A video of two young men, Ahmed Malek, an aspiring actor and his friend, satire show reporter Shady Abu-Zaid, handing out condom balloons to police on the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s uprising has gone viral, triggering an ongoing flurry of heated argument among Egyptians. A later apology by one of the actors, Ahmed Malek, has failed to calm down the saga.
A clear fault line has emerged between two opposing camps in the “battle of the condom” as Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros aptly described in one tweet.
One camp strongly supports the activists, including prominent satirist Bassem Youssef and other revolutionary activists, who defended the two young actors, praising their clever satire, justifying their acts as out of frustration from the daily ruthless oppression by police. Many Islamists have also joined in, despite their traditional antipathy to any sexual references, including condoms, and have praised the actors.
The second camp supports the police, including many pro-regime commentators who not only praised the police, but indulged in postulating various conspiracy theories and even attacking the actors’ (mainly Shadi) sexual orientation. Several complaints have been filed against Abu-Zaid and Malek, including a complaint to the general prosecution by lawyer Samir Sabry, who is known for multiple controversial lawsuits aimed at litigating social morals.
Activists did not back down from attacking their opponents, describing those who oppose them as lacking morals and respect. An Islamist journalist ran a twitter poll, asking a devious question: Which is worse Shadi’s condom or the police’s bullets? As if Shadi’s condom would be welcomed if Morsi were still in power.
Lost in this nonsensical battle is the way that Malek and Shadi conducted their satire. The two young activists decided to drain their anger and frustration from police brutality, not on Sisi or the Minister of the Interior, but on the lowest police ranks and the staff most mistreated by senior police cadres____ the central security officers (CSF).
CSF soldiers are men called up for Egypt’s obligatory military service, usually drawn from the most disadvantaged social backgrounds. They lack the educational qualifications eligible for army service, so instead they are allocated to the police. Humiliation and abuse from their senior commanders are part of their daily routine. In fact, their food ration is appalling, even by ordinary Egyptian standards. For the most part, their job involves standing in one place for hours on end.
Being at one of society’s lowest rungs can be oppressive. On February 25, 1986, a day that I will never forget, around 25,000 Egyptian conscripts of the CSF staged violent protests in and around Cairo in reaction to a suggestion that their three-year compulsory service would be prolonged by one additional year without any additional benefits or rank promotion.
The entire public transport network was halted. Queues of baffled citizens, including my mother and I, were forced to walk back home. It did not take long for rumors to spread about the CSF mutiny, and how some of them targeted tourist areas. The incited conscripts targeted tourist areas and destroyed two hotels. Cairo was abuzz with leaked reports about how the army was hunting down rebellious conscripts even if they were unarmed. This was Mubarak’s era, portrayed by some now, as “less authoritarian than Sisi’s regime.
That was 1986, which is ancient history as far as Shadi, Malek, and their supporters are concerned. Many of them were not even born when the CSF’s revolt happened. Their memory, instead, is solely based on police brutality that has been going on since January 2011. Many Egyptians ___ myself included ___ are disgusted by the state and police repression, with its long list of brutal actions with forced disappearance, torture, murder, and unjust imprisonment of activists.
Many, however, are struggling to sanction Shadi and Malek’s satire despite its relative benign nature. There are many reasons:
First: Collectiveness is wrong. To consider the unjust police force as one entity fails to differentiate between the lower-ranks and senior police management. In other words, between those who have a choice, and those who do not. As I explained above, those low-rank Central are in mandatory service, unlike their senior commanders. This collectiveness is also dangerous, as it ignores the distinct difference between the regime and the state____ one of the biggest mistakes of the whole Arab-awakening wave. If activists see the entire police force as evil, then a total purge would be needed for justice_____ a goal that would be impossible to happen without weakening the state to a dangerous level.
Second: Elitism. The satire was not just for a casual observer, but involved humiliating another human being. Although satire is lawful against the regime, exploiting poor, ignorant and naïve lower-rank policemen is not in good taste. A prank video taking advantage of uneducated rural men, who have probably never seen a condom in their life, and who are not online with Facebook accounts to fight back against those who mock them, is sheer elitism.
Shady and Malik opted for an easy option, abusing the weak, to protest against the actual tyrants. In a Facebook post, Professor Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo has rightly pointed out that the dismal state of the CSF officers is the responsibility of the regime. Indeed, however, that does not give the pro-democracy activists the right to contribute to the officers’ misery.
Third: A slippery road. If non-Islamist activists see lower-rank officers as a legitimate target, how about violent attacks against the police? Did the activists ever wonder why Islamists decided to passionately support them? Logic that sanctions mocking others, such as against “evil” officers could also accept violence, even murder as legitimate.
Nonetheless, imprisoning those two young Egyptians would be a grave mistake. The tense polarized divisions must be healed; not aggravated. Ahmed Malek has already apologized, and I hope his apology will be directly delivered to the policemen that appeared in the video. A brother of one of the policemen has stated the obvious that his family is too poor to take legal action.
This surreal war has exposed the shallowness of both camps____ from the holy praise of police, to the equal fawning over the activists and their nonsensical heroism. Both sides demand total loyalty and reject reflection. Such an attitude is perhaps not surprising from hard-core regime supporters, but rather disappointing from those who claim to be democrats. Fighting authoritarianism neither provides immunity from criticism, nor does it sanction elitism and exploitation. It is unlikely that the condom prank sage will entice ordinary apolitical Egyptians to defy oppression and rekindle another January 25 revolution____ in fact, the opposite is true, it will make them stick to the devil they know.