Cycles of violence in Egypt

It is common to hear people sitting in ahwas (street coffee houses) speaking of their latest plans to demand better conditions at work through strikes and walkouts. This culture of protest now appears to be more prevalent than ever. 

Laura Gribbon
25 March 2013

From widely circulated images of Khaled Said’s brutalised body (in 2010) to the recent public lynching of two thieves in Gharbiya, the aestheticisation of physical suffering and increasingly public use of violence has had a polarising effect on Egyptian society.

The Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), many of those considered ‘felool’ (of the old order) and Egyptians of all classes, who are trying to go on with their everyday lives, are demanding greater stability and the strengthening of the rule of law. This is juxtaposed with a growing lawlessness, unrest and anger on the streets that no state official, police or military officer has been brought to justice for the deaths of over eight hundred in 2011, seventy-two during the Port Said massacre in 2012 (except two minimal sentences for police officers), and over fifty during the two-year commemorations of the revolution this year, making a mockery of the judicial system and state institutions.

The interpretation of tragedy and loss has reinforced affiliations and communities, both real and imagined. During the first eighteen days of the revolution in 2011 and the months that followed, images of dead heroes were used as a call to arms; a way of defining loyalties and strengthening opposition to the Mubarak regime and police. Since then, as narratives of victimhood and heroism have been performed and re-interpreted by various actors to numerous audiences, contentious claims have been made in the names of these political martyrs by state and religious institutions, as well as the public. ‘Ownership’ of the memory of Egypt’s revolutionary martyrs is being utilised to defend and attack the use of violence by the state and security forces.

Efforts to commemorate some of the most tragic events to date and re-enact scenarios that are still so painfully fresh in peoples minds have ended in further bloodshed, as performances of remembrance have reinforced anger and resentment against security forces and the state. The five-day commemorative event, ‘Eyes of Freedom’ (Monday 19 – Friday, November 23, 2012) planned to mark the one-year anniversary of the Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud in 2011 (during which many protestors lost their eyes), quickly turned into a new violent struggle.

President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree on Thursday, November 22, in effect putting his decisions above the law, which enraged oppositional groups and further fuelled the battle between protestors and police. Additionally, marches and protests organised from Jan 25 – 28, 2013, to commemorate the second anniversary of the start of the revolution, were marked with bloodshed. On this occasion, the courts released a controversial verdict on the Port Said massacre, referring twenty-one civilians to the Mufti (Egypt’s official authority for issuing religious edicts) for sentencing. They’ve since been handed the death penalty. Lawlessness and chaos followed, with police killing seven in Port Said during a funeral commemorating the deaths of thirty-one, who died protesting the death sentences of the twenty-one, who have been accused of killing seventy-four.

Such cycles of violence have been described by some as formulaic, staged cat-and- mouse attacks, between young protestors and police. State media and the Ikhwan have blamed foreign influence or written them off as waves of counter-revolution, in an effort to single out a new enemy, whether it be activist organisations such as April 6, Ultras (hard core football fans), the National Salvation Front (an alliance of liberal, secular and leftist groups) or the newly emergent Egyptian Black Bloc.

Protestors in black masks have been perceived by the state as violent radical outlaws. Yet such affiliations with the ideologies and tactics of anarchy, including civil disobedience, appear to be more indicative of Egypt’s current state of lawlessness than the cause of it.

Walking around downtown Cairo lately it is apparent there are more self-appointed traffic officers and vigilantes than ever, and an increasing number of people are carrying around personal protection devices, such as knives and tasers; the latter now being sold occasionally by street vendors in Tahrir Square. This trend is not limited to opposition forces. The government recently drafted a law granting private security firms powers of arrest to support the Ministry of Interior.

Ambiguity and confusion is rife. Morsi publicly declared the Port Said dead as ‘martyrs’, before government-run newspapers blamed an arms-smuggling mafia, and seven out of nine indicted police officers were acquitted, effectively absolving the state of all responsibility for the massacre.

The regime appears weak through such schizophrenic attempts to deal with outbreaks of violent protest. A curfew initiated in the canal cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia was withdrawn hours after it was instigated, as people took to the streets in their thousands, showing a blatant disregard for Morsi and his laws.

Whilst recent battles between protestors and police are heavily reminiscent of scenes from the last couple of years, there are both similarities and differences in the emerging actions and strategies of those in power and ‘the street’. The state continues to re-enact the repressive tactics of the Mubarak regime, from the heavy use of tear gas and curfews to the arrest and torture of prominent activists and journalists. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has recently questioned the absence of security forces in protecting the CBC channel headquarters and Al-Watan, as well as the active targeting of journalists and media professionals by state operatives.

The barricading in of the Ministry of Interior with walls lays bare the intention of a weak regime to protect itself rather than its people. Likewise, the actions of the military and police, exposed by human rights groups and NGOs such as ‘No to Military Trials’, signifies the increasing desperation of the regime to hold on to power. The recent murder of twelve-year-old street vendor Omar Salah Omran by a military conscript in Cairo near the US embassy, and even more poignantly the cover- up attempts of fellow army officers, doctors and ambulance staff, shows the incompetence of the Morsi regime to deal with daily life in Egypt without resorting to violence and coercion.

