Ahmed Okasha: Exposing the social taboo
A psychologist who upholds the humane standards of his profession
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'The problem with ethical deterioration is not only poverty as many would imagine, but rather the lack of justice. A person could endure poverty if there were social equality and justice'|
'Egyptians are known for making jokes criticising political and economic conditions. This form of criticism shows their extreme hostility to the regime, but in a negative way. It appears Egyptians prefer to surrender to the status quo, and in general they will rarely demonstrate or protest to change their condition'
'Nowadays Egyptians bring up their children on new values. They tell them that serious and hard work, honesty and sincerity do not necessarily mean they will achieve success in life. But on the contrary, double standards, cheating and hypocrisy are the proper means to do well'
Professor of psychology Ahmed Okasha is head of the Egyptian Association of Psychology and the Arab Psychological Federation. From 2002 to 2005, he was head of the International Psychological Association. He has written 74 books in Arabic and English on the subject, including four reference texts. In addition, he has published almost 345 articles of medical scientific research in both national and international medical journals. In 2000 he won the state merit prize of medical creativity from the Academy of Scientific Research, and in 2008 he obtained the state merit prize of the medical sciences.
In spite of all his achievements, Okasha is a humble man. Indeed, he chooses to direct attention away from himself and explains to Al-Ahram Weekly how he considers himself lucky to have been brought up amid a cultured family. His mother was a lover of books, especially literature, and his father was an army officer who was by virtue of his profession extremely organised and precise. Okasha is sure he inherits his love of planning from his father: "My mind is arranged and organised," he says.
Politics as well played a major role in the formation of Okasha's personality. His grandfather was the commander of the Cairo Police, and two of his mother's nephews were former Egyptian prime ministers, Ahmed Maher (1944-1945, when he was assassinated in parliament), and Ali Maher, who held office four times (the first time in 1936 and the last in 1952).
"I was also fortunate that the invention of TV had not yet hit Egypt during the early years of my childhood. Therefore, my parents were totally free to look after their children after three o'clock afternoon. Furthermore, we used to receive the daily visits from our neighbours, relatives and friends. People had time to chat and communicate together. There were strong humane and emotional relations among people, which is good for one's psychological health," Okasha remembers.
As for his brother, Okasha says he had a deep impact on his life. Tharwat Okasha, former minister of culture from 1958 to 1962, was also deputy prime minister and minister of culture from 1966 to 1970. "My brother was 15 years older, and therefore treated me like a son. He used to encourage me to read literature. He advised me when I was 10 years old to read an impressive book titled Happiness and Faith. This was one of the first books I read," Okasha said. He added that his brother used to take him to visit museums, and to the ballet and the opera.
"I lived in this cultural artistic atmosphere through my last year of study at the Faculty of Medicine at Ain Shams University. Then the shock of practical training began," he smiles as he remembers. He went on to say that he worked at the surgery department, where his professor used to ask him to prepare patients to undergo surgery without knowing even their names or faces. "The professor used to tell me to prepare for him a series of patients, one with gallbladder, one with thyroid and two abdomen trauma patients. Then he entered the operation room, where his deputy had already started out with the surgery," he recalls angrily. Okasha was offended and upset because he felt that patients were treated as though they were merely the sum of their organs, while nobody paid any attention to their suffering and emotions.
When he decided to join the department of neurology -- which was renamed and expanded to become the department of neurology and psychiatry -- the dean of the Faculty of Medicine, who was a relative of his mother's, decided to speak to her. Indeed this one conversation was to stand testament of the sort of reception he would be given for many years to come. The dean asked whether "Ahmed was ok. Why does he want to specialise in treating insane people, while he could excel in so many other better branches of medicine?"
In 1960, Okasha travelled to England to specialise in psychology, obtaining a diploma and PhD in the subject area. He returned back to Cairo in 1965. Although he was offered tempting professional offers in England and the US, he preferred to return back to his native Cairo. He complained that when he returned his salary at the university was a mere LE20 monthly: peanuts if compared to the salary he used to receive in England. However, he never regretted his return to Egypt.
"I returned because I believe I have a mission, which is to eradicate society's condescension towards patients with psychological problems. I want the society to respect the rights of these patients. I was the first physician in Egypt to use the term psychological medicine, replacing the previously used words of neurology or psychiatry, which were used wrongly to patients with psychological problems," says Okasha.
"Because until the late 1950s there was no treatment or medicine for patients with psychological problems in Egypt, they were simply considered mad. The only thing the state could do for them was to keep them as far away from the people as possible, lest they do harm. They therefore kept them locked up in asylums in the desert."
Okasha wrote recently a book titled Depression in the Recent Times. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics about 20 to 30 per cent of the population of any country worldwide is afflicted with a psychological disease.
