"You Can Watch the Circus from Your Couch"

by Sheila Carapico | published May 6, 2014 - 10:36am

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He writes for al-Ahram Online, al-Monitor, Jadaliyya and other outlets. Sheila Carapico interviewed him by e-mail about the political and media atmosphere as Egypt prepares for the May 26-27 presidential election that is expected to anoint ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the former field marshal and defense minister, as chief executive. Al-Sisi is opposed only by Hamdin Sabbahi, head of a Nasserist grouping.

Egypt seems awash in preposterous or outlandish stories such as the prosecutorial investigation of the Vodaphone sock puppet Abla Fahita, an army scientist’s purported discovery of a cure for HIV/AIDS and the imprisonment of a farmer in Qina who named his donkey al-Sisi. Is there something in the Egyptian media-political ecology that accounts for the profusion of especially odd stuff now?

Egypt’s deep state has evolved into what I call the kufta regime, a term derived from the army’s promise to turn the AIDS virus into lamb meatballs (kufta) and feed them to the people. All the regime is doing is feeding people lies, and if people are willing to accept the most absurd claims, it becomes the duty of the regime to keep pushing the envelope as far as it will go. Absurdity permeates every aspect of Egyptian life. Very silly men have a lot of power and I think they’re enjoying it, particularly given that these gimmicks are appealing even to the educated classes here.

No one holds the security forces accountable and part of the way they operate is through a propaganda machine that focuses on the absurd.

It sort of reminds me of the experiment by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, where she stood still for six hours promising not to move while the audience interacted with her in whatever way they chose. After a while the audience became aggressive toward her and slowly escalated the aggression. As long as people accept what is being done to them, the regime escalates everything.

The bottom line, I think, is that the security services do this because they can.

The sentencing of 529 individuals to death for a single murder and the 680 additional death sentences handed down last week are no laughing matter, of course. But they also seem to defy credulity. Is there some logic behind what would seem to be a mockery of any concept of justice in the courts?

Egypt is where logic comes to die. There is no sense in sentencing over a thousand people to death. The judge is said to be acting independently, something commended by regime apologists as indicating the existence of an independent judiciary. But even if this judge really is independent, he is not part of a judiciary at all. In Egypt it’s well known that much is left to the judge’s discretion but that there are two popular modes of sentencing, by law or by phone call. Most of the politicized verdicts are handed down when the powers that be give the judge a ring.

Judges are no different than the rest of Egyptian society. Their ranks are just as polarized, and just as manipulated by propaganda. Many felt extremely threatened by the Muslim Brothers during the confrontation led by Mursi. They feel that the alternative to the status quo is horrible and that they’ve escaped doom, and so they are taking out their fears on the Muslim Brothers, and revolutionaries, too. Also they’ve come to realize that the oppressive police force is their ally. There have been many ridiculous verdicts, but absurd as these acts are, we cannot describe them as death-defying, unfortunately.

You can probably cite less widely reported examples of bizarre charges and allegations against individuals or groups.

Most people who are arrested are arrested on bizarre trumped-up charges with no real evidence, as in the case of a friend, Tito, who was charged earlier with burning down the Muslim Brothers’ headquarters and is now charged with being a member of the Brothers. Nabil, another friend’s brother, was arrested randomly outside a courthouse. He was beaten during his interrogation and subjected to electric shocks. They browsed his cell phone directory and asked him about every picture and every Facebook contact in order to classify them. They beat him every time he could not classify a friend as part of one political movement or another. He was needlessly kept in prison for a few weeks. I saw the investigation report, which said that the state security officer identified Nabil as a member of the Muslim Brothers, the April 6 youth and the Revolutionary Socialists, all at the same time. It is quite bizarre, not only because it is contradictory, but also because I know he does not belong to any of these groups. One of the images they found was a diagram of the hierarchy of the Interior Ministry. This discovery caused a huge commotion. The investigators were quite unsettled and accused him of “obtaining a state secret with the goal of dissemination,” a charge that sounds very serious but that his lawyer found rather odd, given that this image is easily copied from the Ministry’s website.

