In Translation: Belal Fadl on Egypt becoming "A Nation of Snitches"
Belal Fadl, an Egyptian screenwriter and columnist who has continued to speak his mind on the brutality and hypocrisy of the country's military regime, has published a five-part series with the news site Mada Masr on the history of domestic espionage in Egypt. Our good friends at the professional translation service Industry Arabic have translated the final installment in the series; the earlier ones are available in Arabic on the Mada site.
Egypt: The Nation of Snitches Makes a Comeback. Is Sisi Fulfilling Nasser’s Dream of Turning All Citizens into Informers?
When a ruler depends solely on the power of oppression and completely impedes rational thinking, he no longer concerns himself with ensuring that there is an informant for every citizen. Rather, he seeks to drive each and every citizen to become an informant of his or her own volition.
Some weeks ago, Abdel Rahman Zaidan, coordinator of the Revolutionaries Front in East Cairo, published a testimony on his Facebook page that soon became widely shared. In this testimony, Abdel Rahman states that as he was riding a microbus [shared taxi-van] home, he was surprised to hear a middle-aged woman begin to fiercely criticize Sisi, the current government, and the Interior Ministry, much to the shock of those riding in the microbus with her. One of the other passengers, encouraged by what the woman was saying, joined her in openly attacking Sisi, the government, and the Interior Ministry. Before Abdel Rahman could join the discussion, the woman suddenly asked the driver to pull over next to a church along the way. As soon as the microbus stopped, the woman stuck her head out the window and called to the church guards, shouting, “Save me! There’s a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist in the microbus!” The guards rushed over, began beating the young man who had criticized Sisi, and pulled him from the microbus. The woman also got out of the microbus in order to accompany them and to testify to the heinous act that the young man had committed. She shot a sharp glance back at the other passengers, as if defying them to intervene, and stated proudly, “We’re cleaning up this country!” The remaining passengers, shocked at what had happened, sat frozen in their seats as the microbus drove away. Abdel Rahman concludes his testimony by advising his colleagues – who are busy defending their comrades who are among the students who have been detained, providing for their needs, and publicizing their cases – to refrain from talking about politics on public transportation in order to focus their efforts on what is most important. He urges them to avoid falling into this new security trap, set to ensnare anyone who expresses opposition to what is happening in Egypt.
Unfortunately, the woman from the microbus probably didn’t become an informer and begin to trick microbus passengers in order to hand them over to the police because she was recruited by one of the security bodies. Rather, I believe that she did this because she felt a sense of responsibility to protect her country, which drove her to participate in “purging” Egypt of the traitors who are ostensibly obstructing the country’s progress and undermining its stability. It should not be forgotten that this phenomenon emerged nearly a year and a half ago, when the state announced the establishment of telephone hotlines and urged “honorable citizens” to use them to report neighbors and acquaintances belonging to or supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the Rabaa massacre, the regime’s wanton incitement of “honorable citizens” expanded to target those who have been labeled in the media as “the fifth column,” including all who object to the foolish and violent manner in which the country has been managed, even if they are opposed the Muslim Brotherhood. In order to understand what would drive an ordinary person to act as the woman from the microbus did, we must take into account the vast number of radio and television programs that host supposed strategic and security experts and indomitable presenters who constantly advise millions of citizens – just like the woman from the microbus – not to hesitate to inform the police of anyone seeking to undermine the Egyptian state, and claiming that any citizen who fails to do so will be an accomplice in such crimes. Since this incitement began, we have heard of appalling incidents in which family members, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues have reported each other to the police, including an incident in which a mother turned in her son and insisted that he be detained because of his affiliation with the April 6 movement. Most recently, some “court” sheikhs issued fatwas claiming that it is the duty of believers to report even their family members if they are found to be plotting against the Egyptian state. The language used in these fatwas is vague enough that it may be stretched to include anything from creating bombs to speaking ill of the mothers of state officials.