According to Okasha, such diseases are measured by medical studies conducted according to the disability that could occur in the patient's life, meaning how many years of a patient's age are wasted in vain due to the suffering from a certain disease and the premature mortality it may bring about. "In Egypt there are from 1.5 to two million people suffering from a mental disorder that requires immediate treatment. Nowadays, depression is the fifth cause of disability worldwide. By 2015 it will have become the second cause after heart disease for men and the first cause for women, particularly bi-polar depression," Okasha laments.
The dilemma lies in the fact that most likely the majority of people in Egypt do not believe in psychological treatment. According to Okasha, a recent study conducted on the patients of the Psychological Medicine Clinic at Ain Shams University proved that 70 per cent of people resort to sorcerers or traditional treatment.
Speaking about his patients, Okasha underlines that every patient he has encountered over the course of his professional life is unique. "Every psychological patient has had a tremendous share of problems and suffering. The story of every single patient could be turned into a book or movie. Psychology is the only branch of medicine that tailors treatment according to the personality, education, family, work and intelligence level of every patient," Okasha notes.
Asked whether his patients' cases impressed him personally, he replies: "As a human being I am impressed by my patients' sufferings and sympathise with them, however, whenever I am out of the clinic I try not to think of them and get myself out of my bad mood. Sometimes I do suffer from mild depression, however, I try to switch my energy to new intellectual activity in my life, and try not to think of the problem bothering me until it is solved," he said.
Okasha explained that most psychological patients in the past and today suffer from depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. "The word depression is misused nowadays, anyone who suffers from anxiety, frustration, anger or temporary mood swings, says he is depressed. In reality, depression is a constant mood that deprives human beings from their will and hope in life. Fifteen per cent of depressed people commit suicide," he says.
Okasha's philosophy and advice to us all is, never feel sorry about the past and never feel anxious about the future, just live in the present. "Nothing in life is unsolvable. No human being should lose hope in life. And seek to accomplish any kind of achievement," he says. He adds that the best way to treat depression according to the latest studies is to indulge in social networks: friends, family, neighbours and groups, whether political, religious, charitable or sporting.
The most recent study conducted by Okasha was on the persona of the Egyptians, titled The Anatomy of Egyptian Character. In this study he details that a large number of Egyptians are negative, dependent, aggressive and moody. He reveals that Egyptians tend to blame others for their own mistakes. They also criticise others for their mistakes, while they commit the same mistakes themselves. "Egyptians are known for making jokes criticising political and economic conditions. This form of criticism shows their extreme hostility to the regime, but in a negative way. It appears Egyptians prefer to surrender to the status quo, and in general they will rarely demonstrate or protest to change their miserable condition," says Okasha.
Okasha adds that it is a good thing that Egyptians have a sense of humour and are always smiling and joking, whatever problems they may face. To a great extent this means they have faith, satisfaction and are contented. But today, the worse the political and economic situation becomes, the more frustrated and desperate they become, as they are unable to face their problems. Therefore they even give up their only weapon, which is that of jokes.
The second characteristic of Egyptians is that they are self- centred, impatient and reactive. Okasha elaborates that Egyptians are selfish: they think only of the safety of themselves and their families, regardless of the welfare of others or the nation. Therefore they do not have a sense of belonging. Their mottoes are: "I will not reform the country myself," and "I will behave like the others."
It appears other academic research has reached similar conclusions. The Centre of Information and Decision recently released a study indicating that 82 per cent of Egyptians do not trust or love each other. "Nowadays Egyptians bring up their children on new values. They tell them that serious and hard work, honesty and sincerity do not necessarily mean they will achieve success in life. But on the contrary, double standards, cheating and hypocrisy are the proper means to do well," Okasha told the Weekly.
As for the relation between Egyptians and religion, Okasha discovered that the misunderstanding and misconception of religion is one of the clear characteristics of Egyptians. "Most religious people view religion as mere rituals, paying no attention to the fact that the heart of religion is to be tolerant and to treat others nicely. Most rich religious people are keen to go on Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] every year and on Omra [lesser pilgrimage] several times annually," he said. "Meanwhile, their daily behaviour is characterised by greed, lies, hypocrisy and mistreatment to others," he says.
Okasha has recently published a book titled Holes in the Egyptian Conscience, where he mentions that the most distinguished setback to the Egyptians' characters is that there are very wide, unbridgeable holes in their conscience. Unfortunately, he believes, the prevailing characteristic among large segments of society -- whether they are educated or illiterate, rich or poor -- is that they are likely to ignore material reality and logic. They take irrational, over-reactive decisions. Such people are immature emotionally.
Okasha regrets that even important decisions related to major national projects are taken by enthusiastic people who nevertheless do not study or thoroughly investigate their projects or conduct long-term plans. "Billions of pounds are wasted on failed national projects because decision-makers neglected reality and indulged in overreacting to enthusiastic decisions," he says. The psychologist adds that if self- centredness and dependency exist in one character it is likely to generate short-sightedness.
