Drawing a funny moustache on the personality cult

Some wise guy reportedly stole the Field Marshal’s shoe at Eid prayers, providing fodder for a sarcastic news cycle of Facebooking and Twittering.

Fake front page of state newspaper Al-Ahram: "Field Marshal: Egypt Will Pass to a Stage of Stability as Soon as We Find the Shoe."

Latuff weighs in

There have been several of these moments: the fuss about Tantawi’s suit, the Twitter campaign to send him birthday greetings. Some of these comments are very funny, and it’s hard to resist pressing “share” or “like,” but I just want to say (with a shoutout to Lisa Wedeen) that making fun of the Dear Leader is still somehow replicating the ubiquitous image, playing into the nascent personality cult.

The dynamics of containment and subversion are complex, and I can accept that in a real totalitarian system some little moments of caricature and parody can be crucial in reminding people that they are human, that they are smart, that they are not alone. But in Egypt, nine months after toppling Mubarak? Do people really need to be reproducing images of Tantawi, even funny ones of his boxer shorts?  Resuming almost without interruption the 20th-century habit of poking gentle fun at the head of state? The message is, “Down with military rule,” but the subtext is: the military ruler is inevitable.(Maybe his face should instead be replaced by an image of a flower wherever it appears, like the female Salafi parliamentary candidate?)

By the way, what’s so incongruous about the well-tailored suit?  Arguably it’s exactly what Tantawi should be wearing, since SCAF represents what is basically a large corporation (“Military Inc”) with economic holdings in all kinds of “civilian” fields including manufacturing of medical supplies, electronics, and home appliances; infrastructure including the “spanking new” (actually about 10 years old but crazy well-maintained) highway to Ain Sokhna and all the gas stations on it, possibly even the resort where my kids and I are spending their Eid vacation. (This is unconfirmed. But according to the driver who brought us here: “Most of these resorts are run by the military. The waiters who serve you — conscripts. You’ll see. It’s not a problem: the mandatory military service in Egypt creates so many soldiers no one knows what to do with them.”  I reminded him that if this is true, it was his tax money subsidizing this use of underpaid conscript labor to enrich top military brass. But in fact, of course, it’s mine.)

These must be the real issues: SCAF’s internal dynamics (the council has 40 members!), top generals’ fear of losing the vast chunk of the Egyptian economy they control (something no one besides Springborg seems to discuss in detail – and with the prophetic power of pessimism he basically called it on Feb 2!), their fear of fracturing within the military ranks (Nasser and his fellow coup plotters were junior officers). This cogent analysis by Philippe Droz-Vincent lays out the reasons why it may be hard for SCAF to engage in a real handover to democracy – and helps explain, I think, why ridiculizing the SCAF dictatorship will do nothing to remove it.

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