My body is in open insurrection against itself, and my chin is its Tahrir Square.
Towards the end of last month, as demonstrators in São Paulo were beginning to demand the return of the military dictatorship, I noticed a strange growth on my chin. It was a little like a spot, red and tender on the surface, but it refused to come to a head. Instead a vaguely conical mass sat just above the bone; I could move it around a little, nudge it this way and that, but it felt completely solid and unsquidgeable. Never mind, I thought. It’ll go away soon. And it did, retreating into a tiny hard kernel, as if it was about to vanish entirely.
And then, without warning, it returned. I woke up with my face numb, my cheeks puffy, and an alien virus colonising the bottom half of my face. It was no longer a swelling but an invasion; pressing against my gums, my teeth, its areolae of engorged tissue slanting the line of my chin, its growing bulk pushing out my bottom lip into a permanent prognathic scowl. Eating was painful. So was smoking. Even breathing started to carry a faint dull pain. There are names for these things: abscesses, cysts. Names whose sibilance suggests seeping pus, blood curdling in the off-white purulence, gangrene, death. It had me. I was afraid.
I say it happened without warning. That’s not entirely true. When I went to bed the previous night tens of thousands were gathering on the streets of Cairo to mark the anniversary of President Morsi’s election and to protest the betrayal of their revolution. Millions more were marching across the country; according to some, it was the biggest protest in human history. I was fully supportive: by all accounts, Morsi’s done a terrible job, marrying civil sectarianism with the cold inhuman logic of the markets. When I woke, though, it was to news (blearily observed through the ache in my chin) that the city’s police had declared their solidarity with the youth on the streets. Surely this wasn’t right: one of the main grievances of the demonstrators had been Morsi’s failure to properly prosecute the police and military for their misdeeds in the 2011 revolution and 2012’s Port Said massacre. The cops should have been in there, batons high, riot helmets turning human faces into mere avatars of the forces of reaction. They weren’t doing their job. Instead there were reports of gunshots and deaths in the night with no clear indication of who had been shot and who was doing the shooting, as if the bullets were some kind of freak weather event. As the Egyptian state festered against itself, my face had become my heautontimoroumenos. Something was going horribly wrong.
The creature had laid its roots deep. Its cystic tentacles must have spread around my head and drilled into my brain, because I was overcome by a fit of what can only be called psychotic narcissism. I closed my windows and drew the curtains. I cancelled social engagements. Mirrors, which showed me a face so swollen and lopsided I no longer recognised it as my own, were horrifying; I covered them up. Even the screen of my phone was too reflective; I considered having a go at it with some sandpaper. I was thinking like a cyst, retreating into my own little cavity, where I could swarm.
Everything started to flare again up as General al-Sisi issued his 48-hour ultimatum to President Morsi. Al-Sisi was supposed to be a Morsi loyalist, promoted to his post after the old military elite had been dismissed in the last power struggle between armed and elected authority – and yet here he was, demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood share power or lose it. As he did so my infected cyst bubbled. The entire left side of my face became swollen. A soft, foamy subcutaneous emulsion. My lymph nodes felt like ping-pong balls. My jawline was melting away on one side. I looked as though I’d been genetically spliced with a potato. Before long it was intolerable. I had to see a doctor.
I went to a drop-in clinic at an NHS surgery in Cricklewood, lodged awkwardly between an enormous B&Q centre sitting like a fat orange-roofed slug on its grassy mound and a general tat shop called Aladdin’s Cave. To get there I walked through a narrow grey alley into a small grey car park; the barbed wire that surrounded the clinic was bearded with shredded plastic sheeting. I stood and smoked a cigarette outside the entrance. An elderly woman with a smudged tattoo on her forearm stood on the other side and smoked a cigarette as well. We didn’t talk. Then, as I sat in the waiting room, al-Sisi’s deadline approached. I was the only person there, scrolling compulsively through Twitter, perched above a small forest of institution-blue chairs. The only sound came from the clicking of my phone and a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall opposite me showing Countdown. It was coup o’clock; 2.30 pm Cairo time. Onscreen, the hand whizzed down the face of the clock as the famous music played. I wish the winning anagram had been something germane or significant. It wasn’t. Years after an important event, people sometimes share stories of where they were as it happened. The highest-scoring word on Countdown was ‘parsnip.’ I might remember that for the rest of my life.