Despite the chaos, opposition groups are learning from each subsequent wave of protest. As the state repeats its familiar tactics of repression, NGOs and activist organisations are becoming more adept at evidencing the brutality of the regime, from filming and capturing events on camera to uncovering and exposing false autopsy reports. Recent widespread civilian action in Port Said, ranging from government workers to microbus drivers, indicates a growing impatience that spans all sectors of society. It is common to hear people sitting in ahwas (street coffee houses) speaking of their latest plans to demand better conditions at work through strikes and walkouts. This culture of protest has been present in Egypt for years within certain groups and sectors, but now appears to be more prevalent than ever.

The repertoires of resistance that Egyptians draw upon are constantly enlarging and developing. Strikes, sit-ins and marches are still commonplace, and effective to a greater or lesser extent depending on numbers and levels of violence. However, there are also battles being waged at every level of society, from campaigns to stop sexual harassment on the streets, to those promoting freedom of information and expression. Attempts by the regime to scare protestors into silence through targeted attacks and intimidation have continued to backfire. Organisations such as OpAntiSH (Operation Anti Sexual Harassment) have discovered that several survivors of recent mass rape attacks have resolved to help others cope with similar violent assaults, even volunteering in subsequent protests and marches.

The prolonged use of violence has divided society in many different ways. Not just along secular and religious lines, as has been heavily documented, but between the old order, institutions, and a heavily disaffected lower middle class, as well as between urban and rural areas. This has been particularly poignant in Port Said recently, where many people feel as though they have been scapegoated to ease the violence in Cairo.

As German political theorist Hannah Arendt argued, a group or state that utilises violence against its own citizens does not have the legitimate authority to maintain compliance without resorting to coercion or political terrorism. It also sends a message to its citizens that the use of extreme violence and terror is okay as a means to an end. Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky described the public hanging of two thieves on March 17, 2013 in Egypt’s Gharbiya governorate as indicative of “the death of the state”.

In this brutal incident, villagers beat the two accused, dragging them through the streets and hanging them from a tree, evoking the ‘Haraba’ penalty (the execution of anyone terrorising another to steal from them). Mekki suggests such lawlessness (he cites road blocks by citizens as another example) is a sign of the death of the state. However, does a state that uses the death penalty for civilians, tortures its citizens, and pays mobs to sexually assault men and women, not in some way sanction the use of violence against itself and between its people?

Such a cycle is hard to break once it has begun. Of course when speaking about violence and the state, one cannot ignore the endemic role of violence in the very formation of the modern nation state itself. Violence and the threat of violence has become a modus operandi for both democratic and autocratic regimes worldwide, depending on the extent to which the state claims a monopoly on violence and maintains legitimate support. The social acceptance of violence is often based on whether or not the state utilises methods that appear proportionate to the level of threat against it.

Narratives of threat, chaos and disorder have been used historically by both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes to justify the use of violence, and more recently to give credibility to the proposed use of Ikhwani militias. Many Egyptians support calls by the police for greater arms in order for them to prevent further bloodshed by baltageyya (thugs) and paid mobs. However, again society has been polarised over this issue, with others claiming the police force needs urgent reform itself before it can be trusted to use discerning judgement and reasonable force in dealing with such threat. There is still greater sympathy in Egyptian society for the military than Central Security and police, with many claiming the Ministry of Interior is the main problem and needs dismantling.

There are several indications the Morsi government is losing control over its security forces. Widespread police strikes and increasing vigilantism have led to calls by the attorney general for citizens to assist in the arresting of thugs, and the introduction of private militias would also seem to support this.

So, what is the way forward in dealing with this escalation of violence and the increasing polarisation of Egyptian society? On the weekend of the final Port Said verdict, many asked, “Where is Morsi?” Calls for ‘strong leadership’ and nostalgia for the rules of former presidents Sadat and Nasser have been voiced by various individuals, and increasing resistance to the Ikhwan can be felt across all levels of society. It has become apparent that the next wave of revolution is being waged, and will continue to be fought, outside of Cairo and Tahrir Square. The canal cities – Suez, Port Said and Ismailia, as well as Mansoura, Tanta, Mahalla, Alexandria and Sinai are all experiencing unrest, violence and acts of civil disobedience.

This battle is going to be a long one, and will result in further violence and bloodshed. However, as Arendt famously wrote, “... Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power” (Arendt, On Violence, 1969). As it was with Mubarak’s, the increasing use of violence by the Morsi regime will be its undoing. The greater challenge will be in establishing a legitimate state in Egypt that can govern with the support of such a heavily divided population without resorting to further violence.





These pictures were taken by the author during the anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud on 23 November 2012 (click on the pictures for higher resolution versions).

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