Cairo, March 2012
The man was in his mid-forties maybe. He was a Member of Parliament and part of the Islamist party that forms the second most important bloc in the House of Representatives. A few days ago he appeared in the media claiming he had been attacked, beaten in the face, and robbed of a large amount of money he had locked up in his car. Not long afterwards, a call came into the radio from a surgeon who works for a fancy local hospital that is too expensive for most people. He reported that he met this Member of Parliament a few days before – but not to rescue him from injuries he sustained in an attack. Rather, it was to perform plastic surgery on the parliamentarian’s nose. The latter was immediately removed from Parliament and ejected from his party. He was made to apologize for disgracing the House, violating democracy and rules of transparency, and lying to the nation at large.
Apart from pitying this behavior of a supposedly respectable man, what can one make of this story? What does it say about the Islamic tradition this man was supposed to represent and its promotion by the media as a fount of high morals? What does the incident tell us about the society in which this man, his party, his parliament, and the tradition that shaped him live and operate? Are these independent of each other? What is their relationship to the overarching moral economy at work not just within political Islam, but other ideological positions taken by Egypt’s current crop of political parties? Can we draw any lines between the behavior of this public figure and the tacit coercion practiced by the dominant media? In particular, what kind of body politics is at work in contemporary globalized society? What led this man to cut his nose and then lie about it? And what does that say about politics as performance or rather theatre today?
A couple of preliminary thoughts come to mind. The first concerns a recent trend to present Islam as a homogenizing political-moral force implementing correct politics that will “cleanse” society, including all forms of corrupt governance. This tendency is part of a larger one that singles out Muslims -- or Islamists as they are normally called -- as being responsible cleansing politics of which they are an integral part. Muslims are human beings with ordinary desires, habits and aspirations, as the MP’s case shows. Conflating Islam with some Muslims in particular identifies a diverse tradition of widely varying potential with particular political groups who come out of a social context long characterized by different forms of oppression and perceived deprivation. The MP and his party represent groups who suffered in this way most brutally. In brief, equating a historical tradition with local, even marginalized groups is problematic. The individuals who won seats in parliament are just ordinary citizens.
The second point concerns the overwhelming influence of the media which are global as much as national. The images circulated through this powerful machine must have helped form the subjectivity of millions of consumers, including the man who wanted to reduce the size and change the shape of his nose. What interests me is not the MP’s desire to look “better” or “different.” I have long been intrigued by the specific character of these nose jobs. What did he want his nose to look like? If you check out the celebrities who have obviously undergone similar operations, the resulting nose jobs look remarkably similar. This suggests that plastic surgeons have only a limited repertoire of desired shapes when they “model” the noses of their customers. Most if not all the new noses are smaller and pointy. Some are little button noses. They are noses commonly found in North West Europe and North America, the former and current colonial powers in other words. They also own most of the international media corporations. In sum, they own the machine that shapes the taste of the masses that watches men like this MP on their TV screens. He might be a politician, but he is above all a public performer.
No doubt the incident I have narrated is trivial and will soon be forgotten. But it offers a window on Egyptian society today and especially on the historical moment its people are living through. It reminds of the global power structures that have long shaped their lives and will continue to for some time to come. Islam and Islamism may offer a dream of emancipation from these structures, but they are very much part of them.