By: Mona Abdel-Fadil, University of Oslo.
There is one fieldwork episode from 2009, in fact one sentence that has etched into my mind ever since. It keeps coming back to me. Over the years, this particular episode has repeatedly echoed in my head, sometimes even during sleepless nights. Of late, it has regained significance as a description of how certain segments of Egyptians may currently view the prospects of their lives and their nation. The two are intrinsically tied together.
The recent passing of renowned Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif, served to reaffirm the significance of the fieldwork incident in question, at least to my mind.
The episode in question took place while I was conducting seven months of ethnographic fieldwork (during 2009 and 2010) amongst a group of dedicated media and counselling professionals, in Cairo. These individuals for the most part self-identified as ‘Islamists’, ‘moderate (or wasatiyya) Islamists’ to be precise. At the time, they worked for the website www.IslamOnline.net.
Contrary to the media frame, that portrays all Islamists as undemocratic per se, and which has dominated much of Egyptian and international media since late 2011, my longitudinal study of this group demonstrates long-term dedication to democratic reform and to wielding a society made up of reflective and informed citizens. It does not seem to be coincidental that these particular Islamists talk of ‘citizens’ rather than a religiously garbed variant such ‘the faithful’. It signals a commitment to citizenship and civil society, that is much broader than faith or piety.
Now that I have introduced the context, I can return to the memorable episode. It takes place during an editorial meeting in December 2009, with the following (anonymized) dialogue:
Zena: So and so (counsellor) said that taking depression as a starting point is not relevant to Egyptians. Depression is not an illness that illustrates Egyptians.
Selim and I laugh a bit in response, perhaps a little in bewilderment.
Habiba: He says: If you ask Egyptians how they feel, they will not say ‘depressed’ as much as they will say things like, ‘I’m suffocating’ or ‘I can’t take it (anymore)’.
Nodding and some laughter around the table.
Salwa: Meaning that Egyptians are beyond depression! (laughter)
In many ways this fieldwork episode can be seen as an example of the tangible bubble of frustration amongst many Egyptians with the state of affairs in the country. It takes place at time when the fear of Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency after 30 years of rule by his father Hosny Mubarak, is palpable. In retrospect, the episode is a forewarning of a bubble about to burst. In anthropologist David Price’s view the anti-Mubark uprisings of 2011 were inevitable:
Anyone who has lived in Egypt for an extended period of time or has traveled there for extended stays over the past thirty years should not be surprised at the current uprising. The only surprising thing is that this uprising didn’t happen years or decades sooner (Price 2011).
Returning to the fieldwork episode of 2009. It is the phrase ‘Egyptians are beyond depression’ which has burnt its way into my memory. Not simply because of the originality of the phrase, but also because of the explanation it spawned, namely that Egyptians express themselves more in terms of ‘suffocation’. The latter struck me as a highly accurate description of how many Egyptians, speak about their lives in Egypt. Indeed, I have heard talk of ‘suffocation’ amongst Egyptians when talking about their every day lives far too often to count.
To someone not deeply familiar with the Egyptian context, I surmise that the reference to Egyptians describing their lack of well-being in terms of ‘I’m suffocating’ or ‘I can’t take it’ needs further explanation. In my interpretation, the abovementioned dialogue refers to the magnitude of social, economic, and political pressures in Egyptian society, which in turn create immense problems at the micro-level, leaving little room for manoeuvre or improvement. This state of affairs indicates that Egypt is ‘going to the dogs’. It is the combination of high illiteracy rates, exponential poverty and lack of civil rights and political freedoms that together contribute to a feeling of ‘suffocating’.
Another interesting fieldwork episode and dialogue takes place during an editorial meeting in early 2010:
Zena: There is no iniatitve or intent in Egypt. I mean if Korea or Turkey decide to fix education, they make a plan, they raise education or reading levels. But in Egypt – nothing.
Habiba: Only the work of hired thugs.
(Field notes, 07.02.10.)
Here, Zena and Habiba implicitly criticize the Egyptian government for not prioritizing the improvement of its population’s education. Hired thugs (baltagiya) in this context are considered to be an extension of the government whose task is to scare the population to passivity and non-protest through the constant threat of violence. For this tactic to work, violence is at times forcefully executed (Jacinto, 2011). Against this backdrop, the dialogue above appears to formulate the following criticism: the Egyptian government would rather unleash baltagiya on its people than raise literacy levels. After Habiba introduces the theme ‘baltagiya’, Zena mentions Omar Afifi, a former police officer and the author of So You Don’t Get Hit on the Back of Your Head as further evidence of Egypt’s appalling situation (Field notes, 07.02.10). The book in question was published in 2007 and is a practical guide to securing Egyptians’ legal rights – providing guidelines on ‘what to say and do’ in case of an arbitrary arrest by police. Afifi went into exile, following the ban of his book. Indeed, the ban of the book suggests that the government has a vested interest in Egyptians not knowing their rights. Against this backdrop, mentioning Afifi’s book is a symbolic meaning-saturated reference, which serves as an illustration of the dire situation of the civil and political rights of Egyptians.
