Adonis Diaries

What “Rhinoceros” play of Eugène Ionesco has to do with Egypt?

Posted on: February 24, 2014

What “Rhinoceros” play of Eugène Ionesco has to do with Egypt?

Are we celebrating the third anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution?

Seems like yesterday: The euphoria never abated, from one uprising to another revolt to a mass revolution to another “popular” military coup…

DELPHINE MINOUI,  Middle East correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro. published this Feb. 19, 2014 in The Opinion Pages of the nyt:

Egypt’s ‘Rhinoceros’ Allegory

CAIRO — I’ve just finished rereading “Rhinoceros,” the 1959 play by Eugène Ionesco.

For someone living in Cairo these days, the parallels between the Roumanian-French playwright’s mid-20th century parable about the rise of fascist and Stalinist conformity in Europe and the growing  mass hysteria surrounding the rise of Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi are striking.

Café windows are covered with posters of the man who overthrew the elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.  El-Sisi  is already seen as the next leader of Egypt, after his government bestowed on him the baton of Field Marshal before he retires in order to run for the presidency.

In central Cairo, you can buy chocolates featuring his picture. All day long, TV channels run excerpts from his speeches mixed in with patriotic hymns. At a recent wedding party at a luxurious hotel facing the Nile, guests started hitting the dance floor as soon as the D.J. played “Teslam al ayadi” (“Bless your hands”), an old nationalist song that many Sisi groupies have turned into an ode to the man, even setting it as the ringtone on their cellphones.

The Egyptian friend who brought me to the party described this Sisi-mania as “a real epidemic,” a virus afflicting even the once-rebellious youth who filled Tahrir Square three years ago.

A few days ago, outside the courthouse where Mr. Morsi is on trial, two girls had proudly strapped military boots to their heads in a gesture of submission to Field Marshal Sisi — like the characters in the Ionesco play who, one by one, grow bumps on their forehead that end up turning into rhinoceros horns.

The first time I read “Rhinoceros,” I was in secondary school in Paris. My teacher told us it described the roots and danger of fascism, and how an ideology combined with a conformist mind-set can reshape people’s minds.

The play, a classic of the “theater of the absurd,” was a vivid allegory of the upsurge in totalitarianism across Europe, and the conformity, fear and collective psychosis that came with it.

Fear is an irrational thing,” says Le Logicien, a character in the play. “It must yield to reason.

In Act 1, the sudden appearance of several rhinoceroses in a small town in France raises more fear and suspicion than fascination.

In Act 2, people start becoming contaminated by the “rhinoceritis” bug. That’s the case of Botard, one of the characters.

After fighting the epidemic, even calling it “monstrous,” he ends up growing a horn himself.

By the end of Act 3, all but one character, Bérenger, have turned into beasts.

Today’s Egyptian liberals and leftists mostly remind me of Botard. After resisting the manipulations of the military for two and a half years, many of them finally succumbed to its will, despite suffering pressure and humiliation.

Like Botard, the Egyptians seem to have lost their sense of resistance.

In parallel with a heavy crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and revolutionaries, the cult of Field Marshal Sisi has reached a level of collective madness.

In mid-January, as Egyptians were invited to vote on a new Constitution, polling stations turned into pro-army rallies — with fanfare and candies — while opponents were kept away from the show, hiding in their little corner.

On the TV, newscasters have metamorphosed into agents of the official truth. The army is fighting terrorism. Doubters should watch their backs. Field Marshal Sisi is the man of the hour.

Comforted by the mainstream trend, and giving up on their individual free thoughts, many Egyptians take this narrative for granted.

Dudard, another rhinoceros of the play, summarizes it perfectly: His desire, he explains, is to join the “universal family.”

In some ways, the widespread propaganda resonates as a bad version of absurd theater. Last month, a puppet character featured in a Vodafone commercial was put under investigation after someone accused it of secretly passing on terrorist instructions.

Even my daughter’s well-educated and polyglot pediatrician contracted the virus. To him, the army is doing nothing else than protecting the country from a big “American plot” to weaken the region by destroying the military forces.

Ironically, the newly turned rhinoceroses of Egypt are the same ones who used to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters of being nothing more than a bunch of sheep. “You have to go with the flow,” one character in the play explains.

Of course, Egypt has its unique story.

It is a country where people have grown up with real love for the army and a nostalgia for the blustery nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

But there are definitely patterns inherent to other fascist states: the blind submission to authority, the persecution of those who think differently, and the tendency of unifying around a common enemy, in this case, the Brotherhood.

For many, putting on an awkward rhinoceros horn is more comfortable than risking losing everything in the name of freedom.

On Jan. 25, the anniversary of the revolution, I followed the few hundred ex-revolutionaries who had gathered in front of the Union of Journalists while facing off against tear gas volleys. A few blocks away, tens of thousands of rhinoceroses had charged in the very symbolic Tahrir Square — where activists had confronted President Hosni Mubarak’s forces three years ago — cheering on their new hero, Field Marshal Sisi.

In the middle of the crowd I recognized the journalist and activist Khaled Dawoud. Once an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, he is now a hardcore critic of the army. But to many Egyptians, he is an alien. I asked him if he still had hope for his country. “Yes,” he replied with no hesitation. “As long as I see these young people in the streets, the revolution is not over.”

Saved by his love for another character as well as his devout belief in critical thinking, Bérenger, too, manages to resist the stampede.

I am the last man left, and I am staying that way till the end! I am not capitulating!” says Bérenger before the curtain falls.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 20, 2014, in The International New York Times.

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