The Science Fictional Middle East Part III/It Just Dawned on Me What Mister Robot is Really About
Last night, on the first televised (rather than webcast) after-show for Mister Robot, the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, obliquely told America what his show is about when he made a big deal of saying that both he and the show’s star, Rami Malek, are Egyptian-Americans. The other big point he made was that this season is about puppetmasters—those pulling the strings controlling the apparent major actors in geopolitical events. Up to now, I had thought it was a show about the US.
To briefly recap the plot, a band of anarchist hackers led by Elliot, a morphine-addicted delusional schizophrenic genius, decides to collapse global capitalism by encrypting all the data of the world’s largest financial enterprise (E-corp, derided as EvilCorp) such that it has no access. Collapse of the major world economies ensues. These hackers didn’t act alone: they were aided by the Dark Army, Chinese hackers, whose transgender leader is the Minister of State Security for China. However, E-corp can rebuild its database from paper records. At the behest of the Dark Army, who “own” the head of E-corp, these records are being gathered in one building, which is about to be blown up as the last episode ended. For this whole season, Elliot has been working covertly as an employee of E-corp, trying to reverse what he did in Season 1, while his alter ego, Mister Robot, an alternate personality who takes over periodically and who physically resembles Elliot’s deceased father, coordinates with the Dark Army to keep Phase II on track. The head of the Dark Army insists the head of E-corp and other business leaders pressure Obama (the timeline is alternative 2015) to go along with China’s plan to annex the Congo. The Dark Army is also wrangling control of an American nuclear power plant at which something dark went on that killed Elliot’s father and one other character’s mother. Congo + the nuclear power plant = some sort of tech that will solidify China’s power, I think.
So, a people’s revolution purports to wrest power from those in charge but really ends up with some of the old powers-that-be remaining in control? Sounds like a metaphor for the Arab Spring. Especially in Egypt, where Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi led a coup that removed Mohamed Morsi, the leader elected after the Arab Spring, from power. They called it a revolution. Sisi gave the Egyptian military, always the true power brokers, unchecked power. Sisi also moved to reign in the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps the only opponent that had worried the military.
Sounds like the source of Esmail’s inspiration for Mister Robot to me.
But what is Esmail really saying? The struggle for dominance between Elliot and Mister Robot to control Elliot’s mind is the geopolitical struggle writ small. Part of Elliot still wants to see anarchist revolution and smashing of the capitalist power structure. Part of him deeply regrets the chaos and would be happy with reform. At E-corp, Elliot manages to expose and tip off the FBI and upper management to all of the middle managers who are financial criminals, serial sexual harassers, etc., while he tries to convince the management to protect their data. Part of him fits into his role in the cubicle farm.
Do the same demons wrestle within Sam Esmail? Business-as-usual stability has its advantages when compared with violent chaos. Unless you are one of the persecuted.
So what will become of Egypt? In a country where the religion says the leader is appointed by God, the level of education is low, unemployment is rampant, and woman’s rights are routinely abused (female circumcision is still widely practiced), voting is not the same thing as democracy. The democracy envisioned in the Arab Spring, with the population enthralled with Western models, seems now further off than ever. The choice in much of the Arab world seems between military dictatorship and fundamentalist theocracy. Both may be an option. But is neither? Could it be?
What will become of the world in Mister Robot? Methinks it depends on Esmail’s view of Egypt’s future. Is Esmail a closet reactionary, preferring safety and order to freedom? Or will the Revolution ultimately succeed?
Well, he despises Trump. I admit to being amused by the scene in which the head of the Dark Army directly states that then-candidate Trump could be easily controlled by a foreign power. But I haven’t exactly seen Esmail doing Antifa black block protests.
Today’s news revealed the Saudi role in the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister. The Washington Post claims that by removing the last politician in Lebanon not fully controlled by Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia is paving the way for an Israeli attack on Lebanon. Israel as Saudi Arabia’s client state in a proxy war against Iran? The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, apparently doesn’t think so. He made a point of saying Israel’s interests are not exactly the same as those of Saudi Arabia. The Post agrees, predicting a ramping up in the anti-Hezbollah diplomatic rather than military efforts on the part of the Israelis.
So the head of a group the US and the European Union consider terrorists is speculating on the placement of strings, and with the strings twisted into a web ensnaring the puppets, he has no fear.
It would make good TV.