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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Yasmine Nagaty: Sheep, apostate and Couch Party – political labeling in Egypt

“Revolution…ought not polarize, exclude or attack individuals based on subjective mechanisms of identification”

It is no news that Egyptian society is deeply classist. Indeed, one of the main demands voiced during the Egyptian revolution has been and continues to be, “social justice.” When I speak of classism, I do not only refer to the exceedingly wide gaps between income groups, but to the socio-political categorization of Egyptians as well. In the aftermath of January 2011, the Egyptian political scene has become dominated by a whole new system of political labeling that has had a considerable impact on Egyptian politics. Now and for the first time, the words “sheep”, “apostates” and “Couch Party” have come to comprise Egyptian political jargon as well as deeply impact the proceedings of revolution.

A brief list of definitions may prove useful to those unfamiliar with such jargon. First on the line is felool, a term used to describe Mubarak’s supporters and apologists. On a less definitive level lies the Couch Party, comprised of those who merely watch current events from their couches at home and do not voice a political opinion. Meanwhile, the term “apostates” has been used by extremist Islamist factions in description of those opposing Islamist’s attempt to force their own interpretation of Shari’a law into Egypt’s upcoming constitution. Finally, in light of president Morsi’s recent blatant power grab, the blindness with which his supporters and propagandists have supported his dictatorial decree has rendered them as “sheep”, in the eyes of the opposition.

At first, these terms provided fruitful material for Egypt’s thriving industry of political humor. Gradually, they became tools of political criticism and even self-identification. Right now, they have transformed into a crucial mechanism with which to restrict the very freedom called for by the revolution. Both Morsi’s regime and Egyptians themselves are guilty of this oppressive behavior. Indeed, the recent trend has been to stereotype these groups and treat them as homogenous, conspiracy-driven collectives.

Morsi’s recent constitutional decree is perhaps the best example of how the rhetoric of political labeling has become detrimental to the goals of freedom and democracy. As Morsi granted himself absolute powers and immunity against political and legal appeals, the Felool and Couch Party finally took to the streets in participation of the protests they once opposed. In the most ironic manner of response, the Morsi regime began firing accusations at the opposition rendering them as felool and therefore lacking agency to protest in spheres deemed to be exclusive to revolutionaries.

Instead, Morsi’s decree was propagated as “revolutionary” in character as advocates of this argument relied on the polarization of Egyptians into felool and revolutionaries in order to emphasize the point. In turn, there began to appear many “anti-felool” slogans in Tahrir. The Couch Party was met with more sympathy but became the joking stock of others, with the spread of “beware the rise of the Couch Party” jokes. The result? A state-sponsored and nationally endorsed self-proliferating system of exclusion and polarization of Egyptians.

A number of questions ought to be raised here. Am I calling for pretentious unity and an endorsement of hypocritical attitudes towards democracy? No. Indeed, anti-Islamist is not synonymous for pro-democracy and yes many felool and Couch Party members are only protesting out of staunch islamophobia and not because Morsi’s rule has shown blatant dictatorial tendencies.

Meanwhile, are Morsi’s supporters necessarily sheep? They are a faction of people that, like other factions, carry interests and ideas. That such ideas and interests are subject to much, indeed a hysterical amount, of criticism does not give anyone exclusive rights to exclude them from any political discussion. In fact, it is arguable that such exclusion has perpetuated much of the religious extremism we witness today. On the other hand, is it possible that felool and Couch Party folks may have had some sort of epiphany regarding the need for freedom and democracy? Believe it or not, some may have. As people live through events of an uprising and are exposed to uncertainties and glaring truths, they may change their views. 

Finally, would an increased blurring of lines between those new to the opposition and road of revolution and those who have always risked their time, income and lives for freedom devalue the latter? No. As an old proverb goes, “lying has no legs”, neither does hypocrisy and while there is no absolute Truth in the world, a number of smaller truths do exist the most glaring of which is the honesty with which many figures, famous and unknown, have fought for freedom in Egypt.

In the same way that a revolution for freedom is not expected to instigate change overnight, it is also sound to assume that it too, gradually exposes, teaches and possibly changes society. It does not, or ought not, polarize, exclude or attack individuals based on subjective mechanisms of identification.

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