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Egypt: An autocratic state with a silver lining 21, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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In the past few days there have been two saddening stories which testify to the unpleasant nature of the politics and daily life to which Egyptians are subjected by their government. Firstly, as reported in the Daily News English, an American woman handed in a video tape to be copied at the video shop in the Marriott Hotel. On viewing this material the manager of the shop immediately telephoned the Tourist Police who then contacted State Security and began a search for the American woman. On the tape was footage shot at recent clashes between Muslims and Coptic monks at the Abou Fana Monastery in Minya. Additionally, the police reaction to this event was also, apparently, caught on film. The tape also showed vivid scenes of some of the poorest slums in Egypt.

There are several disturbing and unpleasant reactions to this story. Obviously, the fact that they are searching for this woman now, for unspecified reasons, is a travesty. The images that the woman filmed would no doubt have been damaging to Egypt’s image, if (and this is a large if) they would ever have reached the surface or public consciousness. Yet now we will never know and the government, by reacting in this way, just announced to anyone paying attention that they are a repressive government who cannot remotely stand any scrutiny. People’s imaginations will now take over and paint a picture of what was on the footage, perhaps even worse than the original.

The second story comes from the Kuwaiti Arab Times. A 17 year old boy in Luxor, instead of completing his maths exam as he ought to have, decided to write a tirade abusing the Mubarak government and Egyptians generally. He castigates Mubarak as a ‘tyrannical leader’ and Egyptians as a ‘cowardly people’ for putting up with Mubarak’s tyrannical reign. Needless to say, taking a 17 year old boy into custody for writing a rant against the government when he is completing his life-changing Thanawiyya Al Aaam exams, with all the pressure that comes with such crucial exams, is hopelessly ridiculous. Out with the mitigating circumstances of a boy failing such exams and what this means for his future, he is just 17 years old: since when are they taken seriously? To elevate this minor, petty, insignificant and pathetic cathartic rant by a sacred teenager to where the story is covered by the International Press is madness.

Yet among these somewhat depressing stories, there is a glimmer of hope. Whilst such repressive measures are obviously in place, as evidenced by the first example, these actions are still freely reported. This provides a crucial difference to countries such as China or yet further along the scale, North Korea, where such incidents would be wholly denied or erased completely. The free press in Egypt is thus seemingly strong and resolute. Yet, the apparatus of the government itself does not appear to be wholly hell-bent on secrecy and stonewalling as one might think would accompany such repressive and oppressive acts. The quotes for the second story are directly from the Ministry of Education; not the sign of a government institution committed towing an unbelievable party-line or stooping to Soviet-era levels of absurd propaganda pushing. Thus, from these two examples, there is, in fact, more than a glimmer of hope.

Indeed, in many ways one of the nastiest aspects of these stories speaks to the question of informing in Egyptian society. The notion of a snitch is an insidious and corroding idea that instantly brings to mind Soviet Russia and the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Firstly, there is the manager at the Marriott’s film shop. He will argue that he was simply obeying the law, not wishing to reproduce slanderous material, but instead of simply refusing to copy the film, he chose to call the police. Secondly, there is the question of how the authorities found out about the teenager’s exam. Obviously, a teacher marking the exam informed the authorities of the dreadful, real, imminent and existential threat to society posed by the no doubt half-incoherent, hormone-fuelled, bitter ramblings of an angry and failing 17 year old boy. The meanness, pettiness and sheer stupidity of this act of informing makes the mind boggle.

So is there a problem with informing and snooping generally in Egyptian society? The biggest problem that this brings with it is that we’ll never know. I doubt very much that there are similar levels of snooping as the almost herculean efforts of GDR such as collecting people’s smells (yes, that’s what I mean), routine post interception and where one in thirty people were paid informers,  but you never know…