The Stasi, Freud and Egypt’s predicament (part 2)

In part 1 of this article, I proposed that the Egyptian state’s crackdown on what it perceives to be subversive behavior runs deeper than a mere desire to control society. It is rooted in a collective dislocation, a legacy of colonial modernity that seeks to cling to the status quo and an imagined past.

Treatment of the “other,” therefore, is intrinsically linked to one’s own self image, making the debasement or punishment of minorities, or those who dress or express themselves differently, necessary for one’s own self-esteem. To perceive difference as a threat is to adopt a contradictory position: one in which otherness is loathed, and yet is also a reminder of one’s own inadequacy. It is as if Egypt’s elites — politicians, judges, editors, policemen — in defending a glorious religious, cultural, and political past, are reminding themselves of their present material inferiority through their own egotistical performances of superiority.

Sigmund Freud, in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1939), warned of the disintegration of society in the case that there is an, “Unsuccessful struggle against the external world if the latter changes in a fashion which cannot be adequately dealt with by the adaptations which the species has acquired.”

The increasingly ferocious backlash against freedom of expression in Egypt in recent years is partly the result of a perceived threat to a patriarchal and romanticized national psyche.

The increasingly ferocious backlash against freedom of expression in Egypt in recent years doesn’t just reflect the governing elite’s desire for social control, but is also the result of a perceived threat to a patriarchal and romanticized national psyche that was repackaged in Egypt’s early post colonial years, particularly the 1950s. Decades of cultural and socioeconomic decay, especially since the ignominious defeat of 1967, rendered the stereotypical Egyptian psyche, such that it is, torn between self-righteous, state-sponsored nationalism, Islamist ideologies and a reality of failure and debasement. The origins of this can be traced back to society’s harshest and probably first violent engagement with modernity, when the Napoleon-led French army invaded the country in 1798. Since then, many norms and traditions, especially in relation to politics, religion and sexuality, have become contentious.

The current state of neurosis in Egypt is one in which the two selves, propagated by religious and neoliberal elites, are meant to preserve a status quo under the benevolent protection of the father-dictator.

The upheaval of 2011 dealt a major blow to patriarchal and conservative societal norms, hence repeated efforts to portray January 2011 as a conspiracy by “others” — foreigners, outsiders, traitors — not truly patriotic Egyptians, and to return to an assumed status quo ante through repression.

This is exemplified by writer Ahmed Naji’s case. Naji is in prison over “explicit sexual scenes” in his novel, a chapter of which ran in a Cairo weekly literary magazine. Why would an Egyptian court find the dissemination of a work of imagination in a publication with limited circulation, however obscene or offensive, a threat to public morality in a nation of over 90 million people, nearly 26 percent of whom are illiterate?

Naji once said, “They [the judiciary] work as the guardians of social morals and virtues, rather than of laws that protect freedoms. This has become worse since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president. He came to power through an alliance with state institutions, such as the judiciary, and together they share the responsibility for guarding their gains. Sisi looks after his interests, while the judiciary dedicates itself to policing morality and teaching us virtues.”

The court of appeals that sentenced Naji (after he was acquitted by a first instance court) concluded that the law is intended to protect public morality, religion, patriotism and the family. Naji’s writing, the judge argued, undermines society itself, and ignores the values and ethical boundaries of society, inciting debauchery. The judge called on parliament to increase prison terms for such offenses, “because spreading vice in an attempt to destroy the values and moral code of society is a grave matter requiring a harsh punishment.”

The judge went on to criticize all those who think the moral code is relative and not immutable and unchangeable. It is shameful, he said, to leave “the fate of our nation to the mercy of those who treat it lightly and scandalously as if playing cards.” He concluded: “Down with such freedom, which brought us corruption, loss of ethics, and moral looseness since the incidents that hit our beloved Egypt” — in reference to the upheavals of 2011 that are commonly referred to as “incidents” by those who view them as destabilizing conspiracies, rather than calls for freedom and social justice.

If the state did not crack down on freedom of expression, this might be construed as an admission of the impossibility of return to an imagined past, and a step towards submitting to an ill-defined new reality. The current state of neurosis in Egypt is one in which the two selves, propagated by religious and neoliberal elites, are meant to preserve a status quo under the benevolent protection of the father-dictator. Any challenge to this order also represents a challenge to the father figure leader.

Free expression is therefore more threatening when it doesn’t replace the old with a completely new reality, but questions the sacred, and opens new possibilities for the adult to choose and bear responsibility for his or her choices. It is also a rejection of the hypocritical conservative position, by which dominant societal guardians use a moral code to repress public dissent, while in semi-public settings this moral code is being violated systematically and in a pervasive manner, such as through economic corruption, torture in prisons, impunity and the demise of the rule of law.

It would have been an easier task if the governing elite and institutions were the single source of evil, but it is a deeper malaise that lies in a fractured national self, deluded into a state of permanent victimhood.

What threatens individuals is writ large in terms of state institutions, as was evident in the Stasi’s documentation at the museum in former East Berlin. No wonder the Stasi helped train a nascent Egyptian state security agency in the mid 1950s and supported it for 20 years.

The increasing weakness and deepening failure of patriarchal institutions (religious, political and social) to ensure hegemony over the family, traditional institutions and society at large is evident. The only way to cover up this failure is to invoke an assumed social and moral code.

Egyptians largely refuse to publicly admit what the majority of us condone or accept privately: that our moral system has become utterly dysfunctional. The widening gap between reality, desires, and societal codes hasn’t left much room for compromise. As a result, the rich and the powerful ignore public morals within the confines of their compounds and clubs, while the poor are increasingly dismissive of them in practice.

The stereotypically angry, conservative Egyptian is now a gift to paranoid conspiratorial thinking about foreign agendas and influences; or the so-called “forces of evil” in presidential statements. For Egypt to get out of this quagmire, deep political and institutional reforms are necessary, as is the end of the unchallenged dominance of the governing elite. This will take time, because ultra-nationalism and patriarchy are integral to material and psychological interests.

The upheavals of 2011 rekindled a hope that the state and society might embark on a transformation, but we were naïve and oblivious to the depths and complexity of material and moral corruption in wider society. It would have been an easier task if the governing elite and institutions were the single source of evil, rather than a deeper malaise that lies in a fractured national self, deluded into a state of permanent victimhood.

N.B: This article is based on “Freedom of Expression in Egypt: How Long Hair, Pink Shirts, Novels, Amateur Videos and Facebook Threaten Public Order and Morality,” a much longer piece by Khaled Mansour for the September 2016 issue of The International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Vol 13, Issue 3.

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Khaled Mansour