Vive la resistance!

In the Arab world, even the smallest acts of resistance can give a sense of self-worth, encouraging a long-demoralised people to feel that change, after all, is possible. By Nael Shama

Essay by Nael Shama

Long before the term was coined, Egyptians had been very proud of their country′s ″soft power″ – and rightly so. In the Arab world, Egypt is the most populous country and it has the most potent army, a pivotal location and an influential intelligentsia.

If Cairo sneezed, it was commonly said, the whole region would catch a cold. There could be no Arab war against Israel without Egypt, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said. Indeed, Egypt was the trendsetter of the region, paving the way for war and peace negotiations with Israel in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively.

Furthermore, the manifestations of Egypt′s cultural influence are ubiquitous. Unlike other Arab dialects, colloquial Egyptian is widely understood and quite popular. The presence of Egypt′s arts – music, film and television series – can be seen in almost every corner of the region.

Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads

It is common to hear the songs of the iconic Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum in the streets of Fez, the souks of Muscat, or the nightclubs of Beirut. And for a long time, Egypt was the birthplace of ideas, the source of knowledge and the propagator of ideologies; ″Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads,″ goes the classic adage.

However, unrivalled in the Arab world as it was, Egypt′s soft power – its political pre-eminence and cultural appeal – has worn thin in the past few decades. Politically, Egypt lost much of its appeal in the late 1970s when it defected from the anti-Israel camp. In tandem, politics in the Arab world shifted from the hotbeds of ′thawra′ to the bases of ′tharwa′, from revolution to wealth. In the decades that followed, moreover, Egypt seemed to be less ambitious and more uncertain of itself.

A population boom, shrinking resources and economic mismanagement have led to protracted socio-economic crises and the proliferation of poverty. Egypt is now too weighed down by its own troubles to be able to radiate significant influence among its neighbours.

Slum in Cairo′s Ramlet Bulaq neighbourhood (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Elfiqi)
A country in decline: "Egypt is in a state of misery that begets sympathy. Furthermore, there′s the grip of an authoritarian regime that has lost touch with the world and a fatigued economy that is unable to feed the citizens of the country,″ writes Nael Shama

Backwards trend

The images of Egypt that come to the minds of fellow Arabs today are that of an exploding population hemmed in by scores of constraints; cities that are impoverished and overcrowded; a society that is nearly falling apart from pressing social, economic and religious divisions; and a state of misery that begets sympathy. Furthermore, there′s the grip of an authoritarian regime that has lost touch with the world and a fatigued economy that is unable to feed the citizens of the country.

The winds of change have simultaneously been blowing in the region as a new order unfolded in the aftermath of the oil boom of the 1970s. The Arabs of the Gulf states, who had traditionally been in Egypt′s shadow, have changed massively. Great windfall gains transformed them from simple Bedouins who lived by tending camels and sheep to entrepreneurs promoting ideas and investors building skyscrapers. The paths these states have taken have elicited admiration and their success stories have stolen the attention from poverty-stricken Egypt.

The luck of the Gulf Arabs

Dubai has become a trade and entertainment centre and a symbol of modernity to be emulated. Qatar will be the first Arab country to host the football World Cup, scheduled to take place in 2022. Last February, the UAE has appointed its first minister of happiness, a step taken ″to create social good and satisfaction.″

In contrast, Egyptians complain more than anything else. The country′s confidence is shaken, its spirits are low and its pride is wounded. For Egyptians, the notion of happiness is so distant, so unreal. At best, it is a far-fetched dream; at worst, an impossibility. Indeed, in the face of life′s great hardships, most Egyptians only ask for el-satr, protection and sufficiency. 

Nevertheless, a few lights are still glimmering in the darkness of Egypt′s present. To be sure, great nations do not die or fade away overnight. It’s pressing problems notwithstanding, Egypt is still a place that is full of life and activity. Its vibrant soul carries a great appeal and on several recent occasions, Egypt was able to stir the imagination and captivate the hearts of its neighbours.

