The Orwellian irony of Egypt's regime promoting good manners

The Orwellian irony of Egypt's regime promoting good manners
Comment: A state-sponsored initiative is looking to promote 'social values', all while Cairo maintains an institutionalised repression that may have contributed to deteriorating societal norms, argues Mohamed ElMeshad.
5 min read
18 Feb, 2016
President Sisi's campaign fails to acknowledge the state having been a poor role model [AFP]
Egyptians have recently borne witness to the metaphorical public lynching of two very popular entertainers - and all because of a prank.

Both are in their very early twenties and are popular, up-and-coming entertainers. One's an actor, the other is a satirist. The prank involved inflated condoms, and its target were poor (usually illiterate) police conscripts.

Many condemned the prank as a transgression against the sanctity of the police institution. Many more thought that the prank was crass, and in poor taste. They chastised the "boys" for being ill-mannered and in need of a good hiding.

The suggested impropriety of the gesture took centre stage in Egypt's media. It was, after all, a great opportunity to disregard the issue those "boys" were objecting to - namely how the state spread police forces around public spaces in an attempt to subvert any commemoration of the anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, provocatively celebrating "Police Day" instead.

Columnists and talk-show hosts were able to ignore the message completely and instead focus on how the "boys" needed to be taught respect. They were ranting frantically about how the video ran counter to all of Egypt's norms and moral code.

That strategy worked for a while.

Egyptians, like many others, place an incredibly high value on social norms being respected in public spaces - and the Ministry of Youth and Sports has launched a new initiative, Akhlaqna ["Our Manners"], which aims to do just that, reinforce and reward positively ethical or kind actions.
It is the kind of initiative that belongs, respectfully, in a high school or youth centre

The initiative will include celebrities and public figures who ostensibly set a good example for the kind of "Egyptian values" that have apparently been slowly disappearing.

Many of these figures do indeed have impeccable reputations and are bona-fide, parentally approved role models. But that's besides the point, like many of the aspiring reform initiatives and policies launched in Egypt over the past 30-40 years by successive governments, this is yet another attempt to attack a problem that is in fact symptomatic of many profound and far more serious underlying diseases.

It is the kind of initiative that belongs, respectfully, in a high school or youth centre.

Although it is a purely qualitative and difficult-to-prove assessment (except perhaps by consensus) most would agree that there has been a gradual, negative change with regards to social interactions in the public sphere in Egypt.

It does show in the small things: increased harassment of women, inconsiderate driving, rampant everyday corruption, petty theft etc. These problems all deserve treatment, be it legal or social.

The government's role should be in ensuring that the legal and socio-economic institutions in the country encourage, rather than penalise, attempts to achieve these treatments.

I once rode in a Cairo cab whose driver refused to stop when a man collapsed on the sidewalk directly beside us, even though we were in the best position to help. When I asked why, his (very long) answer was along these lines:

"If something happens to this guy or, God forbid, he died, and I'm the one holding him at the time, that will mean that I'm ruined. I could be a suspect, depending on the disposition of the officer who arrives on scene. At the very least I'll be kept in prison for the night as a precaution. And I don't need to tell you what can happen to me on the way to or in prison. They'll slap me around and curse my mother without thinking twice.

"I don't look fancy, I come from a poor neighbourhood, I don't have a big family name, and don't know anyone important in police or government. People like me have no rights. I only feel safe in my own neighbourhood - those are the people I help."

Stories of police brutality and corruption are the norm in Egypt. The stifling red tape of pretty much all government bureaucracy and the unequal treatment of citizens reinforces a "me-first" attitude that is undoubtedly triggered by a basic survival instinct.

If 200 citizens can wait outside a bureaucrat's office - often that of a police officer - waiting all day for a stamp on a paper, that they may not even get - all while watching "distinguished gentlemen and ladies" waltz in and out of these offices in 10 minutes, sometimes even being offered a cup of tea - what is to stop every one of the 200 from cutting corners at the expense of their peers?
In a capitalist society perhaps the only thing more infuriating than poverty is relative poverty

In his popular 1995 book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Galal Amin explores some of these palpable changes by looking at socio-economic factors that were partially egged on by neoliberal policies initiated by Anwar Sadat, and widely elaborated upon by his successor, Hosni Mubarak. 

Since these neoliberal policies took hold, income inequality in Egypt skyrocketed, even as GDP growth levels were healthy. Prices were rising, but for the vast majority, their purchasing power was relatively decreasing, over a period of 30 years.

In a capitalist society perhaps the only thing more infuriating than poverty is relative poverty. Not only are many Egyptians unable to make ends meet or access adequate education or healthcare on only one job, but they are watching others' wealth inflating on only one job.

Sure, adverse cultural, social and religious influences may have certainly played their part in the deteriorating morals. But the state must acknowledge its direct contribution into creating a state of affairs that has been fostering this deterioration, rather than gathering lecturers to tell us how to act.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He has worked extensively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.