The Egyptians are disillusioned, disappointed, fatigued and silent. Caught between power and powerlessness. Their ‘revolution’ has failed. Once again they’re enjoying being governed. By an elite clique, of all things. It was precisely because of dictatorship, social injustice, abuse of office and corruption that they had protested so vehemently in the first place. The country is smeared with traces of blood. The people are living out the dual between demons. Wrath divides society again. Millions stick their heads in the desert sand. Even more have wearily withdrawn with their religion into private life. The consequences will be disastrous. In the long-term it means this country will not turn into a democratic state, that’s for sure. Matthias Rathmer has lived in the land on the Nile for a number of years. His short stories and essays uncover the spirit of the nation, the amiability of its people, their daily lives, so oddball, gaudy and impossible. Above all, the Egyptians themselves. In all their pride, their dignity and that innate passion of theirs: wrath.
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revolt and reality
I’ve had these thoughts so often. I’ve dismissed them so often. Is it right to be open about what a country and its people can show you? Can you really believe what you see and hear? Yes, it is right. And yes, you can. And must.
My thanks to my wonderful wife. She proofed the German version with such patience and created a remarkable cover illustration which captures the book to perfection. And she’s been at my side through thick and thin. Thank you for our extraordinary life together.
And thank you to everyone else involved for the ideas and the prompts, intended or not. Apart from a bit of poetic licence, easily spotted, everything did happen as I’ve described it. It was as fun as it was mad.
Copyright © 2016 Matthias Rathmer
Cover illustration: Stephanie Rathmer, acrylic on canvas
Translation ©: Deborah Langton, München
to the English translation
Oh, dear! A couple of weeks after the publication of the German edition of this collection of short stories, I had a visitor. A representative of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, or so he made himself out to be, needed clarification. While his escort waited at the garden gate in best bouncer pose, we sat together on the terrace in an almost companionable atmosphere, drank tea and water and chatted through one of the short stories.
The gentleman, who had clearly benefited from a high level European style of education, wanted to know whether I was in possession of certain documents that had come from the Ministry of Education. If that were the case, which it wasn’t, I replied, I certainly wouldn’t pass any such documents on and, more than anything, wouldn’t reveal who’d given them to me, something the visitor was now pressing for. For a while we talked about protection of one’s sources. That didn’t help. For understandable reasons, our opinions remained different.
Without a doubt, he’d read this particular short story. But he hadn’t got it. The content hadn’t required any statistical analysis of the Egyptian education system nor of planned or past reforms. I had simply put down on paper the reality, a deplorable state of affairs, and had let everyone battling with the mismanagement have a chance to speak. It needed no more than that. It had all been said.
Well now, he said at the end of our conversation of barely an hour. He’d only been sent to recover the documents, he told me. The fact that they were not there, at least not with me, meant everything was now clear. I’d have liked to have had a much longer conversation with him, heard more about him and his department over a beer or two. But he politely turned down my invitation. Id had all been said for him, too.
Like I said, the chap was very friendly and very nice. He was educated. He claimed to have read only this one story in the collection. Neither could he say whether colleagues were scrutinising any of the others. So it looked like farewell. Here’s why. Because he knew that I knew how much of a fool he took me for, it was useless to try and say anything further.
It may be that my visitor had actually been asked to do rather more, like finding out if I was a terrorist, an enemy of the state or a just some pathetic hack who needed to be shown his bounds. And I’d probably been able to make it clear to him that none of these applied. Here’s why. All I’d done was observe. Like I did anywhere else.
In the run-up to publication of the German edition I was asked repeatedly if I had any concerns about the possible consequences with the Egyptian authorities. Nearest and dearest saw me banged up ready for deportation at best. What I had written might stir the Egyptians to displeasure, annoyance or wrath, even. And that’s in spite of my seeing and experiencing it all at first hand in their country.
I remain firm in my conviction. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. If a bit of writing like this can help things be seen from a different perspective and be talked through, then it’s achieved a lot. Anyone who cannot, or will not, have this type of discussion, won’t make any difference.
Just to make that clear again. What these short stories and essays relate has already taken place. It’s just reality. At any rate, the reality I saw on these occasions. Where necessary, in order to protect individual rights, I have introduced a few subtleties. If we’re talking fantasy, dreams and imagination, then these are easily recognisable as such. If you’re used to reading with understanding, that is. Quite apart from the fact I do mean well for this country and its people. Truly.
The tale of the belly-dancer came about through several interviews carried out with various authentic characters in the field. Their personal experiences were both risqué and informative. And the two Salafists from Maadi, I really did meet them. Thank God I’ve never heard anything of them since. The desert trip happened exactly as I described it and the motor madness in this country continues at top speed. Even the proceedings inside the Mugamma went exactly as I’ve written. Superhub Jussuf was allowed to carry on his trade as before. And how important President Sisi is for Egypt, well, that seems pretty close to the reality. He hasn’t made any complaints so far, anyway.
