North Africa, West Asia

Political violence and state repression in Egypt

Maged Mandour

The level of political violence and state repression is set to increase over the coming years in Egypt. The slogan, “Egypt is fighting terrorism” is only a short-term remedy, diverting attention away from a severe economic and political crisis.

Maged Mandour
26 February 2014

Political violence in Egypt has been rising steadily since the coup that removed President Morsi from power on July 3. This type of violence has had obvious manifestations, namely, the massacre of protestors during the forceful clearing of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins last August, and the return of the police state with the usual routine of arbitrary arrests and torture.

The purpose of this article is not to summarize what have now become routine headlines, rather to show that this is a symptom of a much wider and deeper phenomenon, namely the expansion of political violence, in the broader sense, in the realm of civil and political society, by both state and non-state actors. In the context of this article, political violence refers to the use of acts of violence and/or coercion to achieve political goals, by both state and non-state actors. Since the June 30 coup both the state and Islamist radicals have carried out violent acts.

In the realm of civil society

There are two forms of violence committed on behalf of the state; one is practiced in the realm of civil society, which is decentralized in nature, and the other is practiced by the state itself in the realm of political society. Civil society in this case is defined in the broadest sense, as the realm of consent, where different societal groups are solicited by the ruling classes, in this case a military/crony capitalist alliance which includes media, trade unions, schools and so forth.

In the case of Egypt, civil society has been performing a form of self-repression; a large segment has allied itself with the state repressing other segments that oppose the military. The most obvious example is local media, which is “technically” privately owned, however actively involved in propagating conspiracy theories that border on the ludicrous, especially with regard to the root causes of the Egyptian Revolution. The recurring theme is the claim that the uprising was a foreign conspiracy to destroy the last standing Arab army, with the assertion that the activists who helped start the revolution are traitors, if not foreign agents.

This is coupled with heavily orientalist rhetoric about the role of the Egyptian military in general, and the role of Field Marshal El Sisi in particular. Sisi is depicted as a father figure, leading his lost children - the Egyptian people - out of the abyss that they have placed themselves in. A rhetoric that shares a lot of features with the colonial’s depiction of the colonized world; people that need to be ruled with force as they are incapable of ruling themselves. Depicting Sisi the same way that the European colonialists did, and still depict themselves, as the saviours of nations. Egypt is always depicted as a helpless entity, emphasizing a typical stereotype of the east, as both feminine and servile, in need of rescue.

This type of repression has a very peculiar characteristic, in that it does not involve the direct involvement of the state, rather the allies of the state that indirectly repress opponents. This type of repression requires the cooption of intellectuals, defined in the broadest sense, to act as direct agents of repression. Sadly, this list is rather long, and includes people who were well known for their opposition to the Mubarak regime. The clearest example is Ibrahim Eissa, the once revolutionary journalist, and the current minister of Labour, Kamal Abou Eita, one of the heroes of the Egyptian working classes. This cooption, driven by the rejection of the rule of the Brotherhood, has justified this degree of repression, especially from a critical segment of society, the urban middle classes.

In the realm of political society

The state coercive apparatus, namely the police, military and judiciary, practices the other form of repression – political repression – centrally. This form of repression is relatively easy to observe, and falls within our expected stereotype of mass arrests, torture and so on. However, the type of repression being practiced by the Egyptian government has a number of new features that are worth highlighting.

First, the traditional taboos of repression that were found in a tacit agreement between the middle classes and the Mubarak regime seem to have evaporated. For example, the detention of minors in prison cells with adults, and incidents of sexual harassment of female protestors and detainees has become regular practice. It is important to note that although the Mubarak regime relied heavily on repression, it attempted not to offend middle class sensibilities, and not to cross certain boundaries. This does not seem to be the case anymore.

Second, the purposes of direct coercion are not to repress dissent; but rather to eradicate it and to make examples of those who dare to raise their voices in opposition. The Mubarak regime used to allow certain areas for freedom of dissent as along as it did not cross a certain boundary; such as critiquing the head of the regime. Now, with all the popular support the military has, it is not tolerating even the slightest critique, and is willing to respond with disproportionate force, following the Confucian saying “Using a hammer to kill a fly”.

Non-state actors

On the other hand, political violence is being committed by non-state actors. A good example are the recurring bombs that have gone off across the country since the overthrow of Morsi. It is important to note that there is no concrete evidence as to who is responsible, according to local newspapers; Ansar Beit El Maqdis have supposedly claimed responsibility for a number of these attacks.

The first feature that merits our attention are the locations of these bomb attacks. Unlike the wave of Islamic radicalism of the 1980s and 1990s, the current attacks started in the Sinai Peninsula rather than Upper Egypt (south of Egypt), which is a traditional stronghold for conservative movements and the birth place of El Gama’a El Islamiya; an Islamist group that clashed with the government in the 1980s and 1990s. This might be due to their de-radicalisation in the late 1990s, and the realization that the costs of waging armed struggle against the state outweigh the benefits by far. Upper Egypt is also a stronghold for the Brotherhood and they may be able to exert stronger control there: one only needs to look at the voting patterns of the last three years, from the presidential elections to the 2012 referendum to see their strength there.

However, the Bedouins of Sinai have been suffering from severe state repression for years, and have been posed as a security threat to the rest of the country, which might have offered an opening to radical groups to infiltrate the local population, this of course does not imply that the entire population has become radical, rather, that a combination of state repression, as well as a historical political vacuum has allowed radical groups to establish a foothold in the Sinai Peninsula at a time of revolutionary flux.

The second feature, is the amateurish nature of the bombs used. It seems that the devices used are homemade bombs. This means, that those “Islamist radicals”, unlike the older generation that received extensive training and combat experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as Fawaz Gerges discusses in his book Journey of a Jihadist, appear to be home grown radicals that have limited experience. There is also some evidence to suggest that they might be radicalized members of the Muslim Brotherhood that broke off into splinter cells, and are no longer under the control of the central command of the Brotherhood. This is shown in the confession of two bombers published in Al-Ahram and Al Masry el Youm.

The final feature is the relatively low number of casualties inflicted. Most of the casualties are members of the security forces and a good example are the series of bombs that went off in Cairo on the third anniversary of the revolution. The goal seemed to be to send a message to the security forces and to chip away at the legitimacy of the government that promised a return to stability and security. The aim was not to alienate the civilian population, by not inflicting causalities; a qualitative change from previous violent acts practiced by radical Islamist groups.

As the political order relies more on coercion to assert itself, the level of political violence and state repression is set to increase over the coming years. This might also signal the emergence of radical fringe groups that will take advantage of the polarized political situation. The slogan of “Egypt is fighting terrorism” is only a short-term remedy, diverting attention away from the severe economic and political crisis facing Egypt. The recent increase in civil unrest and the proliferation of strikes and other forms of protest are a sign that the Egyptian struggle is only beginning.

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