The 25th June 2014 marks the 111th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and it seemed as appropriate a time as any to add my own little contribution to the already near-bursting oeuvre of work connecting Orwell to contemporary news. In my case, Egyptian news.
As the Egyptian state and its institutions continue to bludgeon any dissent or opposition out of the public sphere, one of Orwell’s earlier essays proves helpful in understanding how it has come to this: why the current government is so desperate to enforce patriotic sentiment; how they can get away with obvious lies and brutality; and why even peaceful disobedience and dissent is no longer allowed.
In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, Orwell starts by appropriating and altering the definition of ‘nationalism’ beyond that of everyday parlance, beyond the parochial allegiance to ‘the nation’. Orwell hypothesised there was an associative emotional phenomenon that could be applied to a swathe of constructs outside (and indeed, inside) any nation.
Orwell writes, “It can attach itself to a church or a class,” and importantly adds, “or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”
In his simplest definition, ‘nationalism’ is an emotional phenomenon that creates a blinding allegiance to something (positive nationalism), or perhaps against something (negative nationalism). As a societal construct, attaching oneself to others of similar ideology and agency arises naturally and is almost impossible to avoid – even hermits and misanthropes can and will identify with one another – but Orwell takes it one step further.
The inherent problem, he says, is that nationalism also acts as a perfect incubator of the irrational zealot. Victories and losses are almost irrelevant to belief and allegiance, as the fanatical nationalist (and for Orwell, they are the rule, not the exception) will not only stand firm, but will actually grow in their stubborn righteousness as a result.
As Orwell puts it, “[The nationalist] persuades himself that [his side] is the strongest [side], and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.”
They can become either the ‘martyr’ (after a loss) or the ‘noble victor’ (after success) – either way their reservoir of righteousness grows. In this schizophrenic atmosphere Orwell posits that even the most intelligent person is suddenly willing to “suppress their sensibilities and sacrifice their intellectual honesty for the cause of propaganda”.
In Egypt, this style of ‘nationalism’ can be a helpful lens through which to view recent events.
Suddenly, Egypt is seen as the battleground of vying political nationalist actors: The Muslim Brotherhood, Youth Movements, Military Trial Activists, Anti Sexual Harassment movements, Business magnates, the Army, the judiciary, and so on. People may ally themselves to many different groups, and though few of the nationalist groups have anything to do with the nation directly, they all demand one thing: power. Were any one group to hold a majority mandate, the other groups would immediately feel threatened, and be seen as a threat.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the interim government-backed military approached the problem of the Brotherhood and public relations with a modus operandi akin to the US Straussian neo-conservatives of the 1970s: Scare everyone with a deadly enemy (USSR/Muslim Brotherhood); overplay the enemy threat through propaganda; and promulgate the myth of the benevolent state, thus encouraging an unquestioning patriotism. But instead of fighting the selfish and immoral individualism of liberalism, as the neo-cons did, the new Egyptian state is fighting a proliferation of political nationalism that threatens allegiance, stability and the power hierarchy.
After all, any nationalist group ipso facto is a threat, irrespective of whether it poses a direct challenge to the incumbent power, because, as stated earlier, every nationalist demands power: power to do business free of restrictions; power to operate with impunity; power to hold a government accountable; power to change a law. In 2011, power in Egypt was momentarily, and spontaneously, redistributed in an 18-day revolt, much to the chagrin of the deep state. In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, a President more amenable to the old pillars of power is taking charge, and any further redistribution of power will once again be at the discretion of the old institutions.
Facing the swathe of serious political nationalist groups, the nation state and its institutions are trying its hardest to redirect the varying nationalists back to one overarching allegiance: loyalty to the State above all; overt patriotism over the more exclusive and fractured swathe of nationalist groups.
In the most blatant effort to date, the Egyptian Presidential office recently released a new decree regarding two major symbols of the State: the national anthem and the flag.
In it, the decree repeals two previous laws and demands a more devout reverence to these two symbols. It stated the Egyptian flag cannot be lower than that of any other state institution flag (such as an army or a state flag), and is not to be on display if damaged, altered, worn or faded. Egyptians must stand for the national anthem “out of respect” and military personnel must salute. One line states, “Pre-university education authorities should strive to disseminate the norms and values enshrined in the words of the national anthem.”