Some have lamented the exposure, both large and small-scale, that my writing has given to Egyptians and their society in the piece entitled ‘It’s good to know’. A few readers have seen a degree of malice alongside the fond humour and all the madness. Well, OK. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But I’ve left it all the same in the translated version. I’m telling you. Anyone who goes around being provocative like the Egyptians do, whether deliberately or not, shouldn’t be surprised at my occasional, admittedly sardonic, remarks.
And finally... To be able to observe, to be permitted to observe. That has been a joy, a gift and a necessity. It was enjoyable, challenging and not always that easy. Not simply to close your eyes to it. At a time like this when, above all in Arabic Muslim lands, any critical voices among journalists and authors are being muzzled, subjected to confused accusations and violence on the part of their supposed rulers, the debate about truthfulness is needed more than ever. Anyone who can’t do both is a problem.
German and English are different. Wow! You don’t say! But it needs mentioning. Germans have failings which they can do something about. But when it comes to the shortcomings of their language when translating it into English, well, that’s not their fault. The language could all too easily end up with a semantic and morphological clumsiness. Overcoming this was the task of the translator.
Deborah! You’ve done a great job. With huge commitment, professionalism and insight you’ve made it possible to bring these tales from another country to a significantly wider audience. I’m really grateful to have had the chance to do this, as well as for our teamwork. Here’s to the next time!
Nick! I’ve given you a lot of hassle! I’m sorry. I can’t imagine anyone more relaxed and composed for putting the final gloss on future projects. You’re a fantastic polisher! If you’re up for it – here’s to the next time, too!
Seeds of wrath
Oh, Egypt! What’s to become of you? Your people are proud but their country has achieved little. Your people like to be governed but only until hunger, dissatisfaction and frustration with the future drive them out onto the streets again. And meantime the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. One thing’s indisputable. There’s more than one time-bomb’s ticking away along the Nile. Weapons are cocked. Have been for years. Deaths are totted up here like profits anywhere else. Anyone whose faith is different is hunted down. Anyone whose thinking is different is an enemy of the state. Society is deeply divided and reconciliation is not on the radar.
It’s true the fight with the demons has gone a bit quiet. But the conflict remains unresolved. Something else is indisputable: another storm will break. Because sooner or later, however patient and self-assured Egyptians are, however resilient their homeland – its ruler and his elite are again on course to test to breaking point that typically Egyptian desire for hope. Then it fizzes over again, that typically Egyptian boundless energy which will lead straight to the next outburst of fury. But hang on. Let’s look at this in the right order.
First up, the people do have other characteristics which are both important and positive. There’s a primeval quality that ought to make us feel they really can do peace and justice.
The fact that they can’t is for different reasons. The vast majority of Egyptians really are exceptionally peace-loving modern people. Yes, really. In many places they are by nature so friendly that you’ll struggle shamefully with their openness. They’ll often demonstrate an admirable, spontaneous readiness to help, especially towards foreigners. Their equanimity, their Mediterranean charm and their hospitality could really teach Europeans, especially we rule-loving Germans, more than just a thing or two about more life-enhancing qualities than the usual mental and spiritual toil of western culture. OK. Not always. But mostly. And that’s the same everywhere.
Most Egyptians have the usual human shortcomings, just like everyone else on the planet. Eliminating these is as demanding as it is challenging and so the problem isn’t addressed. They, too, strive to satisfy the basic human needs of security, safety and prosperity like people do in every corner of this crazy world. You could say they take a quantitative approach, so with a huge scale retreat into their own private lives. And, amazingly, they also take a qualitative approach, in the knowledge that it’s better to live with disappointments than with shattered illusions. Millions of Egyptians, male and female, oldsters or children, persist in the assurance, perhaps closely associated with their faith, that everything comes to he who waits. Sooner or later. Millions of people just want a quiet life.
But despite everything that goes on, life here could be good, especially for foreigners with no money worries, were it not for one particular national characteristic kept hidden in everyday encounters. Warm and open-hearted as they are wherever they meet you, they do also have in essence a particular state of mind found in many parts of the land. It’s often concealed, kept in check. Woe betide you if you trigger it. Their wrath. Once stirred, never mind who or what by, this trait will make its presence felt with a speed the average European can’t handle. Anger usually comes first, annoyance, indignation or an insult. That’s when the soul starts to seethe and the veins pulse. One wrong word can suffice for an outburst of emotion in which all sense of balance is lost. And if an Egyptian’s sense of honour is constantly disregarded and, with it, his sense of justice, then any perspective he ever had on personal fulfilment is lost; the wrath of one individual morphs into the uncontrolled energy of the masses, once so feared by every pharaoh.
