How Does Egyptian State Propaganda Influence and Shape Male Subjectivities?
Since the revolution of 2011 and the election of Abdel-Fatah El Sisi as president in 2014, the Egyptian state has ramped up its propaganda efforts. It focused on creating consent and support for the military state (El Issawi 2014: 30) and its police force. One of the consequences of these efforts has been an entrenchment of the masculinist tendencies of Egyptian society and the state. Through an analysis of state propaganda, male subjectivities, and first-hand observations in Egypt, I will be looking at how state propaganda under the Sisi regime influences our ideas of what the ideal Egyptian man is supposed to be. By propaganda, I am referring to “a deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intend of the propagandist” (Jowett and O’Donnell 2018: 267). This might be difficult to pinpoint in a state that heavily controls and monitors information output. In all information sharing there is some level of framing, where there is an active choice to include some pieces of information and exclude others within a framework of pre-existing schemas or social constructions (Scheufele 1999: 106). On a journalistic level, the aim in private media outlets is usually to inform but only in as much as it increases readership and, in that sense, they rarely go against mainstream narratives. This form of communication is also not exempt from a journalist’s personal biases or their attempts to either consciously or subconsciously adhere to the editorial policies of the publication. This means that in the wider media landscape in Egypt, whether state or privately owned, we rarely find dissenting voices.
So whereas private media are concerned with exposure and profit, state media will only communicate what is in the benefit of the state to communicate. This means that when state media communicates something negative, it is usually to defer responsibility from themselves or to show the work they are doing in order to fix it. I have not mentioned independent media outlets as they are very few in Egypt and subjected to frequent repression and silencing (such as Mada Masr). As such, they have very little sway over public opinion and can hardly be seen as a counterbalance to state propaganda. In a media field that is either dominated by the state or subject to its censorship, what, then, constitutes propaganda? I am referring to television advertisements, billboards, and newspaper articles that directly speak of the achievements and grandeur of the Egyptian state and military. The intention behind them is usually to garner support and affection for these entities by fostering a sense of pride in their accomplishments and also to create a sense of safety in their apparent strength. This is particularly important considering that two Egyptian presidents were overthrown in the space of two years in response to popular protests. The one clear continuity since Egypt’s independence from British colonialism has been the military and its strongmen, so this type of messaging is necessary in an environment where there was such clear contempt for the ruling powers.
Beyond news media, the propaganda state has also successfully infiltrated privately-owned entertainment channels aired through satellite television. The advertisements on these channels are no longer limited to military accomplishments but can now encapsulate a series of development and real estate projects that rival those of the region’s biggest business developers. A “new republic” hashtag in the top left corner of many channels subliminally announces the continuous presence of this new entity which is more powerful both in terms of physical and spending abilities. This is particularly evident in the recent spate of high-budget Ramadan series such as “The Choice” which depicts the accomplishments and victories of the security state against enemies such as the Muslim Brotherhood. From that we see how a new brand of Egyptian hero is being formulated as a strong, intelligent, patriotic man that is in one form or another, attached to the state.
Since Sisi’s inauguration, it was vital for the army to rebrand itself as being separate from the technocratic corporate ruling class as represented by Mubarak and the National Democratic Party (ousted February 2011). It was also necessary to show careful disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood, who elected Mohamed Morsi for the presidency but only managed to stay in power for a year (ousted June 2013). To create this disassociation in the public imaginary, many military billboards showed the caring side of the military, with soldiers kissing children and being kissed by motherly figures (particularly outside military training complexes visible from a number of major highways such as the Ring Road). This was to ingrain the idea of the military as the protector of the people which had sided with them in their fight against Mubarak. This image was further solidified after the removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood by painting all members of the Muslim Brotherhood as unpatriotic terrorists who were only concerned with consolidating their own power. They became the convenient threat the current military regime can use to create fear and expand their presence in the country. In creating the “terrorist” other, state propaganda has drawn on past narratives to create a sense of continuity between the Nasser regime and its military tradition to garner more support for the military (Van de Bildt 2015: 260). It is also helpful as the original point of antagonism against the Muslim Brotherhood, showing this to be a long conflict that is integral to the Egyptian national project (Ibid.: 271).
This was the beginning of a clear and visible demarcation between different forms of masculinity. During the revolution and the years after, masculinity was articulated and rearticulated in response to state actions. At the moment of revolutionary sentiment, one cry from a female activist called upon Egyptian men: “Show your honor and manhood and come down to Tahrir on 25 January. If not, then you are a traitor to the nation, like the police and the President are traitors” (Mahfouz 2011a, as cited in Amar 2011: 301). Throughout the 20th century and beginning with the anti-colonial struggle, Egyptian masculinity was closely tied in with the nation. During the revolution, a gap was created in the association between the government and the nation, and being pro-Egypt meant being anti-government. However, Egyptian men hadn’t fully escaped the Orientalist and neo-colonial notions that view young Arab men as mob-like and dangerous (Amar 2011: 301). Early opponents of the revolution, including state media, tried to paint the protestors as thugs, while the state was simultaneously deploying hired thugs to disrupt the peaceful protests. This rupture in competing notions of masculinity became a fight over public spaces, legitimacy in the use of violence (to oppress, resist or protect), and claims to Egyptian authenticity and who was really fighting for the nation’s best interests as opposed to trying to serve their own.
