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.

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.


This post is a kind of response to Shudha’s But Home Does Feel Like Home.
It’s also just over 850 words long, so there’s a tl;dr is at the bottom.

 Three weeks after coming back to Doha from one year in St. Louis, I’ve gradually resigned back into the Egyptian-Qatari routine. And even though this hybrid “third-culture” is the culture I was born and raised into and pretty much the only one I’d ever known, it still feels far from where I belong.

Not sure if most other third culture kids have this problem, or it was just me who was born into the wrong environment. Since I was a kid I never really liked where Qatar, mainly because I wasn’t allowed to officially call it home, and I was pressured not to.

Story time, children! Time to learn about Sherif’s angsty childhood!

Along with the other Egyptians, Levantines, and the rest of the Diaspora Crew I was put through a lot of bullying as a kid. Obviously a big part of that is being alien – foreign kids were bullied regardless of their other traits. And even though I belonged to the “Arabic” culture group, I was always asked to “go back to Egypt” among other xenophobic microaggressions. Without further graphic description of the kinds of other psychological wedgies I’ve received, being excluded from Qatari society meant that I couldn’t call it home even if I wanted to (which I don’t.)

My other home, Egypt, is a land I have few ties with besides ancestry. I have family there, that’s where my parents come from, and it’s also probably the easiest country for me to enter seeing how my passport says “Arab Republic of Egypt”. But the recent events in Egypt, combined by my own recent shift in mentality showed that neither a birthplace nor an ancestral homeland is necessarily a reliable place to call home.

In Egypt, the conflict between the reactionary Islamists and the traditionalist Militarists affirmed that there isn’t really a place for a difference in opinion, especially if you think in a certain (unpopular) direction. As a secular liberal, I’ve noticed quite a few instances of this being proven. While Islam and Christianity coexist with a degree of relative peace in Egypt, other religions (and irreligion) face a lot of hostility. Egyptian Baha’is, for example, got into a lot of trouble a few years back when they asked for their right to have their religion displayed on their ID cards (Egyptian ID cards have a compulsory “Religion” field which shows either Islam, Christianity or Judaism. No other options.) Similarly, the recently-surging Egyptian atheists are being treated like mental patients, being invited to talk shows where the host (sometimes accompanied by an “expert”) condescendingly talks to the atheist and tries to invalidate their beliefs with the superiority of Islam. If I were to be put in such a situation where I’m tried for an unpopular opinion, I would give up all claims to Egypt being my home. That’s just me, though, I’m the only person I know with such a slim emotional investment in their ancestral homeland.

What had helped me get a better grasp of this is living for a year in a wildly different culture. While I knew it was temporary, for a teenaged boy a year is enough time to be settled into a place in a way that you acquire its habits and, if supported by the locals, more or less assimilate into it. That was the case with St Louis. Being the most accepting place I’ve been to so far, St Louis is probably best among my total of three options to call home if I had to name one.

Acceptance into the culture of countries like Egypt or Qatar, i.e. any country with a more or less homogenous population or a certain dominant culture, is conditional on an individual’s conformity into the accepted set of habits. Deviation is forbidden and punishable by social exclusion at best. St Louis, while definitely having its own set of social and legal dos and don’ts, is quite open and encourages creativity and difference (so long as you don’t do certain things such as wear cropped pants as a man, even though I find this one ridiculous as well). The kind of home you’re stuck with, unless you choose to leave it, depends almost exclusively on a set of coincidences you have no control over, namely your ancestry, your place of birth, and your options. What you do have control over, however, are your thoughts and actions which can earn you respect from your coincidental home, or banishment from it.

Alas, until a real change happens in either me or this city, the Arab world should mean to me a HQ rather than my home.

If I get the chance, I’m going to write a second part to this post about globalization and post-nationalism.

tl;dr: Qatar is harsh and Egypt is narrowminded, and St Louis made me conscious of all that. A place that doesn’t respect you isn’t a home. In case of a lack of home matching the above criteria, your provisional home is where your suitcases are.