Sex, Politics and Social Drama in the New Egypt
In the old regime, love affairs and sex scandals that could threaten to blight political careers or bring down high-ranking officials were almost non-existent, at least in the public sphere.
Although common enough in the US and Europe, controlled media, and a general public consensus that civility precluded talking publicly about such things, combined to keep sex scandals out of public discourse in Egypt.
In the current climate, with an increasingly open media and a large body of political actors struggling to build followings for elections whose times and forms are as ambiguous as their outcomes, the possibility of private affairs becoming public and political is quite real.
Such was the case of the recent public love affair of Basma and Amr Hamzawy. He’s one of the leading lights of liberal politics. She is an award-winning movie actress from a political family background. Their romance, once revealed in the spotlight of the media, became a public show, a “social drama” whose unfolding in a world of everyday gossip, news reports and social media, becomes a form of cultural expression.
The Politician and the Actress
Amr Hamzawy is a fast-rising political star. Before the uprisings began, the political scientist was a research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut. During the uprising, he became one of the most prominent spokespersons for the democratization of Egypt. He was offered the position of the newly created Minister of Youth during former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik’s short-lived government, but turned it down.
Today he is a political columnist for the independent Al-Shurouq newspaper, and a founder of the Egyptian Freedom Party (Masr Al-Huriyya).
Basma is a popular actress with a political past, who now hosts a television talk show. Her father was a journalist, and her mother a human rights activist. When she went into Tahrir Square during the uprising and declared for the revolution, state television tried to play the anti-Semitic card by reminding audiences that her grandfather, Yussef Darwish, an anti-Zionist labor leader and communist party founder who converted to Islam in order to stay in Egypt after the 1948 war, was a Jew.
The popular actress has won “Best Actress” awards four time in various Arabic film competitions, but has also been dubbed controversial by the “clean film” movement for her role as a rape victim in the 2002 film “The Ostrich and the Peacock” (which won the best film award at the Alexandria Film Festival). Although she is not seen naked in the film, there are many flashes of bare limbs, and rumors spread that she had filmed the scene naked in order to get a realistic effect.
Whether or not these rumors were true is irrelevant (at least for this analysis); they are part of Basma’s public character as a “liberal” and “sexy” actress, and they played an important role in the unfolding of her public romance with Hamzawy.
There were rumors in July that they were seeing one another, rumors given credence by their publication in the magazine Ruz al Youssef, and picked up by several celebrity web sites. The romance became public when the car in which the couple was driving was stopped and stolen by thieves on the Sixth of October Bridge on August 12th. The thieves kidnapped Basma, but left her, shaken but apparently unharmed, in the desert an hour later.
Although the two denied having a relationship, some news reports were filled with innuendo, and they raised a great deal of gossip and public criticism: what were this man and woman doing alone together in a car after midnight?
Then, on Aug. 18th, Amr Hamzawy used his column “I Doubt It” not to offer his usual analysis of the political scene but to declare his love for Basma.
Does a person who advocates the right to choice deserve respect when he does not stand up to pressure from his family and society and denies his feelings for the woman of his heart because of what she does for a living? I don’t think so.
Acknowledging that a relationship with an actress might mean the death-knell of his career, he went on to write:
I am not worried about a public or a political role that comes [at the expense of] being true to myself … I won’t feel sorry [losing such a] possible role, so long as the only way to keep it would be through betraying my humanity and giving up my feelings to a magnificent, honorable and beautiful human being.
As Zenobia said in her blog:
Many admired Hamzawy and how brought his love story with Basma in daylight , many admired his romantic eloquent style. Many mocked it online especially on twitter and made jokes about it. Many attacked for different reasons : it is a late confession after a week of denial, nobody gives damn for them and they are adults, he seemed to be justifying his love to Basma as an actress to the society, his column in Al Shorouk is a political one not for personal issues !!
