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Egypt: in the grip of self destruction or growth pains

By-Isis Mikhail | 17 October 2010

The human body contains a defence mechanism against disease-causing organisms: that mechanism is the immune system. The immune system is composed of cells circulating in the blood called the T-cells. There are different types of T-cells, including—among others—T-helper cells and Natural Killer (N-K) cells. 

Auto-immune (AI) disorders afflict the immune system and disrupt its normal function; the dysfunctional cells turn against the body’s own organs. They mistakenly perceive normal body organs as if they are disease-causing organisms and react to these “imaginary” attacks in a self-destructive manner. 
AI attacks, termed flare-ups, are unpredictable in frequency and severity. Some may be mild, while others may be severe or even fatal. The more serious the disease, the more frequent and uncontrollable the flare-ups. Patients can go through periods of remissions that may be temporary or even permanent. Causes of AI disorders remain unknown despite extensive, rigorous research by scientists all over the world. 
AI diseases can be today controlled only by medication which suppresses the overactive immune system and prevents it from attacking its own organs. Unfortunately use of immune-suppressants for lengthy periods has many side effects and exposes the body to real infections.
 
Self destruction
Human behaviour and human health events can be analogous. Societies can be afflicted by cultural disorders disrupting normal harmonious co-existence that are analogous to disorders affecting normal, healthy body functions. When parts of a community become dysfunctional, they perceive other members of the same community as different or foreign. Similar to dysfunctional AI cells, cultural dysfunction among some members of the community can take the form of self-destructive behaviour against the society as a whole. 
Just as AI diseases are various and range in severity, so are cultural dysfunctional situations. Community AI flare-ups may take many different forms of discriminatory attacks. And just as AI disorders vary in severity, flare-ups and remission periods; so do anti-social cultural AI disorders assume unpredictable proportions. No clear time or place may be identified; randomly triggered events flare up because of a rumour, a provocative argument, misguided preaching, or inter-personal stressors. 
Similar to health-related AI disorders, the true cause of cultural AI disorders is not easily identifiable. Factors associated with self-destructive community disorders are complex and may relate to poverty, ignorance, poor education, disruptive personal agendas, among others. Such factors cause negative behaviour to be directed internally; members of the same community who should be included become rejected and attacked from within the community itself, in a self-destructive manner.
AI diseases can only be controlled by medication that suppresses the immune system of the whole body, not only the diseased cells. Likewise, cultural AI disorders acts are handled by community ‘balancing acts’ and ‘reconciliation sessions’. Such temporary treatment only controls the flare-up but does not cure the disease. A patient taking immune-suppressant medications has weakened immune defence and has to live cautiously to avoid exposure to true infectious organisms against which the body is ill equipped.  Likewise, a community with an internal cultural AI disorder is ill-equipped to defend itself against its real enemies.
     
Growth pains
Change and growth is a sign of life. The human body goes through several stages of growth, among the most turbulent being the transition from childhood into adulthood—the teenage years. This stage witnesses many physical, emotional, and psychological changes taking place simultaneously on the road to maturity. 
Communities and societies, like individuals, go through stages of cultural transformation and growth. Change on the global level is today intense and rapid. What with the information and communication revolution, satellite technology, and the Internet, the world has indeed become a ‘small village’. News or events in one part of the world can be accessed in real time anywhere else. As the human body experiences growing pains during adolescence, various coinciding changes taking place in communities can create a stage of imbalance, particularly in closed cultures not usually exposed to rapid change nor prepared to accommodate it.
Like the rest of the world, Egypt had its fair share of the modern information revolution which opened the door to new awareness and introduced an era of unprecedented freedom of speech. The segment of the community most influenced by the change is youth; the new generation of Egyptians—the Internet generation which is also the post-war or the Peace generation. 
The youthful generation expresses itself through new, uncensored social media such as Facebook, Twitter, texting, among other Internet and technology options. This generation was, moreover, born after the peace treaty when waves of Egyptian immigration to the West carried to Egyptians a sense of the freedom and human rights predominant there, while the family members who went east in search of ‘petro-dollars’ returned with more conservative or rigid views. Such a novel state of rapid and diverse change requires flexibility in transition and adjustment.
 
The challenge      
No-one can argue with the fact that Egypt is going through a phase of change. Like all change, it can create confusion and turmoil and poses challenges that require flexibility to accept and adjust to new realities. 
Are the changes symptomatic of a cultural self-destructive disorder that can continue to go through flare-ups and remissions? Is the glass really half empty? Or is it a stage of delayed or lingering growing pains that will transition to the next stage of a new, healthier, mature community? Is the glass half full? 
The outcome of the modern communication technology, particularly among the new generation of Egyptians, exposes an energy and passionate love for Egypt. It is obvious a new phase has emerged, a modern generation open to new technology and values of human rights, and in pursuit of happiness for all Egyptians. When Egyptians came out in unity condemning the Nag Hammadi massacre, they showed the true mettle of the Egyptian people, indicating that the fibre of the Egyptian culture remains healthy despite all outside challenges. Like the pyramids, throughout history Egyptians have shown genuine resilience end endurance, and have always come up stronger and better unified. God blessed His people of Egypt. I see the glass half full. I am an optimist!
 
Isis Mikhail, MD, MPH, DrPH is a Medical Epidemiologist in the USA
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