The politics of the personal: January 25 through the lens of depression
An exploration of feelings of hope, defeat and mental health in the aftermath of revolution
Courtesy: Salam Yousry

“It’s like you died, and God said ‘I will show you heaven’ and then as soon as you put one foot in, he grabs you by the scruff of your neck and takes you to hell. We really saw heaven during the 18 days, and then we went to a terrible reality, worse than where we were before.”

Omar, a leftist involved in politics for nine years and who was dealing with depression, anxiety and hypochondria for about a year and half before the 2011 revolution, was in Tahrir during the 18 days.

He found out about Hosni Mubarak stepping down a couple of hours beforehand and called his therapist asking if it was possible to die from too much happiness.

The enthusiasm stayed for a while after the revolution but with waves of violence, this “broke.”

Maspero, with army APCS running people over, broke the state of euphoria and feeling of strength and freedom,” Omar recalls. “And then with Mohamed Mahmoud — and the scene of throwing dead bodies into the rubbish — and then the Cabinet clashes.”

In December 2011, there was something else that was “fatal” for Omar. A woman was beaten and her chest stomped on by soldiers during the Cabinet clashes, revealing her blue underwear beneath her abaya. Here what broke him was less the incident than the social reaction: instead of condemning the perpetrators, the more common refrain was, “what made her go there” and of course a fascination with the woman’s blue bra.

For Omar, this was so devastating because of the hopes the “ethics of the square” had given him.

When he feels broken like this, it “adds to the depression which triggers the anxiety which triggers the hypochondria which triggers the depression which triggers the anxiety, so it’s a closed circle, and it goes on and on and I enter into a spiral.”

In the summer of 2013, those around him in activist revolutionary circles starting using the word “depressed” to describe their state of mind.

The revolutionary slogan “despair is betrayal” (al-ya’s khiyana) had been hard to uphold at different times under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and then the Muslim Brotherhood. But it essentially disappeared in 2013, more precisely after the dispersal of Rabea al-Adaweya Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in August 2013, in which over a thousand people were killed.

The notion of “political depression” — developed by the Public Feelings Project, associated with a group of feminist academics at the University of Texas exploring the role of feelings in public life — may be appropriate to describe this collective downer.

In her book, Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich links political depression with political failure — those “moments of political crisis when organizations fail or collective goals are in doubt and ‘what is to be done?’ becomes an expression of futility rather than a call to arms.”

Dina Makram Ebeid, an anthropologist who has been researching the place of emotions in public life, suggests that the magnitude of Rabea enabled it to act as a kind of trigger.

“Because of its enormity, it breaks the sense of space, the sense of time,” she says. “There is a sense of rupture that enables bigger things to be expressed. Rabea became a way for people to express other forms of frustration and losses that were never big enough to interrupt time.”

Rabea interrupted time not only in the sense of its enormity but also quite literally. In the following weeks, there was a curfew at night and people were stuck at home — in the midst of political confusion, people also became literally stuck.

This narrowing of the political space continued apace and accelerated as street politics — a key center of gravity in Egypt’s political sphere in the first two years after January 25 — was displaced with a draconian protest law and mass arrests of protesters. The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with a huge following, was outlawed and scores of members arrested.

Civil society was at the forefront of the confrontation with the current authorities over the past year, with the reopening in 2016 of a case against a number of NGOs and human rights defenders. The case so far has seen the imposition of travel bans and asset freezes, as well as the interrogation of NGO staff, some of whom face charges that carry life sentences. The screw was further tightened with the drafting of a new NGO law late in the year that threatens the work of all civil society organizations, whether political or more charitable or arts-based.

Courtesy: Salam Yousry

When political and personal depression meet

In 2013, Omar was working abroad in a good and stable job, coming back and forth to Cairo, but with the Rabea dispersal, he was destabilized.

“From August 13, 2013 until January 21, 2014, I was taking huge amounts of medication — anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, things to help me sleep — and even then was sleeping maximum a couple of hours.”

In the past few years, Omar has had some paranoia, which he didn’t before. “I think someone is following me, that my phone is tapped, that kind of thing.”

Ghada, who has suffered from chronic depression for several years, echoes some of these sentiments, reflecting on how the surrounding state of precarity has easily affected those politically engaged, but also with a history of depression.

