The wretched habit of psychologising the social


During the last Egyptian revolution, a very special kind of intellectuals started emerging in media to generously share their comments on political affairs. I have in mind psychiatrists. It seems that most of media channels have their own experts of the human mind, who in times of political crisis comes out, as an oracle, to teach common mortals some truths on what is going on and what is awaiting them. Ahmad Okasha’s kindness-beaming face, the head of the Psychiatry Association, should be known for all. He was appearing on Masry’s pages to explain that the revolution was due to the feeling of « frustration », that the origin of dictatorship was a a simple “mental illness”, that the characters of presidential candidates can be easily undisclosed by a quick glance of a vigilant psychiatrist, and that revolutionary hungover could be overcome by an all powerful feeling of love. 

But Ahmad Okasha is not alone on the scene. Al Wafd had its own psychiatrist, Youssef al Rakhawi, who also tended to explain the revolution through categories of “pain” and “anger” required to transform into a « responsible action ». Who doesn’t remember the guru of the positive thinking Ibrahim Feqqi and his famous theory of the magic “Like” button  that prevents wars, stops diseases and garantees happiness and well-being. The TV program “Akher al Nahar” hosted by Mahmoud Saad has its favourite guest psychiatrist Manal Omar gifted with an eloquence and a capacity to transform Saad’s studio into a classroom and Saad himself into a drooling student for almost one hour. Manal Omar came into prominence with her fine analysis of a torturer/victim dialectics applied to the Muslim Brotherhood suggesting that the latter is about to pass from a status of victim to that of torturer

Interestingly, her conclusion was based on an argument that went beyond the boundaries of psychiatry and stepped onto the domain of fundamental physics comparing the MB to a spring repressed for a time and suddenly going off once the pressure is removed.

The image is extremely vivid, but can it be so simple? Can these obvious truths be applied to political associations and social groupings subjected to complex social and political factors and history? Does a society truly feel “the pain”, “the frustration” and a political group act as an individual? Does this massive psychiatric intervention into current affairs mean the Egyptian society is mentally ill?!  The fashion of psychologising the social, or this tendency to manage non-psychological issues in psychological terms, is related to another tendency permeating the ‘scholarly discourse’ and ‘immediate knowledge’ in Egypt, the one of naturalizing the social. In fact, explaining social actions by some immutable “Egyptian nature” or some mystical “Egyptian psyche” is equally despairing. To be convinced of the prevalence of the discourse explaining social behavior by some nature, suffice to remember all theories of natural “submission”, “patience”, “peacefulness” and “kindness” of Egyptians that we were hearing during the revolution. These natural features were supposed to explain why Egyptians did not revolt before, and all the Egyptian revolution did was to force ‘social scientists’ to arrive to the conclusion that Om Kolthom had reached decades ago that « patience has its limits ». 

The tendency of psychologising and naturalising the social was a firmly established trend in the European scholarly discourse of the turn of the century. The spread and assimilation of the psychological school in Egypt is not surprising knowing with what acclaim orientalist Gustave le Bon’s books were received in Egypt. His book “Psychologie des foules” (1895) imputing revolts to a dangerous irrationality and savagery of the masses was a revelation to the Egyptian intellectual elite struck by fear of a popular violence, particularly reinforced after Dishanway peasant riot. Notably, the book was translated by Fathi Zaghlul, brother of the national leader Saad Zaghlul, who was a member of the government tribunal set up to investigate the incident which condemned six of the villagers to be hanged. Gustave le Bon introduced the idea of “a collective mind” or “psyche” stating that every civilization has its own mental constitution inherited from its ancestors, molded throughout long centuries, and taking many generations to evolve. That’s why le Bon maintained modern civilization can not be learned by means of education; a degree acquired by a non-European would form a superficial varnish which will not affect his “psyche”. Today in Europe, taking Gustave le Bon for granted amounts to capital sin in social sciences, not only because he classified races by their levels of intelligence, measured by the size of the skull, but also because he naturalized the idea of inequality between the classes and justified oppression. Meanwhile in Egypt, Le Bon is not only edited and republished – in fact his most condascending writings on Arabs – without provoking any constructive critique except that of routine accusation of “insulting the religion” but also his influence is still alive in psychiatric analysis of Egyptian society that we hear too frequently on the TV. 

The idea of a stable and immutable “Egyptian nature” made its way in Egypt at about the same time. Its foundations were built, in the beginning, by the scholarship on public instruction. In a book published in 1872, the nature of an Egyptian was being immortalised: “The Egyptian is timid and yet defiant, he is susceptible of enthusiasm yet lacking in all initiative, his character is one of indifference and immobility”. 

The tendency was followed by Muhammad Haykal, one of the stars of the Egyptian intellectuals of the time and one of the fathers of Egyptian naturalism. Influenced by the French naturalism, Haykal stated that the peaceful Egyptian character was forged by the peaceful Egyptian landscape:

The sky is always clear and the weather is always mild and tranquil. You can walk from one end of the valley to the other without encountering any major obstacles, strong winds, storms or rain. The landscape is monotonous. In the fields, you rarely see any animals other than tranquil oxen and donkeys. The few wild animals are small, submissive and harmless. Everything exudes tranquility”.

(Haykal 1968, 99-101) (For more, i recommend to look up to a fascinating PhD on Egyptian nationalism by my colleague Benjamin Geer).


The peacefulness of Egyptians is transmitted by a donkey on whose back they like to sit, according to Haykal

The question that arises after a brief survey of ideological trends in Egypt is how these ideas managed to survive despite various crushing attacks sent by a constructivist school and to remain relevant today? Is it because the idea of some special Egyptian nature or mentality is strongly supported by Egyptian nationalism combined to the all-powerful Orientalist discourse that explains and justifies failures of development by the argument of “authenticity”? Or is it because sociology and other sciences which are meant to explain the social never reached enough of credibility in Egypt to undermine psychologists’ monopoly over social issues? However it may be, we should listen to Ibrahim Feqqi and transform our despair to joy. It could be worse : clairvoyants and magicians could take their place.