Ferguson Across Cultures

I wanted to write this a long time ago, but had too much work. Anyway:

In order to understand this post, take exactly 10 seconds to gloss over each of the articles here, here, here, and here. Assuming you’ve done that…

To anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be subjected to Egyptian TV for a substantial amount of time, it’s not hard (even a little fun, if you don’t have problems with blood pressure) to see the undisguisedly smug Egyptian anchors’ perspective on global events that they don’t really quite understand. And for them, the star of the season has without a doubt been the Ferguson unrest.

After the US Dept of State called out the Egyptian administration for mowing down protesters in more than one occasion, particularly the infamous Raba’a massacre, loyalists of the current Egyptian regime seem more than happy to be giving Obama a cynical smile and amusedly watch as the US fails to practice what it preaches.


Pictured: The collective consciousness of Egyptian loyalists.

Except (surprise!) it’s not really like that.

Egyptian media tends to look at the Ferguson unrest from a perspective that is so thoroughly Egyptian that the reporting ends up being skewed and highly unrepresentative of the actual situation.

The main thing that they tend to get wrong is the system of command and leadership in the US government. It’s automatically assumed that, like in Egypt and other third world countries, there is one guy who calls all the shots – a tradition that goes largely unquestioned in the mainstream of most Arab cultures, particularly in Egypt, and one that is (at least subconsciously) upheld even in the presence of laws and institutions put in place to deter it. Consequently, the lines between a nation and a state are often blurred, and everything remotely within the apparatus of government is condensed into the power of its leader.

However, in a state that is deeply rooted in the practice of democracy concepts such as decentralization, rule of law, and separation of powers are observed in all of the state’s actions – except in cases of corruption. Egyptian media doesn’t seem to think much about that, somehow lumping up the U.S. president, the police force in Ferguson, the U.S. Department of State, and to an extent American civil society in the same pack, holding them all responsible for the snafu that is the Ferguson unrest – which not only speaks of the level of professionalism of Egyptian media, but also implies tons about the crude nature of the Egyptian political environment.

I never thought too highly of Egyptian media, and I didn’t really think I could possibly hold them in lower regard than I already do. I was proven wrong. Their lack of concern about human life was something I’m accustomed to, and so was the nationalist posturing that accompanies every piece of news about pretty much any other part of the world. I guess just being reminded of how little hope Egypt has for a serious political reform (even though I’m kinda used to it by now) is as frustrating as it was the first time it hit me.

TV, the radio, newspapers, etc. is where most Egyptians look to confirm their biases, and that’s where they learn about new ideas and develop opinions about concepts they’re not yet familiar with. Media, basically, forms culture. And in Egypt it’s mostly controlled by, or aligned to, the new state. And it’s not like we have any serious alternative media either – most of the opposition to the state are Islamist conservatives, which leaves the Egyptian anti-authoritarian rally to a few satirists, bloggers (ohai) and columnists.

And, while it’s depressing to have to listen to the anchors’ opinions on the infallibility of the Father Knows Best state, it’s worse to know that this is what the collective mind of Egypt will look and think like, for the most part.


Indicator of Civilization

If you like lists and/or comparative sociology, you’re going to like this.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of the factors that make one society/nation/herd/group of people more or less civilized than another. This index looks at Human Development in a more cultural way, independent of how rich the group is on average or how clean their water is, even though there is usually some correlation.

And since most of these are intangible and consequently very hard to measure, I’m not going to do any kind of ranking. But some obvious comparisons will pop up in your head while reading this.

Of course, this is subjective and by no means authoritative. So any comments, suggestions, or notes; especially critical, are welcome and encouraged.

(and sorry about the formatting. blame wordpress.)

