I am a soldier for the empire, a product of the post nation-state, globalised world. I remember when it first hit me. It was at the job fair hosted at the American University in Cairo in 2008, prior to my graduation. In a sea of corporate booths, one particular image struck me: a veiled woman standing beneath a banner that read Halliburton. What a curious sight; a devout Muslim woman promoting the oilfield service company that used to be run by Dick Cheney and that made millions of dollars off the exploitation and suffering of the Iraqi people. Irked by finding footprints of imperialism in my proverbial backyard, I took a seat, which presented me with a panoramic view of the fair. I was struck by the lack of diversity in terms of job opportunities and career paths the event had to offer. It was a homogenous buffet of multinationals trying to lure in the next generation of loyal servants. Our collective fate as "elite graduates" was was to serve the world's corporate kings and strengthen their hegemony in the newly established neo-liberal status quo.
I decided there and then that I would not attend my graduation, a naïve rebellion perhaps, but I just couldn’t see myself celebrating. I pictured the South American, Arab and African dictators that attended the military schools in the West only to come back home and subject their respective populations to the will of the powerful. I felt a bit like them; expect I wasn’t a soldier of military but economical might, marching to the drumbeat of global capitalism in a world where capital, unlike people, was not restricted by borders, thus allowing the masters of money carte blanche access to the economical fabric of most developing nations, bridging a wider gap between the rich and the poor. Developing countries now looked like this: a tiny first world basking in consumerism and a vast third world neglected, forgotten and living in the shadows of la dolce vita.
After receiving my bachelor’s degree in business administration, I decided to put down my arms and become a conscientious objector instead of following the majority of my classmates into the dungeons of the corporate world for good pay while selling shampoo products with hyperbolic cynicism to the different "target markets” of "the demographically rich" Egypt. I couldn’t change the fact that I was being formed as child for the empire, tailored to suit and serve an economical status quo that I knew was detrimental to the genuine development of my nation,but I could at least outwit the conditions of my manufacturing and have the freedom to create my own path from that point on.
After some further introspection of my “condition,” I’ve identified five macro symptoms of the imperial soldier.
1) Theft of National Culture, Language and Identity
During the Nasser era, the regime tried to compensate years of imperialism and racial hierarchy by reinforcing the Arabic language. National pride was high and the epoch was characterised by an abundance of great literature, powerful singers, and a thriving cinema industry. Its figures created a bond of national unity, a necessary illusion that maintained the dignity and stability of the people. When the utopia of the era dried out because of the crumbling economy, the humiliation against Israel and the deaths of the two icons of that time: AbdelHalim Hafez and Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt lost its compass and suffered from an identity crisis. From that vulnerability emerged the drastic and rapid changes that still have lingering effects in Egypt today, and our generation hails from the post pan-Arab world: the age of the open door policy which is more or less a euphemism for auctioning off the country to the highest bidders.
Our generation grew up in a coated bubble, filled with the joys of globalisation: private international language schools, the beginning of the Internet and its creaking dial-up connection, exclusive satellite channels subscriptions (Orbit vs. Showtime) and the gradual dissemination of English as the default working language. Our culture was thus forged by a variety of factors and realities that were alien to the majority of the populace. I was a 15-year-old that spoke better French than Arabic, listened to Radiohead religiously and that judged the Usual Suspects as the greatest film of all time. Keizer Soze was bad ass but my bubble was small, repetitive and sheltered from the bigger picture.
2) Disdain of the Poor and Inferiority Complex
In my building, there are two elevators; one is accessible to the residents and their guests, the other one, called service, is reserved for the delivery guy, the ba2al, the fakahani and other lesser folk. Ironically, this same service elevator was, during the British occupation, created for Egyptians to use while the main elevator only welcomed the English. The genius of the era of imperialism is to subtly instill in the elite the colonial attitudes of their past masters. The West is the “civilised world” and the elite, engrained partly in that culture through globalisation, aspire to be similar to it; to have their existence validated by those they judge to have a superior culture. This is often accompanied by a great disdain for the poor who are “dirty,” “uneducated,” “ignorant” and “primitive”. The elite, however, are different, a higher brand, white Arabs, so to speak. His mokh is nedif and his 3ela is kwayessa.
The elite’s subconscious is so shifted towards the West that Arab names tend to be transformed into English ones when nicknames are given: Jimmy (Gamal), Joe (Youssef), Timmy (Taymour), Sam (Salem or Sameh), Billy (Nabil) etc. One only has to look at advertising billboards around the city and three of the five faces on the famous constitutional campaign poster to realise the ma7agntitude of our subservient psyche.
3) The Stationed Cubicle
Imperialist soldiers are rarely encouraged to study majors that enhance critical thinking and self-growth. Instead, the psyche is titled towards studying majors that will be useful in the private job market, which itself is designed by the demands of the global economic order. Whereas the poor often are restricted to manufacture the goods of the capitalist market for abysmal pay, the rich are often recruited to strengthen and vindicate the capitalist philosophy which explains why they often end up in non-manual jobs, riddled in bullshit : advertising, PR, consultancy, trading etc.
