Egypt: Personal freedom? An alien concept in Egyptian society
Alexandria's beautiful Corniche by the Mediterranean is one of the most romantic places for a young couple in love to take a stroll. However, there is a sinister side to this picturesque scene that few talk about. At any given time, the coast is crawling with the policemen and plainclothes thugs of the morality police, searching for (unmarried) couples cuddling in a secluded area to terrify and blackmail.
Their dirty tactics are well known, yet few see anything wrong with them. No one sees this as a violation of these couples' individual liberties, since they deserve what happens to them, and more, for behaving in such an immoral fashion. Even more distressing is that the couples themselves believe they are doing something wrong and accept being judged by society as a natural consequence. They don't feel that their personal freedom has been trampled upon by the police. It would be more accurate to say that the concept of personal freedom is unknown to them.
Sadly, much of Egyptian society operates this way. The entire concept of having the "personal freedom" to do what you wish, provided you don't harm others, is nonexistent. Even those who claim to be proponents of individual liberty misunderstand the concept. It's about time that a debate on individual liberties started, for we live in a society where social repression and hypocrisy have risen to sickening levels.
It has never occurred to many people in Egypt that they should actually have the right to live and do as they please. For too long now, people have been living by the dictates set by society, rather than their own free will. The question "what will people and society say about me?" has become practically sacred.
It has become completely normal for total strangers to tell you what to do. On several occasions, I've been told by friends and strangers that I shouldn't wear shorts or listen to western music, or that it's not right to stand with a girl, especially when alone.
Opponents of the concept of individual liberty usually put up the following two arguments to explain how wrong it is. They first explain that individuals must be forcibly restrained from doing certain things for their own good; otherwise we would become a chaotic society where debauchery, illicit relationships and alcohol were commonplace. The result would be anarchy.
The second argument is this: "If personal freedom had no limits, people would be free to kill and steal." Obviously, such logic should not even be used in an intelligent conversation. We all agree that certain rules and laws are needed to protect us from crime, and the fact that such an argument is used shows how misunderstood the concept is.
There is a prevailing belief that the individual factor must be totally cancelled in favour of society's common good. We are expected to be faceless members of a monolithic block that thinks and acts in only one way.
Thinking outside the box is strictly forbidden. A notable example is Kareem Amer, a former student at al-Azhar University in Cairo who declared his atheism and criticised Islam on his blog, and is serving a four-year jail sentence as punishment. His actions were harmless, but he received nothing but condemnation from society. Even his parents publicly disowned him. A friend of mine, upon hearing about Kareem's case, said: "He totally deserves it. If he wants to be an unbeliever, fine, but he should keep it to himself."
Anyone with divergent opinions should keep them to himself, lest he hurt the common good. The most detrimental consequence of this suppression of freedom of thought is an inevitable loss of creativity and diversity. If all people are expected to follow the same actions and thoughts and condemnation awaits any deviant, there's no point in saying or doing something different.
In fact, the prevailing notion is that everyone should restrict their individual liberties to avoid harming others, even in strictly personal decisions such as what to wear. A woman is not free to wear immodest clothing, lest she aggravate the frustrations of unmarried men. If someone happens to drink alcohol, he shouldn't even tell others about it, or they will be encouraged to copy him. The result is a rampant culture of hypocrisy and double standards, as everyone adopts the same public position while allow themselves to do the opposite when nobody is looking.
Interestingly, Egyptians are quick to flash the "personal freedom" card when it comes to the right of women in France and Belgium to wear the niqab. The west is accused of having two sets of rules, as they allow scantily clad women to roam freely while targeting those who want to guard their modesty. But when it comes to the right of women to take off their hijab or young people to love each other as they please, it's no longer personal freedom, but a violation of our customs and traditions. Those who claim that personal freedom exists actually mean that it only exists within the limits set by society.
Why do Egyptians forcibly restrain themselves and their fellow citizens from exercising their personal freedoms, in the process forcing everyone to become a hypocrite, including themselves? Is it the Islamic concept of "promotion of virtue and prevention of vice" that convinces people that they are everyone else's guardian and have the right to tell people how to live? If so, that is only part of the explanation, since even the most irreligious Egyptian Muslims and Christians rarely cross society's boundaries in public.
Is it the pervasive honour/shame culture that grips the Arab world? Or simply a psychological defence mechanism directed at those who have the courage to swim against the tide?
There is probably no simple explanation. Whatever the reason, Egyptians need to realise that there's a better way to live their lives than following others' dictates.
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 June 2010