Mubarak’s failed last stand

While Mubarak and Suleiman appeal to – and blame – foreign powers, Egypt’s uprising is as homegrown as any in history.

Persistence by thousands of revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and across Egypt have finally brought down the 30 year autocracy of Hosni Mubarak [GALLO/GETTY]

When the Egyptian revolution began on January 25, my worried mother sent me an email asking for background information.  One of her questions was whether or not the protests contained an “anti-foreigner” element that might endanger me. I confidently answered that the pro-democracy movement was all about changing the Egyptian government. The protesters might very well consider Mubarak to be an agent of the US – and might promote an independent political and economic trajectory that would not favour the free-market fundamentalism preached by the United States. 

An independent Egyptian government responsive to the will of its people would certainly also reject Mubarak’s close cooperation with Israel to maintain the blockade of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, though I thought it unlikely that any Egyptian government would want to go to war with Israel. I do not think I was wrong. However, I totally failed to anticipate that the regime itself would play the foreigner card. 

Starting particularly on February 2, the day the regime commenced its ultimately unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the pro-democracy movement with attacks by armed thugs, state media attempted to whip up a frenzy of anti-foreigner sentiment by claiming foreigners had organised and funded the protests against Mubarak. It must be emphasised as strongly as possible that the notion of foreigners provoking the revolution or underwriting it financially is utterly absurd. 

The only foreign influence here is the inspiration of the Tunisian example. Egypt’s revolution is as home grown as any revolution in the history of the world – let alone the history of Egypt. But propaganda is as propaganda does. For a while at least, the state media campaign seemed to have had some success. One night we overheard one of our friends having angry phone conversations about politics with a relative who was upset by reports of a Mossad agent trained by Hamas fomenting unrest in Egypt. This seemingly bizarre concatenation may actually have been an accurate interpretation of Omar Suleiman’s speech from the night before. 

Mythological perceptions

The next night, it was the same relative on the phone expressing consternation at reports that Midan al-Tahrir was occupied by agents of the Taliban and al-Qaida.  That fantasy I think came from Egyptian state – or state allied – television. Some journalists have told stories of being surrounded by angry mobs that were incited by regime thugs, following orders to silence the international press. Residents who had nothing to do with journalism reported threats and sinister visits to their apartments by the police.  Crucially, none of these stories suggest that anti-foreign sentiment has deep roots among ordinary people, as opposed to the regime’s agents. 

Only a month before the revolution began, the government had used the same tactic of externalising politics by blaming the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on foreigners.  The culprits were meant to be members of something called the Palestinian Islamic army. “Discovering” – through an alleged investigation – that the bombing was carried out by Islamist Palestinians was, to put it mildly, convenient, given the Mubarak regime’s highly unpopular policy of supporting the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. 

Not a shred of evidence for the accusation against the Palestinian-Islamist group was revealed – but the timing of the “revelation” was significant: the results of the investigation were leaked to the press on January 24 – the full report was supposed to come out on January 25 – Police Day, a national holiday commemorating the massacre of Egyptian policemen by the British in Isma’iliyya in 1952. Of course, the symbolism of Police Day was deliberately appropriated by the pro-democracy movement – and the blatantly fabricated “revelation” that Palestinian Islamists were behind the Alexandria bombing might have even added a drop of oil to the unexpectedly large conflagration of protest on January 25, 2011.

The regime’s new clothes

Although many cracks have started to appear in the edifice of Egyptian state media, the campaign against foreigners continues to simmer – albeit at a lower temperature. Given the massive extent of self-inflicted public relations damage resulting from this witch-hunt, one must ask why the regime elected to pay such a price. A large part of the anti-foreigner campaign was obviously an effort to stifle the flow of information to the outside – but this was a complete failure, as the images and analyses continued to flow unabated. A week after the anti-foreigner campaign began, Midan al-Tahrir was swarming with foreign journalists. The anti-foreigner campaign was also substantially a bid for the hearts and minds of the Egyptian public. Why did the regime think that the “foreigner card” would be an effective propaganda tactic – even when it is so egregiously over-used and even contrary to all common sense? 

First, one must – above all else – acknowledge that the political use of anti-foreign sentiment is hardly limited to Egypt. It is a tactic frequently used by right-wing politicians and political movements in many nations. For example, immigrants, legal or illegal, are the easiest scapegoat in US politics, where whipping up anti-immigrant fever is the newest wrinkle on race baiting, a primary weapon in the Republican Party’s arsenal since the 1960s. European politics are also driven by fear, in this case of Muslims and other formerly colonised people who now live in its midst. One might argue that the arrest, harassment and sometimes physical threats to foreigners in Egypt over the past few days is more locally intense than the structural biases against foreigners in Europe and the United States. But in the larger international context, it would be absurd to characterise Egypt’s anti-foreigner campaign as exceptional.

This is not to say that the Mubarak regime’s recent playing of the anti-foreigner card is without local nuance. The normative treatment of, at least, European foreigners – and Americans – is often actually rather better than the treatment of average Egyptian citizens. In Egypt, European and American foreigners are rarely subjected to the sort of arbitrary abuse by the police that Egyptians experience.  Minor infractions by foreigners of law and etiquette are frequently forgiven. Foreign guests are given the choices morsels at the table, both figuratively and literally. 

