The state speaks

I don’t expect the state to be creative, because power is an end in many ways, and only a threat to power is conducive to the state going outside of its comfort zone.

I don’t expect the state to be creative, because creativity is put upon the shoulders of all those who choose to engage with contentious politics and find renewed ways of upsetting the balance of power in the ranks of the state.

What I find appalling, however, is the inexhaustible reproduction of discourse by the state, despite the growing array of contentious politics. What I find appalling is how the meaning of the state in Egypt’s modern history has been internalized across regimes and power elites, including some traditional forces of opposition and media. What I find appalling is how the perception of the state in the ranks of these elites is persistently connected to the production of a version of nationalism that poorly survives on the logic of 1960s nationalism, albeit with a more localized — versus regional — flavor today.

What I find stifling is how this production of nationalism is associated with a sense of guardianship hegemonized by the state, disregarding the widening streams of consciousness in the public sphere. It is as if the state is the speaker at the podium of a huge conference, where the stage lights are so strong and blinding that the audience becomes invisible and the speech becomes a monologue.

The state, in many ways, seems outdated, oblivious and irrelevant.

Last week, news of yet another grand plot to threaten Egypt’s security in Sinai spread fast.

The theory remains the same. Neighboring Gaza is a source of insecurity for Sinai and Egypt, by and large, and Sinai is the Palestinians’ gateway to attack the Egyptian state.

The manifestation, for the sake of a gesture, only a gesture, of common sense, had to be different.

Instead of the usual news leaked by “military sources” to local media about militants’ infiltrations into the Sinai Peninsula, this time the military uncovered a plot to smuggle Egyptian military apparel through the tunnels connecting Sinai to Gaza. The media thrived on the news and rushed to publish photos of the supposedly witty and tactful military apparatus’ response by changing their apparel.

Meanwhile, those in the ranks of the intelligentsia could only mock the story, dubbing its headline, “Ladies and gentlemen, Egypt’s military presents to you its new 2013 summer collection.” Fewer still are aware of the downtown Ahmed Helmi area in Cairo where some kiosks thrive on selling military cloth, both for conscripts who lose their suits every day and children groomed to impersonate soldiers through their outfits, because the military is pedagogically inscribed in popular imagination as the face of bravery.

The murky details of the news and the mastering of the narrative do not matter much to its manufacturers, it seems. It is the consumption of the news that matters, especially as most media connected the news to the attack by unknown assailants in Sinai that took the lives of 16 Egyptian soldiers last year, in an insinuation that Palestinian militants were behind it.

The attack, another example of the state’s failure in the peninsula, cost the military institution a reshuffle in its upper echelons when the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy dramatically sacked and replaced the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Amid roars that the Brotherhood was besting the military in the unsettled post-revolution balance of power struggle, the latter has been careful to remind us of its persisting prowess, regardless of who is at the helm of the executive branch.

In the process, information has become a casualty. And the audience of this performance is often reduced to mere sheep in the state’s imagination.

And, with no sign of discursive evolution, the prevalent narrative remains that the state is doing just fine and the threat is only external. This threat creates a fictional enemy, Palestine, whose cause we were born with as Egyptians and Arabs as almost a marker of identity, popularly constructed and groomed through generations.

A few days ago, renowned activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was summoned, alongside others, by the prosecutor general, who accused them of inciting protesters to attack the Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam last Friday.

It is no news today that Abd El Fattah was arrested and jailed back in 2006 by former President Hosni Mubarak’s security for supporting protests and calls for an independent judiciary. It is also no news that Abd El Fattah was arrested and jailed in 2011 by the military after their attack on a mostly Coptic march near the Maspero state television building.

It’s as if his arrest is the chorus to the ruling regime’s song, but it’s also a reminder of how different ruling regimes — old, military and Islamist — share the same song. And it’s a song that has no audience and little popularity.

In all three incidents, the chorus of Abd El Fattah’s arrest speaks to the reproduction of the logic of the state across different regimes. In all three incidents, the authorities have justified his arrest as a patriotic act to protect national security from the rowdiness of saboteurs.

Again, the facts supporting the decision to arrest him and others are collateral casualties that do not matter to the state, so long as it keeps producing its discourse of guardianship.

The discourse engendered by different faces of the state, namely the military and the Brotherhood, in both the cases of Sinai and the activists’ arrest, speaks to a condition of suspended politics. In this context, there is no space of negotiation, because sources of conflict are external to a state that is otherwise pure — or at least dependent on ideology. Hence the latter has to remind us of that continuously through discourse.

If the state’s acts amount to failure, and its understanding of a political process is malfunctioning, it’s left to manufacturing discourse as a survival tactic. But this tactic is increasingly becoming a failure itself, particularly at a time where counter discourses are thriving and constantly forcing a political possibility denied by the state.

These counter discourses can only further proliferate with information being more consciously sought, less centralized and more popularly generated.

Lina Attalah is editor-in-chief of Egypt Independent.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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