The competition over authentic Egyptian masculinity became very evident in conversations around sexual harassment and gender-based violence. While some had hoped that the revolution might create a sense of solidarity between different genders, the state was still mounting sexual attacks against male and female protestors to obviously varying degrees. Men who were part of initiatives to protect female protestors were sometimes sexually harassed themselves with the seeming intention of breaking their sense of dignity and manhood (Mecky 2018: 102). This reiterates the feminisation and weakness of victims of sexual assault while creating confusion around who the protectors and who the perpetrators are, especially in incidents of mass assault where women reported that some of the men assaulting them were claiming to protect them (El Nadeem Center Against Violence and Torture 2013). Women attempting to participate politically then find themselves at the mercy of both the country’s citizens and security apparatus in a cycle of violence that is constantly being reproduced on a number of levels, from the home to the street. This complicates male subjectivities as they tend to exist in opposition to female subjectivities. For the Egyptian men who tried to protect women from harassment, they were harassed themselves and consequently in some ways feminised, in the sense that they were grouped in with women as being the powerless recipients of violence rather than the powerful forces capable of enacting it or preventing it from happening to others. This leaves very little space for an Egyptian masculinity to exist outside a position that is antagonising to women.
Since the providing and protecting roles are linked with masculinity, it in turn formulates certain ideals around femininity, typically one that is docile and passive. For the state to formulate male subjectivities, it must be the first and greatest actor in performing this role and in that sense provide Egyptian men with an opportunity to fulfil these by gaining higher proximity to the state. Beginning with nationalist formations that saw women as representations for the nation, in the way it was being violated by colonisers, over time this has morphed into a protection of the nation through preserving the morality and honour of the notion through the policing of women’s bodies and sexuality. “The state rhetoric builds on asserting that women’s sexuality must be ‘protected’ to preserve the country’s honor, identity, and morality. In other words, the lack of women’s sovereignty over their bodies becomes a prerequisite for an ‘honorable nation.’ Protection of women’s honor is a mainstay of masculinity, which is what Enloe (2014) refers to as ‘patriarchal nationalisms.’” (Mecky 2018: 97) This a continuation of the enmeshment between what it means to be a patriotic Egyptian man and a masculine man that fulfills a protective and policing role over women’s bodies. They are mutually constitutive in the public imaginary of what the masculine represents.
As a consequence, this has introduced a new feature of male subjectivity that doesn’t see women requiring protection from either an external aggressor in the form of a coloniser or an immoral man, but requiring protection from her own immoral actions. In this articulation of gender, neither the state itself or even a woman’s home are considered sites of violence. These are widespread beliefs put in place by patriarchal forces on multiple levels to absolve men of responsibility from violence against women. This creates a sense of solidarity between all categories of men in society, that whatever violations a woman experiences is surely as a result of her own actions and never the harasser’s, whether it’s a form of state intimidation or a civilian assault in the street. Men’s masculinity then becomes diminished not because he was unable to protect her from another man but because she must have done something for her to have been harassed in the first place. The masculine desire to exercise control is diminished by the patriarchal state’s total control over violence and so it must be exercised somewhere where they can still exert some control, namely women’s bodies. This also conveniently exonerates men from the actions of other men in this hierarchy of violence and solidifies their self-image as protectors. There is no need to hold themselves or others accountable when it’s only the women who are responsible for what happens to them and consequently require protection from themselves.
Reducing such violence to purely gender based dynamics however would be simplistic – it is just one element of a larger project to control narratives and enact repressive policies by blinding us to the complexity of power networks operating on all the country’s inhabitants:
In the state and public sphere of many twenty-first-century Middle Eastern countries (particularly in Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Jordan) neoliberal market-making has been subsumed by particular kinds of humanism, blending a depoliticized form of Islamic moralism with contradictory forms of humanized police and military security-state enforcements. These humanized forms of control are designed to appear blind to or cleansed of class distinctions and ethnic difference but are increasingly obsessed with sexualized gender and a privatized and securitized ethics of the self. (Amar 2011: 42)
This description expands our understanding of the relationship between state dynamics and gender construction to include ideological discourses, class, and ethnic discrimination, and how these are subverted in order to serve a humanistic ideal of the state as “protector.” The state is then able to carry out this function through heavy involvement in the policing of bodies, genders, and sexualities.
