Reclaiming silence in Egypt

Egypt has never been known for its quietness. The throngs of tourists that visit its capital every year observe the bustling commotion of the metropolis, the loudness of the streets, and the high decibel level of spoken Egyptian. Sporting celebrations and traditional weddings often erupt in ear-piercing festivities. Attempts at controlling gratuitous use of the car horn often fall on deaf ears. An exodus of Cairo’s affluent out of the busy hubs to new suburban residential developments is often rationalized on the grounds of seeking tranquility.

What is normal in Egypt likely qualifies as noise pollution in other parts of the world. And the threshold for noise in Egypt would warrant the issuance of violation notices in many countries. This extends to human interaction. Egyptians are loud, expressive, boisterous conversationalists. Silence rarely plays a role in their daily affairs. In some countries like Japan and Finland, silence is a fundamental component of basic social interaction and often denotes respect and friendliness. Many religious traditions, from Buddhism and Hinduism to Sufism and Trappist Catholicism, implore adherents to observe total silence to raise worship to meditative levels and express complete devotion and supplication. Among the native American Western Apaches of the United States, silence is a specific strategy deployed in observation and anticipation of the other person’s expression and behavior, before taking action or articulating a response. It is most commonly used during times of uncertainty or anger, precisely the conditions when the average Egyptian is inclined to vocalize.

Therefore it comes with some degree of irony that the word of greatest salience in Egypt this week is in fact silence. Since the brutal beating and death of the now-iconic Alexandrian young man Khaled Saeed, a Facebook group with 200,000 members has publicized one silent stand after the next to protest police brutality, demand justice for Saeed, and call for an end to the Emergency Law. The latest installment of these quiet protestations, where participants are asked to dress in black and stand side-by-side along the waterfronts of Cairo and Alexandria while reading their Korans or Bibles, falls on the 58th anniversary of the 1952 coup. The group members have named this “The Silent Revolution” and hope to exceed the numbers gathered in previous stands.

But silence isn’t new to Egyptians. Political scientists and learned observers often produce accounts of political suppression during various periods in Egypt’s contemporary history, showing that the muzzling of dissent has become part and parcel of the fabric of Egyptian expression. Yet, despite the often clichéd image of the apathetic, laissez-faire attitude Egyptians are said to have vis-à-vis politics, silence as strength rather than subservience has a surprisingly long history in Egypt .

More than 4500 years ago, ancient Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep of the Fifth Dynasty wrote a manual of instructions that taught his successors how to perfect the craft of fine speech with rules derived from religious principles and practical psychology. The first canon of Egyptian rhetoric was silence. It was described as a moral posture and tactic, not to be confused with passivity or quietism. Ptahhotep wrote that when arguing with a superior, “bow your back and be silent; he will confound himself and be thought a fool.”

Silence is thus a response. Another 3100-year-old manual of instructions by 19th Dynasty scribe Amenemope expresses admiration for Maat (The Truly Silent Man) or “one who succeeds by virtue of his unflagging inner repose and self-control.” A Truly Silent Man is he who is characterized by humility, quiet demeanor, generosity, honesty, and piety. These personal qualities are both derived from and named after the Goddess Maat who donned a feather atop her head which she weighed against the souls of the deceased to determine their eligibility for the afterlife, a gesture which reflected the virtues of truth, justice, and order. Over 3000 years later, an extremely successful cyber-campaign for Khaled Saeed hopes to mobilize tens of thousands of its “Truly Silent” members this Friday to demand the virtues of Maat be upheld.

However naysayers, skeptics and critics of technological determinism will argue that the majority of Egyptians will steer clear of the “Silent Revolution” as they have in similar protests over the last few decades. They argue that fear, paranoia and limited access to the internet will ensure the Khaled Saeed typhoon will be a tornado in a cup. They have enough evidence to warrant such an argument. Until recently, political life in Egypt has been an exemplary case of what political and mass communication theorists describe as “the spiral of silence.” Thirty-six years ago, German political scientist Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann used this term to refer to the disappearance of minority voices. She postulated that to avoid isolation, people who hold fringe or dissenting views will either alter their ideas to conform to the majority’s position or resort to silence, thus furthering the impression that the majority’s view is dominant.

This theory has often been criticized on the grounds that when individual or group support are present and where interpersonal relationships have a greater impact on one’s views than impersonal public opinion, the spiral of silence dissipates. With social networking portal Facebook serving as the ultimate liaison between the interpersonal and the public as well as creating solidarity, dissent and community in a comparatively safe environment, the online spiral of silence appears to have been overcome. Those who once feared having their names associated with any form of opposition, irrespective of its subtlety, increasingly participate in the public campaign for Khaled Saeed without concern for retribution. And for those who believe Facebook is still the dominion of the wealthy, they must contend with the latest news of the social networking behemoth crossing the landmark of half a billion users, more than a tenth of the world’s population.

Nevertheless, the success of the stand will depend largely on whether the outrage surrounding Saeed and other cases of police brutality can break the spiral of silence. It has often puzzled political theorists and observers why some societal conditions are able to subdue expression and create silence in the face of injustice. Those who witnessed atrocities in Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, Palestine, and elsewhere and said nothing may have fallen victim to the spiral of silence. South African Nobel Prize laureates in literature J.M. Coetezee and Nadine Gordimer paint powerful images of the characters whose silence furthered and prolonged apartheid, yet in other instances was an act of resistance.

At the end of the day, silence has rarely been a crime in itself. In fact, the right to observe silence is an accepted legal protection enjoyed by people undergoing police interrogation or trial in many countries. Ironically, what Egypt’s Facebook youth for Khaled Saeed may inadvertently be demanding with their “Silent Revolution” is the inalienable right to be protected in their silence, a virtue their ancestors taught the world millennia ago.

Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. His column appears every other Thursday.

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