Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nothing to Believe In

I just saw Mubarak/Mubarnacle's non-resignation speech, in English and then Arabic, to make sure it wasn't suffering from a bad translation. It wasn't. The speech was exasperating, shocking, and, not least, profoundly boring.

Charles Hirschkind's short piece on SF Gate put words to something that I've been struggling to articulate ever since I came to Egypt: Egypt's government is very bad in terms of sheer oppression, violence, persecution of minorities, silencing of dissent, and so on, but they're not the worst in the world. They don't have Syria's paranoia-inducing atmosphere of surveillance, for instance, or Burma's willingness to slaughter its citizens wholesale. It's more that they're a specific kind of bad. When I search for how to describe the Egyptian regime and the society it has built, words like "vicious", "oppressive", and "cruel", are true, but they're not what first come to mind. The word that always rushes unbidden into my head is "depressing".

I'm not talking about Mubarak's lack of charisma. That's not the problem. As an analyst on al-Jazeera tartly put it, "Egypt doesn't need a bellydancer". I mean more the odd combination of brutality and bland visionlessness that characterized the regime's modus operandi, of which Mubarak's speech is a fine example. It was full of empty phrases about necessary reforms, vague accusations against foreign interference - this is an old trope in Mubarak's repertoire; any criticism of the government represents 'foreign interests' trying to damage Egypt's reputation and stability - and tone-deaf jargon. It had shockingly little content, considering how long he went on.

Before the protests started, the conventional wisdom on Egypt was that people were too hopeless, tired, and fatalistic to rise up. They had simply lost hope. Hirschkind put it well:

The regime's most brutal act has been its consistent refusal to allow any aspiration for a better life to take root - the aspiration of the law student who knows that he will waste away his life sweeping streets because his family can never afford the bribes required to become an accredited lawyer; the university professor who watches his enthusiasm for teaching evaporate daily as he addresses a class of 3,000 students who worry how they will ever find employment; the father who knows that his son's future is sealed by an injury that could easily be overcome with a simple, inexpensive treatment available in any upscale hospital.

Insofar as Mubarak's regime ever offered a an aspirational vision, a positive image of what kind of country he was trying to build, it was basically about economic development of a particular kind, which we pointy-headed academics like to call 'neoliberal'. He promised an Egypt that was connected to the rest of the world economy, where you could buy international brands, live a global lifestyle. But even that vision was little more than a series of payouts and sweetheart deals for his and his son's friends. For the vast majority of people, there was no effort to include them in the economic gains of the last couple decades, and, unsurprisingly, they got the impression that those global-market dreams were not intended for them. Why aspire to what you can't have?

Mind you, most of the people I knew were sold on the idea of a global lifestyle in a different sense: They were virtually all trying to find a way to emigrate to somewhere else. Egypt had too few opportunities for those without the connections. You could get all the education you wanted, but it didn't matter. The regime was and is fundamentally a machine for distributing goodies to insiders, and disposing of anyone who threatens that arrangement. That's it. All governments resemble protection rackets to a certain degree, but this one was distinguished by how little it provided, materially or otherwise, to its 'clients'.

What I'm saying here is that the regime offered very little for people to identify with, something that at least made people feel that the hardships in their lives were part of a greater goal, or at least that they had a reasonable chance of improving their lot (or their children's lot) if they worked hard. Instead, Mubrark's circle set up a system in which the thing you're supposed to aspire to - a globalized consumer lifestyle - is something that the vast majority of people have no chance to get anywhere near, no matter how hard they work.

The results could only be called depressing. Regime insiders ripped off their own people, beat and disappeared anyone who objected, made incredibly boring speeches full of transparent lies and banalities about 'slow progress' and the need for stability every time they rigged a vote or murdered their own citizens, and for what? So Gamal Mubarak's buddies could have exclusive contracts to distribute widgets? Even their neoliberalism was visionless. It had none of the hubris of some of the Gulf states, or the anything-is-possible entrepreneurial energy of some other emerging economies. It was all just a series of sweetheart deals for kleptocrats. I really believe that the banality, visionlessness, and mediocrity of Mubarak's Egypt ground people down just as much as the more flagrant oppressions.

The corruption was brazen, even ostentatious. There was no avoiding it in your daily life. Omnipresent unfairness, periodic brutality, and no hope it could get better, no other vision except for nostalgia. It all added up to this feeling that nobody was accountable, nobody was looking out for anyone, the social contract had broken down, and there was no way to make it better in any systematic sense. Most people were too busy just trying to make it through the end of the month. I can think of situations more violent, but that are few more dispiriting.

That's why, at least to me, it's a miracle that people came together and demanded something better, even if they're not sure exactly what it is. When I hear interviews with people who say they finally feel like they can accomplish something, I can feel that depressing, stagnant haze I associate with Egyptian politics clear from my mind. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that way.

1 comment:

  1. "It had shockingly little content, considering how long he went on."

    that's been true of every Mubarak speech I've seen (e.g. everyone he's given since the revolution started)

    happened to be walking past a TV set to CNN as he gave his latest one... their translation had him saying "we're all in the same bunker"*, which I found hysterical because there he was, by himself, with the heavy curtain background and the same distracting desk lamp in foreground that's given this ill-prepared vibe that has made me think he's giving these speeches from, well, a bunker

    * translation in the WaPo this morning had it instead as "All of us Egyptians are in the same spot"