The relationship between neoliberal economic policies and the policing of young male bodies for example is essential to understanding Egyptian male masculinity and how the Egyptian state tries to communicate and control it. The income inequality created by neoliberal economic policies has left a lot of Egyptian men unable to perform one of the most vital social roles ascribed to their gender, which is providing for their families. To counter that, the Egyptian state instead focuses on aspects such as physical strength, patriotism, strong family values, and steering away from the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood. This new form of masculinity that focuses more on physical ability and loyalty to the state as opposed to economic ability to participate in society or individual freedoms is best exemplified in the 2020 video of the Egyptian police academy’s graduation ceremony (Egypt Independent 2020). These graduation ceremonies are typically televised but had previously shown uniformed graduates parading in front of government officials. This time, it was mostly shirtless, oiled up muscular men doing pull ups and showing other forms of physical strength beyond what is typically required of a police officer.
As society has been getting more violent through overt displays of physical power by the army and the police, there has also been increased displays of the economic benefits of joining these institutions. Police stations all over Cairo have been refurbished in a more modern style; officers’ clubs have either been renovated or new ones built with areas for social gathering, playgrounds for children, and swimming pools, especially in affluent Cairo neighbourhoods such as Maadi or Zamalek. These are amenities that for a long time under Mubarak’s rule had only been available to the middle and upper classes. Now the state was giving poor urban men with frustrated dreams the opportunity to access a world that was promised by globalisation but denied by oppressive neoliberal economic policies. “According to Ghannam (8) intersectionality can help us understand how male subjectivities are created in intersection with patriarchy and capitalism” (Wahba 2020: 84). In this political and economic model, the state becomes the main source of income and power that would allow working class men to fulfill their roles as providers and protectors. This is a form of governance that uses the security state to violently implement neoliberal economic policies then poses itself as an access point to the very same resources it had previously excluded the working classes from. Therefore, we cannot think of Egyptian male subjectivies without thinking about how patriarchal networks overlap with this particular brand of capitalism as led by an authoritarian military state.
The state has constituted itself as masculinist and the ultimate patriarch. This means that all state propaganda not only exists to legitimise itself (Van De Bildt 2015: 253) but ends up also creating a model male subjectivity. Between television advertisements boasting new development projects, speeches by male only government officials, pro-army billboards, and other markers of the state’s physical and economic prowess, a good Egyptian man is now that is aligned with the state: “Conformity with the state discourse and support for the army as the protector of the people nowadays define a “good” and patriotic Egyptian in the eyes of the state and the large part of the public that has adopted the state’s discourse” (Van de Bildt 2015: 274). Throughout this project, the state has managed to produce a male subjectivity that is pro-state, antagonistic to women and with an understanding that the only way to perform this “maleness” is by aligning oneself with the economic and physical strength of the state. The danger of this form of masculinity is that it is being inscribed in an environment that already puts a huge amount of value on masculinity. It leaves little room for a critical analysis of a security state that is also patriarchal because they are now interwoven to the extent of creating a positive attitude towards the concept of a “strong protector” in any form. The biggest accomplishment of this model is to not only create a sense of inevitability around the status quo but a desirability around it by stoking the fears of political insecurity through constant reminders of Egypt’s recent past or by comparing itself to neighbouring countries whose fights for political freedoms have created highly volatile living situations for its citizens. My biggest fear is not the active repression of thought but the quiet killing of a radical political imaginary. The hope brought about by the 2011 revolution for the physical and mental spaces needed for feminist, anticapitalist and anti-state alternatives to our current reality seem to be slowly disappearing as the masculine state and its corresponding male subjectivities take up more and more space.
Jowett, Garth S. and V. O’Donnell (2018) Propaganda & Persuasion. United States of America: SAGE Publishing.
Amar, P. (2011) ‘Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out? Charging the Police with Sexual Harassment in Egypt,’ International Feminist Journal of Politics 13(3): 299-328.
Amar, P. (2011) ‘Middle East Masculinity Studies: Discourses of “Men in Crisis,” Industries of Gender in Revolution,’ Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 7(3): 36-70.
Egypt Independent (2020) Video: Outlandish Egyptian police cadet graduation goes viral on social media platforms, Egypt Independent, 22 October 2020, available at: https://egyptindependent.com/video-outlandish-egyptian-police-cadet-graduation-goes-viral-on-social-media-platforms/
El Issawi, F. (2014) Egyptian Media Under Transition: In the Name of the Regime... In the Name of the People? London: Polis.
El Nadeem Center Against Violence and Torture (2013) Live Testimonies On Sexual Torture In Tahrir Square And Surrounding Neighborhoods, available at https://elnadeem.org/2013/02/01/70/?lang=en
Mecky, M (2018) ‘State Policing: Moral Panics and Masculinity in post-2011 Egypt,’ Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research 4(1): 94-105.
Scheufele, D. (1999) ‘Framing as a Theory of Media Effects,’ Journal of Communication 49(1): 103-122.
Wahba, D. (2020) ‘A Thug, a Revolutionary or Both? Negotiating Masculinity in Post-Revolutionary Egypt, Middle East - Topics & Arguments 14: 56-65.
Van de Bildt, J (2015) ‘The Quest for Legitimacy in Postrevolutionary Egypt: Propaganda and Controlling Narratives,’ The Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 6(3-4): 253-274.