To stress the seriousness of this new decree, anyone who insults the flag (by breaking the above rules) or doesn’t stand for the national anthem “shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding thirty thousand pounds ($4200)”.
“We are somewhat telling people “the state is back”.” Was the blunt response of Ehab Ghobashy, the presidential spokesman, when asked what the objective was in creating this new law. “You could describe Egypt during the last three years as messy… because the state institutions were not able to perform their duties and the state pride was not given its due respect.”
The timing of the decree is key. The immediate aftermath of the coup last year inspired what seemed to be an unquestioning patriotic atmosphere, akin to Orwell’s positive nationalism, in a huge and loud majority of Egyptians. This loyalty remained even after the slaughter of over 1,000 people in less than a week in mid-August 2013. Many cheered the dispersal of Rabaa square where some 638 people were killed and almost 4,000 injured, almost exclusively civilians of an opposing nationalist allegiance: the Muslim Brotherhood. Even those not overtly pro-Army were willing to perform mental gymnastics in order to avoid calling Rabaa what it was: a massacre committed by their side.
With the Muslim Brotherhood almost completely crushed in just six months, a new enemy was needed by the state to once again unite the masses in fear – mistaking Orwell’s negative nationalism with patriotism. The list of potential threats quickly increased and the new enemy suddenly became anyone openly dissenting. An abhorrent protest law was passed and suddenly, the secular activists and youth movements (many of which supported the overthrow of Morsi) ran into trouble. According to the Interior Ministry, some 16,000 people have been imprisoned since the fall of Morsi in July 2013. One independent statistics database puts the number closer to 41,000, the overwhelming majority political prisoners.
Furthermore, journalists opposing or questioning the state line have been targeted, harassed, killed and jailed. Two days ago, after 6 months of the most farcical trial proceedings to grace a courtroom, 3 Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to a cumulative 24 years in prison for doing nothing more than basic reporting.
Despite all this, it appeared that the reverence (in the form of enthusiasm) towards the state was waning as time passed and conditions continued to stagnate for the average Egyptian, and the old institutions were clearly alarmed by this sudden reality.
Turnouts in the recent presidential elections were low, far lower than anyone expected. After the scheduled two days voting, one poll put the turnout at a laughably low 7.5%, although others placed it closer to the 20% mark. The Presidential Elections Commission quickly took the extraordinary step of extending the voting to another day in a desperate effort to increase their “mandate”. After the additional days voting they claimed overall turnout finished at just under 50%. This sudden and dubious increase prompted the opposition candidate to call the proclaimed turnout percentage “an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence” and yet it was still far short of what the incoming President had hoped for.
The most obvious answer to this sudden indifference was that the overt patriotism of last year was simply ebbing away with time. Therefore, the logic goes, a more patriotic sentiment needs to be drilled into the Egyptian psyche. After all, the upcoming period of austerity, of “hard work and self-sacrifice”, could easily stir an angry and resentful crowd unless subconsciously cowed with an undying nationalism towards the state.
Yet through the lens of Orwell’s nationalism, it could just as easily be the case that the apparent patriotic fervour in the immediate post-Morsi period was not an allegiance to the state, but rather a negative nationalism against the Muslim Brotherhood. If this were the case, then the patriotic reserve the state is relying on has been massively overrated from the start, and the turnout in the elections may be an indicator of such a reality.
In attempting to ameliorate their position and increase unquestioning loyalty, the state is now trying to force ‘reverence’ by law. An obvious mistake in strategy: it’s difficult to make someone love you if you caveat your desire to be loved with threats of imprisonment and fines. However, by overplaying the existential threats of terrorism, dominating the press and closing down a major avenue of dissent (through protests and marches), the state is well on its way to a new era of stultifying submission.
This strategy is made especially clear when you realise it is very possible to break all these new laws and still not find yourself in any trouble, so long as you break them the right way. Scrawl “Sisi for President” on the flag, have an impromptu march along the bridge in support of the army, write outright lies against foreign journalists in you newspaper and you will get on just fine. Just so long as you belong to a nationalist group that somehow benefits the incumbent powers, you can get away with murder. Or even a massacre.