Weighed Down: The Politics of Frustration in Egypt

by Jessica Winegar | published January 11, 2013 - 7:12pm

In Egypt these days, there seems to be a lot less of what Egyptians call “lightness of blood,” the easygoing bonhomie for which, in one of those stereotypes with a large grain of truth, the country is renowned. The quick-witted jocularity is diminished, the laughter muted. Instead, everywhere you turn, there is a palpable sense of ihbat, of being weighed down.

People in the streets look down at their feet or stare off into space. Conversations are hushed and pensive. Talk shows and newspapers solicit the advice of psychologists on coping with the pervasive bad mood. Friends confide in each other their feelings of thwarted possibility -- for the revolution, for the economy, in politics, in their lives. “I am so frustrated.” “We are living in such a state of frustration.” “I don’t know what to do with all of this ihbat.” A revolutionary in his thirties says he hit rock bottom with news of the constitutional referendum results. “Are you still with me?” he implored God, sitting on his balcony in the rain.

Ihbat was certainly not a strange emotion to Egyptians before the revolution, especially in the seven or eight years preceding January 25, 2011. Then, it was commonly felt as exasperation -- a kind of fed-upness operating in tandem with zahaq -- a word with connotations of boredom. Today, with history seeming to happen at a breakneck pace, few complain of being bored. It is a different kind of frustration that seems to dominate.

What are Egyptians so frustrated about? Many, of course, point the finger at Politics with a capital P. Those opposed to the Muslim Brothers are aggrieved by the lack of transparency and democratic procedure in the entire process of constitution writing and referendum, as well as Muhammad Mursi’s sweeping presidential decree in November. Those sympathetic to the Brothers are irritated by what they view as the lack of respect for Egypt’s democratically elected leadership among its opponents. Everyone is vexed by the spilling of Egyptian blood, now so common as to seem routine. But the frustration runs much deeper than reactions to daily headlines.

A central source of ihbat is dashed hope, a kind of loss of revolutionary innocence. The 18 days that brought down Mubarak were heady for nearly everyone; and, for the Brothers’ base, the exhilaration lasted at least through the summer of 2012 when Mursi was elected.

It might be argued that the fall from these heights has been hardest for people in their twenties, whose political expectations had never been raised and so never disappointed. But one finds ihbat among older generations as well, suggesting that the revolution wiped Egypt’s slate clean for them, too, if only momentarily. The 18 days in Tahrir Square were the time of their lives as they were for the youth. And now the older folks have fallen as hard as the youth, maybe harder, since the revolution seems like the last chance for Egypt to thrive in their lifetimes.

The rapidly deteriorating economy is another source of deep frustration. Two years ago, Egyptians were chanting, “We want our money back” and “Mubarak, you mere pilot, where did you get $70 billion?” (In early 2011, the deposed president’s family was fancifully reported to have stashed away $70 billion that they had looted from the national treasury. The actual amount was far smaller, though still quite substantial.) Now the prospect that pennies will have to be pinched even tighter is too much to bear. As the IMF loan negotiations proceed, and talk circulates of lifting subsidies, Egyptians are again left to wonder how they will afford their daily bread. If the revolution, that great marvel on the world stage, couldn’t bring them bread, what could? Ihbat seems like the only emotion left to feel.

Many Egyptians also speak of frustration as stemming from a perceived misplacement or dislocation of values and loyalties. A professor in his forties had struggled against an unfair, corrupt university system for his entire career. The revolution buoyed his spirits in more ways than one. Finally, he thought, high-quality scholarship and hard work would be rewarded over obsequiousness and connections. But then his promotion case was denied, and he started to ask whether it was in fact his own value system that was out of sync. An activist in his twenties said that in the past two years his circle of friends, those to whom he feels a real allegiance, has shrunk to less than five. Where they once shared stances on social and political issues, they are now forced to articulate specific positions in relation to particular trends and platforms, and seemingly intractable differences have emerged.

The resulting alienation has led this activist, once firmly committed to social justice work in Egypt, to consider permanent emigration. And he is not alone. Many in their twenties and thirties now speak of heading abroad for good -- not just to make some money and return to set up shop in Egypt, as was usual before. One woman in her twenties, frustrated by the lack of substantive change at the derelict state-run cultural center where she works, announced her wish to move to any country where her efforts to improve society would be appreciated. “It’s not just young men who want to go abroad, as before,” she said. “Now young women do, too.”

It is also not uncommon to hear frustrated Egyptians contrast their present situation with the “better” times under Mubarak. It is notable that, two years after the revolution, those who helped to oust the dictator now recall his era’s “order” and “security” with something like nostalgia tinged with regret. “Yes, there was oppression and all of that,” said an electrician at a government office, ”but at least people knew where they stood.” When people can’t “read” their fast-changing political and social environment, frustration sets in.

It would be a stretch to say that all Egyptians are ready to compromise their values, itching to emigrate or eager to bring Mubarak back from prison to the presidential palace. It is more likely that these sentiments are rhetorical strategies by which people vent their frustration. In doing so, perhaps, they keep alive the principles that they fought so hard for in the revolution. As one revolutionary in his early twenties told me, “Ihbat means that you can do something the next day, that you have something in mind for the future.” Another said that it is natural to feel frustrated, that being weighed down is just a way station on the path to victory. Let’s hope he is right.

Image: "Where's the bread?" asks the graffito above the shoeshine man. Near Tahrir Square, December 30, 2012. (Jessica Winegar)