically motivated grudges were fed by a sense of wounded defeated greatness, mingled with a feeling of national, cultural or religious superiority, depending on the particular target. Such right-wing tendencies can fashion an entire myth and lexicon of enmity against anyone. The Islamic facet of nationalist rhetoric is evoked as a religious, cultural animosity to the West, and sectarianism against Shia Iran, for example. The colonial legacy is summoned as the root of antagonism to the West, and Turkey as well, given its Ottoman imperial legacy. The more patronizing and even racist expressions of Egyptian nationalism are used to feed hatreds against Arab and African states.

As the regime’s political crises mounted and the security establishment felt itself losing control over the landscape, the idea that Egypt was under attack became the lens through which relations with the outside world were viewed. And when things come to a head, the idea of being a target quickly developed into full-blown conspiracy mongering. The ruling elite’s sense that the state itself was under threat after January 2011, followed by its existential battle with the Brotherhood in 2013 and its struggle against the terrorism of the Islamic State afterwards, brought the rhetoric of conspiracy to the forefront. Talk of foreign conspiracies became commonplace, a mere cliché, especially amid the absence of any concrete identification of who those conspirators are. From the head of state to the lowest-ranking official, we hear vague, ominous talk of “fourth-generation warfare” against Egypt by unnamed foreign parties. Looking closely at the nature of this war on Egypt, we find that the criterion for belligerence is simple: animosity against other countries that adopt political beliefs and doctrines that the Egyptian state currently does not. According to this logic, for example, international conferences on human rights become part of the global conspiracy against Egypt.

In a televised speech in February 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cautions against “fourth-generation” warfare.

The state has relied on a seemingly sound, but problematic principle in its dealings with the outside world: we fight those who fight us and befriend those who do the same. National narcissism is very clear in this position, where the only determining factor in deciding friends and foes is based on the other party’s attitude toward us (referring to the current regime). There is no place for how legitimate such a position is vis-à-vis the state’s ideological and moral preferences. As a result, if the regime believes that democracy talk is tantamount to advocating the collapse of the state, and some outside party takes a different principled stance, then this other party must automatically be conspiring against Egypt.

Egypt nowadays bears no gratitude or friendship except to states that offer unlimited financial and political support to its administration, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), provided these states ask for nothing in return that contradicts the state’s vision. Anything else is a burden and a threat of its collapse. Even these allies have not escaped condescending barbs from the men in power, who in leaks, described Gulf nations as second-rate states that have no choice but to support Egypt.

The incessant talk about foreign conspiracies has stoked a wellspring of free-floating, spontaneous and unbridled hostility among government supporters. When an Egyptian Apache aircraft accidently fired on a group of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert in 2015, killing several of them, regime supporters popped up immediately to voice suspicion and launch accusations: what were Mexicans doing in the Western Desert, anyway?

Let’s not forget that foreign delegations and researchers are routinely detained, banned entry to the country or deported. The security person who tortured and killed Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was probably not acting under direct orders, or with the consent of the president or even the minister of interior. Most likely, he’s just a citizen working in a particular security agency who believes in the state’s current fascist propaganda. At this moment in Egypt’s history, that’s all it would take to arrest Regeni and torture him to death for suspecting he is a spy. Such actions are merely drops in the ocean of military-fascist madness, one that is so out of control that as soon as Regeni’s body was found, the interior minister issued directives that his office should be personally notified in the event of the arrest of any foreigner.

The mindless pursuit of the world’s enmity

In many ways, Egypt has been historically lucky in that the world is inclined to think well of it. People around the world visit and respect Egypt, despite its almost non-existent contemporary contributions to humanity. Not all countries of the world enjoy such status. In the world’s imagination, Egypt, as a place at least, truly represents the dawn of human conscience, an honor not even accorded to other, older civilizations, like India and China. This idea emerged with the end of French military campaign on Egypt in 1798, and the Bonapartist touting of its findings, which were sold to the French elite as the modern world’s rediscovery of its moral and civilizational roots.