Okasha's study also analyses the relationship between Egyptians and their rulers, revealing that individualism and selfishness of those on top lead them to manipulate the enthusiasm and emotions of the public. Egyptians are used to bowing down to their rulers since the Pharaohs' era. Okasha provides an example. When the Court of Cassation ruled that the elections of the Shura Council and People's Assembly should be terminated, the court's decision was not put into effect except after the Egyptian president ordered that it should be implemented. And many other problems are solved only if the president interferes.
Even the language used by Egyptians has its impact on their persona. Okasha notes that language is considered one of the fundamental bases forming the character of any nation. The chaos of language in Egypt affects people's ability to express their thoughts and opinions.
"Most Arabic movies contain terms and sentences that necessitate an immediate, deep psychological analysis. Many characters in these movies utter phrases that encourage carelessness, show a lack of social devotion even to the point of psychological disorder, and make a mockery of values, respectable figures and role models in society," Okasha regrets.
The study also details how colloquial language has many styles. Every segment of society has its own language: the street, the home, music, newspapers and the Quran. "During the last 20 years rich families have grown accustomed to sending their children to language schools to learn English, French and German. They graduate speaking bad Arabic and this leads them to intellectual disorders," Okasha notes.
The study, meanwhile, shows that the linguistic chaos negatively affects Egyptians' literary, artistic, cultural and aesthetic tastes and senses. Egyptians no longer differentiate between what is ugly and pretty. "The reform of the nation relies largely on our communication with each other with one unified decent language. In most cases the creativity of the individuals is linked with their excellence in their mother language," Okasha added.
As for the recent wave of violence in the street, the psychologist says the reality lies far beyond what we perceive on the surface. There is hidden violence directed against the most fragile sectors in society. Women and children face an increased percentage of rape and sexual harassment.
The reason for violence, as explained by Okasha, is globalisation. In other words, Egyptian society has grown more violent partly because of violent Western movies on TV. A recent international survey showed that the average Egyptian child watches 10,000 violent scenes before reaching the age of 10. Therefore, they do not reject or feel repulsed by violence, but rather deal with violence as if it were a normal matter.
The second reason for violence, according to Okasha, is that Egyptians have lost their sense of tolerance, because they know that it is hard to secure their rights either through the judiciary or any other legitimate tools, so they resort to violence.
Meanwhile, violence multiplies alongside the increase of drug use. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Health, 9.1 per cent of Egyptians have either experimented or are addicted to a drug.
Okasha further adds that violence and crimes have other reasons such as audio, visual and air pollution, overcrowding and dirt on the streets. All these factors lead to a society's ethical deterioration and hinder the ability to be productive. Recent psychological conditions survived by the Egyptians are linked as well to three main factors: unemployment, inflation and overcrowding. He maintains that the nation lost its feeling of belonging because its people have to feel first that they are human beings who have dignity through providing them with suitable salaries, services, healthcare, education and housing.
Okasha goes on to describe other problems in Egypt, saying: "Egyptians bear a number of destructive feelings: disability, hopelessness, indifference, carelessness, and frustration, which consequently result in being aggressive, violent, anxious, depressed, desperate and negative. And all these result in ethical and moral deterioration."
Interestingly, Okasha complains that there is neither credibility nor sovereignty to the government. "The government is bluntly lying and falsifying facts." Okasha tells of how he watched on TV one senior financial government official saying that the Egyptian economy would not be affected by the international financial crisis. Shortly afterwards the same official appeared on the same channel and said with the same smile that the financial crisis will strongly affect Egypt.
As for the crimes being committed in Egypt, he says that the reason for most of the crimes is the lack of a cultural atmosphere and the current intellectual vacuum. Egyptians are interested only in scandals, and have turned their attention away from reading respectable books.
"However, the most notable feature of the character of Egyptians is fear. This emotion is overwhelming. There is a whole atmosphere of fear controlling both leaders and public. Fear dominates when the regime becomes totalitarian and decreases the individual freedoms of the public," Okasha emphasises. "Government officials are afraid of popular revenge, even if they feel safe due to the tight security measures," Okasha says.
As for the future of Egypt, he believes that as long as there is no transparency, accountability or pluralism, there will be no hope.
"The problem with ethical deterioration is not only poverty as many would imagine, but rather the lack of justice. A person could endure poverty if there were social equality and justice," he maintains.
Okasha explains further that the judiciary system is so slow and even when the rulings are released, the executive authorities could take longer to apply them. However, he adds that though Egyptians are negative, they are by no means beyond hope. "They just need someone to lead them," he says. Okasha expects positive action in the direction of reform as Egyptians have started to know and come to terms with the simple fact that they have rights.
Interview by Sahar El-Bahr