In considering all of this, we must ask ourselves an important question: Would any Egyptian citizen feel shame at turning in a loved one to the police for being an Israeli spy? Of course not -- in such a case, any Egyptian citizen would feel proud to have carried out his or her duty to protect the country. As such, why should Egyptian citizens not feel the same pride at turning in an individual – whether a relative or a stranger – for criticizing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi while using public transportation, sitting in a café, or even attending a private gathering? Has the media – with all its announcers, experts, writers, and intellectuals, including many who fiercely opposed Mubarak and who were major figures of the revolution – not convinced the average Egyptian citizen that (as Sisi himself put it) there is a vast international conspiracy seeking to overthrow the Egyptian state and to divide the Egyptian people from the army and the police? Why, then, do citizens wait to catch their relatives, neighbors, or friends red-handed, holding explicit proof of their direct involvement in espionage? Are Egyptian citizens still not convinced that there is something called fourth generation warfare, and that all those who engage in criticism, sarcasm or opposition are participants in this war? Do our citizens still not see that this war is no less serious than the wars that use tanks and planes? Why, then, should not each citizen become a soldier in the defense of his country, to the best of his ability? Why don’t we consider that every microbus, every café and every home has become a battlefront, in which we should strike down the traitors who plot against Egypt? Why don’t we see that these plots begin with mere insults, even if it has been scientifically proven that “insults don’t stick”?
In the four previous parts of this article, we surveyed the documents of the vanguard organization presented by Dr. Hamada Hosni in his book Abdel Nasser and the Clandestine Vanguard Organization. Perhaps through this survey it has become clear that this disturbing approach is not a recent product of the difficult days we are currently living. Rather, it began early on, when Gamal Abdel Nasser decided that his hold on power in Egypt would not be consolidated unless he completely co-opted the political sphere. As a result, he abolished the multiparty system and established a shadowy political entity known as the Arab Socialist Union to monopolize all political activity in Egypt. Nasser went on to nationalize the press, thus ensuring that the only narrative heard in Egypt would be his own. All who dared to oppose, criticize, or accuse Nasser of injustice faced direct harassment and abuse. Viewing the state’s formidable security and intelligence bodies as insufficient, Nasser added to their ranks his clandestine vanguard organization. This organization incorporated the elite writers, intellectuals, artists, and politicians of the time, who of their own volition went from being leading shapers of public opinion to filing intelligence reports. Of course, Nasser was unable to achieve all of this until after he had convinced the Egyptian citizenry – via intensive media and instructional campaigns – that democracy, parliamentary life, multiparty politics, transfer of power, and freedom of the press are all dangerous concepts that would impede Egypt’s progress and play into the hands of imperialist states seeking to control the country.
In light of such a toxic environment, it is not surprising that the members of Nasser’s vanguard organization resorted to filing reports on their relatives, friends, and colleagues without experiencing the least bit of guilt. On the contrary, they felt pride at having played a role in protecting their country from its enemies and traitors. Let us consider, for instance, the testimony provided by Samy Sharaf, one of the leaders of this vanguard organization, after he was arrested in the context of the events of 15 May 1971, when Anwar al-Sadat purged Nasser’s supporters who were impeding his control of the country. These events, known as the Corrective Revolution, were referred to in the media at the time as “honorable.” Over the years this turned into something of a joke, particularly after the 15 May Bridge – named after this revolution – became more well-known among Egyptians than the revolution itself.
In the interrogation report published in Dr. Hamada Hosni’s book, Samy Sharaf breaks down and provides information about the head of the vanguard organization, Ali Sabry, claiming that he had insulted President Sadat using profane language. Sharaf denies accusations that he himself had opposed Sadat, saying that he considers Sadat’s leadership to be the natural continuation of Nasser’s legacy, as he knows that Sadat had been chosen by Nasser to succeed him. In order to absolve himself of the accusation that he had been closely linked to Shaarawy Gomaa, the Minister of Interior and one of the most prominent leaders of the vanguard organization, Sharaf emphatically states in the interrogation report that “personally and in my work, I never did anything except follow the orders of the president and uphold moral principles, even if this raised personal conflicts. For example, despite my presence in this workplace, I myself reported two of my brothers. One of them was a police officer and belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, so I reported that he was a dangerous member of the Brotherhood, and he was transferred to the provinces. The other one was an officer in the armed forces, and I reported him to the president himself, saying that he had undertaken communications with other officers, and that these communications were considered to be damaging to the safety and security of the country. This second brother was arrested and remained in detention until President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered his release without my knowledge. This happened because President Nasser assigned Mr. Mohammed Ahmed to release him, in agreement with Shams Badran at the time, and to find work for him. When I learned of this, I objected, so Mr. Mohammed Ahmed told me, ‘You don’t have the right to object, because these are the orders of the president.’”