In 2009, when US President Barack Obama wanted to inaugurate a diplomatic shift in US policy in the Middle East and lay the groundwork for a gradual American retreat from the region, he chose Cairo from which to address the Arab and Islamic worlds. When the Arab Spring erupted, the Egyptian revolution received the most attention, spreading hope as the epicenter of resistance. The world imagined, and hoped, that the new Egypt could act as a vanguard of change in this troubled region.

The Arab Spring, however, proved capable of bringing down states, but not establishing a sustainable project in their place. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, was transformed from a major strategic partner in the making to a ragtag group that wasn’t even politically savvy enough to save itself from being driven out of the entire Egyptian political sphere after June 30, 2013. The US opportunistically bet on the Brotherhood in the hope that it could lead a narrowly conceived democratic transition in Egypt and the region. With its imperial mindset, the US imagined that this conservative, coherent, Sunni organization with popular roots could bring the region to safe, and cooperative, shores in line with its new policy of disengagement. In other words, it hoped that the Muslim Brotherhood could lead a political change that would end up leading to no change at all.

Prior to the revolution, the US and its partners viewed the standing Arab regimes with contempt, seeing cooperation as necessary while believing their demise was just a matter of time. This was coupled with an unshakeable belief that any alternative political actors were at best marginal. These convictions led to an approach that treats Egypt as a pitiful, disappointing colossus. As the heart of the region, it is the sick man that cannot be permitted to fall, even as it will not help itself, assume its leadership role, or stop demanding assistance from abroad. This all is happening while at home, it curses those who offer such assistance with an arrogant presumptuousness.

The situation today is truly unprecedented. This may be the most isolated Egypt has ever been in its modern history, internationally more than regionally. For two years or more, Egypt’s name in the world has been synonymous with the bizarre, but the outside world continues to engage and follow us, despite all the hysterical domestic appeals for isolation. The world treats the absurdities of national fascism with a mixture of amused indulgence, concerned astonishment and disgust, while on the national level, major global media outlets are treated as if they’ve been infiltrated by the Brotherhood.

Said Hassasin

Said Hassasin

Overall, a serious engagement with what is really going on in Egypt slowly became a losing game for the outside world, leading it to disengage or to dispassionately intervene, simply to stop the giant from crashing. The world is well aware of the rhetoric of hate that has prevailed in Egypt after June 30. It doesn’t meet it with more hate, but with simple ridicule. This derision was apparent in the response of the US ambassador to the UN after an Egyptian spokesperson claimed that her aspiration for an international resolution criminalizing rape and sexual harassment by UN peacekeeping forces is merely the result of her personal ambition. Why should we be surprised when the head of state in an official interview with international media warned Europe that a state collapse in Egypt would send 90 million refugees washing up on European shores? Egypt was thus reduced to a giant threatening Europe with the specter of rats fleeing a sinking ship, a scenario that Europe was admonished to take steps to prevent.

This is the Mother of the World admitting that it has nothing to offer the world save the threat of the terrible consequences of its own collapse. So why shouldn’t hatred be met with ridicule — and maybe even some form of quarantine, or even an occupation down the line to save the place from itself?

What to do, or can something be done?

The January 2011 revolution offered progressive Egyptians the chance to declare a sort of reconciliation with the outside world. For them, the apparent sympathy for the revolution on the part of Western governments did not detract from its legitimacy or from its patriotic nature. During the first 18 days of demonstrations, as the state fell apart and proved incapable of securing anything, there was not one single attack on a foreign embassy or even a demonstration in front of one, though both the US and British embassies lie but a stone’s throw from Tahrir. Even Israel, the object of universal domestic loathing, saw no demonstrators assembled in front of its embassy until months after the uprising. This lack of nationalist rhetoric against Israel may even be one reason why the security establishment embraced the notion that the revolution was a foreign conspiracy.

The absence of anti-imperialist rhetoric in the January revolution was less an indication of the lack of an antipathy to imperialism than a cautious tactical deployment of such rhetoric. No pivotal foreign state took an openly hostile stance against the revolution in support of the regime, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia. In contrast, from the early moments, the state claimed a foreign conspiracy engineered by nearly every country in the world, as it was dementedly lashing out against the revolution. As the state reeled, state television reported ominously that a Bulgarian engineer had been arrested in Ismailia, evidence of a foreign conspiracy against Egypt.