Since the last elections under Mubarak in late 2010, Egyptians have gone to the polls repeatedly. What is it like to swing from blatantly rigged elections to more meaningful contests and then back to pro forma exercises?

There’s always a carrot chained to the stick. The real fight is not over who unchains the carrot for the people to nibble on, but who controls the stick. The end goal was always a better life. Rigged elections did not help, of course, but the meaningful contests afterwards did not bring about the desired results, either, because there was never any will to keep the carrot unchained from the stick. I think people are trying everything in order to have better lives, and it appears that many paths have failed. Now they’re willing to retry all of them, but at the top, it seems the fight was always over who gets the stick. That’s why we’ve gone in different directions, some of them good, some of them bad, but it appears we never had much of a chance of getting that carrot for good.

It’s a myth that elections, in and of themselves, are dispositive of a functioning democracy. And in Egypt it’s a myth that the 2012 elections, which were by far the least fraudulent we’ve ever had, were therefore free and fair. There was little evidence of rigging, but the people were always manipulated by the media and back-channel deals, as well as a biased state that was never going to allow a true transfer of power. The elections were not fair, but now people do not care. In many ways we’ve regressed and at times it feels hopeless. Egypt would have been successful and democratic if far less of its wellbeing depended on a single election.
 
Where (if at all) do you see independent, investigative or critical coverage of these stories in Egypt? For satellite TV, is it basically relegated to satire, as in the United States? Or has even that space closed down (as in the suspension of Bassem Youssef’s program)?
 
Sometimes it feels like we’re in a bad movie. It’s a little sad, actually, because I’ve come to appreciate bad movies for having the capacity to put on screen what we’re living.
 
It is no longer possible to find meaningful coverage in mainstream media. Some outlets are better than others, but reality is so skewed that if only the truth were reported, it would make any reporter a revolutionary, and that’s not a very popular thing to be at the moment.

The only hope is the trusted journalists whose work you know, who will not neglect to report something because of their own opinions and biases. There are plenty of these journalists, actually, but they do not operate freely. Locally, you can find many of them at independent outlets like Daily News Egypt and Mada Masr, and also al-Ahram Online, which has managed to maintain its editorial integrity despite being state-owned. You can also find foreign journalists who are informed and balanced enough to report the news accurately. There are many other examples of foreign journalists whose work is skewed toward a certain narrative, though. The great majority of the local papers are morally corrupt. The same goes for TV presenters, a handful of whom are allowed to operate, but only if they are not overly confrontational.
 
The space for satire is slowly diminishing, but on some revolutionary Facebook pages you can still see jokes in the form of memes and sarcastic commentary. Egyptians like to joke about these things, because sometimes jokes and satire are as critical as investigative reporting and as critical as you can get in the current climate. You just need to find the right jokers online.
 
The American media is rife with bizarre and/or untrue stories, too. Do you think global changes in media are making it easier to spread rumors? Hoodwink the public? Vilify dissidents? Expose ridiculous decisions? In Egypt, is it some combination of the above -- or something else?
 
Media is a very powerful tool and those who wield power understand that very well. That is why a lot of money is invested in it. A consumerist media does not serve its original purpose, which is to expose the truth in the best interest of the people. Media and politics are loyal to money not people.

In Egypt, the concept is the same, but because of how inefficient everything is here, it seems very raw and blatant. Also, with a public that can swallow any lie you give them, the rumors are all the more in your face and allegations against dissidents all the more unreasonable. Right now you don’t need to stop the truth from being said, you only need to drown it in a sea of lies that are more appealing and entertaining than the truth. That’s the media game. That’s the brave new world that allows truth to surface so that it may be drowned. What would people rather do with their time, read the fine print or watch the circus? As always, the emperor organizes the circus, but this time you don’t even need to get off your couch to go and cheer.

Update: Over at The Lede, Robert Mackey documents another case of the Egyptian media gone haywire in service of the counter-revolution. Who knew that the writers of The Simpsons were plotting the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad in 2001, a full four months before he became president, no less? And how sad that the Egyptian media is still shoveling so much fodder into the maw of MEMRI.

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