By Khaled Diab
Egyptians are slowly overcoming their fear of authority, but old habits die hard.
29 October 2009
Despite the growing boldness of the Egyptian media in recent years, journalists in Egypt always operate with one eye looking over their shoulder. I was discussing this recently with my brother, Osama, who is based in Cairo and has written a number of critical pieces about the president in the international media. I asked him if he was concerned about falling foul of the authorities. He jokingly remarked that the state security archivist must have a fat file on us Diabs.
He admitted that he tried not to think about the potential consequences of his work too much but he was a little concerned that he might not be let back into the country, like the Cairo-based Swedish blogger who was denied re-entry. This reminded me of when I moved away from Egypt some years ago and was not sure whether they would let me out – especially as I'd just been writing about allegations of torture made by the Muslim Brotherhood. With the economy in dire straits, the government was cracking down on everyone from Muslim Brothers to gay revellers – and I still half-expect to be detained for questioning each time I return.
Though I worry about my youngest bro – who is determined to make use of the growing space for criticism and test Egypt's expressed commitment to freedom of expression – I respect his refusal, so early in his career, to be swayed by a sense of intimidation or fear.
But if I were looking for peace of mind, the latest Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Sans Frontières, did not provide it. It ranks Egypt 143rd (out of 175) in terms of press freedom and reserves a special place for it among the dirty dozen “enemies of the internet”. “The vitality of the Egyptian blogosphere on the international scene is far from being an advantage for the bloggers involved, who are among the most hounded in the world,” the media watchdog concludes.
But this low ranking fails to reflect the paradoxical nature of freedom of the media – and freedom of expression more generally – in Egypt. On the one hand, Egypt possesses restrictive media laws, a large and largely constrained state-owned media, and can come down very hard on those who step out of line – either the small fry or those who have become too big for comfort.
On the other hand, for all its bluster, the regime is fairly weak, a vanguard of Egyptians have a long tradition of courageously struggling for freedom against the odds, the country is home to a vibrant independent press and civil society and many publications get around the restrictive laws by registering abroad. In addition, the new media are sparking a minor revolution, as internet and satellite penetration deepen.
“Despite a state of emergency and draconian laws, Egyptian journalists do their utmost to roll back the limits imposed on them … Despite the legal, administrative and financial pressures they hold their own,” Reporters Sans Frontières acknowledges.
Although Egyptians are slowly overcoming their ingrained sense of fear of authority, old habits die hard, and there are still more than enough journalists around too frightened to demand the change people desire. Fearful of the consequences, may maintain a noble silence, while a minority ingratiate themselves by going against their convictions and beliefs to curry favour with the regime. In this, the media is a microcosm of wider society, with the majority keeping their heads down and a radical minority fighting for change.
The situation in the media got me thinking about the role of fear in Egyptian society as a whole, and what kind of effects it has on the country's development. Of course, fear is a natural human instinct and an effective survival mechanism – it can even prompt innovation and creativity.
Moreover, there is not a society on earth in which human action is not partly driven by fear. And the fear of ostracisation or material loss can, if exercised skilfully, be as effective as more fists-on forms of intimidation, as the self-censorship exercised by certain segments of the western media demonstrates.
Given all the other challenges facing the country – shortage of resources, overpopulation, poor education, more than two millennia of foreign domination, etc. – it's hard to quantify exactly how fear shapes development, and I would be interested to learn other people's thoughts on the subject.
To my mind, all of Egyptian society's major institutions – the family, the education system, religious institutions, the business sector, the state and the military – are founded, particularly when it comes to the poorer classes, on a culture of stern obedience, with defiance often leading to punishment and, worse, exclusion and marginalisation. But fear alone is not enough. Egyptian institutions, particularly the family, are apt at locking in its individual members through a sense of love and loyalty.
There are, of course, umpteen exceptions to this rule, but it holds often enough to ensure that most people comply passively – and almost voluntarily – with the status quo, making most forms of defiance also an exception and not the rule.
With independent choice often not welcome at home, independent thought not welcome at school and independent initiative not welcome in business or academia, it is unsurprising that not enough people are willing to think out of the box – because doing so runs the risk of landing them in an abyss, rather than on greener pastures.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 26 October 2009. Read the related discussion.