If you were to ask Samy Sharaf today about what he said in this interrogation, do you think that he would show any remorse for this surprising stance of out-Nassering Nasser himself and objecting to the president’s having obtained employment for his brother after releasing him? We should note that Nasser would not have done so unless he was sure that Sharaf’s brother did not represent a threat to his regime. If this had been the case, Sharaf’s brother would have faced real punishment, as occurred to others who were detained, killed, or prevented from working. Indeed, even Nasser’s comrades who had risked their lives to overthrow King Farouk were not spared from such punishment. Instead of feeling remorse at what he did, Samy Sharaf would likely display pride – the same pride shown by the woman from the microbus who turned in the man riding next to her. Both of these individuals would accuse you, albeit each in their own way, of lacking patriotism because you fail to understand the satisfaction of rising above all worldly and human ties in order to become a soldier in the fight against the enemies of the nation, even if these enemies turn out to be the closest people to you – whether members of your family, colleagues at work, or passengers next to you on the microbus.
Surely, Samy Sharaf’s two brothers were more fortunate than many who did not enjoy Nasser’s favor and thus receive lesser punishments. Others who experienced injustice under the Nasser regime found that some among the leadership of the vanguard organization volunteered to report these injustices and to demand redress for them. Yet this was always done in a manner that placed the goals of the vanguard organization above all other considerations, even if the result was further injustice. Here, we should consider the report sent directly to Nasser by Ibrahim Eltahawy, a member of the vanguard organization, in which he speaks of “a self-sacrificing man whose devotion knows no limits, who rejects the world and delves into knowledge, who burns with devotion to his country and love for Your Excellency.” The man described in this report is none other than Dr. Yousef Wali, Professor of Agriculture at Ain Shams University. Wali later became Mubarak’s longstanding Minister of Agriculture, pioneered agricultural normalization with Israel, and was responsible – according to the testimony of respected experts – for the systematic destruction of Egyptian agriculture, although this case has not been seriously investigated to this day. After describing Wali in such glowing terms, Eltahawy begins to review a number of reports written by Wali for the vanguard organization regarding the details of a two-week trip to the United States that he had taken at the invitation of an American university. Among these reports was a report about Egyptians living in the United States who had previously been detained on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and who, after their release, had fled to the United States to escape further security persecution. When these Egyptians met Yousef Wali, they expressed that they would be willing to provide Egypt with all of the knowledge they had obtained and to return to Egypt to offer all that they could from their expertise, if not for their fear of arrest.
