Accepted paper:

On secrets of the state and politics of paranoia


Karin Ahlberg (Stockholm University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how state actors in Egypt make use of the widely spread idea that there are important secrets of the state, belonging to spheres of national ‘cultural intimacy’ that it is a duty for the citizens to safeguard. This creates a politics of paranoia and affective fields of anxieties.

Paper long abstract:

In the 2013's interim constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, article 13 states: "Safeguarding the secrets of the state is the duty of every citizen". The paragraph reiterates the message of a public awareness campaign that was run on public and private television one year earlier under the slogan "Every word has a price - One word can save a nation". These messages were not new to Egyptian ears. On the contrary, everyone knows that there are secrets of the state; everybody knows that these need to stay within the realms of national 'cultural intimacy'. To 'know' is however something different than to 'believe' or consider as 'true' among my Cairene interlocutors in the tourist market Khan El-Khalili. Yet, not to follow what is 'known' might have repercussions for the individual person or the nation. Set in what I coin Egypt's 'opaque ecology of information', the ethnographic scenes of this paper - collected during 20 months of fieldwork in Cairo - detail how information about the state and 'public matters' is recurrently treated as 'valuable', yet potentially dangerous in the 'wrong hands'. Thus, given the indeterminate sensitivity of the 'information', my interlocutors remained insecure as to what 'public stuff' was actually confidential. Often, this resulted in anxiety in their interaction with and imaginations of foreigners and created a general politics of paranoia. What actual political and affective effects do assumed obligations to protect unknown secrets, and the set of anxieties and paranoia that follow such obligations, have?

panel P003
In search of concealed truth: revealing, unraveling and debunking