“2016 has been the year of fear for me. I experienced fear in a way that I haven’t before. When fear meets depression, it becomes very crippling.”

She recounts how when the door knocks after 8 pm, fearing the police, she hides quietly in her room. She also expresses fear about getting on anti-depressants as she worries about coming to rely on them and then being imprisoned.

Ghada speaks about two dimensions in the current political sphere that affect her depression.

One is related to a struggle to feel alive after the revolution. Ghada has long linked her depression to political boredom, in the sense that the pits of otherwise constant chronic depression can be triggered by anti-climactic moments in politics.

“The revolution was a fissure in political boredom, of dealing with the same things for a long time, as a journalist, as an activist, as a human rights defender. The 18 days broke that cycle of boredom in a very spectacular way. And suddenly, you are experiencing things you have never experienced before,” she says. “That’s one of the problems of the revolution: nothing can match that level of excitement. You’re constantly looking for something that matches this moment and nothing can. It’s bound to be disappointing.”

Speaking about her current state, she says, “Nothing inspires you, nothing speaks to your spirit, nothing sort of pierces through your chest and your mind and makes you feel alive. You’re alive in a very mechanical way.”

The other way in which Ghada’s political involvement and mental health have interacted, is having to constantly work through external crisis that is bound to delay the internal one — she spent much of the past five years visiting friends in prison, going to court hearings, dealing with their families or awaiting anxiously for others’ imprisonment. “I think that’s why I feel there is an acceleration of my symptoms of depression. I have always felt it is not a priority. There are more urgent things. My personal state always became the casualty.”

For Sara, diagnosed a year and a half after the revolution with bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by periods of depression and of elevated mood, the moment of Rabea interacted with her internal state in a toxic way.

“I was a bit manic during 2013, in a high elevated mood, and then with Rabea unhappiness and feelings of anger met with this mood, and it developed into a very traumatic psychosis, very much drawing its content from what happened at Rabea.”

Reflecting on the ruptures she has experienced in her own mental health, Sara suggests all major events whether personal or political can be a trigger of sorts.

“And with the intensity of the past few years, something big is happening in the external world and at the same time, the internal world is also changing,” she says.

As such, Sara thinks that the past five years activated dormant mental health issues among those prone to them.

Mental health and politics

In general after revolutions, wars, civil wars and other kinds of political turmoil, rates of mental health problems increase, particularly anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. But psychiatrist Mostafa Hussein cautions that in Egypt, evidence is anecdotal as the last epidemiological study was published before 2011.

At the same time, however, over this period there has been a decrease in the availability of services, Hussein points out, as well as shortages of basic drugs that many people suffering from mental health conditions rely on.

For some people, Hussein says, the revolution and turmoil uncovered mental illness, which they had been functioning with, and sometimes alongside a traumatic experience, their ability to function was disrupted.

Hussein doesn’t think it’s too early to consider the impact of the upheaval of the past few years in terms of mental health, “but we have to acknowledge there are short-term, medium-term and long-term effects.”

His patients include people who have a family member in prison, for example. “And we know theoretically that paternal deprivation at an early age is one of the risk factors for developing mental health problems such as addictions.”

Hussein also points to increasing poverty, which has long-term impact on mental health. A report released by the state statistics agency CAPMAS in 2016 acknowledged increasing poverty and widening inequality, suggesting that price and tax hikes have disproportionately affected the poor.

Times of political upheaval provide a way into looking at the sociality of mental and emotional disturbance.

In Argentina, during military rule, the main association for psychotherapists was seared by deep conflict on the question of the politics of mental health, significant in Buenos Aires where there is one of the highest ratios of therapists to population in the world. Described in Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters, a latent disagreement about the relationship between the individual psyche and the social world broke into open conflict in the context of state terror and widespread disappearances. The leftist therapists had theoretical concerns (such as did it make sense to talk about repressed trauma in terms of childhood and the family when the state is a primary agent in repressed trauma), as well as practical concerns (such as how could free association, the technique of unstructured talk, occur on the therapist’s couch in a society in which free association was not possible).

But the exceptional moment in which we see the social nature of these individual experiences is also a gateway into seeing how the sociality of mental health is inherent in the everyday not just moments of crisis. These therapists were arguing that mental health is always political and social.

For Makram Ebeid, Cvetkovich’s work is useful because it “brings the social and political into the picture but doesn’t also say ‘this is the thing.’ We don’t want to replace medical discourses of depression with discourses that say it is just capitalism or just colonialism or whatever.”