Those ‘Days of Wrath’ have had a long-lasting impact on Egypt. The people had put up with it for long enough. They’d lived under the regime of President Hosni Mubarak for thirty years before they streamed onto the streets in January and February 2011, inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. They stayed out on the streets and squares for well over two weeks, protesting about Mubarak’s authoritarian rule with its characteristic security machine, about not having any say, about the refusal to reform, abuse of office and corruption in the state, the economy and the civil service.
Today, a few years on from the national unrest and the rebellion (nothing more than this) , still pitifully referred to by many Egyptians as the ‘Revolution’, there is another autocrat ruling the land, as much of a dictator and despot as ex-president Mubarak and his government were. The first free elections in the country after his removal were won by the Muslim Brotherhood. They were the only viable opposition party who could organise themselves fast enough. Their victory, and what they actually wanted and how they went about it, brought the Egyptians a further variation of that embittered rage which typifies the country to this very day.
First of all they were upset with the covert rulers, more than anything the military, a force in society without whose goodwill and agreement nobody in the Nile can expect to govern. Indignation came next, worry about the threat of a distinctly conservative Islamisation, anger about questionable political decisions, outrage at the lamentable level of competence. The Muslim Brotherhood had never been liked. Now they were leading Egypt straight to disaster. Insolvency and economic collapse threatened. Every month the sense of wrath increased, so much so that a military coup put an end to the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood. General Sisi removed Morsi.
Since then Muslim Brothers have been, and still are, severely under attack, forced underground again, declared a terrorist organisation, their leaders and followers alike mercilessly hunted down, arrested or killed. The consequences are all too clear. Wrath has again been stirred; this time amongst the suppressed and to such an extent that its response to the violence wrought against it cannot be more aggressive and brutal. They bomb and kill in fury. Their wrath has turned to loathing. Hardly a week passes without reports of deadly soldiers, police or members of government murdered in response to the murder and terror directed at the Muslim Brothers. Sow the seeds of wrath and wrath is what you’ll get. Suppression triggers brutality. And although all involved claim to be various shades of practising Muslim, the lives of others cease to be sacred because retaliation defines all behaviours.
On top of that, as if this merciless domestic hostility between the powerful and the powerless is not already burden enough, there are quite a few others knocking about the place – the sympathisers and the cosmopolitan – who are also defined by violence and cannot tolerate those around them. Islamists, Salafists, Jihadists, Extremists, Terrorists, and Fundamentalists – if representatives of these groups were to confront one another out in the country’s deserts, they themselves wouldn’t know who, or what, the others were.
There is one particularly difficult struggle going on. In the north of the Sinai Peninsula the Egyptian army is fighting bravely and unsuccessfully against an offshoot of the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Egypt is part of the Arab front opposing the slaughter and barbaric deeds of this self-styled theocracy. The bestial acts of terror in Paris in November 2015 were condemned in the strongest possible terms by president Sisi. And in doing so, he also asked for better help in his fight, and more than anything more respect for it, against the people who were threatening his country, his people and every single stabilising achievement, however small, in the process of rebuilding.
Something often gets forgotten. Without ever wanting to, Egypt has become part of that gateway to hell created some years ago by the irresponsible and desperate foreign policy of the west in the Near and Middle East.
Sisi and the army are fighting a tough, relentless battle on several fronts against the murdering lunacy of so-called ‘Islamic State’, against the terrorist threats coming from Libya and against the radical Muslim Brothers. No voices are raised against this stance, nobody is there who remembers that this level of terrorism cannot be dealt with militarily. Quite the opposite. The President has prepared the population for the fact that this could be a long fight. The fact that his approach also includes the elimination of all oppositional forces for the maintenance and development of his own power in the country, does not really seem to bother anyone. Because the media, especially the elements he’s not so fond of, have long been switched off by the necessary laws, only very few people still know how much success there has been in the violent struggle is. And how little.
Any foreigner planning to stay in this country any longer than the duration of a normal holiday must at the very least understand the Egyptian people, what is happening in their country in these turbulent times, what makes them tick and what stirs them up. Given that the government and its opponents are fighting it out to the last breath, millions of Egyptians are living extraordinarily calmly with terror and with death. With good reason. And it’s a tradition, anyway.
So, as already said, they’re friendly people, outgoing and enquiring. They’re mostly hard-working, excitable and those who live in the city are loud and lively, apparently quite unable to bear a silence. They bother to make their own luck, given the affluence of the west before them, the poverty of their own continent behind. It would be good to get a handle on their pace of life, their wishes and their concerns. It’s like all over the world. Egyptians are fighting for their personal luck like anybody else.
