Monday 7 March 2011

State Security Leaks, and a theory of anxiety

The discussions yesterday and today have mostly circled around the documents seized by protesters in the headquarters of State Security, Egypt’s feared secret police. This is what happened: On Friday after news about wide-scale destruction of documents spread, protesters occupied the offices of State Security in Alexandria. On Saturday, twelve more offices around the country were occupied, most importantly so the headquarters in Nasr City (Cairo) and the archives in 6th of October City. The offices were found empty, with a large part of the documents shredded and burned, but many could still be secured. And this is were things got complicated. Some of the files were handed directly to the state attorney or to the military. But protesters also took with them a lot of documents which are now in private hands and have been published online since Saturday night. A journalist friend of mine described it as a “sea of documents that flooded the internet..”

The military leadership has prohibited Egyptian newspapers from publishing the contents of the documents, and the government is trying to collect the documents back from private hands, but people have already scanned them, photocopied them, and put them on the internet. The damage has happened.

We now know a lot more details about the dirty businesses of leading government figures and businessmen. A number of informants from the public life have been identified. We now know that the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi movement which gained increasing influence in Egypt during the past decade has been closely cooperating with State Security that has tried to use them to limit the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. (This certainly explains why the Salafis sided with the government before Mubarak’s fall.) We know that the state security sent a message to Amr Musa, a potential presidential candidate, asking him to go and calm down the protesters. We also know that the mufti of the republic Ali Gum‘a, one of Egypt’s highest religious authorities, has been involved in no less than ten secret marriages. We also know that State Security has remained fully functioning until last Friday, because the documents seized in Nasr City included photos taken on Tahrir Square the previous day. Unfortunately, we still have little to no documentary evidence of the illegal practices of State Security, especially their torture practices. It seems that those documents that contained incriminating evidence against State Security were the first to be burned and shredded, and what has remained are mainly personal files of people who have been followed by the State Security.

And this is why the flood of State Security documents on the internet is seen very sceptically by many. While some of my friends rejoiced about all the information proving what they had always known - that the country has been run by a corrupt clique involved in amazingly dirty businesses, many others are rather worried. Human rights activist Saad Kamel says that the personal files contain mainly information that can be used by State Security against people - not just their political views, but to whom they owe money, their religious views, and their sexual practices. And it has all been scanned or photocopied and put online. This is not the kind of relevant information we need about the State Security, this is the private life of people who were observed by it. M. is even more sceptical. His joy about the occupation of the State Security headquarters of yesterday is gone, he sees it now as the biggest accomplishment of the counterrevolution so far. He argues that this is a terrible thing because State Security has been a key information agency for the entire state, and now also much relevant and sensitive information is lost - such as information about real terrorists - or in private hands, and because the documents will also cause a huge problem for social relationships as everybody will be busy identifying State Security informers in their surroundings.

Just a little note on the Salafis in passing. If people abroad are afraid of the Muslim Brothers, I think they have chosen the wrong people to worry about. The Muslim Brothers are playing a constructive role in the democratic process. The real problem are the Salafis. They took a pro-Mubarak stance during the protests before 11 February (and with the State Security documents becoming public it turns out that they did so because they were working for the government). Now that the situation has changed, they needed a moment to regroup and grasp what is going on. But now they are giving interviews telling that democracy is forbidden in Islam, distributing leaflets demanding that Egypt should become an Islamic emirate, and stuff like that. Their reputation has seriously suffered due to their role during the protests (and speaking out against democracy certainly doesn’t hit the right nerve with the public opinion at the moment). But they will still have their supporters and sympathisers who will not believe these news, and while they will not be able to gather majority support, they look like they are up to playing a very destructive role in the coming months.

To continue the theme of anxiety of yesterday, I yesterday spoke with three people, each with a different account and a different version of the prevailing sense of ‘ala’, Egyptian Arabic for anxiety and unrest (qalaq in classical Arabic).

A friend of mine in southern Cairo was very sceptical of the current course of the revolution. In her view, it will be a revolution when a democratic transition is accomplished. But she did not see the people of Egypt represented by the ongoing sit-in in Tahrir square. And what she saw in the events at the moment was mainly noise, chaos and an irresponsible drive to break without building. Very worried about the high level of criminality (high for Egyptian standards, where armed robberies used to be practically nonexistent) that has remained after the night of lootings in the end of January, her first and primary concern is that there must be a strong and firm police force back in place. Looking forward to the future, she hopes Egypt to become a democratic country ruled by a strong president who will have the time and powers to press through important reform projects. She is very much in favour of anti-corruption trials and democratic change, but on the condition of continuity and stability. And a revolution, of course, provides change but neither continuity nor stability. In her experience, the anxiety has become only worse. I ask how this can be, comparing the total standstill of public life in early January, and the busy and peaceful streets now. She says that the situation in early February was an acute one, but now it has become a permanent state, so that even if it has less intensity, it troubles her more.

