Accounting for Egyptians’ Exuberance for Violence

This was not the Tahrir I had spent countless hours in since early February 2011, talking, chanting, shouting, marching, filming, interviewing, breathing in various fumes, ducking spears and even gun shots. It was very hard to come to grips with the fact that on the third anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, tens of thousands of Egyptians were chanting nationalist slogans while waving photos, placards, banners and posters of General Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, and exhibiting a kind of hero worship and cult of personality that was unimaginable in the Mubarak era.

Protesters demonstrate in Tahrir Square. Credit: Creative Commons/Maged Helal.

Whereas for the last three years Tahrir was filled with chants for military leaders to “leave” (Irhal!); to take down the system (ash-Sha’b yurid isqat an-nizzam!); and for freedom, dignity and social justice, (Huriyyah, Karama, wa-Adallah ijtima’iyya!); now people were chanting and dancing and even crying for Sissi to run for President.

The mood was incredibly festive in Tahrir, but outside things were quite different. Gangs of roving Sissi supporters were attacking anyone who didn’t “look” like they supported Sissi. Opposition activists had tweeted for protesters to “get the hell out of downtown” or to buy a Sissi mask or poster and do their best to blend in. Earlier in the day, at one of the few organized protests against the re-cementing of the military order we were shot at by security forces; several protesters were killed. My friend Ramy Essam, the “singer of the Revolution” whose song “Irhal!” quickly became the anthem of Tahrir and of the Arab uprisings more broadly, literally could not leave his apartment a few blocks from Tahrir for fear of being attacked by one of the gangs of Sissi supporters. Instead, we spent much of the evening after I left Tahrir hurling insults at the TV, which aggressively covered the gathering in Tahrir as proof positive that Egypt was behind Sissi and his seemingly inevitable candidacy for President.

The Egyptian Revolution that began on January 25, 2011 has from the start been the site of routine and sometimes intense violence. To call it a non-violent uprising, even on the side of the protesters, is inaccurate. Protesters and opposition forces used a certain level of violence, largely against property (burning down the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and police stations, and numerous police vehicles) and physically fought off thugs and security forces during the initial uprising. During the Muhammad Mahmoud fighting of November 2011, which began because revolutionary youth took to the streets to protest the ongoing violence, arrests, military trials, torture and other abuses by the interim government, protesters perfected the art of molotov cocktail production, to the point where the well armed and protected security forces failed to remove them from Tahrir. And, in October 2011, military forces massacred two dozen Christian Coptic activists while they peacefully protested the ongoing abuses the community suffered in the post-Mubarak era.

But the violence of the state, against which these protests were launched, exponentially exceeded that of the protesters. Already in March 2011 the government brutally removed occupiers of Tahrir, and thousands of mostly young people were beaten, arrested, sexually molested, tried, imprisoned, tortured and killed, whether under the post-Mubarak SCAF government, under the Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi, and under the post-coup military-civilian transition government. Not just political protesters, but labor activists and activists for minority and women’s rights have also met routine violence and oppression.

Indeed, perhaps the seminal moment of post-Mubarak violence occurred in December 2012, when revolutionary youth again returned to the streets, this time at the Presidential Palace in Ittihadiyya to protest then President Morsi’s arrogation of supra-constitutional powers to himself. In the attempts to rebuff the protest and ensuing sit-in, Muslim Brotherhood members, including leaders, were clearly visible working with the military not merely to attack protesters but to torture those they’d seized. Whatever possibility there was of achieving a rapprochement between Morsi and the Brotherhood and revolutionary forces was lost for good by the end of 2012.

My point is that violence has followed the revolutionary uprising more or less without pause since February 11, 2011, when Mubarak was forced from power. And as this period continued it became clear that so-called “ordinary” and highly patriarchal Egyptians (women as well as men) had grown tired of the young revolutionaries ongoing agitation for a truly revamped “system”–never mind that the most important chant of the uprising was to do just that. But what was completely shocking to me and most Egyptians I know was how an overwhelming percentage of the population seemed openly to support mass violence against their fellow Egyptians beginning with the coup against Morsi.

In Cairo in the lead-up and then aftermath of the attacks on the Rabi’a al-Adawiya I suddenly understood what it must have felt like to be a Jew in 1930s Germany or across Europe any time a pogrom was in the air. There can be no other word to describe what was done to Brotherhood supporters besides “pogrom,” they were killed by the hundreds—well over 1,000 in total—in cold blood, including women, children and the elderly along with, and perhaps even more than (we’ll never know the true statistics as the government won’t release them and probably never bothered to collect them) fighting age men. Egyptians cheered these killings, and the killings since, almost as if it were sport. Taxi drivers had ringtones of AK-47s that would go off every time a friend called to announce more killings of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Taxi drivers who in the interim would be listening to Quranic recitations, mind you.

Ordinary Egyptians, who’d come to rely on the Brotherhood for decades as their social safety net, as the movement has provided free or low cost health care and education, among other services at the moment when the “liberalizing” Egyptian state has constricted its provisions of such services; who voted for the Brotherhood precisely because it was the only organized movement that could be trusted in the wake of military rule, had now turned on it with a vengeance and, it feels when you’re on the ground, a blood lust.

Of course, while the blood lust and support for violence started with the Brotherhood—truly surprising when you consider the Brotherhood had won a constitutional referendum and several rounds of parliamentary and presidential voting in the years since Mubarak’s departure and Morsi hadn’t even completed a year in office when the movement to oust him gained steam—it quickly moved to any critic of Sissi and the military led order. Increasingly, the “system” has gone after journalists and social and political activists who criticize the military as well as the Brotherhood.