The promise of revolt

For instance, Arabs were awed by the thrilling images of the 2011 revolution. Watching peaceful demonstrators bravely defy police forces; pious prayer on the Kasr al-Nil bridge while they were being showered by water cannons; turning Tahrir Square into a hub of revolution and music and satire; and eventually forcing a despot, who ruled for thirty years, to step down (after less than three weeks of protests) was indeed inspiring. The revolution was young and vigorous and promising. It was nothing short of an earthquake that attempted to shatter the old world – old leaders, old institutions and old mentalities.   

Then there is this aura of fascination about Bassem Youssef, the political satirist who rose to prominence after the 2011 revolution. Dubbed as Egypt′s Jon Stewart, Youssef capitalised on his own sense of humour and charisma to mercilessly lampoon figures of authority: the president, politicians, the top brass and religious leaders. At the time of his weekly show (suspended in June 2014), Arabs from the ocean to the gulf were glued to their television sets. [embed:render:embedded:node:14414]

Despite the show′s peculiar Egyptian character, many Arabs felt they could relate to it. After all, their grievances and aspirations are very similar to Egypt′s. Decades earlier, the sharp political verses of the vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929 - 2013) had a similar impact, giving a voice to the voiceless. Negm was rebellious, outspoken and humorous. His poems on revolution and love are still popular in the Arab world.

Spirit of resistance

What is the common denominator between these examples? In one word: resistance. Where the sense of defeat is overwhelming, the spirit of resistance is appealing. One generation after another, Arab peoples have come to be deeply frustrated by various realities that seem unchangeable: autocrats that preside over republics and monarchies of fear, Israel′s military superiority in the region and its subjugation of Palestinians, the growing scientific and technological gap between the Arab world and the advanced world.

As a result, helplessness has defined the way they view themselves. They continue to be torn between a culture that idolises manliness and a reality that is soaked in defeat and humiliation.

For any action, as the laws of physics explain, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is not the case in social sciences, especially in the Arab world where people descended into an ocean of despair, lamenting the wretched present and a history of missed opportunities. 

In such a milieu, resistance is a psychological remedy, a cathartic experience. Whether seen as a means to an end or an end in itself, resistance makes defeated people feel human and alive and capable. In his Cairo trilogy, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote that sexual instincts were implanted in humans by God only to make them feel the joy of resistance.

Bassem Youssef (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Gombert)
Egypt′s Jon Stewart: Bassem Youssef′s highly popular political satire show ″AlBernameg″ ran for three years in Egypt, until it was abruptly taken off air at the end of 2013. A few weeks later the Deutsche Welle incorporated the show into its Egypt programme. Nevertheless, Bassem Youssef was forced to throw in the towel that same summer – over fears for his own safety

For the development of the people

If Egypt – the nation, not the state, regime or government – wants to rise from the ashes of defeat, its best bid would be to raise the flag of resistance and not any kind of resistance. In order to avoid the setbacks that befell many endeavours in the past, resistance should not be an act in the void—incognisant of its limits, detached from reality, immersed in folly and destined to fail.

A better, fruitful kind of resistance is the one that seeks to develop people, enable them to be more educated, conscious and equipped with a sense of direction and a vision for the future. Standing in the middle, between silence and violence and coupled with persistence and perseverance, this resistance should be committed to both peacefulness and rejection of the present state of affairs.

Above all, Egypt′s weakness lies in its docility and lazy ignorance. Egypt′s ability to rise above its wounds is hinged upon its capacity to shake the dust off its soul. Egypt the volition, the action, the resistance, not the status quo, is the panacea.

Nael Shama

© Open Democracy 2016

Nael Shama, PhD, is a political scholar based in Cairo, Egypt. He is the author of ″Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi″ and ″Egypt before Tahrir: Reflections on Politics, Culture and Society″.