  • Prevalence of “national ills”
    • Prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual repression
      • Prevalence of marital abuse and arranged marriage
    • Prevalence of Religious zeal/fanaticism
      • Acceptance of unbelievers and heretics into mainstream society
        • Admission of unbelievers and heretics into key positions
    •   Prevalence of smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse
    • Prevalence of littering, vandalism, public urination, etc.
    • Prevalence of homelessness
    • Prevalence of administrative corruption
    • Social acceptability of any negative points in this list
  • Popular social consciousness
    • Consciousness of global, national, and local current events
    • Consciousness of mental disorders and illnesses
    • Consciousness of environmental issues
    • Consciousness of recent and current scientific breakthroughs
    • Consciousness of the basics of civics, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science
    • Consciousness of safe sex & birth control
  • Technological, scientific, and intellectual advancement
    • Literacy rate
      • Digital literacy rate
        • Prevalence and strength of digital security
      • Percentage of adults fluent at a second language
      • Percentage of adults with a tertiary education degree
        • Percentage of adults with a post-tertiary degree
    • Availability and accessibility of non-degree educational resources
      • Popularity of non-degree educational resources
    • Relative number of scientific innovations/publications
    • Relative severity of brain drain
      • Relative number of students pursuing degrees abroad
      • Relative number of international students hosted
  • Income inequality
  • Prevalence and strength of inexplicable traditions
  • Relative strength of artistic and cultural productions
    • Relative number of cultural or artistic works influential abroad
      • Value of cultural tourism
        • Average satisfaction of tourists
  • High average health & fitness
    • Popularity, prevalence, and esteem of sports and physical activity
      • Relative competence of national sports teams
      • Prevalence and acceptability of hooliganism
    • Universality, accessibility and strength of public healthcare
    • Obesity rate
  • Prevalence of volunteer culture
    • Prevalence of community-serving or environmental hobbies (i.e. Gardening)
  • Population explosion
  • Prevalence of discrimination in popular psyche/mentality
    • Discrimination according to gender, age, religion, caste, national identity, etc.
      • Established hierarchies or assumed superiority, based on or influenced by any of the above factors
  • Prevalence of censorship
    • Number and severity of social taboos
    • Number of banned, censored, or taboo books or works of art
    • Prevalence of censorship in the media, Internet, etc.
      • Freedom of the press
  • Crime rate
    • Violent crime rate
      • Rate and severity of terrorist activity
        • Relative number of terrorists generated
      • Relative size of arms/weapons industry
    • Relative size of drug/alcohol industry (incl. legal)
      • Relative size of tobacco industry
    • Relative size of prison population
    • Number of victimless crimes punishable by law (e.g. recreational drug use)
  • Strength of cross-cultural/international relations
    • Cross-border trade value
    • Cross-cultural communication and dialogue
    • International cooperation and contribution to world order (e.g. Contributions to UN peacekeeping forces; mediation in international crises; development aid)
  • Popular understanding and application of civics
    • Established, sacrosanct, and respected rule of law
      • Equality before the law
    • Universal distribution of decision-making power, through voting or otherwise
      • Accessibility and approachability of government to the average person, i.e. through community policing
      • Directness of democracy
    • Transparency in government processes
    • Universal Trial by Jury
    • Stability of government
      • Inclination towards violent rebellion
    • Balance of laws concerning business, labor, and entrepreneurship
    • Size of bureaucracy
  • Prevalence of renewable energy use
  • Relative strength of military
    • Privileges granted to the state military, relative to other government institutions
      • Degree of independence given to military
      • Privileges granted to service(wo)men, police officers, and/or veterans
      • Military participation in government
    • Occurrence of unilateral military action abroad
  • Smoothness of debates and arguments
    • Possibility of the escalation of an argument to a riot
  • Relative number of citizens with depression, PTSD, etc.
    • Relative number of suicides caused by these diseases

Largely inspired by the Good Country Index, so thank you guys.


The Fault in Our Democracy

One of the goals of our Revolution in 2011 was ending the tradition of military presidents-for-life and adopting an honest civilian democracy. From the day Mubarak stepped down and handed power to the military, things seemed to be improving, albeit very slowly. At a certain point of time (That point is different for each person – most commonly June 2012, August 2013, or June 2014) the vast majority of Egyptian progressives lost hope that Egypt will see a democracy in their lifetimes.

Of course, there are a lot of standby factors we can blame this lack of progress on. You know, widespread illiteracy, poverty, income inequality and the rest of this song. But those aren’t enough to explain our situation; in fact, there are even more important factors buried in the Egyptian social dynamic and culture; some are embraced, some are obvious, and some are mostly unnoticed.

