President Hosni Mubarak’s speech to the nation on Saturday was a patent attempt to create a negative and fearful image of the uprising in Cairo. In his terse speech, he repeatedly used such words such as chaos, anarchy, looting, destruction, and violence. While Egyptians throughout the nation were in the streets ignoring the curfew and confronting police and security forces, the President continued his 30-year pattern of infantilizing Egyptians, tone-deaf to their modest, basic, common aspirations for citizenship. While President Mubarak began his speech by appealing to Egyptian ‘citizens,’ his actions before and after his speech confirm that like many other patrimonial and authoritarian leaders before him, Egyptians are only seen as objects of rule who should behave like good, obedient children.
Chaos is the flip side of order and stability, yet this dichotomy exposes how those who believe in the need for stability without acknowledging the costs of that stability quickly invoke images of chaos, when challenged, to defend their ‘right’ to stability. In Egypt, stability has been shown to be vulnerable due to the patronage and centralization of power in Egypt that has systematically and intentionally hollowed out and constrained any counter-veiling political force. Those who lionize stability forget the importance of legitimacy and accountability to governance.
This regime has not delivered on equitable economic growth, it has not delivered on the peace process, and it has impoverished and marginalized the young and frustrated their dreams and hopes. Young people, whether part of the blogosphere, leftist, Nasserist, feminist, or Islamist movements, have been seared by their experience and exposure to state repression, intimidation, and humiliation. They are caught in the limbo of ‘wait hood’ between childhood and adulthood since they cannot find jobs and cannot afford to marry. They are triply excluded: politically, socially, and economically. Young people are now simply claiming their rights in the polity and their fair share of the public patrimony. They never have been the obedient and docile children that President Mubarak has imagined. In these last few days, the brutality and arrogance of the power of the regime was on display globally as over 100 Egyptians were killed by their own police and government.
Today, the regime paints a narrative about the chaotic, destructive, mob-like Egyptian people who cannot be trusted. This insidious narrative of chaos and anarchy must not only be rejected but it must be unmasked as a narrative that legitimizes repression that will supposedly save Egypt from its disobedient children. We should expect further attempts by the current regime to fabricate or paint the protests as irresponsible and anarchic. The disappearance of any police force from the country will also stoke fears and images of ‘chaos.’ Although burning buildings and gunfire produce great images for the media, what is striking about the last few days is the fact that Egyptians have shown great discipline and courage as they express their demands for a real transition to democracy and only defend themselves from tear gas canisters fired into mosques, from water cannons and thugs beating peaceful demonstrators.
When the regime blocked the Internet and telephone networks, it demonstrated that it did not care about public safety or the security of its people. It is extremely important that international actors pressure the Egyptian government to restore communication networks in the country so that people can negotiate these trying times.
It is imperative that the new Egyptian leaders and the U.S. reject this narrative of chaos which will only serve to support the repressive Mubarak regime. We must expect the ambiguity of a political transition and not misread the normal unfolding of a transition process that needs patience and political space to deliberate and organize the next chapter of Egyptian history. The citizens of Egypt across the country are demanding real political change for democracy and the basic rights of citizenship that they have been denied so long. Struggles for citizenship, justice, and political rights, are far from over throughout the Middle East. These basic struggles continue as Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Jordanians reject their paternalistic fathers who think that they should only be obedient children and leave the affairs of the country to the all-knowing ‘head’ of state or father figure and their sons.
Diane Singerman is an associate professor in the Department of Government at American University’s School of Public Affairs.