The decline of knowledge in Egypt
BY NAEL M. SHAMA Cairo Scant budgets, fanaticism, encroachments on freedom of expression and a growing isolationist, inward-looking attitude to the world have undermined the quality and reach of Egypt’s cultural production. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The real misfortune is that knowledge in Egypt has been deformed and commodified. Like a Pepsi can or a bag of chips, products with fine packaging and generous marketing campaigns win the race, leaving little room to any real transmission of knowledge.
From a historical perspective, the “commodification of culture” is certainly not a new phenomenon, but lately it has developed at alarming rates in the deep-rooted — yet enormously vulnerable — Egyptian culture. The interplay of various political and socioeconomic factors has given birth to a largely skewed process, whereby genuine talent and deep knowledge have taken the backseat, as distorted versions of art and science steal the limelight.
Egyptians invented the now prevalent concept of “fahlawa”, a slang term referring to a combination of wit and unpolished intelligence, and to the ability to use them to accrue benefits from minimal knowledge, experience or legal right in any given context. Fahlawa is no longer restricted to occasional use, or to the mere satisfaction of the impulses of rogue human whims; to many in our country, it has become a way of life.
It is generally assumed that culture is one realm where personal connections do not count and where marketing skills are irrelevant. Did not Shakespeare, Beethoven and Naguib Mahfouz excel and evoke awe and marvel in their audiences because of their stunning artistic talent alone? But in today’s Egypt, this simple, yet universal, rule is constantly proven wrong. Every day talent is ignored, subdued, crushed, and replaced with those who master nothing but the art of fahlawa, wrapped in a modern, dazzling robe of disingenuous marketing and promotion.
Numerous cases in art, literature, journalism, science and various other fields illustrate that success (narrowly defined here as having access to a vast audience and exercising influence over the general public) is no longer contingent upon value or merit, and has become dependent on how one can harness the art of marketing, how to rise to prominence with half a talent, and how to maneuver the dominant social structure in the quest for upward mobility and recognition.
The era’s motto has become: You must appear knowledgeable, not be knowledgeable.
Many Parrots, Few Thinkers
Because of their broad visibility, it is perhaps political television shows that best epitomize the current disarray. The significant rise of interest in political issues in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of political talk shows that are screened around the clock on dozens of local and satellite channels. But these shows are marred by dull uniformity. Nearly all of them share the same format, the same type of questions, and the same list of guests; in short, no creativity, no imagination, and little added value.
In contrast, there is a scarcity of documentaries or thorough works of investigative journalism. The production of these missing genres requires professionalism, dedication, discipline, hard work, in-depth analysis and a real penchant for uncovering the truth; in short, everything the political programs and their hosts lack.
The post-revolution mushrooming of political TV shows has given rise to an entire generation of what can be readily labeled as “TV-based political analysts.” The limited knowledge and mediocre performance of the hosts of these programs is often striking, suggesting that they haven’t read a book in years. Instead of hosting true experts, airtime airtime is occupied by a species of parrots, mimicking each other, with little research, contemplation or even basic fact-checking, often dropping phrases like “soft power,” “civil government,” and “deep state,” but with no real knowledge of their roots, context or implications.
Unfortunately, many young political researchers have been infected by the ongoing media frenzy, spending more time blabbering on TV than on conducting research, reading or writing. Scores of Egyptian journalists, moreover, have abandoned the writing profession, opting instead for lucrative positions on satellite channels, doing jobs they have not been trained for, and may not even be interested in.
In the same vein, a clique of amateur televangelists has dominated the country’s religious discourse, overshadowing true religious scholars and thinkers. The trouble with the rise of these preachers (usually referred to as the “new preachers”) is that they lack solid religious credentials and have a remarkably modest, and often vague and inconsistent, understanding of the teachings and philosophical foundations of Islam. It’s often difficult to distinguish their bizarre fatwas from bad jokes. Nevertheless, these preachers have turned in recent years into real celebrities, asserting their presence in the media, and attracting legions of fans every day.
To add insult to injury, following the revolution, many of these pseudo-scholars have been heavily involved in politics, offering ‘strategic’ insights and political analysis, and giving advice to politicians at every occasion.
A huge multi-million dollar industry has cropped up around these popular preachers. “Islamic” satellite channels, books, sermon tapes, and fashion stores are now competing in the market for consumers’ cash. Accordingly, sacred faith has become a commodity for sale in the showroom, and believers have receded into a mere marketing target group. In the age of globalization and open markets, the prevailing formula has become “da’wa for dollars,” as one Egyptian journalist once wrote.
For Islamic discourse, the rise of the market and fall of knowledge comes at a heavy price: damaging Islam’s image, spreading religious misconceptions, fomenting social unrest and inciting hatred against non-Muslims.
Similar misguiding mechanisms, which curb the real and embellish the fake, shape nearly all other knowledge-based domains in Egypt today. The majority of best-selling books are at best mediocre, if not painfully superficial and utterly commercial. The most widely-read blogs, are not those hosting the most creative and ingenious writings, whether fiction or non-fiction. And with only a few exceptions, the most followed on Twitter are not the smartest or the most intellectual, but the most vocal and active, those who are better at networking and intermingling.
Truth is the ultimate victim of this insane media hype.
Sadly, fame and public recognition, not competence or merit, are the fastest tickets to benefits and privileges today. To the disappointment and indignation of human resource specialists (and, surely, anyone who has a stake in the welfare of this nation), vacant public positions are now filled from a list of popular faces, which appear regularly in the media and make a lot of noise. Many of Egypt’s ministers, presidential consultants and members of the Constituent Assembly were selected using this erratic and iniquitous method.
The stakes here are enormous. Many young and promising talents have already seen their professional careers blocked by the rise of these bloated pseudo-talents. As a result, coming generations will favor image over substance, will nurture connections rather than accumulate knowledge, and will invest in self-promotion techniques instead of sustaining hard work and perseverance.
Egypt’s prominent geographer and thinker Gamal Hamdan (1928-1993) shunned the limelight and lived in solitude for the last 20 years of his life, producing some of the finest books on Egypt’s history, geography and politics, including the masterpiece Egypt’s Character: A Study in the Genius of Place. Had he lived in the days when clowns preached religion, unlettered minds instructed on strategy and politics, and plastic ‘stars’ constituted the core of the intelligentsia, his precious works would have probably sunk into oblivion, just like our days have nearly sunk into nothingness.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and columnist based in Cairo, Egypt. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @nael_shama