Critical Digital Sovereignties

Fear, pleasure, and digital leaks in Egypt

by Heather Jaber

On September 22, 2017, Lebanese band Mashrou Leila performed at Cairo Festival City in Egypt. When images of audience members raising the rainbow flag in solidarity with the band’s openly queer lead singer spread online, Egyptian press and state officials condemned the band and the images. Police arrested dozens on charges of “debauchery” and banned the band from future performances. While international press covering these events has focused on the mechanisms of the security state, another aspect of this story troubles an analytic of power which is understood primarily as a mode of repression. Rather, a TV program about these events troubles notions of national and bodily sovereignty through its portrayal of exposure and leaks in the digital age.  

Soon after the crackdown, an Egyptian musalsal, or television drama serial, called Awalem Khafeya (“Hidden Worlds”) adapted these events into its narrative, airing during Ramadan of 2018 on the Egyptian network CBC and the Saudi-owned SBC. The show told the story of a seasoned journalist uncovering trails of corruption in Egypt and exposing the responsible national and international actors in a quest to stabilize the nation’s moral decline. The show centers around the leakiness which threatens national and bodily sovereignty, where the spread of the rainbow flags online becomes evidence of foreign intervention and national destabilization. As Tarik El-Ariss (2018) has noted, fadh, or exposure, becomes the structure of feeling, turning our attention away from a representational reading of the rainbow flag and toward the commodification which makes this exposure possible and profitable. Extended shots of hands and faces interacting with this capacitating technology point to the fear and darkness but also the desire and pleasure associated with it. Case by case, the protagonist takes hold of this technology to trace the leaks to scorned lovers threatening nude photos, homosexual presidential candidates funded by the foreign powers, organ harvesters posing as religious clerics, and officials who allow contaminated medical supplies into the country. While this technology allows the journalist and his team to trace these channels, it further perpetuates the habit of exposure and leak.

This desire to maintain this kind of sovereignty finds parallels in the Hell House, another production which works to reroute and recode the panic. Ann Pellegrini (2007) has written about this evangelical version of the secular haunted house, where church communities use theater production and performance to act out scenes of sin in an effort to recode feelings of pleasure into feelings of fear.  These scenes parallel those of “Hidden Worlds,” with references to drug use, homosexuality, suicide, and adultery. While fear is the discursive intent, these scenes and characters also affectively bring pleasure to performers who reportedly enjoy acting them out most. As Pellegrini has noted, there is a leakiness between these on-and-off- stage roles, whereby these scenes of sin are the most pleasurable for performers and audiences alike.  

In fact, the Hell House has mechanisms in place to curb potential risks associated with this pleasure. A pastor tells Pellegrini that a scene depicting homosexuality is always played by a heterosexual couple in order to mitigate risk, indicating a potentially pleasurable transgression which may occur between these leaky bodies. “Hidden Worlds” walks the same line, portraying a journalist who is continuously tested and rejects all attempts to morally “pervert” him, exposing all who try. This is most evident in a scene which features the police officer who becomes the security arm of this moral force and his interrogation of a terrorist. He whispers in his ears, massages him, and touches his face in order to get the information he needs. Ultimately, the terrorist breaks. 

Both “Hidden Worlds” and the Hell House produce scenes of darkness, pulsating beats, and transgression, revealing not only a discursive repression or rejection of these elements but a seductive pleasure in performing them. Sovereignty over one’s national and bodily autonomy is the intent for the security state and its citizens, but the performance of this sovereignty shows that discursive intent is only one aspect of repression. Rather, the drama creators, the state, and the church are inescapably affected as they engage in a pleasurable reproduction of the moral panic. Digital and bodily leaks may be feared, but they are also amplified by these institutions and actors as they attempt to quell them. 

This ambivalence is evident in the imagery associated with CBC, the Egyptian channel that aired “Hidden Worlds.” In a landscape of media restructuring and legal measures by the Egyptian state to curb the capacities of digital media, the General Intelligence Services owns almost half of the shares in the CBC through a private equity firm. This is relevant for a storyline which laments the loss of morality in journalism and the nation and presents an honorable journalist and police officer as the harbingers of justice. A re-design of the CBC’s branding by Velvet mediendesign during the production of “Hidden Worlds” visualizes the allure of the digital and its effect on the body.  

The elemental nature of these depictions of the body are worth noting. Through the scenes, this amorphous body moves through and as light particles, water, and fabric. Across desert landscapes and digital vector maps, the digital body leaks and flows, pulling the Egyptian flag alongside it. On the web page explaining the brand identity, the company writes: 

 “Born from the brand’s mission statement “We go further”, this energy flow had to break free from the stand-still and spread out as light, giving birth to a life circle.

The logo becomes a transparent silhouette in the shape of the cut-out circles, containing the sparks of the whole prismatic spectrum: the energy of the Egyptian nation.” (“CBC Channel Re-Design,” 2017)

This reference to the “energy of the Egyptian nation” and its depiction as a fluid-like body is a visual representation of digital media's relationship to bodily and national sovereignty. It points to the inescapably transnational character of Egyptian popular culture, where the digital technologies of satellite television and social media platforms activate the security state in new and familiar ways. In this way, this case study shows how recoding processes are enacted to contend with challenges to national sovereignty like the digital leak. It challenges designations of the Egyptian state and the Evangelical church as conservative or religious, blending secular tools, religious discourse, and bodily performance and the pedagogies of fear which are practiced to enact bodily and national borders. At the same time, it reveals the leakiness that is part of these performances, betraying the limits of discursive intent in such performances of state power. 

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