This fieldwork episode thus points to three important insights. First, the dialogue reflects a critique of the decision to both ban the book and exile its author. Second, it demonstrate that Zena, Habiba, and the others present at the meeting believe that Egyptians have the right to know their political and civil rights, which ties into the institutional narrative of Islam Online that places an emphasis on creating self and social awareness. Third, my research participants believe that such civil and political rights should be granted in practice, which in effect is a call for societal and political reform – in a democratic direction. In this sense, it is a call for an Egypt where political protest or calls for awareness about civil rights do not go hand in hand with a high risk of violence, imprisonment or deportation.
The sense of mass suffocation by Egypt’s swelling problems, is what in my opinion surmounted the fear of retribution and eventually contributed to thousands, and then millions pouring into the streets of protest and shouting ‘Down with the regime!’, in 2011.
This vision for a better Egypt, with less: suffering, arbitrary violence, and fewer cases of infringed civil rights, was shared by my research participants, and the prominent human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif. They are of course not the only ones who dreamt of brighter future for Egyptians. Many activists and ‘ordinary’ citizens shared in this dream. The years 2011 to 2014 have been an emotional rollercoaster filled with alternating periods of hope, frustration, euphoria, fear, and disillusionment. The political scene has been a chaotic sequence of rushed and at times farcical, referendums, elections and constitution drafts.
Today, some Egyptians rejoice over a return to ‘stability’ under strong leadership, while, others fret that previous anxieties will resurface in full magnitude – if they haven’t already. Local activists and international human rights organizations are concerned that one of the biggest challenges facing the civic rights of Egyptians today may well be the restrictive assembly law passed under the current regime, or what has been deemed the ‘protest law’. Indeed, a number of Egyptian activists are presently behind bars for having protested against this very law (HRW 2014).
The cartoonist Carlos Latuff fittingly commemorates the human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif’s engagement for bettering Egyptians’ civil rights, in a cartoon where Ahmed Seif is depicted as trying to prevent the violence of the police.
Latuff’s cartoon acknowledges and honours Seif’s activism and life-work. Yet, the cartoon also serves a poignant reminder that after three years of intensely fluctuating anticipations and anxieties for the future, some important battles have yet to be won.
During a public statement earlier in 2014, Ahmed Seif addressed his imprisoned son Alaa Abdel-Fattah with the following moving words: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.” (Mada Masr 2014). Seif goes on to talk about the sad parallels in their lives. For instance both he and his son, were unable to attend the birth of their child, because they were behind bars for their activism. (For the entire statement, see the clip: http://youtu.be/JVOhRZLbABI).
Neither son Alaa nor daughter Sanaa were able to be by Ahmed Seif when he died, as they are both in prison. The very fact that both Alaa and Sanaa are in prison for their civic engagement and activism is a sad reminder that a number of battles have yet to be won, and that the feeling of suffocation seems to be a constant, at least for some Egyptians.
Yet, as Ahmed Seif graciously tries to end his aforementioned public statement on a somewhat positive note, I can do no less. Seif concludes his statement by declaring that he hopes that if not his children, than at least his grandchildren, will have the chance to experience the democratic Egypt that he fought for. I concur, and can only add, that I hope that the feeling of suffocation will eventually subside for generations of Egyptians to come.
MADA MASR. 2014. Human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam dies at 63. http://www.madamasr.com/content/human-rights-lawyer-ahmed-seif-al-islam-dies-63.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH. 2014. Egypt: Free 23 Held for Protesting Protest Law: Rights Activist Among Those Detained for Interrogation, http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/24/egypt-free-23-held-protesting-protest-law.
JACINTO, L. 2011. Enter the ‘baltagiya’: Egypt’s repression spills out of the torture chambers. France 24, http://www.france24.com/en/20110207-egypt-torture-human-rights-repression-spills-out-torture-chambers-baltagiya-police/.
PRICE, D. H. 2011 Challenging America’s Pharaoh, http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/02/03/challenging-america-s-pharaoh/.