North Africa, West Asia

The battle for Mohamed Mahmoud: developing a counter narrative

Maged Mandour

Even though the regime has the upper hand in material repression, it is far from invincible. Its Achilles heel is its ideological weakness, and the creation of a revolutionary mythology may be a first step in the long journey of dismantling its ideological base. 

Maged Mandour
24 November 2014
Mohamed Mahmoud St. mural dedicated to ultras martyrs, 2012.

Mohamed Mahmoud St. mural dedicated to ultras martyrs, 2012. Flickr/ Gigi Ibrahim. Some rights reserved.Three years have passed since the Mohamed Mahmoud Battle. The street battle that took place between protestors and security forces in downtown Cairo, just off Tahrir Square, which left more than 50 protesters dead and dozens wounded.

This battle gained symbolic importance during the reign of the Egyptian military council and President Morsi, which led to renewed clashes with security forces on the annual anniversary. However, the significance of this battle, as well as other battles such as the Maspero massacre, the clashes at the cabinet of ministers and the Port Said massacre, have faded from public memory.

Not only are those who fell victim to the military’s actions no longer remembered, neither are the actions of the military or the police forces remembered. In essence, the mythology of the revolution has been erased and the counter narrative eliminated. A big part of why this has happened is the dominance of state controlled media narratives, and the failures of the revolutionary movement to create its own counter hegemonic narrative that can act as a point of cohesion for a shared identity, which seems more marginalized and divided than ever.

When the above-mentioned clashes erupted, the demands of the petty bourgeoisie intellectuals, the potential leaders of the revolutionary movement, were limited to holding those involved in the violence accountable. The events were actively de-politicized and treated as a criminal matter that required the intervention of the government, not as a political event par excellence, which could have then been used to build a counterhegemonic narrative.

The middle class opted to deescalate the situation and focus its demands on bringing those responsible to justice. This, of course, is a ludicrous demand since those responsible for the killings are at the highest level in the military. These were cases of political violence, not criminal violence, and thus the demands should have been the overthrow of the military regime, not the trial of a few junior police officers.

This pattern of behavior is still prevalent among the current greatly weakened revolutionary movement. The memory of the battles and the subsequent massacres are not being used to create a counter hegemonic narrative of a broader societal struggle with the military’s dominance over Egyptian political and social life.

Every movement needs heroes and villains in struggles in order to create internal cohesion among its members and raise the level of group consciousness, so that the members of the movement identify themselves as a separate social group with clearly defined interests that oppose the interests of the current ruling class.

Thus, the above-mentioned events are of critical importance as they could be used as launching pads for developing this consciousness and breaking down the ideological base of the current regime, which is massively suppressive under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.

In essence, these events need to be defined as political, with the aim of suppressing the revolution. It is also important to realize that the participants in these events were, to a large extent, the urban poor - the potential battering rams of the revolution. As such, their role needs to be highlighted and used as a base for creating the counter narrative for the revolutionary movement; a movement with revolutionary and egalitarian core goals.

In essence, what is needed is to create the base necessary for the middle class to extend its ideological hegemony to the lower urban class by adopting their cause and highlighting the classist nature of the current regime and, most importantly, using the above-mentioned events as powerful symbols for the suppression of the poor by the military caste and its crony capitalist allies. In other words, highlighting the nature of the struggle as a struggle against the rich and the oppressors; radicalizing the movement and making it more “Jacobin” in nature.

It is important to note that the above-mentioned process is not a straightforward process, although I argue that it should be a deliberate process led by the intellectual elites of the revolutionary movements. It is rather an iterative, long-term process where the outcome depends on the interaction between the elites and the audience; where these mythologies are deconstructed and re-built based on the receptiveness of the target audience.

Currently, the Egyptian revolutionary movement is trapped in attempting to fend off accusations of treason and supposedly being part of a cosmic conspiracy against the Egyptian state. A game it can, realistically, never win. A new type of narrative needs to be constructed. One that is not focused on rebuking accusations against military elites, but rather at creating a rallying cry against military oppression, and using this as a springboard to widen its ideological appeal.   

In essence, I am arguing that the Egyptian Revolutionary movement needs to create its own version of history. This could eventually lead to the creation of a new identity, that of a “revolutionary”. This would naturally involve the creation of myths and the romanticization of past events, which is a necessary process for creating such an identity.

The end goal of this activity would be the creation of a new “imagined community” that would encompass the members of the revolutionary movement, and take the initiative back from the regime. The massacres and clashes mentioned above should be placed squarely as the responsibility of the military, as an active participant in these events.

The nature of the current regime needs to be openly recognized as a military regime, which is a direct continuation of the Mubarak regime. Military dominance over the Egyptian political order, ever since the coup of 1952, has to be acknowledged.

Thus, the current ills of Egyptian society are the direct responsibility of the military, which has not only shown an astonishing failure to govern, but also treated the country as a large fiefdom with Egyptian citizens being treated more as serfs rather than citizens. There is an urgent need for symbols and myths; otherwise, the ability of the Egyptian revolutionary movement to regain ground will be severely restricted.

The Egyptian regime is currently following a path of severe repression, where any criticism - even from regime supporters - is quickly repressed through direct state intervention or in the realm of civil society through decentralized ideological repression. A talk show, for example, was pulled off air for critiquing some ministers, even though the host is a well-known military supporter.

This shows the regime’s acute self-awareness of its ideological weaknesses and vulnerability. The abysmal performance of the government, in terms of deteriorating living conditions and the worsening security situation, places the regime and by extension the military in a perilous position, due to their overt dominance in economic, social and political spheres.

Even though the regime has the upper hand in material repression, it is far from invincible. Its Achilles heel is its ideological weakness. As such, the creation of a revolutionary mythology is a first step in the long journey of dismantling the ideological base of the regime. 

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