Rachel Aspden’s book Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East begins not in Tahrir Square in 2011, but when Aspden first traveled to Egypt, in 2003. At a panel discussion held by New America NYC at its new venue, Interface, on Tuesday, Aspden read an excerpt, describing a society where “the watchful eyes permanently surrounded you.”
These secret apparatchiks of the Deep State surveillance apparatus, Aspden said, form “a pyramid: family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, passersby, waiters, shop-keepers, the apartment building doorman, porters, guards ... the eyes and ears of Cairo.” The regime had building owners inform on their tenants in the hunt for “foreigners, activists, gay men, prostitutes, and anyone else of interest to the security services.”
Cairo’s “sprawling surveillance regime had been consolidated in the 1950s by Gamal Abdul Nasser with the help of a motley international assortment of spies and torturers,” Aspden said, “including fugitive Nazis installed in luxury villas and kept working for low pay for threat of extradition to Israel. Under Mubarak,” she continued, “the security services were estimated to employ two million people.” They monitored the people for political dissidence, and also “their sex lives for any hint of deviation from state-sanctioned norms that might leave them open to blackmail or prosecution.”
Angie Gad, born in the United States and moved to Egypt as a teenager, was very used to people “speaking their mind,” where “you didn’t have to worry about anything.” In Egypt, the rule was: Politics is not to be discussed.
That all changed during the uprising in January-February 2011. “It was this big vacuum. ‘Oh my God, we can talk about things now.’ It was this back-and-forth, post-revolution and SCAF,” Gad said, referring to the military junta regime known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took control after Mubarak stepped down. SCAF relinquished power once Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically-elected ruler of Egypt in its history, took over — until August 2013, when a coup led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew him. “Then Morsi, then Sisi, so it’s whiplash.”
During those halcyon days, Gad was in her junior year as a political science major in Cairo. She remembered thinking, “We saw what happened in Tunisia.” Her mother was adamant: “Absolutely not, you’re gonna get arrested.” At the peak of the protests, the Mubarak regime cut off all internet access. Gad left Spain, where she was on vacation, to go back to Egypt and found people camping out at the airport trying to leave.
“Everything was closed. Schools were closed, banks were closed, everything.” She and her friends went to Tahrir Square during the daytime, eventually convincing her parents to come join her in the streets. “Egyptians like to make everything fun,” she added, saying “vendors sold tea and sweet potato” and musicians played. “They had a great time, and an hour and a half into it,” her father got a call that warned “the Americans are coming,” which was nonsense. “There were rumors spreading every day.”
While this was happening, Aspden was working at the Guardian and dying to get back. Even though Mubarak had shut down the internet, Aspden received several messages telling her they were at Tahrir “and you have to tell our story.” She realized “what these young people were doing was extraordinary.” Aspden had to go back “and document how they’re trying to bring this change about.”
“We do have a lot of talk about the Deep State in the United States right now,” said Moustafa Bayoumi, an English professor at Brooklyn College. He knows “a lot of Muslim-Americans here in the United States who feel like they don’t actually have that freedom to say what they want to say in public and are very concerned” about our own surveillance system. Bayoumi cited the work of the Associated Press, which reported how the NYPD “was spying on the very quotidian, daily, meaningless elements of life.”
“One way of thinking about the situation in Egypt,” he said, “is that there was a revolution — an uprising, a popular uprising — that certainly led to a change of government. Whether that change of government, though, was complete is a real question because in a lot of ways you have inter-elite competition.”
The military, controlling a large tranche of the economy, is pitted against an “upwardly-mobile bourgeoisie class that’s actually separate from the military,” Bayoumi said. There were “massive growing levels of inequality … police brutality … sectarian violence that was galvanizing the population against the state.” Another element was “a whole lot of labor agitation,” for example the April 6 Movement, which is “often underplayed.”
Sana Amanat, a director of content and character development at Marvel Entertainment, spoke of “that constant fear that you are not as woke as you’d like to be,” since “we’re so polarized right now, and the struggle that I’m having, especially in the position I have at Marvel and being a little bit more vocal is to make sure I don’t also — pardon my French — piss off half of my consumer base who might have a very different ideology.” The only ideology of the Deep State, however, is its survival.
The reigning elites “changed places,” Bayoumi said. In this way, he explained, “the Deep State will maintain itself while the rest of the country thinks that they’re actually gaining something from this.” He expects there will be another uprising. “The next phase is going to be more violent,” he said. During “these euphoric days that everyone talks about, the magical 18 days,” Aspden said, “everything seemed possible.” Gad agreed, recalling that “people were saying, ‘There’s no more corruption.’ It didn’t take long for it to sink in that the Deep State is deep and it’s going to get deeper,” Gad added. “The regime is making sure this never happens again.”