I have to admit that there are moments when I don’t feel safe in Cairo any more. The hysterical whipping up of xenophobia and conspiracy theories has hit new dizzying heights. A bizarre thing, you would think, for a country whose economy relies so much on tourism and is desperate for foreign investment. But such is the madness of Egypt today.
As a result, I have heeded the advice of a friend. I try to avoid carrying my European passport when I go out, just in case. Carrying such a document could easily qualify you in this paranoid atmosphere for being a spy, or perhaps even worse– because I am also Egyptian – a traitor or both.
Last week, I was stopped while I was walking with a Swedish friend visiting Egypt for the first time in central Cairo. We have apparently aroused the policeman’s suspicion because we walked past his police station and came back the same way. The policeman never managed to provide any other reason why we have ruffled his whiskers. I categorically refused to show him my ID because this could have made him even more paranoid. Luckily, when I refused to be treated as a suspect and insisting on seeing his superior, the officer proved to be not as stupid and let us go without much ado.
If you think the general paranoia has rubbed off on me, just consider the following:
On the thirteenth of December an American scholar and former diplomat was banned from entering the country for “security reasons”. We still do not know the definition of |”security” adopted by the Egyptian intelligence or police or whoever was behind that decision.
Michele Dunne is known for being a vociferous critic of the manner in which the Muslim Brothers president has been removed from power. I personally disagree with her views on that issue. But she is not known to have blown up any of her critics, or threatened to kill those who disagree with her. Not only that, she was in fact invited to speak at a conference organised by by a pro-government group. So, why is she such a security threat ? We are still waiting for an explanation.
The smart people at the security apparatus have scored an own goal again. At a time when President Al-Sissi is struggling to rehabilitate Egypt’s reputation abroad and attract foreign investment, a government agency (we still do not know which one exactly) has proven yet again to be a PR disaster.
And there was more : a tv-reporter-cum-police informant filmed herself filming naked men in a public bath as they were being hauled by the police out of the facility : their alleged crime : homosexuality. She later put the pictures on her Facebook page boasting of her scoop , and promoting the programme which claimed to be an investigative show.
A café in central Cairo was raided and closed because it was frequented by “atheist youths”. The local official, whose job is to keep tidy and clean the rubbish strewn streets of the city but he never does, boasted of his moral feat to the media.
A government agency announced that the exact number of atheists in Egypt is 866 (yes, they had the exact figure). A “sociologist” later disputes the number, and adds that the reason for rising atheism in Egypt was that those young men read too much, and want to do “bad things”. Yes, she is a sociologist, or so the paper that published the story says.
Later in the same week, two men were apprehended and interrogated after another “honest citizen” heard them on the Cairo underground speak English ! He told the police they were talking about the Jan 25 revolution. That the police bothered to arrest them and refer them to the state security agency shows the extent to which the officially orchestrated paranoia has penetrated deep across society.
And there was yet even more madness. An Egyptian twitter feed warned citizens against buying oranges of unknown origin because, it claimed, they were injected with Hepatitis C-Virus , and he provided photos of an orange with red spots. Egypt has the highest rate of the infection in the world.
The talk of external threats to Egypt comes from the very top and permeates all public discourse. President Al-Sisi may very well be speaking of real threats that no one disputes, but then that is used and deployed by people within the media and by the Mubarakistas within the security establishment to pursue their own agendas against journalists and civil society. And once the paranoia virus is out there, it is picked up by all and sundry, engaging the imagination of every one; it becomes a vehicle for articulating rational and irrational fears and anxieties. Ultimately, it is a sign of weakness and helplessness.
The message it sends to the outside world is unambiguous: Egypt is sick, insecure society that cannot engage with the world in a creative and confident relationship of give and take, since all things foreign or different arouse the suspicion of the common man. Instead of rectifying the malady, state institutions and the media whip up the phobias.
A state that cannot provide basic services and at the same time whips up xenophobia to demonise dissent and to rally the masses behind one leader, the one cause, is a doubly failed state. The price will be the future of Egypt itself.