With the kidnapping of Egyptian activists a regular occurrence, the crackdown on civil society showing no signs of abating, and another hundred death sentences against Brotherhood members confirmed last week in a proceeding mired with inconsistencies, pessimism about Egypt’s future is only natural.
But at least two Egypt observers, Koert Debeuf and Ayman Abdelmeguid, see some positive developments in the country. In a recent article, they describe a ‘silent revolution’ taking place amongst Egyptians, particularly the youth. According to their report, fewer taxi drivers are prominently displaying Qurans in their cars. More girls are removing their hijabs. Homosexuals are coming out of the closet and finding acceptance within their communities. In sum, Egyptians are embracing liberal-secular values.
Of course, individual stories do not amount to a social sea change, on their own. The retreat from overt Islamic symbolism or the reported popularity of Grindr – a dating application for homosexuals – are hardly infallible indications of a liberal revolution.
In a country where anything hinting at Islamism may land a person in a police interrogation room, public displays of religiosity may have less to do with changing principles and more to do with a desire to keep out of jail. As for Grindr, the company itself (though unlikely to have its finger on the pulse of Egyptian society) urges its Egyptian users to hide their real identities for fear of persecution. More importantly, the popularity of this relatively anonymous meeting place is likely evidence of how few opportunities there are for homosexuals to meet each other in public without fear.
All this notwithstanding, let us assume there is, indeed, a silent revolution taking place among Egypt’s youth and people are breaking free from conservative restraints. What remains striking about this revolution is how individualistic it is. A girl takes off her hijab, a boy flirts with atheism. Nowhere, though, is there mention of the kind of collective revolution we witnessed in 2011.
This contrast is no coincidence. Since the military assumed power in the summer of 2013, it has embarked on the systematic individualization of Egyptian society. Recognizing the role played by grassroots activists – like the now suppressed April 6th movement – in sparking the revolution that ousted president Hosni Mubarak, the government views any forum for collective action as a threat.
It is, as such, bent on preventing and eradicating ways for Egyptians to organize themselves. Whether through its much-criticized NGO law, which effectively forbids most NGO’s from operating in Egypt, its crackdown on independent journalism, its restrictions on the right of government workers to strike, the right for people to protest generally, or even the ability for pharmacists to organize themselves, all potential forums for collective action have been targeted by the government’s clampdown.
For these reasons, focusing on a purported secular-liberal revolution misses the point. To emphasize individual acts of liberation is to ignore the fact that a healthy civil society is needed to safeguard those liberties. Without this check on government power, defiance of social norms comes at one’s own peril. While rebellion may be tolerated in some instances, it will be punished in others, depending upon the calculations of a regime whose primary concern is to stay in power.
In such an individualized state, only expedience explains why a ‘silent revolution’ can take place relatively unimpeded. That hardly seems, however, like a revolution worth anyone’s while.