Selfies with Disaster

The farcical hijacking of an EgyptAir flight to Cyprus is made more so by various “selfie” photographs that a passenger and a stewardess took with the hijacker wearing an improvised and clearly fake belt. A friend posted on Facebook that “our beoble are not serious hijackers”. That is true enough in this case, but it is uncertain whether this represents Egypt’s saving grace or its persistent problem.

The run up to the Suez crisis of 1956 was accompanied by British politicians comparing Nasser to Hitler. Many Egyptians noted at the time that this is a wild exaggeration. Egyptian concentration camps would likely feature major gaps in the barbed wire and guards with a weakness for bribes. They would still be deadly, but not in an efficient and industrial fashion. This is not pure speculation. A grizzled old Sicilian man described to me, decades after World War II, how his service in the Italian army during that war was the best time of his life. His unit engaged the British in combat and was quickly surrounded and taken prisoner. The British handed them to a prison camp run by the Egyptian army. In time, some of the prisoners made friends with the guards and with suitable exchange of currency were allowed to roam out and even work as waiters in Alexandria, as long as they never informed the British or did anything to draw suspicion.We might be tempted to think of such episodes as evidence of the warmth, humor and humanity of Egyptians. And we would be only partly right. The chaotic aftermath of the 2011 revolution clearly hints at darker costs for lack of seriousness.

The world poured out its warm emotions toward Egypt in the 18 photogenic days that heralded the end of Mubarak’s time as President. But the follow up was a dangerous farce, in time turning the irrational joy of outsiders to equally irrational anger. None of the contending forces made a plan for governing a large country with structural problems. In fact the entire process, called “Arab Spring” and “Egyptian transition” by those hopeful outside actors, amounted to a Beckett-like pantomime of politics and governance. At least three American friends recently expressed nostalgia for Mubarak, a man they long reviled but are now tempted to compare favorably to the current leaders. This raises the question of whether Mubarak’s derision toward his opponents indicated arrogance or understanding.

Egypt faces an array of problems, with some rising to the level of existential threats. Yet, the country, or at least its elite, is pre-occupied with issues of religion, identity and other vaguer concepts. Like the passengers on the plane who, faced with a potentially deadly threat, chose to mug for the camera. Perhaps they knew better, or perhaps they were lucky. But luck is not a good long term plan for Egypt.

— Maged Atiya


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