Rather than objecting to the injustice that these Egyptian citizens had faced and that prevented them from returning to their own country – and that also prevented their country from benefiting from their knowledge and experience – Eltahawy’s report (also published in Dr. Hamada Hosni’s book) merely asks Nasser, “Why lose them?” In addition, instead of proposing guarantees to allow these individuals to return safely to Egypt, the report suggests that they should remain abroad. It proposes that a top secret office be established within the presidency “to communicate with them, to obtain their information and experiences, and to assign them specific research of interest to Egypt in America’s laboratories, without requiring that we take on the difficulties and costs of such studies. The mission of these individuals should be to obtain whatever scientific secrets they can, whether industrial, agricultural, or chemical, and to study the work methods that lead to success, and then to return to translate and transfer all the knowledge that they have obtained into the service of their country. The countries that should be focused on are the United States, Russia, West Germany, Japan, China, and France.” The report further suggests that a committee be formed between Dr. Yousef Wali and the Minister of Scientific Research, Dr. Ahmed Mostafa, to personally study the matter in secret. Eltahawy’s report does not mention what measures should be taken to engage officials in the countries to which Egypt would send delegates in order to convince them to provide these delegates with their countries’ most highly prized scientific secrets. Nor does Eltahawy note that the “delegates” who were leaving Egypt were not returning in the first place, as they found in developed countries the freedom, dignity, independence, and other necessary conditions for a humane existence that the Nasser regime viewed as luxuries. Indeed, the Nasser regime considered that Egypt could do without such “luxuries” if the leader so wished, as the leader’s will supposedly embodied the will of the people. As is reflected in the sad state of scientific research in Egypt today, however, Nasser was not interested in establishing such a scientific intelligence body made up of Egyptian delegates living abroad. Instead, Nasser was interested in catching those conducting espionage within the country, in order to consolidate his rule and establish his legacy as the leader who would drive Israel into the sea and unite the Arab nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea.
Let us now move beyond all the distressing details that we have surveyed in the previous installments of this series, in order to return to contemplate the authoritarian way of thinking that remains entrenched in the political and intellectual life of Egyptians to this day. Despite our acknowledgment of this authoritarian mentality, we still wonder why we have not as advanced as other peoples who started out on the road toward progress later than Egypt. As we conclude our discussion, we should note the significance of the founding of the vanguard organization, as its guiding philosophy continues to dominate Egypt to this day. Moreover, many of the individuals belonging to this organization continue to corrupt political life in Egypt. Let us read a momentous text from the minutes of the second preparatory meeting for the vanguard organization, convened on 10 March 1957. Both the text of the minutes and a copy of a photograph of this meeting have been published by Dr. Hamada Hosni in the appendix of his book. In these documents, we are able to see that the leader never ceases to sing the praises of the people, even as he secretly explains the dangerous philosophy that he follows in ruling the country: “It is a well-known fact that Egyptian society is corrupt, and that it has a tendency towards corruption. When the constitution was established, the situation in Portugal was taken into consideration. What was required was not the organization of the party, nor did we ask how to organize the party. Rather, what was required was to discover how to recruit the country, how to recruit the people, and how to communicate with the popular authorities in order for us to move the country forward. It had been noted that we would have to build strong individuals, for any structure not based on individuals will be considered a failure. Thus, what is required is that we build up individuals, that we build contacts, that we link the people with popular leadership, and that we move the people to adopt the philosophy of this leadership. Every individual among the people must consider himself to be a recruit of this call.”
Admittedly, Gamal Abdel Nasser was able to push Egypt to take some steps in the direction of progress, and it cannot be denied that Egypt continues to benefit from the economic and social advances that were achieved during his rule. However, even if Nasser did understand the real meaning of the statement that “any political entity not based on individuals will be considered a failure,” he regrettably dealt with individuals as mere numbers making up “totals” – as anonymous numbers which do not have the right to choose or to refuse, to object or to think. Nasser dealt with the citizen as a brick which does not have the right to object to the place where it is laid by the master architect within the building of the nation. This same mentality was similarly followed by all regimes that crushed the freedoms of the individual for the sake of “higher” and “greater” purposes. Indeed, these regimes built a “popular structure” which appeared great and mighty from the outside, but whose fragile hollowness was not made evident until the country faced serious challenges, whereupon it precipitously collapsed, leaving everyone to pay the price – including those who willingly relinquished their freedoms, believing that by doing so they were protecting their country from enemies and traitors who may be as close as friends, relatives, neighbors, and even fellow passengers on the microbus.
Albert Einstein – God bless him – defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And I think if you asked him to define filth, he would say that it is repression: a repression that labels as traitors all those who warn the people of the danger of repeating the same actions that have led to their defeat in the past, expecting that these actions will somehow lead them to victory now. It’s like expecting milk from an ant’s…well, let’s just say from an ant. [The expression “getting milk from an ant’s c#nt” means attempting the impossible].