The Basma-Hamzawy Affair as Social Drama
Victor Turner (1988) defines the social drama as “a sequence of social interactions of a conflictive, competitive, or agonistic type,” and he delineates its stages as breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration or schism. A social drama begins when a member of a community breaks a rule; sides are taken for or against the rule breaker; repairs—formal or informal—are enacted; and if the repairs work, the group returns to normal, but if the repairs fail, the group breaks apart.
This little media story neatly fits Turner’s notion of a social drama:
- the main characters are ideal types of their cultural categories: Hamzawy is an archetype of the young, liberal secular politician, and Basma is a both talented and sexy (and sexualized in public discourse);
- the breach, at once romantic and salacious, attracted a great deal of public attention; and
- the side-taking and meaning-making commentaries emphasize a broad range of cultural positions.
As to whether or not Hamzawy’s career is over, it’s too early to tell but his repair seems to have exercised considerable damage control; at least, he is out there making political speeches such as criticizing the attack on the Israeli embassy, as well as being criticized by fellow liberals as too comfortable with the ruling status quo (as opposed to being treated as ridiculous or irrelevant).
But the outcome of a social drama is only half the story. Equally important, according to Turner, is to attend to the cultural performances emerging from the social drama through which people reflect critically on the cultural content of that social interaction.
In Turner’s language, the actual activities and experiences of Hamzawy and Basma take place in the indicative (“it is”) mood, while people’s reactions to these events take place in the subjunctive (“may be,” “might be,” and, perhaps most importantly, “should be”) mood.
On a small scale, the Hamzawy-Basma cultural performance offered an interplay between the indicative and subjunctive moods. The news media presents the Hamzawy-Basma affair “under the sign of indicativity. That is, it presents the affair as consisting of acts, states, and occurrences that are factual, in terms of the cultural definition of factuality.” But the public commentary, both in the media and in interpersonal interactions like gossip, serve in the subjunctive mood as “a metasocial commentary on the lives and times of the given community” (1988: 39).
The social drama’s conflicts and characters serve as the core content of performances; and performances, in turn, color and inflect the social drama. At every turn in the indicative social drama that was the Hamzawy-Basma affair, a running metasocial commentary and critique occurred in both the mainstream media, in interpersonal gossip, and across social media. As Turner says, “Genres of cultural performance are not simple mirrors but magical mirrors of social reality: they exaggerate, invert, re-form, magnify, minimize, dis-color, re-color, even deliberately falsify, chronicled events” (1988: 42).
Making Meaning Out of the Affair
The metacommentary gives us a fascinating range of public discourse about the intertwining of morality and social order.
One narrative thread includes preachers who ask from the pulpit whether the country should want the democracy preached by Hamzawy if it will lead to such licentiousness. Do we want it if it means our daughters (and sons, for that matter, though there is certainly a double-standard about these things in Egypt) are out with men after midnight? One such reader posted this comment on the Arabic Al-Ahram web site:
I used to respect him, and now he is losing his popularity. Is this the liberalism and the freedom he is trying to impose in Egypt?
Yet others have approved of Hamzawy’s public declaration of love. A reader of Al-Shorouk daily newspaper, which publishes Hamzawy’s daily column, posted:
Dr Amr, this is my first time to comment on any article, no matter how much I wanted to. This time I just cannot stop myself from wishing the best life [to you] with the woman you love. You are a great [and] honest person. I am a huge fan of your broad mind and your liberal orientation. Egypt can really be great with [a] few people like you. We are proud of you. Please keep it up no matter what the pressure. God be with you and give you more wisdom.
Other comments posted to the Al-Ahram Online site include:
Praises to this brave man who is ready to follow his heart against all fears, all expactations, all beleif systems, tradition. I wish all politicians would be like this. Choosing the guidance of love instead of tactics. The day it happens we will have a beautiful New World indeed
I am so happy to see that some young people has the courage to be thrue to their real self (soul). They are more blessed than most of us can understand. Go ahead, don’t fear the ignorant ones.’
