On Monday morning, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi woke up and didn’t recognize himself in the mirror. Once the last man standing from Hosni Mubarak’s coterie, his day had finally come.
On Monday morning, President Mohamed Morsy woke up and didn’t recognize himself in the mirror. Once the obedient, desperate choice of a perpetually vilified Muslim Brotherhood for a long-short presidency, his day had finally come.
On Monday morning, Egyptians woke up and didn’t recognize themselves in the mirror. Once bound and destined to live under pharaonic oppression, their day had finally come. On Monday morning, no one recognized their own face.
Sociologist Erving Goffman spent a career analyzing how we use our faces as forms of representation and as communicative instruments. Goffman described people’s ability to read facial cues as a sign of competence. But what he had not considered is the absolute and irreversible inability to read any and all faces.
I learned of this disorder some months ago at a genetics conference, where a German scientist described a patient incapable of identifying characteristics of the human face. Known as prosopagnosia, the ailment leads to face blindness.
Patients are incapable of recognizing loved ones, friends, neighbors, popular figures or celebrities. And in the most severe cases, they cannot recognize their own faces in photos or the mirror.
Egypt on Monday seemed unrecognizable to itself.
For many months, since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, we all suffered from prosopagnosia as we wondered who ruled the country, knowing full well that it wasn’t the scar-faced revolutionaries. Was it the faceless deep state, the defaced feloul, the two-faced Brotherhood or the stone-faced Supreme Council of the Armed Forces?
Can we recognize the ahistorical Prime Minister Hesham Qandil? What about the now recognizable facial signifiers such as the mask from “V is for Vendetta,” the much-debated and increasingly omnipresent niqab, and Mohamed ElBaradei’s glasses? What have they come to mean now?
What about the military institution? What do we know about the new defense minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? Is he the same person who publicly excused the virginity tests against protesters? What about his deputy General Mohamed al-Assar? Can we identify him in a crowd?
What about Morsy? Is he the same person who promised a civic state and vice presidents who are women and Copts? Is he the president or simply the face of an executive branch of Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood supreme guide? Was the removal of the top brass on Sunday night a presidential coup? Or was it an attempt to preempt a coup by the SCAF over Morsy?
Egyptians are now choosing to slap on the country the mask of their choice, hoping it will make it more recognizable. The Nasserists, Salafis, seculars, cosmopolitans, elite bourgeoisie, minorities and Brotherhood all believe in their own illusions of majority because of their face masks.
Perhaps that is why, more than ever before, we are circulating images of Egypt as we remember it or would like it to be, and the country is increasingly multi-faced. A video of Soad Hosny on all fours singing to a cat, a 1931 photo of Saad Zaghloul Boulevard in Alexandria, and even the more contemporary images from the 25 January revolution all help us mask the country that bears no resemblance to our mental images.
We perform and confirm these now fictional faces of Egypt to our collective detriment. Without these faces we recognize, we cannot identify, classify, assess, evaluate, record and recall human experience. In short, we cannot function.
Instead, Egypt should note a lesson from esteemed primate biologist and psychologist Jane Goodall. Confronting her own prosopagnosia, she decided to spend much of her life with apes and chimpanzees because she needn’t know their faces, but rather knew each one by his or her behavior. Starting today, we must go beyond face value and stand face to face with our face blindness.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University.
This article was orignially published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.