• 02:39
  • Sunday ,18 September 2011

The politics of symbolic forms

By-Amr el-Zant



Sunday ,18 September 2011

The politics of symbolic forms

 Where does Israel live in the Egyptian public imagination? Some unfortunate instances are usefully recalled: Jewish settlement in Palestine; a few wars, and the loss of Palestine; bloody incursions into Lebanon and Gaza; the destruction of Arab cities, including the Suez Canal towns. Then there is the saga of intelligence struggles against the Israeli espionage machine, folklore that captured many an Egyptian mind as it emerged from screens big and small.

As is generally the case, our image of the world is formed  through symbols; via the language used in describing, relating and understanding events, through the cultural and political discourse through which they are apprehended. In this context, Israel’s reflection in Egypt’s public discourse is more closely related to our perception of Egyptian history than anything intrinsic about Israel.
This is to be expected for two reasons in particular. First, the Egyptian media, including its massive official arm, has mulishly refrained from relaying a full and faithful image of the actualities of Israeli reality and its development - the Egyptian press never even formally reported from Israel, and the regime sent independent Egyptians wanting to visit to the State Security Investigative Services. The second reason relates to the fact that important turning points in Egyptian history did indeed coincide with corresponding ones in the history of our relations with Israel, a state of affairs that naturally evoked numerous mental associations between the two, with the emphasis naturally placed on our own internal history. This has had an important impact on how the different epochs of modern Egyptian history are evaluated, and on the images and emotions associated with each period.
Thus the 'Nakba' of 1948 is associated with the fall of the constitutional monarchy of King Farouk and the decline of liberal Egypt; the 'Tripartite Aggression' of 1956 with ascendance of Nasserist Egypt and the heyday of Arab nationalism; ‘the Setback’ of 1967 with the disintegration of ambitious dreams of emancipation and renaissance, notions relentlessly impressed by Nasser’s cacophonous press; finally, the (Suez Canal) ‘Crossing’ of 1973 has been intimately linked with the idea of dignity. The name is even often employed metaphorically, to refer to the passage from defeat to victory.   
However, the subsequent peace process resulted in a demilitarized Sinai and a failed Palestinian effort, which served to remind that the ‘victory’ was limited and that ‘dignity’ had not been fully recovered. Israel’s Lebanon escapades, its crushing of the Intifada, and the persistence of settlement expansion all inflated the feeling of humiliation, which in the Egyptian public psyche seemed causally related to the peace treaty, despite the fact that all the aforementioned catastrophes were primarily a result of the larger heritage of Arab failures, as well as internal changes in Israeli society that lead to the rise of the irredentist Right. In fact Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem was an attempt to save what was salvageable given the circumstances. On the purely Egyptian track, the end result was satisfactory; an end to the destruction was declared and occupied land was returned.   
The problem is that, through the decades, the history of the conflict was never really discussed in a sufficiently open and critical context. King Farouk was never held to task when he sent an army of limited resources and training into a thousand mile trek across the desert, despite the objection of the elected government and some of his generals. In 1956, the military details were concealed. Nasser’s press portrayed the war as a battle with colonial superpowers; it would not admit that Egyptian lines in Sinai virtually collapsed before the Anglo-French intervention. Indeed, the military procedure Israel adopted in 1967 was quite similar to the one so successful in 1956, but no critical lessons could be learned amid the piercing shouts of ‘victory’. Neither could it have been possible that the price of recovering the Sinai - UN peacekeepers and free Israeli passage through the Strait of Tiran - be made public. When Nasser tried to reverse this situation a decade later, disaster transpired. Yet to this day there has been no proper public enquiry into the matter. And to this day most Egyptians are unaware that, despite the spectacular successes of the first few days, the 1973 war ended with the encirclement of the Third Army and with Israeli forces 101km from Cairo on the Suez road. Nor do they know that the area where our armed forces are allowed under the peace treaty is vastly larger than that liberated during the war.
In this confusing context, events are obfuscated; they become difficult to analyze and causally connect; and so the revenge against a  fuzzy ‘humiliating past’, apprehended holistically rather than analytically, may take the  form of concentrated  anger towards certain symbol - a process that may be enacted in burning flags or in incensed slogans.  For in this ritualized context, the symbol stops referring, conceptually and conventionally, to the ‘thing’, it becomes the thing.  And though these acts have much more to do with the destruction of an imagined Egyptian past that lacks important contextual elements than with the elimination of Israel, those who go on parroting phrases like the “Zionist Entity” seem piteously unaware that they are recreating a symbolic world that lives in the causal heart of the 1967 disaster - and that here, given  the continuing regional conflict, the sometimes exaggerated Israeli apprehensions and the persistently tense relations, the symbol and associated ritual can actually help resurrect the catastrophe. On the other hand, symbolic rites can be of very little help in effectively dealing with contemporary world in order to properly redress the effects of accumulated errors. 
Though there may be no escape from apprehending the world through symbols, the matter at hand here relates to the difference between rationally constructing a symbolic image of the world that can be tested logically and empirically - and hence be shown to reasonably reflect the corresponding reality - or to let the symbolic representation of the world dominate our perception of it, and hence give undue importance to ritual… It never rains simply because tribes do the rain dance. And all attempts at escaping what is ‘pathetic in our history’ should start from this premise.