And a comment on one of the Twitter feeds about the affair:
TRUE Respect to a politician who respects himself as a human being before being a public figure.. Guess Amr Hamzawy’s priorities in life are pretty clear to him – I wish we all do.
Still others argue (on Twitter, Tumblr and other social media and news media comment pages) exactly the opposite, that this affair is a ridiculous and immature act by an amateur politician:
this is what Egypt needs right now. A country ruled by a Teenager. What arabs needs are chinese-like patriots.
Adolescents in politics. This is a personal matter and should not go public. A politician who is mature should know how to defend his privacy. Beside this is not the time for amorous playing around…We have more serious things to worry about! Pitiful.
Liberals. “I am not worried about a public or a political role that comes [at the expense of] being true to myself ” Well of course not. You know there is always a place for you in western universities or think tanks. This is the essence of the cliche liberal. You can get him very easily in your court with a Job opportunity that involves a Tweet Jacket.’
I’ll conclude with three brief observations about these events.
First, as evidenced by the way I’ve clustered the comments above, there are four basic narratives.
- The first uses the Basma-Hamzawy affair to link liberalism and licentiousness, holding it up as a cautionary tale to moral individuals to be careful about what they vote for.
- The second uses the affair to develop a critique of the whole “youth” aspect of the uprisings, seeing the emergence of sex scandals and love affairs as a sign of immaturity and unprofessionalism among the current crop of new political actors.
- The third takes almost the opposite stance, claiming Hamzawy’s romance with Besma as the sign of an honest, bold man who dares to defy the status quo and thus is worthy of leading the new Egypt.
- And the fourth positions the utterer as a cynical political insider, framing Hamzawy’s romantic declaration as a calculated political ploy intended to salvage a badly embarassed political campaign.
Collectively, one thing these narratives reveal is the desire to find broader social and political meanings in the events of the love affair, and use that to bring some coherence to the continual ambiguity that is shrouds Egypt’s social order these days.
My second observation is how quickly, in the process of creating meanings out of this social drama, Basma Hassan lost agency. Basma is an intelligent, articulate woman with a national profile who was a principle actor in the Tahrir Square drama entirely on her own, yet the metacommentaries on the affair turn her quickly into the passive object of Hamzawy’s declaration.
It is fascinating how little commentary there is on Basma. I don’t have access to Arabic print film journals, only web sites, but it’s interesting that even film fan and gossip sites seem to be far more interested in discussing her new film “The Traveler” (and the kiss on the cheek she gave Omar Sherif during the press event at its opening) than commenting on her relationship with Amr Hamzawy. One fan created a survey on fanpop.com as to whether fans approved or disapproved of her relationship with Hamzawy. Only one person took the survey.
Clearly, in spite of their prominent leadership roles in the uprisings, neither women nor actresses have yet entered the public sphere as political players in their own right.
Finally, I suspect that this is only the first of many personal events in the lives of major political actors that will become social dramas. Democracy–whatever form it takes–will force this on them, for the public/private bind is central to any representative government in which the representatives are chosen by popular vote.
The folks who are reading into this affair a sign of political immaturity are, I think, going to be disappointed over the next decade as this generation of Egyptian political actors comes to grips with the fundamental question: “How do you maintain your privacy while selling your life story for political capital?”
All good social dramas need a dramatic ending, and I’m pleased to report that this one has a classic happy ending: Amr Hamzawy and Basma Hassan wed in a private ceremony with just friends and family in attendance on Feb. 16, 2012. See the Al-Ahram story here. [And note how the headline elides Basma from the story, as one would predict from my analysis above]
Ibrahim, Ekram. 2011. Love in a Time of Turbulence Ahram Online (19 Aug.)
Ibrahim, Ekram. 2012. Love Smiles on Egyptian Parliamentarian. Ahram Online (Feb. 16)
Turner, Victor. 1988. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.
Zenobia. 2011. Love in a Time of Revolution. The Egyptian Chronicles