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Egypt’s Innocent Donkeys

Rarely does a work of art epitomise the complex sociopolitical realities of its time. But a film from Egypt’s past does just that. Al-Baree (The Innocent, 1985) tells a tale of tyranny and elucidates its dynamics with skill. Starring the actor Ahmed Zaki — Egypt’s Al Pacino — and directed by Atef al-Tayeb, a pioneer of the new realism wave in Egyptian cinema, The Innocent says a lot about politics in Egypt, and the failure of its 2011 revolution.

The film pulls together drama and a subtle message of great significance. Zaki took on the character of Ahmed Sabe’ al-Leil, an illiterate young man who spends his years in obligatory government service as a conscript working in a prison, which, ringed by infinite desert sand, looks like an island. But far from being an oasis, it is an infernal place, where savage punishment is meted out to political dissidents. In the middle of emptiness, there is nothing but an eerie silence, poisonous snakes and a scorching sun that bakes the prisoners’ faces.

Sabe’ al-Leil is the quintessential peasant. With a mind like a blank paper and a soul accustomed to servitude, he is as pliant as a reed. He is indoctrinated with ease, injected by the prison’s jailers with hate and pride. His superiors keep telling him the inmates are “the enemies of the homeland”. Sabe’ al-Leil buys their narrative and becomes one of them. He takes part in reception parties, beating-up sessions at the prison gates for new inmates to make them realise they are about to enter a different world. Sabe’ al-Leil becomes so dedicated that when a detainee — a renowned writer, Rashad Oweis — attempts a reckless escape, Sabe’ al-Leil chases him in the desert, wrestles him, then chokes him to death. Oweis speaks his last words with indignation and sympathy, telling Sabe’ al-Leil: “You’re a donkey; you don’t understand anything.”

The movie has a compelling argument: the sad story of oppression involves not only the oppressor and the oppressed but — more importantly — those who lend the oppressors a helping hand. Among those who know are some who aid injustice out of personal greed; some who toe the line out of fear; and some who resent injustice, but avert their gaze out of despair. The movie focuses on the largely uninformed, the ignorant, who support men of power with conviction and submission. They don’t know, and they don’t know they don’t know.

The movie’s message is still relevant. The melodramatic contours of the 2011 Egyptian revolution — its moments of triumph and years of despondency — are well known. By now, it is not debatable that it has failed, especially since the rise of the military’s strongman Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to the summit of politics in 2013 and his election as president in 2014. The Arab Spring in Egypt was a brief interlude between winter storms. Thousands of innocents lost their lives, were thrown behind bars or vanished; politics and the media turned into a state-controlled puppet show; dissidence is punishable without delay. What caused that retreat is still a great controversy.

Spectators in their homeland

It strains truth to argue that the Egyptian revolution went awry because of the revolutionaries’ lack of courage or the old state’s lack of resolve. There has been a great deal of both over the past five years, but in a country of 90 million, both groups represent small minorities. It went wrong because of the silent majority — the great mass of Egyptians reduced by their political unconsciousness into, at best, spectators in their homeland, and at worst, accomplices in crime. Victims of their own ignorance, they took the shadow for the substance, favouring despotism, condoning state violence and detesting liberties. The revolution failed because of their ignorance.

Dramatic as it was, the revolution of 2011 did not disillusion this majority. Insouciant about public affairs, many asked with childish curiosity what do the protestors in Tahrir want? It was as though the events were taking place in some distant land, not in Cairo’s central square, a stone’s throw from home. Today, the majority of Egyptians echo preposterous accusations against the revolution, no matter how incoherent or unconvincing. Parroting the “pundits” on television, they condemn the revolution as a conspiracy by the US, or Israel, or Iran or Qatar or Turkey — or all of them together. They grant the murderers of the ancien regime amnesty and amnesia, while describing the victims of the revolution — those who died or were mutilated — as khawanah (traitors). Some even pine for despotic Hosni Mubarak, recently convicted for embezzling public funds, saying he is a hero and deserves an apology. This critical mass sealed the fate of the Egyptian revolution.

Education in Egypt is in shambles. The illiteracy rate is around 25%, over 30% among women. But the poor quality of education and a school system based on rote memorisation leave many educated people little better off. In the 2015-16 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Egypt was ranked next to last for the quality of its schools and universities. ”Egyptian education is in the worst era in its history,” said a researcher at Egypt’s National Centre for Educational Research and Development. Many university graduates lack basic literacy skills, misspelling words like “but”, “this” and “that”. Last year the Facebook page of Egypt’s newly appointed education minister turned out to be full of grammar and spelling mistakes. Online activists said he needed to enrol in an illiteracy-erasing programme. In January, 60 seconds of the opening statement by the parliament’s new speaker (a former law professor) included at least 10 serious pronunciation mistakes as he struggled to speak in formal Arabic.