But at the end of a day spent in the thick of their ways of doing and being, there’s still always something that can’t quite be grasped. That feel-good sense of wonder, that exquisite feeling of delight that travellers are hooked on gradually slips into a sense of disappointment. By the end of the week the longing for enchantment has been reined in. The mind struggles with its loss and the spirit with incomprehension as to whether you can have a decent life in a system not fit for purpose.
Next come feelings of confusion and bewilderment. Then, by the end of the month, the questions are crowding in about the point of trying to get along. That’s when the realisation kicks in; how big a show it all is and how limited the awareness. And then a whole year’s gone by and you’re still wondering how on earth people can live in this non-society with a perception which, at best, recognises the moment, and in a lethargy which stems from a whole society that is alienated because one or two of the lead guard want it that way.
But then again, it’s what the people of Egypt are, and the way they are, that can actually be so stimulating and exciting; their lightness of being and their uncomplicated satisfaction. And yet because millions try, quite logically, to flee the national dilemma by withdrawing into their private life with its healing qualities of peace and comfort, the whole country remains unreconciled with itself and a national catastrophe has been evolving during the course of which people carry on living as a matter of routine. Never mind whether it’s reasonable.
The rebellion of the Arab Spring, expected to bring so much to so many, has actually taken Egypt a step backwards. The Mubarak regime was to give way and, with it, all the social injustice, the nepotism and corruption. Then came a historic experiment with the Morsi government, the desire for a modern state marked out by democracy. A lamentable failure. Now there’s another ex-General in power, reacting to the insanity of violent acts of terrorism with equal military toughness and brutality. With the middle of 2016 violence has decreased. But! How long will it take?
Egyptians have been living with this dual between evils for more than two years. The country is smeared with traces of blood, branded with death and terror. Violence and counter-violence are routine. The Muslim Brotherhood and the government hate one another. Mutual demonisation. Once there’s a layer of contempt, forgive and forget no longer works. Whether in secret and silence or publicly and passionately. Millions are celebrating a President who shows no mercy. Millions are suffering under this dictatorship. And even more simply want some peace, and that’s in spite of all the crises, in spite of the desperately spiralling cost of even the simplest of lifestyles, something which makes every new day a colossal challenge.
And there’s more. The vast majority of Egyptians are peace-loving people. They’re always keen to help, are mostly friendly, often interested in everything and will always take the trouble. If one or two of them don’t quite manage the eagerness expected of them, and if the urban types of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Luxor and Assuan are on a shorter fuse than those in the country, and are more grasping and pushy, then given the millions competing with all the challenges, it’s hardly surprising.
If they can do it or not. Egyptians love order more than anything. They like to know that things are regulated. Going back to Ancient Egypt, the people feared nothing more than the loss of their cosmic force due to a weak Pharaoh and believed this would cause them to slide into chaos. History repeats itself and not only in another ‘revolution’ that consumes its children.
In between the Old Kingdom, the building of the Pyramids, the Middle Kingdom, the heyday of art and literature, the New Kingdom, the era of the master builders, and the later period when the Persians reigned supreme over Egypt, there always came a period of anarchy, of disorder and confusion during which the country would be divided or ruled over by outsiders. Scholars describe these as interim periods. And Egypt is living through one such period now. That’s to say. The problems of now are homemade and typical for human beings in our century.
The fundamental causes of the conflict in Egyptian society are absolutely not, as the west all too hastily and insensitively decrees, about Islam or ethnic disputes. The bitter battle is motivated entirely by worldly matters. With Sisi’s blessing and protection, a few elite groups in a different guise are today defending their economic and political positions of power. They’re quite unscrupulously lining their own pockets, helping themselves to huge portions of the country’s resource only then to squander it, and blocking any development towards a modern society. They obstruct the building of any useful infrastructure and grossly neglect all education and vocational training for the younger generation. It was no different under president Mubarak. And those who were eventually democratically elected would have treated the country in exactly the same way had they not been toppled by the military.
In the naïve expectations of the west, the Muslim Brotherhood were, on account of this perceived success, almost feted and viewed as the harbinger of a democratic development. They, of all people, were romantically idealised as bearers of the salvation of western values of freedom and democracy. What was forgotten was the reality of their special parts of history, the waves of violence and the bloody assassination attempts, their closeness to well-known terrorist organisations in the region and their readiness to break any law, without hesitation, to serve their own interests.
When, after decades spent underground as an illegal organisation, they replaced the President with Mohammed Morsi after their 2012 election win, they tried everything, and did so in a totally undemocratic way, to ensure the power they had won was exercised by them alone and without challenge. Only about one third of Egyptians had voted to bring them to power. And a dialogue with those who had not voted for them did not take place. They made a high-speed assault on the constitution so as to establish their vision of an Islamic Egypt. Their inadequacy and incompetence became increasingly apparent. Once the mass protests started, they clung greedily and immovably to their office and their ideology.