The residue of a colonial past

Rituals of hospitality, however, can be a superficial gloss on a darker history. The two primary historical currents that structure Egypt’s relationship with foreign nations and foreign nationals as individuals are colonialism and tourism. The two are not neatly separable. Egypt was directly subjected to colonial rule in 1882 – and emerged from colonialism in uneven and sometimes ambiguous stages throughout the first half of the twentieth century. 

Tourism was colonialism’s sibling, if not its twin. Baedeker tour guides were being published for Egypt by the 1870s. Thomas Cook, which began organising package tours to Egypt in the 1880s, was also in the business of military transport and postal services for the British in Egypt. Of course, Egyptian tourism continued in the post-colonial era. In 2008, nearly 13 mn tourists visited Egypt, bringing in $11 bn, and employing 12 per cent of the Egyptian workforce. 

The notion that Egypt has somehow “gone xenophobic”, as some have said, is misleading. Few nations have been as intensively exposed to foreigners as Egypt has in the past century and a half. Hence the “foreign gaze” is thoroughly worked into the fabric of Egyptian society, though in deeply distorting ways. The colonial experience was one foreign agenda taking precedence over Egypt’s own needs and desires. 

Suspicion of such agendas is hardly irrational. In the opinion of many, these foreign agendas continued long past the achievement of formal independence in 1952. Indeed, the Mubarak regime in particular is seen as deeply compromised by its subservience to foreign powers, particularly the United States and Israel. As for the tourist experience, from the Egyptian side, it leads to a narrowing of perception to “what foreigners think of us”.  When the foreign eye is watching, the nation must be either “just like foreign nations”, or “authentically Egyptian”.  Authentically Egyptian, that is, in the exotic ways that tourists come to see: pharaonic monuments or colourful local customs, sanitised and packaged for museum exhibition. 

Patriotism – a dictators closest ally

Since the onset of the revolution, the semi-private Egyptian satellite talk-show channel Mehwar – owned by regime crony Hassan Rateb – has been a treasure trove of the visual and rhetorical conventions of living as the object of tourists’ gazes. In the dead-air time between long sessions of chatting with the program’s guests, Mehwar now broadcasts a steady stream of patriotic songs – many of which have been re-montaged to suit the current crisis. 

Several themes recur incessantly. First, the videos focus on the area around Midan al-Tahrir during normal times – including the Egyptian Museum, the two bridges leading to it and the Nile corniche -where the most expensive hotels, patronised by foreigners, are located. These areas are filmed strictly from the air, showing very little of the human beings who move through them. Secondly, the Mehwar videos depict the same areas during the past two weeks, focusing on the fierce battles that have been waged in all these glamorously modern places. The battles are shown from street level. 

Many of the same images spread by Facebook are employed in the montage – but with the important difference that, in the Mehwar images, none of the protesters’ signs demanding the removal of the regime are shown. The violence appears simply as unmotivated and distressing chaos. Third, the Mehwar montages display sanitised “authentically Egyptian” images: happy peasants, colourful traditional clothes – though very few women in hijab – pharaonic monuments, the natural beauty of the countryside. Fourth, the videos show martial imagery, including films from the 1973 October War, sometimes linked explicitly to Hosni Mubarak. And finally, sanitised images of classrooms and factories are common. The message is simple and consistent: chaos fomented by the protesters threatens progress achieved under the Mubarak regime.

Like the regime, the pro-democracy movement employs rhetoric about foreigners. But one of the things that infuriates the regime – perhaps “scandalises” is a better word – is that the pro-democracy movement totally rejects conventions of acting on the tourists’ stage. In the pro-democracy imagination, disseminated on Facebook and in the foreign media, Midan al-Tahrir is a mulid — a saint’s day carnival.  All the social types that never appear in a Mehwar patriotic montage are front and centre: the hairy bohemian hipsters beside the hairy Islamists, women in hijab – long banned from all state television – and in niqab, the old, the young, the grubby and the natty – and numerous wounded men and women, veterans of the pitched battle between the protesters and the regime’s forces. 

No longer living in the foreign gaze

The pro-democracy protesters do, in fact, address the colonial legacy directly. Many signs and slogans in the Midan express opposition to Israeli/American agendas. But these are firmly linked to Hosni Mubarak himself, who is openly derided as a US agent. The regime, by conrast, alludes darkly to “foreign dictations that come from abroad”, as Mubarak’s astonishing speech on February 10 put it – as if the Israeli-American alliance were pressuring the regime to step down rather than working madly to either save it by securing a transfer of power to Omar Suleiman. 

The protesters, widely distrusted by the Israeli-American axis, openly court public opinion abroad with near-universal success. The youth of the January 25 revolution speak in a mature voice; the regime infantilises. There is no question who has the respect of foreign observers, and more importantly, no question who is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the Egyptian public outside the Midan.  One of the achievements of the pro-democracy movement’s new language of politics is its negation of the old formulation of Egypt living in the foreign gaze.

The Omar Suleiman speech on February 10, immediately after Mubarak’s, also pivoted on fear of foreigners. Suleiman admonished Egyptians to “not listen to the broadcasts of those whose only objective is to spread unrest, to weaken Egypt, and defame its reputation”. He used the phrase tashwih sum‘at Misr — defaming the reputation of Egypt. Egypt’s reputation where? Abroad obviously; Egypt as a place where foreigners can come and enjoy the comforts of luxury hotels while visiting carefully sanitised tableaus of “authentic Egypt”. This is pure Mehwar video montage. But whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, this stale old formula is dead. The self-confident youth of the January 25 Revolution have no need to fear foreigners or to curry their favour.

Dr. Walter Armbrust is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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