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On Emperors and Pirates

Double standards aren't new to Egypt. In fact, we pretty much revel in them. But when it comes to national security and the politics of the day, we need to hold those in power to the same standards we hold the enemy, argues Mouwafak Chourbagui.

Since the 3rd of July, a narrative has been brewing in which a proud country is being rebuilt on nationalistic fibers, after being rescued from the claws of bearded men conspiring against national interests. Indeed, there might be some truth in that narrative, but the reality remains that the threat of Egypt’s mental breakdown was exaggerated into apocalyptic levels in order to create an atmosphere of panic and fear among the masses. Only in a state of mass hysteria can a populace view a coup as not a coup, a dictatorship as a democracy, and welcome back, with open arms, the resurrection of the old foe. I say exaggerated because, despite all the attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood to infect state apparatuses with its brand of halal politics, the deep state remained in firm control of the steering wheel. In hindsight, the efforts to destabilise or discredit the Islamist regime were much more visible than the evidence of the alleged Ikhwan­-isation of state institutions.

State security remained “neutral” during street battles with activists, forcing the now-deposed president to often use the MB baltageya as his de facto henchmen. The “liberal” media had fun cherry-picking absurd anecdotes – bikinis on the verge of extinction, no alcohol in airports, the imminent disappearance of porn sites, the rise of necrophilia et al – and selling them, packaged as a comprehensive insight into the dark days looming ahead. In the days leading up to June 30th, national companies loyal to the establishment worked hard to concoct a gas crisis whose sole cynical goal was to throw a dejected population into the final pit of despair and frustration.

The ingredients were finally in place for the return of the natural order. After Morsi was apprehended and imprisoned, I couldn’t help but think about a passage from the City of God cited by Noam Chomsky in which St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him: "How dare you molest the seas?" To which the pirate replied: "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor." Up to this point, that passage had been, to me, a revelatory insight into the inherent double standards in geopolitics between the empire (The US government), and its enemies. The Emperor’s violence is normalised, justified by the notion of ‘might makes right,’ and propagated by the media, intellectuals and allied politicians in order to legitimise it in peoples’ consciences.

For example, it struck me that, during the Iraq war, it was perfectly acceptable for a so-called intellectual like Thomas Friedman to articulate an opinion supporting a war against a defenseless population. He would not be ostracised, labeled as a state-terrorist-sympathiser, nor fired from his job. However, you would not be able to find someone in the mainstream media defending 9/11. In both situations, violence is used for political ends. However, the pirate’s violence does not benefit from the establishment’s blessing. On the contrary, the pirate’s violence is often used to further vindicate and strengthen the Emperor’s violence. The ones that molest the seas are apparently more dangerous than the ones that molest the whole world.

I bring this up because the current atmosphere in Egypt reminds me of that mental environment. In our context, the state belongs to the financial elite and the military men, they are the Emperors of Egypt and they would not let pirates, through the benign exercise of democracy, seize control of the ship. They have managed to create a narrative in which their violence is justifiable and their crackdown on the MB desired. What struck me here is the people’s reaction to state violence vis-a-vis their reaction to the islamists’ violence. When the army went on a rampage in August and hundreds of people were murdered, the public reaction was either indifferent to or apologetic of the violence. In contrast, when bombs were detonated a couple of weeks ago, there was a huge public outcry.

Why is violence excusable depending on the actor? What does that reveal about our political ethos when we are only sensitive to one type of violence and apologetic towards another? And can we claim moral integrity when we judge a situation through our loyalty towards the actor rather than our principled opposition to an act? 

One could argue that the army does enjoy popular support and thus is entitled to what Max Webber called a “monopoly on violence.” In other words, states gain their legitimacy from the people and therefore said states have a privileged right to use violence to protect national interests. However, are national interests truly synonymous to the people’s interests or are they merely a euphemism for the preservation of one’s power? Are Emperors legitimate leaders or are they simply pirates that gained power and managed to consolidate it?

History has taught us that scapegoats are essential for the protection of a status-quo. Through a culture of fear and rhetoric of demonisation, states can amplify and exaggerate existing threats in order to stifle dissent and submerge a population unto its will. Emperors have much more power than pirates and we should be conscious that their actions reverberate much louder, even if they make less noise. Yes, the Islamists do pose a genuine threat and resistance to their ideology and oppression is commendable when they are in power, yet this is no longer the case. When the wolves change camps, the sheep do too. To react only to the pirate’s violence while normalising state violence is tantamount to continuously popping a pimple while letting a tumor metastasise until it is too late to react.

The current cycle of violence in the country can only end with dialogue and fairness, not with demonisation and repression. The MB, when given power, acted like a teenage boy seeing a woman's naked body for the first time. It couldn't control itself and wanted too much, too fast. Since winning the elections, they have tried to cement and expand their footprint on political life by pushing through a constitution that only caters to their ideology, developing a recruitment policy that favours like-minded individuals and shrinking the political space of their adversaries. But how is that different than what the NDP used to do or what the army is currently doing? The real enemy of stability in this country is not “terrorism” but another form of extremism: selfishness. He who breaks the cycle of selfishness will begin the process of reconciliation.


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Date: 11/25/2020
Time: 5:30pm - 8:30pm
Venue: Goethe Institute