Beyond dispute is this. Sisi’s military coup brought a premature and unlawful end to initial training in democracy. Now the Egyptians are actually living under a dictatorship again, although they themselves like to see it rather differently given their political inexperience. But the violence emerging from the Muslim Brothers and the terrorist brigades with whom they are friends, is revealing yet more about them. Anyone who, in wrathful brutality and unscrupulous greed blows up and murders his political opponents, loses every right to a fair debate. Their justification for attacking ‘only’ state representatives and institutions is in itself a tacky farce. Even soldiers have families, even judges are human. The terror wrought by the Muslim Brothers shows uniquely how little a conservative form of Islam under brand Morsi would have been able to stand democracy.
All of a sudden many Egyptians were shocked at what they themselves had brought about. Because they had not taken part in the voting, they were now supposed to live under the strict rules of a conservative form of Islam. Just as the protests grew daily, so the wrath of the masses was stirred once more. Many are still enthused that it was Sisi and his army who drove out Morsi and his followers. The former General became saviour of the whole nation.
That Sisi doesn’t want real democracy either and reacts to violence with violence is viewed by most Egyptians as a necessary evil. He has created order. And that includes all those unprepared to bend. Now, because Muslim Brothers are, as far as is possible, switched off, he goes in pursuit of the secular opposition the moment they dare criticise his regime. In the name of a global security, of the new hard line, all is allowed. Many of the activists of old who once took the streets by storm are still mysteriously vanishing. Then they turn up again weeks later after interrogation, torture and threat. Very few people have any concerns about this. Egypt has become the torture capital, quietly, secretly, and yet so brutishly. Most Egyptians can live with that. It’s called nameless cowardice in civil affairs.
In the weeks and months before 25 January 2016, state repression of liberals, or groups with different thinking, had attained a degree of severity and intransigence that was unknown even in the Mubarak era. Anyone not with us, is against us and must be a Muslim Brother. That’s the watchword in vogue. Human rights organisations ascribe to Sisi and those who serve him the greatest wave of intimidation of dissidents in modern history. There are announcements almost daily about organisations being searched and shut down, and detention of activists, bloggers, photographers and journalists. There’s no doubt about it. The regime is worried.
During the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the so-called ‘Revolution’ every critical voice capable of stirring up the masses is expected to be silenced. Social networks already indicate that this dictatorial course of action creates more disquiet and resentment. At all levels of the population, resistance is getting louder. Like before. And then, one day, it’s back, the wrath of the people. Wrath born of wrath.
The mood suggests that a certain sullenness has spread amongst the one-time rebels and their followers. The people who once raged with such energy, who fought on the city streets with a pride in justice, who wanted a democracy but with only a vague idea of what it is and yet so passionate and enthusiastic. Those with control over their existence have long become indifferent. They’ve got enough money or they’ve left the country, or they wearily calm down, wallow in individualism and go their own, narcissistic way.
And then there are all the meek and the mild, those who know nothing because they have never had any schooling, no teachers to stimulate their minds and talents, together with all the poor who prefer to place their fate in the hands of their god because what’s needed in life’s daily battles is some support. In the final analysis it has turned out like it always has in the history of mankind, when the individual has no idea how to come to a suitable arrangement with the state and, in any case, did not know which worldly powers had pulled strings behind the scenes.
The approach back then was to do everything at top volume and in glorious technicolour. Energetic, combative, true to the Egyptian mentality, they wanted democracy yesterday, tomorrow at the latest, in its entirety. It was seen on the internet as a vision of salvation, presented primarily by young, western-oriented citizens from the cities. They’d forgotten about all the others, the old, the mass of believers, the people outside the city, the uneducated and all those with less knowledge. And they had nothing more than impetuous desires, no knowledge, no experience, no new political culture, no new parties ready to form a union or a coalition, no figures of leadership, no structures, no dedicated constitution, no power-sharing and absolutely no politically mature citizens.
And when, after the first free elections, the Muslim Brotherhood came into government, hundreds and thousands stepped up to the barricades again, more enraged, more disappointed, more frustrated, not wanting them, of all people. Torn in two, stirred to a wrath that claims the soul, the deaths of brothers and sisters part of the calculation, murdered, hunted down and driven out – first the army was able to get some stability back but with yet more violence, with yet more deaths. And so it stayed as it was going to be, at best a storm in a teacup. And today a former General rules the country, a representative of the military which, as guarantor of power, functions in exactly the same way as Islam.
