Sonia Farid: The New Merriam-Egypt for Advanced Revolutionaries

When you are asked what the January 25 Revolution has done, the first thing that would come to your mind would of course be toppling the regime, that is if you are the type of person who believes every question has one straightforward answer.

If you are the type who believes every question has one obvious answer and another deep one, you would say it restored the dignity of the Egyptians and opened their eyes to the amazing potential they’ve always had, yet have never utilized. If you are of the cynical breed that believes every question has one obvious answer and a thousand absurd ones, you would say it added a whole lot of new idioms to the dictionary of Egyptians, enabled them to invent new words, or make up new approaches to already existing ones.

Let me first start off by saying that before the revolution, average Egyptians—even a sizable portion of the educated amongst them—hardly knew what was really meant by words like “constitution,” “parliament,” or “elections.” Lest I might be misunderstood, I am not blaming them, for they lived in a country plighted for decades with a chronic political stagnation that made such words absolutely irrelevant to them and of no impact whatsoever on their personal or public lives.

Even for those who understood what they meant, the state of utter despair they had reached made it pointless to discuss them or even refer to them in a casual conversation. As “what articles of the constitution do think need to be changed?” and “What will happen if the Muslim Brotherhood get parliamentary majority?” replaced “Good morning” and “How are you feeling today?” a long list of terms that either acquired new meanings or were resurrected from the dead started self-compiling, walking down the streets of Cairo you would listen to an entirely different language that would make you feel you had just passed by 10 Downing Street or the United Nations headquarters.

For Egyptians, an “agenda” is basically a leather-covered, 365-page book designed for jotting down appointments and day-to-day to-do tasks, but mostly used by students for taking down notes in class, by housewives for grocery lists, household-related budget, and recipes, and is the “dear diary” of teenage girls who like the boy next door. For a few people, usually those who work in the private sector, “agenda” is the list of topics to be discussed in a meeting. “Agenda” became a cuss word right after the protests had started, particularly when it became synonymous to Iran, which, as part of its Shiite infiltration campaign and its determination to see Vilayat-e Faqih rule the region, incited Egyptian youths to stage an “Islamic revolution” modeled after its 1979 role model, to Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah said he wished he were in Tahrir and this automatically meant he was supplying the revolutionaries with weapons, to Qatar, which pressed the protest buttons from the controls of Al-Jazeera.

In the “related words” section, “agenda” was also associated with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even the United States and Israel. Officials interviewed after the protests broke out used the word “agenda,” always preceded by “hidden” and/or “foreign,” in every answer to questions that sounded like, “Sir, could you please explain why this uprising is happening?” A couple of days later, identifying words were removed as the word “agenda” gained its independence and stood on its own to mean “conspiracy,” “espionage,” “threat to national security,” and anything sneaky, destructive, and with ulterior motives.

So to save his time and energy for more important things like figuring out where to smuggle the billions he plundered from public money or determining who his scapegoat would be in case the revolution works, the minister or MP or governor interviewed would just say, “Those kids out there have an agenda” without bothering to add a description of what it is about. Not only did it become a derogatory term, but it also turned from a noun into an adjective so I would become an “agenda woman” engaged in “agenda activities” and so on.

Directly linked to the “agenda” was Kentucky… yes, the fried chicken. As the regime was desperately trying to present the protestors as mercenaries used by those foreign powers who want to rule the world, it started spreading rumors that they were given a daily meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken—there is a branch in Tahrir Square—in return for continuing the sit-in and insisting on the toppling of the regime. Hilariously, the protestors who went around giving food and drink to their fellow “agendas” started hanging placards over falafel sandwiches bags and juice cans boxes that read “The best of Kentucky.” Even more hilariously, Kentucky Fried Chicken itself issued a statement in official newspapers stressing that all chain branches had been closed since the start of the protests and that no meals were by any means supplied to anyone.

“Masonry” puts “agenda” and “Kentucky” to shame as far as comic absurdity is concerned. When Google executive Wael Ghoneim made his first appearance on TV after 12 days of detention at the headquarters of the notorious State Security on charges of “incitement,” he became the talk of the town. This was not because he left his job in Dubai to see the dream of millions of Egyptians come true and certainly not because he was the creator of the Facebook page that mobilized Egyptian youths for the revolution, but because of something much more serious… he turned out to be “Masonic.”

What really struck me when I first heard this was not the allegation itself, but rather one fact I was sure of at the time: almost 99 percent of Egyptians did not know what Freemasonry was—not that they do now—but it was astonishing how the word gloriously replaced other taboos in Egyptian society like “secular,” “communist,” or “Baha’i.” Ghoneim’s shirts, and those of his kids as well, always sport a logo similar to that on Masonic temples, wears a rubber wrist band similar to the one worn by some White House officials and, like them, makes sure the hand in which he wears it appears in front of the camera, and he has the same hand gestures as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “Is that a coincidence?” asked hundreds of Egyptians who either invented or subscribed to this theory. “No, it’s not,” was the answer because there are several other proofs like the fact that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are listed as people who inspire Ghoneim’s on Facebook… and worst of all, potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei.

