The Egyptian state has composed what looks like a closed circuit of public despair and emotional drainage.
This was Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, speaking about his unprecedented wisdom and special abilities. He continues to describe himself as the “physician of philosophers” and “idol of the world’s politicians, intelligentsia, media experts, and the world's greatest philosophers, if you like”. He can also predict Egypt’s future, according to the dreams he has at night.
If Sisi sees himself at the center of world leaders’ and philosophers’ attention, one can only imagine how much his own people are in trouble. Egypt’s President has never, in a single speech, failed to shower his audience with his exaggerated self-appraisal or paternal authoritarianism. These speeches usually come after a crisis that necessitates emergency political and/or economic measures and actions.
This year there have been numerous heated debates on whether two islands in the Red Sea should be handed over to Saudi Arabia. Sisi, in one of his speeches, told a bedtime story of his mother advising him not to envy others’ belongings? Is this any way to help his public understand and often overlook their outrage at the handover of a piece of their country to another?
Earlier this year, while giving a speech on austerity and the deteriorating economic conditions, the Marshal assured the public that if he could be sold for the benefit of the country, he would put himself up for sale. In the same speech, he brazenly enjoined the public to listen to him only.
The way Sisi speaks about himself, his dreams and his special abilities, invoking things like evil forces, sounds like phrases from some fantasy movie. People initially react with jokes and sarcasm, and only after seeing how steadily the Egyptian economy is deteriorating, do many of them realize that it is not a joke.
What’s perplexing is the considerable degree of public acceptance, and even support, that he elicits for this nonsense. Is it charisma? Could it truly be unprecedented wisdom that is keeping Sisi’s audience somehow hooked? I am not arguing the absence of an increasing opposition, but rather attempting to decipher his ability to confidently come up with ever more stories of 'wisdom' and still maintain the public’s apparent acceptance every time he decides to take it a step further.
Why don't his supporters, whether among the elite or the public, see the insanity in Sisi's so-called gifts? And what is the contract that brings the two, the megalomaniac leader and his blinded followers, together to form this contemporary sociopolitical hegemonic bond?
It is hard to believe that Sisi, being this supposedly strategically exceptional leader who mobilized millions in his support, does not know what he is doing. He led a successful coup against one of the most established political groups in the region – the Muslim Brotherhood – and managed, over a very short period of time, to oppress a world-promising ‘revolution’ (January 2011).
However bewildering from the outside, nevertheless within the context of military attitudes, one realizes he is not the exception.
It was not long ago that one military general claimed he had found the cure for AIDS, HIV and Hepatitis C, all with the approval and propagation of his military institution. On a similar level of absurdity, another military general spoke of creative (naturally planned) preventive war tactics in cases of a nuclear attacks from Israel. The idea was that Egypt is blessed with a north-western wind and if Israel were to attack Egypt with “something”, the wind would take it back towards Israel. Yes, this was actually said. All with utter conviction and self-congratulatory self-worth.
The same general also spoke of an intense battle on one of his military missions in which he had to chase rats. It is only then that one sees each of these people manifesting a seemingly interrelated phenomenon: ‘megalomania’. The fact that each of these incidents, among others, has been recorded and streamed for the public to see means that they are no exception and that there is little sense of shame on the part of the military institutions. Quite the reverse.
One of the main features of military institutions is that they are very hierarchical, in a deifying, top-down sense. If one serves in the military for extended periods of time, it is quite likely that one forgets what it feels like to be second-guessed, mistaken or criticized.
In the military, if you fail to salute your senior, you are interrogated and maybe even punished. If you fail to obey ‘his’ orders, you will definitely be punished. I am speaking of the silliest, absolutely trivial orders, not qualifying, opposing or criticizing your senior. After extended periods of time of being in a ‘yes, sir’ environment, climbing up the military ladder, it’s safe to assume, due to human adaptability, that one might forget what it feels like to be wrong. Is this when megalomania sets in?
The problem is further intensified with the absence of any sort of scholarly reference, deteriorating education over decades and rising ignorance. The sole source of what is right, nay righteous and sensible, becomes his almighty – the general’s words. A general, not to mention a marshal, can speak and lecture subordinates about any topic in any field. Should one dare second-guess an army official, she/he will most likely be accused of treason, and if he is from within the military institution he is also most likely to be punished.
Essam Heggy, for example, criticized the AIDS device 'invented' by a military general for not deploying scientific methodology. The scholar was accused of treason, misleading the public, and conspiring against his own country.
Can you imagine then what the combination of ignorance and utter impunity can possibly achieve between them?
A desperate public
If unconvincing nonsense is uttered at the drop of a hat, what is it that makes the audience listen and believe in what is being said? Elitist figures; politicians, media men, celebrities, etc… support the political leadership of Egypt for two main reasons. First, they are by default less affected by the state’s negative socioeconomic decisions. Second, they are more likely to benefit from lip-serving the ruling leadership.
What about the average Egyptian man and woman? What is it that makes them hang on to this malarkey? They pay the price with every decision taken. Are they hypnotized somehow by the unprecedented wisdom of their leader? Or do they truly believe what is on offer to them?
I suspect the secret lies in a recipe of hope and despair. Sometimes in desperation for change, one hangs on to any sign of hope, even if it is false hope. This irrational wishful thinking hangs onto something, anything, or anyone that promises a better tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes a metaphor for a time that may never come. It almost does not matter, as long as the promise is renewed the next morning.
While the people may be too cynical and wary to be truly satisfied with this reality, they are also far too emotionally exhausted to face the reality of being manipulated with false hope again.
After a promising revolution, five governments, two parliamentary elections and two presidential races (with all the controversy around the legitimacy of each), each filled with much promise, the people are too tired to rise up against the ugly social reality.
Salvation – state of oppression
Not everyone believes the leader’s mad statements, and even those who believe them just cannot be fully hypnotized. A larger framework has to be set in place to stifle the people’s consciousness in the moments when they realize they are fed up with being lied to. This is whereSisi’s military, police and judicial state come in to play.
By demonizing everyone who speaks against the state, the state exclusively possesses the right to be the righteous. By raising the flag of being in danger and ‘fighting terrorism’, the Egyptian state is, so far, getting away with oppressing thousands in jails and ignoring any public questioning about its own alleged promises.
General Kamal Amer, for example, commenting last August on the deteriorating economic conditions, decided on behalf of the people that the rise in prices was a very reasonable cost for the safety and security that Sisi’s state offers the people. Not surprisingly, the cost of 'thinking' of opposing the state has sky-rocketed as oppressive measures have simultaneously been set in place: political imprisonments, forced-disappearances, and group sentences.
Thus, the Egyptian state has constructed what looks like a closed circuit of public despair and emotional drainage.
Reminiscent of Karl Marx's description of religion as the “opium of the people”, I would say that this ‘false hope’ has become the opiate and slow death of the people’s aspirations for an actual better tomorrow. The people will remain afraid of the unknown until they face this reality, that they are being led on by false hope.
(Sarah Adel is a student of international development with interests in Middle East politics).
This article was first published on openDemocracy.