Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The phoney ‘enlightenment’ battles in Egypt


Khalil Al-Anani
Khalil Al-Anani

Nothing is more indicative of the intellectual vacuum and political bankruptcy in Egypt than the ruckus caused by the phoney "enlightenment" battles on the nightly television programmes. It seems that there is no longer anything to fill the gaps in daily life after the windows for free expression were closed; the fake battles are intended primarily to distract people from the reality of their problems and crises, much like adults distract children with lines like "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with..."
From the fabrications about the "renewal of heritage" to an even more phoney argument about taking off the veil, and the censorship of books deemed by the government to "incite terrorism", the country is drowning, along with the elite, the media and state institutions, in a sea of intellectual confusion. At times, this appears to be deliberate and planned, not spontaneous. Is it a coincidence, for example, that these phoney battles erupted only a few weeks after the death of the "development and prosperity" myths promoted and promised by the current government? Is it mere telepathy amongst the "modern enlighteners" that drove the people to emerge all at once with their ideas and proposals? Was it "spontaneous" when everyone suddenly started talking about "enlightenment" and it became the common denominator between all television programmes on the various media outlets acting as mouthpieces for the government? With every fading "enlightenment" issue, a new one emerges, as if the country has reached a level of economic luxury and free expression, allowing people to talk about and discuss matters that may be tricky, but are definitely not a priority.
It is funny how none of the "enlighteners" or the media outlets covering their discussions and "debates" can utter a single word about the deteriorating political situation in Egypt, or to comment on the systematic repression and human rights violations; the brutality of the security forces against civilians; the corruption that has flooded state institutions; the poverty that has struck the country from north to south; or the inflated prices and the lifting of subsidies for the poor, who deserve them most. None dare call for an end to the arbitrary executions of anyone opposed to the government, nor can they stand in solidarity with the dozens of prisoners who have been on hunger strike for months. These "enlighteners" can't demand fair trials for the government's political opponents or condemn the ongoing torture and murder of innocent citizens in detention. The enlighteners are "custom-built" and act according to the mood of the general controlling their actions and their minds. He guides their thoughts, forms their consciousness and directs their moral compass.
The phoney enlightenment battles reflect what Egypt, its culture, intellectuals and thinkers have become. One hundred years ago, Egypt fought true enlightenment battles, most of which occurred between great intellectuals and literati, such as Taha Hussein and Abbas El-Akkad, El-Akkad and Mostafa Al-Raf'i, and Al-Raf'i and Ahmed Shawqi. These were serious intellectual and literary battles in a big country that was aware of its cultural and civilisational role. However, nowadays, our intellectual battles are shrunken, not only because of the trivial nature of the issues and their distance from priority matters, but also because of the shallowness and superficiality of those engaged in them.
It is true that Egypt has many intellectual and cultural problems, but they are all symptoms of a serious illness called "tyranny". This is what the "modern enlighteners" fail to say. All of the genuine and original enlightenment experiences emerged for the purpose of freedom. No country has been able to achieve a genuinely effective enlightenment without true freedom. Freedom was a basic requirement for the European Enlightenment, with a deep desire to break away from absolute monarchy and weaken the power of religion.
Europe succeeded in its Enlightenment because it was able to liberate minds from the domination of the state and the church. Intellectuals could focus on fundamental issues such as restoring the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and the state and society. The goal was to limit state control for the benefit of the individual and put authority under the supervision of the people by establishing institutions that hold rulers accountable for their actions, giving ordinary people the opportunity to change their government. European intellectuals fought brutal battles with the representatives of the state and the church, but triumphed because the time did not favour the institutions of repression and tyranny, and history sided with the individual citizen, who is actually the base and source of political power.
Egypt's "modern enlighteners" do not realise that they cannot produce an Enlightenment in a country ruled by a general, nor can they renew the "religious heritage" at a time when the religious scholars and institutions have no true independence from the authoritarian state. They do not know that "culture" and thought will not evolve and grow in a country where a quarter of the population are illiterate; or that a society where half of the people live below the poverty line and lack basic services, cannot rise up.
They do not realise that true enlightenment begins with liberating the individual, keeping the rulers in check, and holding the authority accountable. Anything other than this is just "useless noise"; in other words, a "false enlightenment".
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 21 April, 2015.

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