This kind of unquestionable evidence makes you doubt yourself and start wondering that maybe Giordano is affiliated to some Masonic Lodge in Ireland or maybe cancer awareness campaigns aim at rebuilding the Temple of Solomon or maybe all Americans—presidents, politicians, and IT moguls—are by definition Free Masons. Like “agenda,” Freemasonry, on which apparently all Egyptians have always been experts, became equivalent to those powers of darkness that aim at wreaking havoc in Egypt under the pretext of democracy and civil rights. Consequently, “Masonic” replaced “traitor” and became part of the everyday vocabulary of those who opposed the revolution and all those “accused” of bringing it about.

“Activist” is another word that spread like fire through hay during the revolution, but that, for a change, has quite a positive connotation, though this varied depending on whether we’re talking post-January 25 or post-February 11. I once met a former colleague in Tahrir Square when the protests where at their peak and as I was engaged with some of my friends in a heated debate about whether or not the regime will be toppled. He interrupted us, looked at me, and asked in the most serious tone: “Now that I have come to Tahrir, will I be considered an activist?” I knotted my brows and gave him that “you got to be kidding me” look and, trying to be as composed as possible, asked him, “What exactly do you mean?” Obviously not seeing anything wrong with what he was saying, he explained as if to a stupid kid asking his mother how he was born: “I want to be called an activist because I know how prestigious that is now. Think of how it would look when I write on Facebook that I am an activist. Very cool, right?” I was growing more and more impatient and couldn’t help snapping, “You’re not an activist, ok? So go find yourself something else to brag about.” I could see he was taken aback by my abruptness, but I couldn’t care less. Yet, he managed to make me think about what he said in the middle of that entire ruckus and for a few days I kept wondering if he had ever heard that term before the revolution and if he knows what it means in the first place. After the president stepped down, the label became all the more desirable and the “activism” craze became as rampant as the 12th century plague and people sitting in coffee houses or shopping for groceries—many of them, I bet, had not been aware why the revolution happened—would be seen referring to themselves as activists and enumerating their political conquests.

After the “agendas” turned out to be “patriotic,” Kentucky reopened its doors for newly-liberated chicken lovers, Freemasonry turned out to have been confused with the Klu Klux Klan, and the word “activist” acquired epic proportions. It was then time for the “remnants,” the word that entered the Egyptian dictionary right after the toppling of the regime and which is used to denote members of the formerly ruling, now disbanded, National Democratic Party. The Arabic word used in this context is “fouloul” and that does not simply mean “remnants,” but rather the remaining groups of a vanquished army who sometimes attempt to get back at the victorious one even though they realize their chances at winning are almost nil. This word, found in classical Arabic poetry and never used before in colloquial Egyptian as far as I know, became a household utterance when it started to be mentioned at least a hundred times a day in different media outlets and when it became the magic reason behind any post-revolution unrest in the country. Whether or not there are actually “remnants” of the regime venting their anger and retaliating at the revolutionaries, it doesn’t matter because anyway whenever a disaster takes place it is them we have to blame.

So, you would say, “Did you hear about the church that got attacked last night?” and the response would be, “Yes, these are the ‘remnants’” or “Thugs are attacking people and stealing their cars on the highway,” and you would also get, “None other than the ‘remnants’ would so such thing,” or “Salafis are threatening to destroy Sufi shrines across the country,” and the answer is. “Yeah, that’s typical ‘remnants.’”

Regardless of whether they exist or not, the then soon-to-be “remnants” in one last desperate attempt not to acquire such a disgraceful title had done Egyptians a great favor by enriching their knowledge and allowing them to explore horizons they would have never come across had the circumstances been different. So, now they know the various meanings of “agenda” and realize that you can use it against whichever enemy you’re facing and regardless of the situation and they are fully aware of the role American fast food chains may or may not play in popular uprisings. They are all on the verge of getting their PhDs on Freemasonry and its manifestations in the form of Peugeot-like logos and one-dollar rubber bracelets and, most importantly, each and every one of them is an activist.

Don’t those little sneak peaks into a couple of entries in the latest of dictionaries and thesauri and which shows how amazingly creative as well as hilariously gullible its compilers are? The combination might indeed be lethal, but that one-of-a-kind reference is definitely for keeps and those people have always proven how unique they are even in the harshest of circumstance and the most life changing of revolutions.

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Sonia Farid

I teach for a living... write for a life!

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