While my friend in southern Cairo is anxious about the force of irresponsible behaviour caused by rapid change, my friend S. who spent most of the revolution in Alexandria and in his village, is upset and anxious for quite the opposite reason. He was demonstrating in Sidi Bishr in Alexandria on the Friday of Anger 28 January - the bloodiest day of the revolution - and he saw terrible things done to the demonstrators by the security forces, so terrible that he still cannot speak about them. Just thinking about it brings tears into his eyes. From that day on, he went to demonstrate every day, once with his wife and children, the other days alone, until he ran out of money and had to return to his village. There he was one of the initiators of the cleanup campaign that was the first in a series of cleanups in the villages of the area. But there he also encountered the resistance of people supporting the old system, and it was too much for him: “After what I saw in Sidi Bishr, I encountered people in the village who defended corruption and the system.” He couldn’t take it, had a nervous breakdown, and is only now getting back into good shape.

Most other people I have encountered these days share neither the general scepticism towards the revolution nor the intense indignation about what remains of the old system. They express a sense of pride and optimism that comes along with a sense of tension, worry, and anxiety. With this thought in mind I went to see Saad Kamel, a psychologist and human right activist, who offered me his theory of anxiety in Egypt after the revolution.

Dr. Saad, too, sees anxiety, or ‘ala’, as a key emotional state of the ongoing revolutionary situation. However, he distinguishes between the immediate affectionate state of the revolution, and the more long-lasting emotions that characterise daily life, and which are often expressed and enforced by songs. The revolution, Saad argues, was in becoming for a long while, and the past decade witnessed contrary developments that contributed to it. On the one hand, young people have become more and more immediately aware of the wider world around them, comparing their situation directly with what they know from the media, and asking why they cannot have what other peoples around the world have. On the other hand, the Mubarak regime became increasingly arrogant in its repression of anything that would limits its wealth and power, so that the contradiction between expectations and the actual scope of action became greater than ever.

This sentiment was expressed by a strong underground discourse, in Saad’s views best expressed in a song from three years ago titled “il-dinya kharbana” (meaning approximately: it’s all gone in pieces, there is no point in anything), and during the revolution it took a more combatant stance as expressed in the rap song “ana didd al-hukuma” (I#m against the government). Saad points out that the text and the style of rap is over the top for Egyptian taste, and this break with musical aesthetics is also a break with the emotions carried by music. This music, Saad argues, speaks out a shift in the emotional state, a move from one sense of longing to another: The old sense of longing was expressed by the emotional note of shagan (which translates approximately with melancholy), a sense of lack that is at the same time cherished. The new sense is that of ‘ala’ (which translates approximately with anxiety, but includes more noise and unrest). It is all over the place, it is the word everybody uses to describe the current state of things. Saad argues that this anxiety is not directly related to the demonstrations or the economical situation. In his neighbourhood there are lots of arguments and fights for petty reasons. People are nervous, and it is an anxiety that is due to the change in the entire way authority works.

This anxiety, Saad says, is the expression of a lack (in Lacan’s psychoanalytical sense) of authority. Lack, with Lacan, is an essential condition of the imaginary picture we make of ourselves, building it from the reaction of our surroundings, of our mirror image. It is never complete, because the subject doesn’t see himself completely, but constructs oneself through the imaginary, which always leaves a sense of lack. Traditional patriarchal authority (which in Saad’s view was often primarily exercised by women by delegating this authority to men) offered a solution of its own, providing a sense of authority that is has now been either rejected or lost. The protesters were not lead by a strong opposition leader. Instead, they wanted to do away with leaders. Now every leader’s authority is put in question, from the government down to the village school (I get back to that in tomorrow’s post). This creates a state of existential anxiety that in Dr. Saad’s view is not a passing state of revolution, but the fundamental state of modernity. And democracy, characterised by a lack and limitation of authority through elections and the separation of power, is the political system of this state of modern anxiety.

I ask Dr. Saad where this development will take us. He laughs and says: “We are here to see and find out!”

Yesterday night I left Cairo and arrived in a village in the northern Nile Delta where the revolution began a little later, and is now in full progress. Last weeks have seen a cleanup campaign, an attempt by supporters of the old system to discredit it, a sit-in at the city hall of the nearby town, two days of demonstrations in the prep school, and there is more to come. As I write these notes, a group of men is sitting in the room next door and planning the next cleanup campaign. I will keep you updated.

Greetings from the revolutionary countryside,


No comments:

Post a Comment