And in this piece, I’ll do my best to explain as many of those as I know.

Disclaimer: by “Egyptians” I’m referring to the mainstream, not all or even most.
Now that this is out of the way…

5. Egyptians are authoritarian by nature

A (perhaps negative) characteristic of our collectivist Egyptian culture is the lack of compromise – this ship will go my way and none other, or I’ll sink it. Egyptians tend to reject different opinions (often due to inflexibles such as religion or family tradition), and the imposition of popular tradition or mass culture – by diplomacy or otherwise – is the norm; anyone who strays from the ways of the elders is shunned. In the political scene this translates to strict statism and a moralistic government (fully supported by the people, of course), and it means that tyranny of the majority is considered a basic part of popular sovereignty rather than something to avoid.

It also means that if democracy doesn’t go the way I want it to, you’ve got a coup coming your way.

Besides that, it turns the Egyptian political field into a do-or-die competition (sometimes literally) for power, like we’ve seen for about a year or so now. Polar politics, especially in Egypt, mean that a voter will strongly back whichever election candidate who looks like he can fulfill a particular wish of theirs, even if they are apathetic to the rest of their election platform. This sometimes results into the voter viewing this particular candidate as a messiah, and consequently shaping their own convictions around the messiah’s. More on that in point #2.

4. Government rules us, not the other way around!

Since antiquity, Egyptian peasants have been ruled by elites who employed them and had authority over where they could live, ergo, controlled their lives. This system hasn’t changed much in the modern day for many Egyptian farmers, but for many of the rest it has continued to live on as an idea, only reformed to get with the times of urbanization and active government.

Today, most Egyptians (perhaps including me) view and treat the government as a somewhat godlike entity. Distant, vaguely defined, and cannot be communicated with except through very special channels. The Egyptian god government rules over us, so we thank or blame it for what happens to our people, but we can’t really do much about its actions. Of course, this mentality has somewhat changed since the revolution, especially in the urban population due to its access to popular mobilization and mass politics (and the Internet, of course). But for 90% of the population, opportunistic voting remains the only opportunity to influence the government. And that is a new trend, even.

3. National security first, everything else later

This one actually makes some sense. Over the last three years Egypt has seen rampant crime, bombings, sabotages, attacks on police stations, and the state’s security power gradually fading away. Egyptians are exhausted. Many would give unyielding support to any authority figure who can show potential to put things back together, to let people sleep at night without fears that their apartments will be broken into. This “unyielding support” basically gives him the ability to do whatever he wants as long as he is capable of dangling national security over their heads – and the most accessible decision in that range of actions is to eradicate the opposition in order to bring peace, a power used and abused many times in the history of the Egyptian republic, especially during Sisi’s zenith.

Similarly, Egyptians have an obsessive fear of foreign involvement in their country, especially from western powers (or Israel). Mere suspicion of foreign support can render a candidate practically unelectable, and if an opposition party (or even a political current) is alleged to have foreign support, its reputation will be tarnished for a very long time. Therefore, the “independence” card – as well as promises of cold relations with Israel – is often played by presidential candidates in their campaigns. This promise, unfortunately, is never realized, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get you elected anyway.

2. Carpe diem!

Since the revolution, we’ve had quite a few elections and some referendums. Many of the candidates in these elections stood for a vaguely defined ideology, such as Abu l-ʿizz el-Hariri of the Socialist Popular Alliance. But he’s the exception. We have dozens of parties, with meaningless names like the Egyptian Will Party, Pioneer Party, Victory Party, and many others, but they don’t represent a particular ideology. And this is the way Egyptian politics work.

Perhaps due to the current sociopolitical climate, Egyptians rally around singular, short term causes rather than comprehensive ideologies. Inevitably, this devolves into a rally around a single person, determined to be the messiah of this cause. It’s happened every single time; In the 2012 elections Morsi was an Islamist’s wet dream (spoiler he was elected), Abu’l-Fotouh was the man for slightly more moderate Islamists, Hamdeen Sabahi was a hero of the downtrodden, and Shafik was the last hope for supporters of Mubarak’s Old Guard. Similarly, in 2014 elSisi was elected (by 97% of the vote, but still) simply because he’s a military man who showed the best potential to restore national security. Also because he delivers a mean speech.