Of course, the children of the January revolution are not wholly liberated from obsession with Egypt’s image in the world. They, too, are the product of postcolonial Egyptian nationalism. So they were elated with Obama’s sympathetic speech on February 11, 2011. They took pride in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Tahrir, and shared at times dubious claims about the significance of Egypt’s revolution in human history: “the revolution that dazzled the world.”

At the forefront of the January revolution were young people who were well connected with the outside world and adept with modern media, especially the internet. Because of this, they had a keen, pained awareness of the depths to which the Egyptian national project had sunk. They believed the January moment offered a chance to reconnect with the world as equals, liberated from the weight of the discourses of identity and their bitter historical baggage.

But events took a tragic turn, foreclosing any possibility or space for political talk as politics itself was smashed, by brute suppression or under the weight of hackneyed, degraded debate. This started soon after the 2011 revolution itself, and reached epic proportions following June 30, 2013. With a subject like the one I have attempted to examine here, one that requires more discussion, the basic issue is finding an entryway from which to engage with the dominant expressions and practices now practiced in the name of nationalism and the state. I think the time has come to bravely call things by their names. The current version of Egyptian nationalist discourse is an abomination that must be resisted. We in this country, despite our severe failings, have lived through years of development and experimentation, most importantly, the experience of the January 2011 revolution. This should allow us to see the nationalist babble for what it really is: a purely right-wing perversion, regardless of its role in bringing down the specter of Islamic fascism. It’s time to strip the progressive, national liberationist veneer from the current reactionary nationalist discourse, which is in fact inimical to progress. The nation state exists in a different world today, one that is already globalized. The old signifiers used to view the self and the other no longer have any basis in reality; their purpose is to confuse, not illuminate. You simply can’t put bad wine in new bottles.

Egyptian Armed Forces’ promotional video.

When many members of the national bourgeoisie hold other nationalities or have safe havens in the region ready to accept them on a moment’s notice, when “national” capital can slip out of the nation in a matter of days, when members of security and sovereign agencies are trained and protected in full by the “American enemy” — in a time like this and with such a ruling class, the old nationalist conceptions of independence and identity do not apply. It has evolved into a downright scam and outright thuggery.

Some may see calls to open up to the world as a vehicle for the destruction of the nation state and an official, ignominious annexation into the neoliberal order of the contemporary world. I have no definitive response to this, but those who believe this often go even further. Many are hostile toward, or uneasy with, the January 2011 revolution, calling it another American-instigated revolution, like those in Ukraine and Georgia. Ultimately, these people will find themselves advocating disengagement from the global order, which is pure nonsense and, in my view, calcified thinking. Disengagement at this moment will not strengthen the autonomy of the weak nation state, but will only reconstitute its ties with the world from a more inferior position, and with a much narrower margin for action for any progressive political force in the future.

That time is gone. At a time when Egypt banned most forms of electronic commerce, it was on the line with the US to arrange the receipt of Guantanamo detainees to be tortured in the security dungeons of Cairo. In practice, further declarations of isolation and disengagement will only move us closer to Israel, making it our sole bridge to the West. In other words, it would mean the state, of its own free will, making the sum of Egyptian national nightmares a reality.

I can only urge revolutionary, progressive forces to liberate the discourse of anti-imperialism from the simplemindedness of those who dominate it, who are in fact subservient to imperialism and its logic. This may be the first key to resolving a fundamental confusion in the tangle of confusions that constitute our current relationship with the world. These forces must believe that the values of human fraternity and equality, and slaying the spirit of belligerent identity in our minds, are inescapable if we wish to free ourselves and our psyches of the current madness. More precisely, those who believe in the values of global solidarity and internationalism need to stop apologizing for themselves. And may Giulio Regeni rest in peace.

This article has been translated and edited for clarity. It was first published in Arabic on Almanassa here.

Mohamed Naeem 

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