It may be 2015, but we can discover parables for understanding today’s Egypt in George Orwell’s literary indictment of totalitarianism, 1984. The dystopian novel, which was actually written in 1948, is set in an imaginary police state called Oceania where large television screens are installed in homes to watch every citizen’s move, and where the “thought police” penalize those who dare think differently. Big Brother exaggerates internal and external threats, deploys the tools of a police state, falsifies records, and benefits from the voluntary and sometimes involuntary support of those the regime perceives to be good citizens.
In Oceania, the regime strengthens its grip on power by scaring citizens about looming threats to the state’s wellbeing. “It does not matter whether the war is actually happening,” Orwell writes. “All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.” In Egypt, the government has frightened citizens into believing that the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing but a terrorist organization, and has thrown most of its leaders into prison. Indeed Egyptians are fighting a war on terrorism on all fronts—in the Sinai Peninsula, near the Libyan border and throughout the country. The government is also sending army troops, naval units, the air force, and perhaps eventually ground forces, to participate in a war in Yemen.
Oceania’s police state rules with an iron fist: “It was always at night—the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes… In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night… [The] original leaders of the Revolution were wiped out once and for all… All the rest had by that time been exposed as traitors and counterrevolutionaries… Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police… [A] routine interrogation to which nearly all prisoners were subjected. There was a long range of crimes—espionage, sabotage, and the like—to which everyone had to confess as a matter of course. The confession was a formality.”
There are repeated reports of human rights violations in Egypt’s prisons, especially against political detainees. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other political activists who participated in the January 25 Revolution, are subjected to mass trials, life sentences and group death penalties. The state is coming up with new ways to monitor electronic communications and has a very efficient army unit specialized in electronic warfare. According to the Ministry of Interior, the state had arrested 10,000 rioters, saboteurs and terrorists in 2014 alone. A university professor, who was not even a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was videotaped confessing to the possession of homemade bombs with the purpose of sabotaging government buildings.
In Oceania, history is continuously falsified to justify the regime’s existence. A Ministry of Truth is dedicated to meticulously checking records and newspapers to ensure adherence to the state’s version of the truth. Past records are revised and changed to accord with the continuously changing views and positions held by the State of Oceania. “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death,” Orwell writes. “[If] all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed… then the lie passed into history and became truth… There were the huge printing shops… and their elaborately equipped studios for the faking of photographs… This day to day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression and espionage.”
Every now and then in today’s Egypt we find an echo of Oceania in the newspapers. For example, the minister of interior during the rule of the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime called the 2011 Revolution a “conspiracy.” The same minister of interior was released from prison for lack of evidence for charges that he killed the protesters during the Revolution. Likewise, courts dismissed charges against Mubarak for killing the protesters. No one, it seems, bears responsibility for the killings. Some media reports go so far as describing Mubarak’s release from prison as evidence that the 2011 uprising was a conspiracy designed by the West to conquer the Middle East.
In Oceania, the ruling regime has avid supporters who go to huge measures to express their support and loyalty. Young women are in love with their leader. Other citizens are trained to speak in impressive but meaningless prose, while many others managed to convince themselves of anything the regime wanted them to believe.“It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans,” Orwell writes. “DOUBLETHINK means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… [The] aim was frankly admitted in the…word DUCKSPEAK, meaning to ‘quack like a duck’.”
Reading through Egypt’s daily newspapers, we learn that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is strongly supported by Egyptian women and is cheered by them wherever he goes. In one incident, women in a large political congregation shouted “We love you El-Sisi!”. He responded by joking that this may cause them “problems with their men at home.”
In today’s Egypt, there are those politicians who manage to change their loyalty, views and opinions from one regime to the other, and from one leader to the next, without any shame or embarrassment. News abounds of former ruling National Democratic Party leaders who jumped ship at the last moment to support the January 25 Revolution, worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood afterwards, and who are now advising the current regime. We read how a former official demanded that the next parliament amends the constitution to give more powers to the head of the state.
History, it seems, is determined to repeat itself. Regimes lack creativity in devising new ways to manage their people. Egyptians can be forgiven if they forget what year it is.
Laila El Baradei is professor of public administration and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.
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