Illiteracy and poor education has taken a great toll on society. People, including university graduates, are unaware of basic political facts. According to a poll by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), only 23% of Egyptians know the year of the Suez Crisis, an event of the greatest significance to Egypt’s modern history. A culture of mental laziness has led to many just embracing ideas offered by others. This is understandable. The pursuit of knowledge has a burden of thought, the responsibility to choose, and to confront discomforting truths. This is why the “bewildered herd” (Walter Lippmann’s expression) views ignorance as a shelter from evil, a feeling of bliss.

Egypt lacks sobriety. As a result of gravitation toward emotional rhetoric and the absence of critical thinking, basic instincts — anger, fear, hope and desire — have taken charge. Too scared to think, too angry to contemplate and too complacent to change, the majority opt for conformity. Judging by the results, this is as detrimental as evil.

How can politics in a society with such a mental geography be reformed? How can history’s subjects turn into its agents? The enlightened few can instigate a revolution (and they did, demanding freedom and social justice), but the realisation of its goals in the long run needs more than the efforts of a small minority, however great its courage and devotion. Robespierre once rightly opined that the “‘secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant”. When the simplest truths are lost, vulnerability to propaganda worsens. The perverted, state-sponsored propaganda of the counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt had, directly and indirectly, induced people to believe that revolution is sin, dictatorship benevolent, torture necessary and silence a virtue.

InThe Innocent, most of those incarcerated were intellectuals and writers, while all the brutal conscripts were illiterate. The ignorant enslaved the erudite, a society where those afflicted with total ignorance wreak havoc on those blessed with knowledge. In 2011, this was turned into a vivid reality in the clashes in Tahrir Square and on the bridge of Qasr al-Nil. The street battles between educated youth and black-clad soldiers armed with rifles, gas canisters and water cannons embodied the battle between enlightenment and the dark ages. As the New York Times put it, “rarely have we seen such epic clashes between the forces of light and darkness.” There were thousands of soldiers like Sabe’ al-Leil but they were outnumbered by the protestors and overwhelmed by their courage. Mubarak was overthrown, and a new dawn seemed imminent.

Now that the revolution has been defeated, and a return to the ways of the grim past institutionalised, the victors are writing their own narrative. For decades, Egypt’s victors — the state and its allies in the security apparatus and business circles — have relied on two instruments for survival: guns to subdue the sober few and myths to intoxicate the rest.

Clowns as mentors

The problem in Egypt is not that there are so many narratives that are unfaithful to truth; it is that they always find a receptive ear and an open heart. There is a mutual need for an unwritten pact — power wants to survive and the weary masses, who face the squalors of life from sunrise to sunset, cannot afford to lose hope. They need to be constantly assured that tomorrow will be a better day. It is a reasonable formula: survival for opium. But agreements need enforcers; stories need storytellers.

There are commonalities between Egypt’s journalists and TV presenters. They’re all middlebrow, even though they’re popular and influential. Their massive popularity does not create Egypt’s ignorance; it reflects and nourishes it. Intellectuals who have devoted themselves to a life of knowledge and rectitude, have been, sadly, pushed out of the public space; they seek inner peace in exile, solitude or a self-induced bubble of  inanities, and try to forget that Egypt was once the beacon of enlightenment in the region.

All these agents of ignorance consider the “January revolution” a term of opprobrium. They dare not speak its name except in the context of a manufactured tale of conspiracy. The revolution did not just target an unjust authority, but the entire culture of incompetence it had sponsored. The influencers are at odds with change, especially fundamental change, lest it deprives them of their prerogatives and introduces a system that judges them by their skills, not their capacity for hypocrisy.  They have totally aligned themselves with the regime. It is widely believed that the regime controls them and releases them whenever needed to defend, attack, justify, sneer at opponents, and bay for more iron-fisted measures; it makes sure they are always coyly silent about the regime’s wrongdoings. These icons of ignorance have become a service class, the regime’s PR representatives. They are the useful idiots of Egypt’s new old regime.

At the climax of The Innocent, Sabe’ al-Leil encounters disillusionment. In the frenzy of a reception party, he beats his childhood village friend, whom he knows is not an enemy of the homeland. He has the painful revelation that he has been stupid and stubborn—a donkey. He bristles with rage and revolts, finally conscious and liberated.

The revolution made the mistake of shouting for freedom to a sleeping people. Before setting off for Tahrir, the revolutionaries should have woken them up.

Nael M Shama is a political researcher and writer based in Cairo. He is the author of Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi and Egypt before Tahrir: Reflections on Politics, Culture and Society.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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