Sooner or later any outsider, here as a guest of Egypt, will ask why the Egyptians make so little of what they have, why for years there has been daily repetition of the same mistakes. In many case the reasons are, superficially at least, quite obvious. The military and the ruling powers keep, and have always kept, the country under their control economically and socially. Many business sectors and markets are owned by a very small number of fat cats who view the core values and creation of a free, social market economy as a threat to their own positions of power. Corruption and nepotism stir up a sense of social injustice in the young, and do so to a dangerous degree. The massive bureaucracy of an overblown administrative machine gets in the way of any independent initiative. And the state education system offers inadequate preparation for anyone who is then supposed later to run it.
This paradox leaves everyone shaking their heads in bewilderment because the potential is undoubtedly there for prosperity and fairer distribution. The conditions for economic development are highly favourable. Egypt has the benefit of a huge domestic market. There are ninety million consumers to satisfy. The country lies at the interface of the surface route from Africa to Asia and the sea route from Europe through Suez to the Indian Ocean. As the largest country in the Middle East in the most strategically important location, Egypt enjoys the attention of world powers and does so very much to her own advantage. There are trade agreements with the most significant markets, Europe and North America. What is more, the country has appreciable sources of energy. While oil and gas are dwindling, energy generated by wind, water and sun are available in almost unlimited quantities. Even the supply of tourists is still nowhere near exhausted.
And it’s obvious. All the troubles of the past do mean there’s a huge price to pay in economic terms. Investors beat a hasty retreat, others were never serious in the first place. The government continues to pay out far too many subsidies and unemployment and poverty are at unacceptable levels. But the Egyptians are at the ready. They want to work, and hard. Although not all of them are particularly qualified, the motivation’s there. In most. But more than any, it’s the millions of young Egyptians who are pushing to escape the downward spiral once and for all. And besides. There is a real fear of what all today’s troubles will bring in the future. Egyptian’s population is exploding. With population growth of almost two per cent, that’s one and a half million more people to be provided for each year.
As already said, an elitist clique, notably the military, stands in the way of change and all the much needed developments. They do not want to share, and are incapable of doing so. But it would be simplistic to ascribe every problem in the country to them. The biggest of all challenges is actually the individual. More than all of these deplorably managed economic and market affairs, the people have one basic problem and that’s with themselves and their identity. The average Egyptian thinks first only of his own advancement, and that means his own and that of his family. Me, myself and I. You do what you want, I’ll make my own way. The Egyptian people do not want to be a society, and are not able to be one, either. If a clinical condition could be ascribed to Egypt, it would social paralysis from the neck down.
What cuts across all strata of society is this frightening sense of individualism. There’s no such thing as self-reflection, readiness to take responsibility or contribute to a supportive society. The mere mention of social capability and social intelligence mostly brings only questioning looks. The narcissism in this place is quite unbearable. And yet at the same time it is a matter of indifference as to how much people own or have in the bank. The usual social norms buzz with nothing more than hearsay. And yet in many places an Egyptian behaves and thinks, if he does ever think at all, without any regard for the interests and needs of those around him. Observations like this are neither arrogant nor racist. They are the reality.
It was because of these shortcomings that their little rebellion, the Arab Spring, failed. And it is significant that it did not start with Egypt. Even if the individual has no idea what should be written in an agreement with the state, every communal protest remains a short-lived awakening but with no end-point, no strategy and no objective. There are millions over millions of wishes expecting to be fulfilled.
I want dignity and prosperity but have not understood that this means giving a little. To step back and not take oneself so seriously – anyone who lives purely for the here and now, as do Egyptians, has not learnt anything, will not learn anything and so can’t organise anything. Quite apart from the fact that regular tax contributions really are an exceptionally useful way of getting a supportive society off the mark. Plenty want it but nobody wants to cough up for it.
It is quite typical of the Egyptians to go in for something which is supposed to bring rapid improvement for the individual and yet to go about it with no clear perception of the realities, with no awareness, and a naïve national emotionalism that’s almost unbridled. I want what other people have got. I can do what other people can do. I want democracy. I want it tomorrow. And if it’s not here by the day after, then I don’t want it anymore. It was this same attitude and behaviour that flipped ex-President Morsi into power. Yes! Yalla! We want the Muslim Brotherhood, we want change, out with the old regime. But sharia law, any toughening of Islamic legal provision in public life, hey, we don’t want that.
That’s why it now suits the Egyptians, as their disappointing participation in the last elections has shown, to go all huffy and stick their heads in the desert sand. All because they didn’t get what they wanted and didn’t get it yesterday, whatever it was they’d been after. Quite apart from the fact that pretty much every candidate up for election came out only with slogans in line with the government. Now it’s back, that general sense of powerlessness, the paralysis of an unnamed civil cowardice which is, in many places, veiled in a religious lethargy of Islam, characterised by humility and obedience because man, directed by God – according to his strong faith – carries no guilt for his behaviour. If God doesn’t want all that, then I can’t do anything, anyway. Really anything.