“As Cvetkovich writes in her book, saying that it is capitalism, racism or sexism doesn’t help me get out of bed in the morning,” Makram Ebeid elaborates.

Psychiatrist Hussein warns against confusing being depressed about the political situation with suffering from depression or higher drug use with higher addiction rates.

There is a sense in which though there appears to be a greater acceptance of mental health concepts and greater understanding reflected in the increase of this language, that with these confusions mental health can actually become less visible.

For Omar, that those around him have increasingly used the word depressed to describe their states of mind and feeling since 2013 has made the meaning of depression more hidden.

“If we say this is depression that you can’t be happy, what about the person who can’t feel happy but also doesn’t sleep or sleeps 20 hours a day and is constantly smoking and drinking and can’t talk to anyone, scared to see people, not working, not talking on the phone and so on? What’s that called then?”

Courtesy: Salam Yousry

He is concerned that if we keep on using a term it will lose its meaning, but this is not to say that he doesn’t see a real state of collective sadness that exists among his comrades.

He takes a term from mental health to describe it, anahedonia: the inability to experience pleasure. “This inability to feel pleasure is a part of depression but can exist alone,” Omar says. “It exists now in a general sense — it’s not a condition, it’s a symptom.”

In Sara’s estimation, depression is being used as a metaphor for a loss of hope, in ways that aren’t always helpful. “The depression of the disordered does not correlate to the event. It will stay for life, it has its own rhythm.”

Unsettling hope and despair as opposites

Hope and despair also have a rhythm a bit more complicated than that suggested by the notion that hope gave way to hopelessness and despair. This has implications not only for activists dealing with their own feelings, but also in terms of how we understand politics.

There is an obvious linearity in the narrative that January 25 was a time of hope, elation and euphoria and then came the despair with a falling and loss of hope, and as Makram Ebeid points out, “nothing, let alone social movements, which come in waves, are ever that linear.”

Makram Ebeid points to how “the ‘despair is betrayal’ slogan and ‘we are depressed’ mantra are both domineering discourses.”

“With the idea of despair as betrayal, there was a sense that if you want to be part of this group, this is the range of feelings that you are allowed to have. And if you have others you are excluded on some level. Just as now it wouldn’t be acceptable to go on Facebook to say how much you love your life. Maybe some people are happy, and embarrassed to say they are happy.”

Among those who experienced 2013 as a devastating political defeat, “There is this we’re only depressed because of everything that is happening around us. It is good there is a venue for talking about other feelings, but it also stifles the sense of saying, even when we are winning I am actually also not feeling well.”

As part of the informal research she has been doing, Makram Ebeid has been exploring what she calls “mental health trajectories.” One of the emotions that emerges strongly in the first couple of years after January 25, and complicating the simple narrative about progression of emotions, is the fear of not being enough of a hero. “For those people who already struggle with a feeling of not being enough, this was rampant.”

It is important not to create new hegemonic discourses of feeling or to label certain emotions as more revolutionary than others.

The left internationally has long insisted on a politics of hope as the only transformative politics. Part of the work of the Public Feelings Project has been an increasing questioning of this classic association between hope and revolution among some academics, exploring for example how there is not only governance by fear but by hope. One of Cvetkovich’s key contentions in her book is that good politics doesn’t only come from “good” feelings but may also emerge from “bad” feelings.

Mai Khamissi has researched how trade unionists who helped oust former President Hosni Mubarak allied with current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, signing a deal that put on hold their right to organize, believing the rhetoric that strikes and protests are both against their interests and those of Egypt. Previously hailed as a revolutionary force in 2011, independent trade unionists were then slammed in revolutionary circles for being co-opted. Khamissi argues that, “the same fear of losing their livelihoods that makes them afraid to protest urged them to other action.” She discusses how through trying to change the law, negotiating with the state and interacting constantly with local government can change their definitions of politics, learning through doing this work together, for example about how democracy can be participatory. This is how other forms of politics and change come about, and thus she argues that so-called negative feelings “can be generative and in that sense hopeful.”

As hope is in short supply, perhaps some solace can be taken from this notion that as Cvetkovich puts it, feeling bad may have “productive possibilities,” though these do not come easily.

Naira Antoun 

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