Egyptʹs sham modernity
|Maged Mandour 30.10.2018|
The constant state of denial that is a feature of the Egyptian urban middle class and the Sisi regime shores up a deeply paradoxical ideological construct, argues Maged Mandour, where repression is deemed necessary, yet must remain covert.
Mass repression in Egypt and the use of state violence has been growing since the coup of 2013. It was inaugurated with a series of massacres committed by the Egyptian security forces against the supporters of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, the most infamous of which were the Rabaa massacres, where at least 817 protestors were killed in the worst incident of state violence in modern Egyptian history.
This wave of repression subsequently expanded to include members of all different parts of the political spectrum, including liberal, leftist and secular activists and bloggers, not to mention non-political citizens who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, the prison population has swelled to almost 60,000 political prisoners.
This is coupled with mass forced disappearances and what appears to be clear evidence of extra-judicial killings in Sinai and the use of heavy weaponry in civilian areas, which has lead to heavy casualties among the local population.
Lives lived in denial
Interestingly, even though state violence has become a permanent feature of the lives of many Egyptians, the government and many of its urban middle class supporters go to considerable lengths to deny the existence of this phenomenon.
Those denials are not only aimed at the international community, as one would expect autocratic regimes to do, but they also target the local population, most notably the literate urban middle class, as can be seen by the mode of communication.
A tidal wave of repression: “members of all different parts of the political spectrum, including liberal, leftist and secular activists and bloggers, have been affected, not to mention non-political citizens who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, the prison population has swelled to almost 60,000 political prisoners,” writes Mandour
For example, there are the several statements made by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in response to criticisms from the international human rights community, where it has denied the findings of the reports, as well as criticised the objectivity of the different human rights organisations.
On the other hand, there are other statements made by local politicians, parliamentarians and members of the National Council for Human Rights that circulate locally and are intended for domestic consumption. For example, the stern denials issued by members of Parliament, when the HRW issued a report condemning the widespread use of torture in Egyptian prisons. This went as far as to claim that there are no political prisoners in Egypt and, naturally, there is no torture.
In the case of mass disappearances, similar denials were issued, yet in a less decisive form. Although there has been an acknowledgment of some cases, it is not, however, recognised as a mass phenomenon. There are also claims that those reported as forcibly disappeared have in fact travelled abroad to join IS and that the forced disappearances phenomenon is a Muslim Brotherhood fabrication to attack the “country”.
As a result, even though the regime is pursuing a deliberate policy of mass repression and violence, it is going to considerable lengths to deny this and to communicate to its supporters its nominal adherence to human rights.
This can be attributed to a number of factors relating to the nature of the regime, the Brotherhood, regional developments and the urban middle class that intertwine to create an ideological construct that makes such denials necessary, even though the truth is plain to see.
Genesis of a neo-military regime
In order to gain an initial understanding, one needs to analyse the genesis of the neo-military regime currently ruling the country and its contrast with its foe, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2013, as the political crisis in Egypt was reaching its climax, the Brotherhood shifted its political discourse to the right, relying more on the support of hardline Salafists.
This shifted the rhetoric of the under-siege Brotherhood towards sectarian rhetoric and clear threats of violence. This only reinforced an image of the Brotherhood as the harbinger of extremist violence – an image that was already firmly established in the minds of the urban middle class – which combined with class-based prejudices against the Brotherhoodʹs mainly rural support, regarded by the urban middle class as uncivilised and barbaric.
Military, a force for modernity? “Unlike the ʹradicalʹ Islamists, the military would not use violence unnecessarily and would not take part in the killing of innocent civilians, nor would it take part in acts of public, ritualistic violence, like the ones streaming from Syria… In reality, of course, this has not been the case, with the military embarking on a campaign of mass repression and violence that has targeted much of the population,” writes Mandour
This fear was also compounded by developments in Syria, where the rise of radical groups spawned a cycle of horrific violence. For Egyptʹs urban middle class this provided a clear indication of the violence that could erupt closer to home if the Islamists, namely the Brotherhood and its increasingly vocal Salafist supporters, were not kept in check.
The way was now clear for the military to brand itself as a force not only of stability, but for modernity; a force that is prepared to use violence, as needed, in order to protect the “country” and naturally, the urban middle class, from the barbaric urban and rural poor who might push the country into the gaping maw of social and political chaos.
Furthermore, unlike the “radical” Islamists, the military would not use violence unnecessarily and would not take part in the killing of innocent civilians, nor would it take part in acts of public, ritualistic violence, like the ones streaming from Syria. In essence, the Egyptian military is now seen as a better alternative than its Islamist opponents, due to the application of “rational” and targeted state violence. This is in contrast to the Islamists, who have threatened to use mass violence against their opponents.
In reality, of course, this has not been the case, with the military embarking on a campaign of mass repression and violence that has targeted much of the population. However, as one can see from the ideological construct that the military has created for itself as a force of modernity, there is a constant need to deny this rather deliberate and obvious policy of mass repression. On the contrary, whenever new reports appear that expose human rights abuses, there is a need to blame the Brotherhood as the instigator of “propaganda”.
Finally, one can argue that the receptiveness of Egyptʹs urban middle class to these arguments stems from the nature of this class and its genesis, which has allowed it to create an image of itself as the harbinger of modernity in the mind-set of the barbaric masses. As such, it has naturally regarded the Islamists as an existential threat to its historic civilising mission and the military as the tool to restore the balance. Yet it remains unable to fully condone the use of state violence on such a mass scale.
This places it in a delicate paradox, between the need to repress the Brotherhood on the one hand, without excessive violence on the other. Hence the ongoing need to deny what is a permanent feature of Egyptian social and political life, namely, the increased intensity of indiscriminate state repression.
One can argue that the constant state of denial that is a feature of the Egyptian urban middle class and the regime is necessary for their existence. It is needed in order to maintain an ideological construct that is deeply paradoxical, where repression is deemed necessary, yet must remain covert.
The constant exposure of human rights violations is not only essential to redress these violations, it is also vital to expose the entire ideological construct – thus forcing regime supporters to face their own hypocrisy. Indeed, it is increasingly becoming clear that the violence being perpetrated by the regime is far more devastating than any imagined violence that could have been carried out by the Brotherhood.
Middle class modernity is a myth; whatʹs needed are real alternatives in the ongoing struggle against Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s dictatorship and his allies.