Yet again the Egyptians are in the stranglehold of the rich and powerful. Yet again military top brass are in control. And yet again, they want no redistribution of anything. A small group of players keep the people in ignorance and poverty because if they were to change anything, then they themselves would become the oppressed.That’s how it is. That’s how Egyptian society has given President Sisi and his government such a reception. He makes sure there’s peace in his own ranks so that the withdrawal into private life, mostly into a patriarchy, can take place without disturbance.
Because I can’t change anything else anyhow. That’s how Egyptians like to be governed. But there’s also this emotion which so typifies the nation, and that’s the sense of wrath, the social impact of which has not been reckoned with.
At the end of October 2015, when the Russian Metrojet Airbus came down over Sinai, there were no survivors among the two hundred and twenty four mostly Russian passengers and crew. During the flight from Sharm al Sheikh to St Petersburg a bomb exploded on board. The savages belonging to so-called Islamic State admitted responsibility. As a direct consequence of the incident, numerous international airlines stopped all flights to the popular holiday spot.
For the victims and their relatives this tragedy had its own special significance but it had a yet further destructive element. Just as Egypt’s important tourist trade had started to recoup some of the heavy losses sustained over the years, with bookings buoyant and money being spent, now the holidaymakers stayed away in their droves after the plane crash. This new disaster and its consequences point up a key problem with Egypt. The place is desperately dependent on doing business with tourists. Cash subdues wrath.
Germans are not the only Europeans to prick up their ears when there are issues in this country. They are wondering whether they can still have a fancy holiday at prices that won’t push them back into overdraft. Instead of the Lakes and Mountains coach tour, surely it’ll be OK to go back to all the fun of the Nile once the Egyptians have calmed down again. But, according to European security sources, they haven’t. Light-heartedness doesn’t look like this. And those Arabs in North Africa, they’ve always been unpredictable, ever since that funny rebellion of theirs.
And besides. The centres of tourism between the pyramids and the Red Sea, between the Mediterranean coast and the Aswan Dam are quite safe. Well, as safe as anything can be. Even in deepest Bavaria, a falling roof-tile could land on your head. These Ali Baba types and their mates have got their eye on Majorca, too. The Egyptians do loads, really loads, to protect those areas. But entirely for their own purposes. That their tourist offering needs a thorough overhaul, that fresh ideas and independent thinking are not only useful but also bring valuable income, these are all things that Egyptians still have to learn.
It’s like this. Egypt and the Middle East have, like several other classic holiday destinations, become in recent years too complicated for any restful holiday in the ideal, sophisticated eastern style. If package holidays in a particular country are being warned against, then it means there’s something wrong with that destination and, for the average German, the average Egyptian is no longer worth running up credit for. This has fatal outcomes because now, more than ever, they desperately need every incoming flight to be full. Precisely because personal prosperity is balm to the soul of every Egyptian, the bikini-clad millions must come back, even if this means more money for the national and international business cliques.
Tourists of the world, unite! Come on over and visit! Come and form your own impression! It’ll be quite different from the one created by the frenzied, irresponsible headlines spewed out everywhere by the west’s gawping tabloids. Provided you don’t come here wanting to ask, live and in real time, one of the so-called Islamic State nutcases how his Mum is; and you don’t want to go on a desert run with arms smugglers and terrorists from Libya; and you don’t try to explain the Muslim Brotherhood that paradise doesn’t exist; provided you conduct yourself as you would expect an Egyptian to if he steps into your world and your local pub, then you’ll be as safe as you can ever be anywhere in this mad world.
Any foreigner living here as a guest wonders sooner or later who, and with what kind of lifestyle, actually manages to find any enrichment. When different cultures in private life nudge up against the boundaries of tolerance, then conflicts both big and small are only too likely to result. They are often argued out quite openly and honestly even if there is no solution. Some sort of way of living together is arrived at and shapes the everyday. Egyptians are masters at this.
Anyone who knows how to get round the shortcomings, anyone perceived to bring benefits for others, will inevitably come to the fore in dealing with foreigners, given a marked aptitude for insight and a herculean ability to compromise. In shocking contrast to the practical intelligence brought by the individual, there is indecision, yes, dishonesty, on the political stage. Diplomats and politicians on both sides are mutating into hypocrites.
