Culture matters! And when it comes to Egyptian politics, it matters enormously. In the absence of a proper political structure, where the existing structure is often altered to better serve the ruler, culture plays an essential role in mobilising Egyptians.
To better understand the dynamics of Egyptian politics, one must first understand the country’s cultural make-up, which plays a major role in influencing citizens’ political perceptions and behaviour. Egyptian rulers have a comprehensive understanding of their country’s cultural dynamics, and they cleverly manage to pull the strings that mobilise Egyptians in their favour. The most dominant and influential Egyptian cultural characteristics are:
Conspiracy-oriented - Egyptians live and dream in the context of conspiracy theory. We are generally willing to believe the entire world is conspiring against us. This attitude shifts the burden of responsibility for their country from Egyptian citizens to the West, which is blamed for all the country’s troubles. Most of our faults are blamed on foreign interference, yet our rulers never specify who is interfering and for what purpose. Consequently, no Egyptian government has ever taken any retaliatory steps to stop this conspiracy. Although the false conspiracy argument has been used for decades, with millions of Egyptians believing in it and consecutive Egyptian rulers benefiting from it, it continues to work quite well.
Winner takes all - Egyptians could very well be the inventors of this expression. The concept of heading an inclusive government, which Western politicians often urge Egyptian heads of state to apply, is one that no Egyptian ruler accepts or understands. Egyptian politicians believe that winning any given election means owning their respective constituencies or the cabinet; they view it as a step forward on the path that will enable them eventually to rule exclusively. Tolerance of political opponents who have lost elections is non-existent. Trying to obtain their cooperation by persuading them of the merits of a ruler’s policies is completely unacceptable. Egyptian politicians win to weaken their opponents – not to share power.
Like it first, justify it later - The Western thinking process is based on defining, analysing and eventually reaching conclusions, while the Egyptian thinking process is based on liking, concluding, and, finally, justifying. Egyptians are very talented at justifying any unsuccessful proposition or failed project – but they never think to question why we fail while others succeed. In Egypt, our talents are directed at justifying why our failures were the best option available at the time.
Individualistic orientation – Egyptians are by default individualistically oriented; they have no team spirit and lack the foundations of leadership. Faced with any problem, rather than relying on one another, each Egyptian sees himself as the gatekeeper of the problem. A leader should behave like an orchestra conductor, interacting with his musicians and leading them to play harmonious tunes enjoyed by a large audience. Egyptian politicians, however, tend to turn their backs on the orchestra, preferring to spend their time lecturing the audience about their own talents. The result is the most talented musicians eventually quit the orchestra and the audience dislikes the performance.
Driven by shortcuts – Egyptians believe that the ability to create shortcuts is part of their innate cleverness, and they don’t realise the price they will eventually have to pay. Any observer of Egyptian traffic will notice the thousands of shortcuts that drivers manage to discover and use. Although these shortcuts are in most cases rough, unpaved roads that damage their cars, drivers derive pleasure from discovering faster routes. This same principle applies to politics – Egyptians have failed to develop a genuinely democratic and modern state precisely because of this attitude. We had a unique opportunity to build a truly democratic state after the 25 January Revolution. We failed to do so because of greedy politicians eager to reap the harvest of their efforts before they matured.
Emotional tendency – Being rational is a losing proposition in Egypt, even when your arguments have been scientifically proven. While Egyptians are doubtlessly emotionally driven, a good narrative must be established to make them believe in a story. We enjoy stories featuring pride and heroism in an action-driven, dramatic context. A hero who challenges the bad guys is highly admired by Egyptians. Because his story satisfied their emotional desires, the person who developed a device that could allegedly cure more than six chronic diseases was well perceived by thousands of well-educated and millions of ordinary citizens. Although eventually invalidated, the man’s story made millions of Egyptians happy for several months.
Accumulate first, react later- Egyptians might be perceived as impulsive and hot-tempered. While true, the impulsive reaction is very mild and cools down quickly. Nevertheless, Egyptians tend to accumulate their frustrations, eventually exploding. I was a strong believer that, given society’s passiveness, Egyptians would never revolt. I was mistaken; Egyptians do react and revolt, but only after having lived under harsh circumstances for some time. While this continues to be the case, I trust that the patience of Egyptians is wearing thin.
I’m right, you’re wrong - For most Egyptians, satisfying their egos is more important than actually doing the right thing. Rather than acknowledge their mistakes, people expend great efforts, using false arguments or deliberately vague accounts, to prove their decisions are correct. The government explains most of its shortcomings by claiming it saved the country from a greater disaster, and that citizens should therefore accept and live with this minor one. Egyptian leaders tend to believe they must always be right, hiring executives who endorse their ideas, and disregarding anyone who has an independent personality.
Excessive compromise – It is often said that politics is about compromise. While tactical compromises are necessary, compromising on values is to be condemned. Most Egyptian politicians over-compromise – to the extent that it is impossible to tell what values they uphold. Excessive compromise has affected the magnitude of most of our political decisions, which have also lost their direction.
Unlearning by mistakes - The famous proverb “Repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” applies perfectly to Egyptian politics. This has been Egypt’s tragedy from 25 January 2011 to the present. Politicians and citizens are repeating the same mistakes and expecting that the outcomes will be different because the players are different. Any ruler can make mistakes. However, society (including the ruler himself) learns from these mistakes. The methods we use to handle our challenges are copies of the mistakes made by previous governments.
The purpose of this piece is not to identify our society’s weak points, but simply to shed light on our cultural characteristics leading to values that Egyptian society eventually abides by. Many unfounded rumours were developed by the regime. Although they sounded ridiculous from the start, they were surprisingly well perceived by society. Challenging the United States has always been a popular story that is well liked and appreciated by millions of Egyptians. For this reason, our various rulers have frequently used it, and continue to do so today.
While rulers did not shape culture, they are nevertheless well aware of our cultural deficits. Instead of working on educating citizens about these shortcomings (which could take decades), they are using them to empower themselves by making false promises. Moreover, Egyptian politicians’ eagerness to wield power, combined with their short-sighted behaviour, allows the ruler to manipulate them to his advantage.