By Khaled Diab
Despite its dislike of the Ahmadinejad government, Egypt fears the spread of the Iranian protest contagion to its own borders, but why are Egyptians not showing any symptoms of the ‘Iranian flu'?
That Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his back up against the wall and is fighting for survival should trigger joy and jubilation in Cairo's corridors of power, as well as in some other Arab capitals. After all, this is the man whose radical anti-western and anti-Israeli rhetoric plays well with certain segments of the Egyptian public frustrated at their own government's US client status and acquiescence in cutting off Gaza during the recent Israeli invasion.
Ahmadinejad is also the face of the hardline regime that has been positioning itself to become a regional superpower – a position Egypt covets – and whose ambiguous nuclear ambitions and backing of radical Islamist movements is a threat.
But there has been a deafening silence from the Egyptian regime. Even the loyal scribes of the government-owned segments of the press have sheathed their vitriolic pens and stopped lobbing their poison arrows at the Iranian leadership. What could be putting such a damper on the party? Well, the Egyptian leadership finds itself caught between the rock it would like to lob at Ahmadinejad and the hard place of smashing its own glass house by openly criticising election fraud. After all, although not as blatant as the 99% approval ratings of yesteryear, the regime still can't kick its election fraud compulsion.
Perhaps more importantly, President Hosni Mubarak and his cabal fear that Egypt – similar to Iran in terms of demography, inequality and repression – is susceptible to the Iranian protest virus. The regime “fears the ‘Iranian flu' contagion … especially as such dangerous ideas spread faster than the swine flu virus,” Ali Bresha wrote on the Al-Arabiya news channel's website.
So far, the Egyptian people have revealed a remarkable immunity to the Tehran syndrome (in fact, some conspiracy theorists believe it's a western plot), and the feared political pandemic has failed to materialise. Has the government's political inoculation programme proven more effective than its botched response to avian flu or do the Egyptian people possess some kind of socially innate antibody against mass protest?
The question of Egyptian political apathy is one that has intrigued me for many years. Egypt suffers enormous socio-economic inequalities, widespread youth unemployment, and the political marginalisation of the masses, and yet Egyptians tolerate an unresponsive government plagued with rampant corruption and a poor human rights record.
There is, of course, opposition to the regime, with many political figures and activists, such as those operating under the umbrella Kifaya (Enough) movement, not to mention the workers unions, taking great risks in calling for reform. And yet they have failed to inspire mass momentum.
Young people are showing more determination than my generation. My youngest brother and his friends are politically aware and some are active in the opposition. Unlike the majority of Egyptians, Osama was even determined to cast a vote against Mubarak, the only political father his generation have ever known, in the 2005 elections, despite attempts to dissuade him outside the voting station.
However, such people are still a minority as was demonstrated during the largely unsuccessful call for a second general strike made by the Shabab 6 April Youth Movement (whose membership on Facebook alone stands at more than 75,000).
I'm not really one to criticise as the political rebel in me has rarely ventured beyond the written word into the realm of direct action, but why this inability to mobilise? Of course, there is the fear factor, but the Egyptian regime is hardly the most repressive in the world.
Maybe it has something to do with the Egyptian government's ability to aptly blend the use of enough terror to dissuade people and enough progress and freedom to keep the pressure cooker from exploding. Perhaps it is related to Egypt's opposition being weak and divided, as well as there being no inspirational leader, like Mir-Hussein Mousavi, around whom a broad-based reform movement can form.
Egyptian apathy might also be linked to the fact that, despite all the upheavals of major change the country has endured, things seem stubbornly and frustratingly much the same. In less than a century, the country has gone from monarchy to a one-party socialist republic to a free market neo-liberal oligarchy which may soon have a hereditary president. Yet freedom, despite some minor gains, has been an elusive prize. And like the tired old nation that it is, Egypt has had trouble keeping up and is no longer even the richest Arab country, nor the region's most powerful nation.
Egypt's relative decline was driven home to me recently in Accra when a South Korean journalist surprised me by debating me on why Egypt in the 1950s was far more developed than Korea and today has fallen so far behind it.
Some hold that the Egyptian people possess some sort of cultural gene against rebellion and risk taking, and the profusion of popular sayings we have against rocking the boat – such as “Stay away from evil and sing to it” – provides some credence to this idea.
Egyptians tend to prefer to get on with their lives outside the system rather than overturn it. This could have something to do with the fact that for more than two millennia Egyptians were ruled by a long succession of foreigners who generally cared little for their well-being. Initial jubilation at self-determination and self-rule has given way over the decades to the sinking realisation that Egypt's native rulers are just as alien.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 28 June 2009. Read the related discussion.