In local politics, this means that simply whoever with the most campaign money (or whoever’s most popular in the district, for whatever reason) will win a seat in the parliament, and all the power bonuses that go along with that. Egyptians usually have an understanding of basic political discourse, but Egyptian society hasn’t quite evolved to the point of applying it properly. And until we can do that, our “democracy” will continue to be a fashion show.

Corollary: the current unrest is mostly over Morsi supporters (sometimes rudely) expressing anger over the forced ouster of their elected president. Note here that Morsi’s platform is exclusively centered on Islamism and more Shariʿa, ergo, appeasement of the Egyptian conservative bloc. Around the time of his election, elSisi declared that he will continue to guard Egyptian morality, ergo, appeasement of the Egyptian conservative bloc. If it weren’t for personality and power politics these two would be BFFs.

1. The Government isn’t even in power

The elected posts of government, that is.

Look at two of Egypt’s most powerful “governmental” institutions: The military (and its branches) and the judiciary. Both of these, as per tradition (and law, in the judiciary’s case) are independent of the interference of the government, yet continue to hold significant sway over the direction of Egyptian politics, especially the military. Think back to the beginning of the unrest in 2011, when according to legend, Mubarak wanted the military to crack down on the protesters because the police wasn’t enough, but they refused. and only sent military vehicles in the Tahrir square to protect the protesters and prevent anything chaotic from happening (true story). This resulted in a huge surge in their popularity, allowing them to begin their rule with a relative lack of opposition.

The simple notion that the military had the power to refuse says a lot. Its independence is guaranteed by unwritten law, and in mainstream Egyptian circles, its integrity is unquestionable thanks to Egyptian military tradition and that war they won against Israel 40 years ago. Except that since it’as taken power, it proved to be as ruthless and pragmatic as any other independent institution, primarily concerned with its own power. And this concern has had wide ramifications; it led to a military coup of Egypt elected (albeit unpopular) president, and his eventual replacement with yet another man from the military.

It doesn’t stop at that. Many of Egypt’s “public” land is administered by the armed forces and unused, and on top of that, “analysts have predicted the Egyptian military control anything from 15 per cent to 40 per cent of the economy.“, and many national development projects, such as trade roads, are handled by the military’s engineering department rather than a state owned company or a contractor. Note that military spending (or any other inner workings of the military, even veterans’ clubs’ management) isn’t subject to governmental oversight because it’s considered a state secret, and the military gets billions of dollars in military aid from the US., allowing it to expand its influence even further.
Not sure if the US knows that, but that’s undermining democracy even more.

Before democracy can get a firm hold in Egypt, national institutions must controlled – or at least held accountable – by the legitimate government, not the other way around. The military cannot continue to exist as a state within a state, its citizens a different caste from the rest of us and enjoying a higher status. Similarly, national institutions must be governed according to the spirit of democracy within themselves, i.e. instating a jury in court instead of leaving it up to the whims of a judge.

Many of the above five factors will naturally change over time, as Egypt becomes more stable (if it does) and as popular awareness solidifies. But others are inherent in our popular culture, going unquestioned – even unnoticed – as if there’s nothing at all that’s strange with them. Most of them have something to do with each other as well, forming a complex web in which if one point is destroyed, the others are weakened. Unfortunately, it also means that each one factor is strengthened by the existence of the others.

And of course, this list isn’t exhaustive – and probably at least one point of those is wrong. But it’s the best I could come up with. I’m open to further discussion and additions in the comments.

The system our country had lived in for about 60 years now may have been okay with our elders, but our generation needs a reformation. Not like the one we did in 2011, where we overthrew the government and walked back home because we didn’t know what to do next. Each person must contemplate the changes they need to make in their own mentality, know what you want and what course of action you think is best, because nobody can do that better. Start with yourself, and move on to your close ones, speak out and spread out, because the only democracy that works is one which all can agree to build, together. And this is what makes the difference between democracy and mob rule.