No one is safe. Dear friends are rotting in jail (prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah is now in his fourth month in jail, again, having missed the birth of his son Khaled, and now again missed his first birthday), April 6 Founders Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Doma have just been brutally beaten by security thugs as they were being taken to the court for their trial date. Increasingly not only so-called “liberals” keep their mouth shut as the oppression continues, but society as a whole supports the discourse sponsored by the government calling anyone who criticizes it “traitors,” “terrorists” or otherwise a “threat” to Egypt’s national security.

Soldiers arrest protesters. Credit: Creative Commons/Maged Helal.

And here is where Tikkun enters the equation. I have searched in vain for an adequate explanation for how a large majority of a country could so quickly turn against a massive movement that for the largest share of the past century has been the most powerful single social force in the country. So much so that the massacre of well over a thousand people, the injuring and imprisonment of thousands more, the criminalization of membership in it, and the ramping up of violence and oppression against all other revolutionary forces, can all win the widespread support or at least acquiescence of what feels like the lion’s share of the people (It is hard to make such claims with any definitiveness. But I don’t know any Egyptian activists or scholars who think that the majority of the population did not support these actions). It is true that the Brotherhood was demonized by the Egyptian government for decades before taking power in 2012. But this does not provide sufficient intellectual and ideological grounding for the present round of attacks. If it had, the Brotherhood would not have risen to political power so quickly after the January 25 uprising.

One can’t blame this on religion, the way pogroms against Jews, Christians, or Muslims could be analyzed when taking place in societies where they are minorities. The Muslim Brotherhood and the activists are not a different ethnicity or nationality, nor are they a different class, although one could argue that the attempts by the Brotherhood to solidify its position inside the state’s power elite and to play by the neoliberal rules of the system alienated its constituency in the last few years, weakening support for the movement when it most needed it. But this is not enough to explain the sudden violent hatred and endorsement of mass violence. The government has tarnished the movement and then activists with being foreign agents or serving external agendas and of being traitors. But again, this is a longstanding tactic of the Egyptian government against its opponents, including the Brotherhood and the liberal and revolutionary secular left opposition. It didn’t work in 2011 or 2012. So it’s hard to explain why it has such valence now.

One Egyptian scholar, Amro Ali, has deployed Hannah Arendt’s views on violence and state coercion to attempt to address this issue. This is an important attempt to bring a much-needed theoretical lens to these issues. But her notion of power is too straight to provide a deep understanding of the roots of these sentiments. One needs Arendt mixed with Foucault and Gramsci, and writers specifically focusing on the dynamics of regime violence like Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe—with perhaps Nietzsche in the background supporting all three—but with a far deeper level of psychoanalytic insight than most philosophers are capable of achieving. On the other hand, most people using psychological theories are too consumed by jargon and concepts that are too complex to be transferred and applied to the real of political action/praxis (e.g., Lacan, Kristeva, etc.) to be very useful either.

It is true that Egypt is a very violent society. Sexual harassment is rampant, as is petty violence against citizens by police and even compatriots. A highly patriarchal country where violence is perpetuated on each group below by the one above it, with the exception of a week or ten days during the January 25 uprising, even Tahrir Square was never free of violence, and often had a very menacing feel to it. And yet even accounting for this I cannot comprehend the support for the level of violence that has been visited upon Egyptians in the last ten months. Nor can I think of a comparable situation. Egypt is not a totalitarian country where cult of personalities are part of the fabric of political and social life. The cult that emerged around Sissi might evoke the Nasser era, but the Egyptian state is far weaker ideologically now than it was then. Most important, Sissi and the (deep) state have offered no ideology for people to follow, no plan or agenda that people could rally around. Even the most violent regimes of the past—Stalinism, Nazism, Pol Pot, etc.—offered a coherent ideology and justification for the violence in terms of it. Here is simply none of this now.

In contrast, in Egypt today, the most the state can say is that the violence is to preserve the very system against which so many people (including a large share of those supporting the counter-revolutionary violence) revolted in 2011. It is true that the state has appealed to stability—or rather the instability supposedly caused by the Brotherhood and the revolutionaries—as a justification for the violence. But again, this discourse has a long history, and people had already turned against it. Why suddenly would they fall prey again to a discourse that had been so discredited by the discourse of “dignity” at the heart of the revolution?

Compared with Egypt the more straightforward ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts of Bosnia, Rwanda, Israel/Palestine or Syria are easy to understand via traditional theories of violence. In this situation it seems clear that psychological explanations become as important as sociological, anthropological or political science. Yet here it seems that theories of “mass” or “mob” violence have not much advanced beyond beyond the century-old theories of Le Bon. Even Adorno’s trenchant critique of Freud, which focuses on the “suspicion of fictitiousness” at the heart of fascistic mass/mob action as being a cause of the “mercilessness” of the crowds that seems to characterize the situation in Egypt only seems to go so far. A “politics of meaning” approach can do much to elucidate why Egyptians, like Americans (for example), have chosen to follow leaders who manifestly work against their material interests, but it too doesn’t explain how the government could win such broad support to use such unprecedented violence (in an Egyptian context, at least) against fellow citizens.

Thus I put it to the readers and colleagues of the Tikkun Community to suggest theories and explanations for the mass psycho-politics of Egypt in the last ten months, with the hope that such a discussion could encourage analyses that not only shed light on the complex processes underlying the support for the violence of the last year, but through it, how activists can help change that dynamic. For now it seems that a theory to explain the enthusiasm so many Egyptians show for the violence of the regime these days is still waiting to be imagined and written. Whoever can contribute to such an account will be doing a great service to the cause of “freedom, dignity and social justice,” in Egypt and globally.


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