They are of course well paid (rich slaves cost more) but these jobs contribute as much to society as the poor lad who presses buttons on the elevator contributes to the ride. Since becoming a lawyer or a doctor demands hard work and we rarely grew up making our own beds, these useful jobs are often reserved for the middle class with ascending social mobility aspirations.
4) Digestion of Main Imperialist Narrative
It is also interesting to see how our worldview has digested the main imperialist narrative. Growing up in a post-9/11 world articulated as a battle between Western illumination and barbaric Islamo-obscurantism, we were cornered into molding a perpetual need of over-justification, as if we had a palpable itch to prove to the world that we are the good type of Muslims; you know, those that prefer getting blown to blowing up.
When the Boston bombings occurred, my Facebook live feed was full of statuses of Egyptians offering condolences to the victims. Nothing wrong with that but where were those statuses when Tamils were being slaughtered in Sri Lanka, when the Congo was being raped, when Somalia become a country reincarnated in the tiger blood of Charlie Sheen? It seems that our sympathy only extends to those who look like us and to those we seek approval from. The West has become the mirror with which we see ourselves and our mind has been rebooted into continually trying to serve them a more positive image of ourselves. Our worldview has been limited to a ridiculous binary dance between East and West, strong and weak, in which we are both angry and apologetic, victim and perpetrator, but seldom introspective.
This is the canvas in which our world is painted, its brush is not in our hands and whatever happens outside its frame is not be visible and therefore cons on into thinking it does not exist. Notice how proud we are when an Egyptian documentary is nominated for an Oscar and how sad we are when Muslim immigrants are mistreated in the West and compare that to how oblivious we are to the Egyptian documentaries that travel to African or South American festivals and how indifferent we are towards the black immigrants trying to lead a dignified life within our borders.
It was also disconcerting to see such blatant submission to the imperial system when Obama’s facebook page was bombarded with angry messages from Egyptians, urging him to directly intervene in Egypt and save his “white Arabs” from the retrograde barbarians.
But the true slap in the face was the witnessing of the whole “convince the West that this is not a coup” social media campaign. Who cares what they think, honestly? Do they care that I think that their 2000 election was rigged and that George Bush is funnier than 90% of their sitcoms? No. And why weren’t these people also trying to convince the president of China that this allegedly wasn’t a coup? Is he not in their canvas? Personally, I wasn’t seeking validation from the West regarding June 30th but I must admit that I did write a letter to Tommy Remengesau, the President of Palau, claiming that June 30th was caused by four middle aged women masturbating simultaneously to Mohannad from Nour. I explained that the electricity cut (Yes, fuck Morsi) prior to climax, and when it returned, MBC4 became state TV Channel Two and Mohannad became El Sisi. The dark shades conducted the activity to its orgasmic conclusions and 20 million people poured into the streets to celebrate the first genuine Egyptian female orgasm by parading posters of the suave general and his nipple-erecting gaze. Suffice to say, President Remengseau was skeptical. He simply wrote back “Tawfik Okasha, is this you?”
5) Political Apathy and Conspicuous Consumption
The biggest shift in the era is the transformation of the individual from a citizen to a consumer. The citizen is aware of what the country needs whereas the consumer is aware of what the body wants. Individuals are valued based on their purchasing power, the higher it is, the more important they are to the system.
The explosion of consumer culture has created a generation of apolitical shoppers and shisha poppers, spending their mornings working for the machine and their evenings refueling it. It was interesting to see how very few people from the so-called elite participated in the January 25th revolution in comparison to June 30th. On that occasion, streets were full of Ralph Lauren polo shirts. Perhaps they didn’t protest out of genuine political principles but because they feared that their bearded boogie men threatened their tiny first world consumerist paradise. I remember, at one point, how going to Nacelle during MB rule was seen as a fuck you to the system. Nobody ever thought that perhaps Nacelle was a fuck you to the guy selling flowers in the queue?
Post-colonial societies are servants of the balance of power. The quasi-universal formula for developing countries in the imperial system seems to be: a corrupt government, an apolitical consumer elite and an increasingly alienated mass. However, for the imperial system to prosper, it has to find subconscious collaborators and, 1) strip them of their native culture and drive them towards the globalised capitalist one, 2) trigger their colonial complex and indifference towards the poor (the main victims of the system), 3) have them serve the system by 4) immersing them in a worldview and narrative that justifies it and 5) re-defining themselves as its proud participants in terms of making money off it and spending money in it.
But what the system doesn’t tell you is that you can take off the uniform. There is a whole other canvas to paint and this time you can hold the brush.
This piece is inspired from a poem I wrote three years ago