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memri
December 4, 2003 No.
622

Leading Egyptian Liberal Ali Salem on the Struggle of Arab Intellectuals for Freedom

In an article in the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, [1] renowned liberal Egyptian playwright Ali Salem described the change in mentality required for a transition from a state of war to a state of peace. Relying at times on Freud's book 'Totem and Taboo,' Salem explains the recent hysteria in Khartoum, Sudan over the supposed disappearance of male genitalia. [2] The incident, he said, parallels the campaign by some elements of the Arab elite against normalization and peace with Israel. The following are excerpts from the article:

Hysteria Spreads at the Hint of Peace

"Arab newspapers reported recently from Khartoum that a large number of citizens were coming to the police station to complain that they had lost their virility or that their penises had suddenly atrophied. Some even reported that the penis itself had disappeared [as a result of shaking hands with a foreigner]…

"The police arrested suspects that admitted having shaken [people's] hands but completely denied they were the cause of what happened to the complainants. The police were assisted by physicians who determined that the victims' state was normal, the source of the problem was psychological, and no one's penis had disappeared, as was claimed. It was, rather, a severe condition of atrophy caused by sudden fright…

"However, the number of complaints grew, and people refrained from shaking each other's hands. Many husbands, despite having shaken no one's hand, took advantage of the opportunity to shirk their obligations to their wives…

"We are facing a clear situation of hysteria over a collective war. This hysteria is not apparent in wartime, but it spreads like a plague when a peace agreement is achieved or when there are indications of such an agreement. After years of domestic fighting… fear becomes one of the fundamental components of the human psychological and mental system… Since it is not possible at a time of war to fight the enemy solely on the basis of hate; there must be a feeling of contempt for the enemy, and this contempt is provided by war propaganda about the enemy's treacherous nature, its abominable acts, and its inhumanity…

"But why did the phenomenon burst forth in the form of collective fear about a loss of manhood?"

Fear of Physical Contact with Strangers

"There is no way but to admit that the popular consciousness conceives of [the physical elements of] masculinity as [representing one's] manhood. A man can lose his freedom and rights as a human being without sensing humiliation or pain. He can turn himself into a liar, deceiver, or slouch without feeling a sense of dishonor. However, in sexual weakness he sees his end as a human being. He sees it as the annihilation of his being. The slogan that runs through his mind is: I have sex, therefore I exist; yet there is an enemy out to destroy me. The enemy is treacherous, a man of conspiracy and witchcraft. So he dispatches a few sorcerers to carry out the task. (In other societies, he dispatches AIDS-infected girls.) [3] In a split second, the collective mind goes back tens of thousands of years and sees the enemy as taboo. Later, he punishes himself with the greatest punishment known to Man, on the psychological level - castration - because he shook the hand of [i.e. touched] the taboo. We stand before the most famous neurosis of all, touching phobia..."

Fear of Normalization with a Neighboring Country

"That is a quick analysis of the phenomenon at the psychological level… At the political level, we face a clear situation of resistance to normalization with the enemy, not as an enemy, but as a taboo in a mental framework, completely divorced from any considerations of rationality, consciousness, responsibility, politics, law, or public interest.

"That is exactly what is happening with the producer Khaled Hajar, who produced the only Egyptian film at the Cairo Film Festival. The story is that 10 years ago, when the people on this planet learned about the Oslo accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians and hope swelled for a true and just peace in the Middle East, [Khaled Hajar] dared to appear in the English film, 'The Gulf Between Us,' which tells an implausible love story between an Arab man and a Jewish woman.

"The film was attacked when it was screened in Egypt in 1994, with the claim that it reeked of encouragement of normalization. Since then, [Hajar] has been dubbed a 'normalization supporter.'

"Ten years later, he managed, together with his friends, to produce another film, 'The Love of Girls,' which has nothing to do with normalization. The directors of the Cairo Film Festival looked for an Egyptian film, regardless of its quality, but failed to find one because the filmmakers [are] busy with the lofty [political] issues of the region. Therefore, they had to accept Hajar's film, but only after taking the necessary protective measures: They told him to write that he is not a 'normalization supporter,' that he opposes normalization, and that he had never visited Israel and would not visit it in the future.

"However, this written act of repentance failed to earn a certificate of approval, as was the case with its predecessors throughout the long history of the Inquisition and the witch hunts. Therefore, demonstrations and protest meetings were organized against the festival's directors for accepting a film produced by a normalization supporter. Once again, we are confronted with touching phobia. He did not touch [the] enemy; he touched an idea that reminded them of the enemy. He touched that idea ten years ago. Nowhere on the face of the earth is there a way to purify [yourself] of the contamination that gripped you when you touched a taboo, neither public repentance nor written confession…

"Even if you use all your mental powers and all tools of logic, you have no chance of understanding what these people want. Do they demand removing the only Egyptian film from the festival, thus robbing it of its raison d'etre? Do they demand depriving the producer of his right to work because ten years ago he participated in a film 'that can be understood' to support normalization?"

The Real Issue: The Transition to Political and Economic Freedom

"The truth is that there are genuine and powerful reasons for this activity that have nothing to do with peace, Israel, and normal relations with it...

"The issue is a struggle against the transition to political and economic freedom. This is a struggle that gets its chief support from the Egyptian bureaucratic system.

"In a country of centralized rule, there must be an enemy, there must be a mental war, and there must be engineering of people from on high in order to confront the enemy. In this atmosphere, the price of the big words and the loud cries rises. There is no need to acquire skills in any profession. [All you need is] revolutionary bravery. That is how the stocks of skilled people fall, people's standards of living take a nosedive, and the journalist-leader, artist-leader, and intellectual-leader ascend while the artist creator, the journalist searching for truth, and the intellectual concerned with the present - disappear.

"In a situation of transparency and a transition to a free economy that benefits from the protection of the law and state, people's prices are determined according to the laws of the market. Your price will rise only if people need what you have to offer, and not because someone forced you on them. Therefore, a large number of intellectuals, and revolutionary extremist groups across the spectrum, have discovered that the transition to political and economic freedom strips them of protection and even deals them a deathblow.
"Because it is inconceivable that this transition take place without first ridding ourselves of the state of mental war, the enemy that attracted most of the fire was the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, the Oslo accords, and all other agreements on the horizon. They needed to lengthen the pleasant lives the country gave them. There must be plays and films that no one sees, stories that no one reads, and intellectual instigators who are experts in blackening people's lives. There must be fighting to the last breath in order to preserve the revolutionary ideas that failed everywhere on the planet, and this demands forever preserving the enemy… to continue the struggle against the transition to political and economic freedom."


[1] Al-Hayat (London), November 5, 2003.

[2] See Panic in Khartoum: Foreigners Shake Hands, Make Penises Disappear.

[3] These sorts of rumors were published by Egyptian newspapers in the past.