Since the revolt, it has been said, and still is, that the west has to make a decision once and for all. In between two poles, there’s a real dog’s breakfast. At the one extreme, a suitable realpolitik with the Egyptian government. At the other, an implementation of the constantly propagated values of a basic democracy based on freedom. This is exactly what happened when President Sisi visited Germany in June 2015. While he was welcomed by Chancellor Merkel with military honours, the President of the Bundestag and second in the state at the time, Norbert Lammert, representative of a highly regulated, democratically elected parliament, had distanced himself from Sisi well in advance.
It was just to the taste of the Egyptian leader, himself a former General, to march in to brisk military music performed by people in the smartest of military uniforms. He always liked this kind of show. The fact that behind this polite posing he had been attacked for his harassment of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the opposition, and had been asked to think just a little, from time to time, about human rights, was met with his familiar broad smile. He knew. He was needed. Egypt is needed. After all, that was what the visit was all about. Because between east and west the land of the Nile is the last, reasonably stable Islamic country in a religion which is constantly characterised by the merciless terrorism of extremist lunatics and other radical Muslims of the trouble spots of Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
In reality the visit was no more than a bit of political theatre, embarrassing at times, performed for the public by Merkel and Sisi. It was a production of meaningless babble with which one of them faced the other for the first time and which the other had to endure. In all conflicts one stays engaged as a way of sending out a sign to those watching. Of course. It is already important enough to have general agreement on defence and on fighting local and national threats but beyond that Egypt is of little significance to Germany, neither economically nor politically. But.
The actual influence of the Germans on the Egyptians was, in the past, almost always hugely overestimated. In the tradition of all Egyptian Presidents, the glowing militarist, Sisi, does not allow himself to be drawn into talking about his appearance as an insurgent in the turmoil of the troubles, and absolutely not as an Islamic male who would tolerate neither the sexual orientation of the former Foreign Secretary nor the weaponry of such a commanding woman.
Anyone who has followed Sisi’s rise will know how much the soldier in him dominates his manner. Anyone who watches Sisi knows how sharp and strategic he can be. And anyone who knows him will realise how much of an influence Islam is. All these characteristics make it very obvious how little of a democrat he is. And anyone who has had to get to know the country and the people will also know that it really does rather lack anything that could make for a free, democratically organised country, most especially mature, educated citizens. Democracy will be developed and established only in protracted and complex stages. Simply to try and import it, all wrapped up by the west, made in the image of the west, will be doomed to failure for that very reason, quit apart from another basic issue about how democratic Islamic countries can actually, fundamentally, be.
If the west, including the United States, continues to claim to have political relevance and influence in Egypt, then that really is a consciously dishonest act, a fudging of reality which it will take a lot of persistence to persuade others to believe. Sisi just accepts money. That’s all he does. Subsidies from selected areas for the Egyptian army had definitely been stopped in 2013. But millions of US dollars started to flow out of Washington again, in the age-old tradition, as did the millions of euro from Berlin for science and for schools, and all quite independently of political developments in Egypt.
So, as still seen and reported, these subsidies do not mean that Sisi has made concessions on policy or human rights. In the diplomatic tit for tat, there is simply nobody there who comes across as intelligible and who, more than anything, wants things to happen. Nobody is resolute about axing the annual bank transfers of dollars and euros if Sisi continues to refuse a dialogue about freedom and basic rights with his ideological opponents. In the long battle against Islamic militants in an unstable region, Egypt is quite simply needed too much. That alone is enough to give up on human rights and a reconciliation with Egyptian society.
Sisi is shrewd. He has given back to the Egyptians something which keeps a large part of society calm. And still does. Egyptians can be proud of their country again, maybe because the new Suez Canal was completed in record time. That certainly gives energy and importance, particularly for the dissatisfied and the protesters. Meantime the President is, above all, a man of the army. And the Egyptian army owns almost half the economic power in the land. Without the military, nothing happens. Nothing. It’s been like that for decades. Ever since the appearance of a certain General Nasser in the nineteen fifties. It would be laughable to believe that any of these gents, the Generals, would let their business dealings and influential activities be interfered with by any remotely democratic social grouping. So long as these soldiers wield such enormous power, so long as all those who can remember – whether loudly or timidly – the value system of the west, will do very well not to lose hope. This will be in itself both burden and task for the future. For decades to come, Egypt will definitely not be a democratic state.
Sisi has long since hooked himself and the country up in quite a different way. Sisi really likes entering into pacts with Russia and China because they’re good for business, all the more so with the financial world and shared values of influential Arab states. This clique of leading Gulf States, more than anything Saudi Arabia, favour an Islam they can control, moderate, direct. Together, they march in step against that form of Islamisation they can very much do without. For the same reasons given by Sisi for his constant, unbending battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, the sheikdoms are fearful that the conservative and more fundamental interpretations of the Koran recently becoming apparent will cause the future loss of reforms. Moderate Islam assures the status quo. It keeps the faithful in a state of mental immaturity.
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