The GP who saw me was rather fat and affably Jewish. He told me a lot of what I already knew: I had an infected cyst, a gland had become impacted, and the bacteria had rushed in en masse to fill my face with slime. He prescribed me antibiotics; I now have eighty tablets of flucloxacillin to my name. I doubt they’ll do much good. Whatever his qualities as a doctor, the GP is unlikely to be able to alter the course of events in the Middle East. When I returned home I discovered that President Morsi had been put under house arrest and the constitution was being suspended. Tahrir Square was overflowing with celebrations.
There’s one other thing the doctor told me. If the swelling doesn’t respond to antibiotics and doesn’t go down, he said, if the blockage isn’t cleared – there’s always the option of surgery.
There’s a certain superior tone which Western commentators love to bring out whenever mass movements in the developing world take form. If they oppose the movement, it’s patronisingly dismissive, bringing all the accumulated wisdom of four decades’ drinking fairtrade coffee to bear on the situation: these people would do well to bear in mind, they say, or the leaders of the movement ought to consider. When they support the protesters it’s even worse; what’s happening on the ground is twisted into the expression of a Platonically ideal political agenda. The protesters are always fighting for the commentator’s own set of values, and any contradictory voices from the country in question are easily drowned out. We know what you want better than you do. As the crowds swelled in Cairo, the Guardian commented on an Egyptian activist tweeting ‘Fuck Western Media.’ ‘There’s a notable fatigue in Egypt with the Western media and media analysis,’ they said. We’ll keep you updated on our live blog as the situation progresses.
I’m going to try not to do that. I’m going to stick rigorously to the facts. And the fact is that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has purposefully, with full calculated intent, given me an infected cyst on the left side of my chin.
The evidence is incontrovertible. I don’t know exactly how he’s done it, but I have a vague idea. This is how. The protests in Egypt were spearheaded by liberal, leftist, and Nasserite parties, among others, under the umbrella of the Tamarrud (or Rebellion) movement. Many of these are the same groups that fought against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last year when it tried to write itself into the new constitution, hoping to supersede the powers of the presidency. When these groups did so they marched alongside the Muslim Brotherhood. Now many of these same people (with, of course, a vast number of dissenters) are celebrating the reimposition of military rule. What has taken place is a coup – but that said, Morsi’s government was overthrown not by the military but by the people on the streets; it was finished the moment millions gathered in Tahrir Square. The statements of support for the June 30th Movement by the police and army were not a gesture of solidarity but a means of control; they turned something that might have destabilised the exercise of state power into something that mimicked the state. The situation in Egypt demonstrates precisely the Marxian analysis of the state-form: it’s not a monolithic institution but a tactic, a tool that can be wielded by one group or class or another. As al-Sisi’s deadline approached there was speculation over whether the soldiers guarding the state broadcaster were loyal to the army or the government. In a way, it didn’t matter; they were the state. The state is control; the state is in control of everything apart from itself. When cops march at the head of a demonstration, it stops being a protest movement and starts to become an exercise of government power. Cops have an important role to play in any revolution; with their violence they focus the popular rage, they inflame its energies. As ever, the Egyptians are far ahead of us in the West; they found a way to stop this from happening, and all it took was a mild displacement in the loci of control. But those revolutionary energies are still there. According to the law of the conservation of energy, they can’t just vanish. And I know what’s happened to them. Somehow, by some strange magic, they’ve pooled in the left side of my chin. They’ve been displaced to my face. And Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t care about my face.
PS: I’ve said this kind of thing before, but it bears repeating: by enacting deeply unpopular policies and pointing to their victory at the ballot box to stifle dissent, the Muslim Brotherhood were behaving not like a dictatorship but precisely like Western liberal-democratic governments. If Britain were as new to representative rule as Egypt is, Cameron and co would have been on the way out some time in 2010. The difference between us and the Egyptians is that they really believe in democracy. We stopped doing that a long time ago.
PPS: Al-Sisi was Morsi’s appointee. One can imagine the scene at the barracks: Morsi, overthrown, weeping into his paternally greying beard, arms outstretched: Abdel, you were like a son to me. Could the whole scenario be reconsidered as an Oedipal drama? What is the state after all but a hideous trillion-titted mother?