Intellectual Repression in the Arab World

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (360b via Shutterstock)Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (360b via Shutterstock)

by Sam Hamad

As the world continues to follow the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with a sense of horror and outrage, you might forgive the relative silence surrounding the arrest of Egyptian economist Abdel Khalek Farouk by the Sisi regime on Sunday.

Farouk’s only crime was writing a book that criticized not simply the current state but the very nature of Egypt’s economy in the post-Nasser era. Given their work reaches relatively few Egyptians outside of academic and intellectual circles, critical economists like Farouk have usually been tolerated by the Egyptian regime.  

But there is no tolerance in Sisi’s Egypt.  

In Farouk’s book, titled ‘Is Egypt really a poor country?’, the economist challenges the prevailing domestic perception that Egypt is simply a destitute country that is doomed to poverty due to overpopulation and a lack of natural resources.

The author suggests that Egypt is actually relatively rich in resources and contains the fiscal potential to have a much higher quality of living standards than it currently does, but the problem lies with endemic corruption and mismanagement. The book suggests that the nature of Egypt’s economic status quo, typified by ‘neoliberal’ IMF and World Bank ‘reforms’ and domestic corruption, is the main reason why Egypt is poor.

It is by any account a tame though extremely apt criticism of Egypt’s ruling kleptocracy and its global backers. But for this, Farouk was dragged out of his home by black-shirted police officers on a Sunday afternoon in front of his distressed wife. 

Though the police would not disclose the precise nature of Farouk’s charges to either his wife or human rights activists, it’s almost certainly going to come under Sisi’s law against the ‘spreading of false information’ – in vintage Orwellian terms, the law is of course solely wielded against people who tell the truth about the regime.  

Barely a month ago activist Amal Fathy was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison under this law for posting a video recounting her experience of sexual harassment in Egypt.

Though sexual harassment in Egypt is now endemic, it’s likely this phenomenon was worsened if not birthed by the state when the Mubarak regime hired Baltagiya gangs to use sexualised brutality against female and male protesters and detainees as a deterrent. In Egypt, nothing belongs to Egyptians, not even their bodies – the state has domain over it all.

And though the severity of sexual harassment has reached a level where even Sisi has to pretend to care about his regime’s use of it against dissenters, Amal’s imprisonment occurred against a wider backdrop of the regime cracking down on ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist organisations’ – civil society groups that documented and aided women who had survived sexual assault, or who were calling for societal and judicial reform for basic women’s rights. This forms part of an even wider brutal crackdown on anyone who ‘tarnished the image of Egypt’.  

This is the nature of Sisi’s Egypt – though its victims are diverse, from so-called ‘Islamists’ to feminists to economists, it’s a vast panoply of repression put on with one unified purpose; to condition and reshape society so that criticism itself becomes impossible.

People might think this mission far too grand, but if that’s the case, it’s not for want of trying on the part of the regime. Going back as far as revolts against the British Empire, universities have long been sites of dissent and radicalisation in Egypt. Today – as has been documented in detail – they have been militarized by the Sisi regime following their role in providing opposition to the coup against the democratically-elected Morsi government.   

This isn’t just a ‘physical’ phenomenon. Sisi’s henchmen can fortify the universities and make them forbidding enough to physically stop dissent, but how do you stop dissent in the mind? You arrest economists who provide the seeds of that dissent and you ban their books. You make sure the people who have the resources to do the necessary research are too scared to research anything that ‘tarnishes the image of Egypt’, which is Orwellian, nay Sisian, newspeak for any criticism of the regime.

Ironically, this was one of the points that Farouk has singled out as being a determining factor in the dismal state of the Egyptian economy – the fact that educational institutions are ever-more simply organs of the state and research into anything considered to be outside of the remit of subservience is treated with suspicion by authorities.

This results in a stifled society that finds the quality of its discourse becoming ever more degraded and dumbed down to the point of absurdity.

Learning and education should be fearless, but the regime is slowly but surely ensuring that fear rules across the board.

According to one Egyptian university lecturer I spoke to under the condition of anonymity: “Both students and lecturers have been made to fear the very subjects they teach… a literary professor might worry that [their] book recommendation to a student is reported and is found to offensive to the regime.

“Then what? All of a sudden you risk losing your job and being taken to prison. So you end up just doing as they say and never taking any risks. We end up just doing what we’re told and we have to pass this onto our students.”

The only information the Sisi regime deems to be correct either suits their needs, or is entirely absurd.

Who could forget the Egyptian military claiming to have cured HIV? Or the constant stream of absurd propaganda against the Muslim Brotherhood, justifying everything from mass imprisonment to mass murder?    

Healthy democracies have informed populations, but tyrannies have stupefied masses ruled over by malfeasant masters.

I wrote previously that Khashoggi’s murder ought to be seen as a wider war against truth. Though Jamal’s execution and Farouk’s arrest cannot be compared in terms of severity or geopolitical and diplomatic ramifications, they are both victims of the same system and guilty of the same ‘crimes’. Tyranny in the Middle East is a transnational enterprise.

In his final op-ed, Khashoggi wrote not just about the repression of information in the Arab tyrannies, but the ramifications of it.

“Arabs… are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche… a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”

Sisi and his ally Mohammed bin Salman, as well as other regional tyrants, envision a regional dark age for the majority of people – with the enclaves, resorts and ‘civilisation’ for the super-rich and decay, poverty and ignorance for the subservient masses.

The solution to any dark age can only be, to paraphrase Goethe, more light.

In his final words, Khashoggi observes that the only possible solution to transnational tyrannies that exploit propaganda so effectively is a transnational platform for dissident Arabs. He also concedes that there isn’t much hope of change, but this could be our only hope.

If people like Jamal and Farouk risk and sacrifice their life and liberty to try to affect change, what excuse do we have for doing nothing?

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer. Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab.

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  1. Yes Sam, agreed. But what would you have us do – those of us who aren’t Egyptian and/or don’t live in the region?

  2. From this compelling and heartbreaking article – “If people like Jamal and Farouk risk and sacrifice their life and liberty to try to affect change, what excuse do we have for doing nothing?”

    So, what actions do you recommend?

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