North Africa, West Asia

State violence and the illusions of modernity in Egypt

The constant state of denial that is a feature of the urban middle class and the regime is a necessity to maintain a deeply paradoxical ideological construct.

Maged Mandour
15 October 2018

US first lady Melania Trump (L) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egyptian first lady Entissar Mohameed Amer at the Presidential Palace. Picture by Egyptian Presidency/dpa/PA Images. All rights reserved. Mass repression in Egypt and the use of state violence has been growing since the coup of 2013. It was inaugurated with a series of massacres committed by the Egyptian security forces against the supporters of the deposed President, Mohamed Morsi, the most infamous of which is the Rabaa massacres, where , at least, 817 protestors were killed in the worst incident of state violence in modern Egyptian history.

This wave of repression would later expand to include members of all different parts of the political spectrum, including liberal, leftist and secular activists and bloggers, as well as, non-political citizens that happened to be in the wrong place and the wrong time. This has swelled the prison population to almost 60,000 political prisoners. This is coupled with mass forced disappearances, and what appears to be clear evidence of extra-judicial killings in Sinai and the use of heavy weaponry in civilian areas, which leads to heavy casualties among the local population.

Interestingly, even though state violence has becomes a permanent feature of the lives of many Egyptians, the government and many of its urban middle class supporters have gone to considerable length to deny the existence of this phenomenon.

Those denials were not only aimed at the international community, as one would expect autocratic regimes to do, but it also includes denials targeted at the local population, mots notably the literate urban middle class, as one can distinguish by the source of the method of communication. For example, there are the several statements made by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in response to criticisms from the International human rights community, where it has denied the findings of the reports, as well as, criticized the objectivity of the different human rights organizations.

On the other hand, there are other statements that are made by local politicians, Parliamentarians, and members of the National Council for Human Rights that are circulated locally and are intended for domestic consumption. For example, the stern denials issued by members of Parliament, when the HRW issued a report condemning the wide spread use of torture in Egyptian prisons. This went as far, as to claim that there are no political prisoners in Egypt, and, naturally, there is not torture.

When it comes to mass disappearances, the same denials were issued, however, in a less decisive form, where there was an acknowledgment of some cases, however, it was not recognized as a mass phenomenon. There were also claims that those that have been reported as forcibly disappeared have, in fact, travelled, abroad to join ISIS and that forced disappearances phenomenon is a Muslim Brotherhood fabrication to attack the “country”.

Thus, even though the regime is following a deliberate policy of mass repression and violence, it is going through considerable length to deny this, and to communicate to its supporters its nominal adherence to Human Rights.

This can be attributed to a number of factors that relate to the nature of the regime, the Brotherhood, the regional development and the urban middle class that intertwines to create an ideological construct that makes such denials necessary, even though the truth is in plain sight.

First, in order to gain an initial understanding, one needs to analyse the genesis of the neo-military regime currently ruling the country and its contrast with its foe, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2013, as the political crisis in Egypt was reaching its climax, the Brotherhood shifted its political discourse to the right, relying more on the support of hard-line Salafists. This shifted the rhetoric of the under-siege Brotherhood towards sectarian rhetoric and clear threats of violence. This, only, reinforced an image of the Brotherhood as the harbinger of extremist violence, an image that was already firmly developed in the minds of the urban middle class, which was mixed with class based prejudices due to the rural support base of the Brotherhood, which was seen by the urban middle class as uncivilized and barbaric.

This fear was also compounded with the developments in Syria, where the rise of radical groups spawned a cycle of horrific violence, raising alarm bells in the minds of the urban middle class of the possible violence that can erupt if the Islamists, namely the Brotherhood and its increasingly vocal Salafi supporters are not kept in check.

This opened up the way for the military to brand itself as a force of, not only stability, but modernity as well; a force that will use violence, only as necessary and as needed, in order to protect the “country” and, naturally, the urban middle class from the barbaric urban and rural poor who might push the country into the gaping mouth of social and political chaos.

In addition to that, unlike the “radical” Islamists, the military would not use violence un-necessarily, and would not take part in the killing of innocent civilians, nor will it take part in acts of public, ritualistic, violence, like the ones streaming from Syria. In essence, the military is seen as a better alternative than their Islamist opponents, due to its application of “rational” and targeted state violence, unlike the Islamists that threatened to use mass violence against their opponents.

In reality, of course, this was not the case, as the military embarked on a campaign of mass repression and violence that targeted the mass of the population. However, as one can see from the ideological construct that the military created for itself as a force of modernity, there is a constant need to deny this, rather deliberate and obvious policy, of mass repression. On the contrary, there is a need to blame the Brotherhood as the instigator of “propaganda”, whenever new reports appear that expose human rights abuses.

Finally, one can argue that the reception of the urban middle class to these arguments stems from the nature of this class and its genesis, which allowed it to create an image of itself as the harbinger of modernity in the mindset of the barbaric masses. As such, it saw the Islamist as an existential threat to its historic civilizing mission and the military as the tool to restore the balance. It also, could not, completely, condone the use of state violence at such a mass scale. Placing it in a delicate paradox, between the need to repress the Brotherhood, without excessive violence. Thus, the need for constant denial of what is a permanent feature of Egyptian social and political life, namely, the increased intensity of indiscriminate state repression.

One can argue that the constant state of denial that is a feature of the urban middle class and the regime is a necessity for their existence. It is needed in order to maintain an ideological construct that is deeply paradoxical, where the use of repression is deemed necessary, however, it needs to be kept out of sight.

As such, the constant exposure of human rights violations is not only needed to redress these violations, however, it is necessary since it exposes the entire ideological construct and forces the regime supporters to face their own hypocrisy. It also shows that, in fact, the violence being perpetuated by the regime is much more devastating than any imagined violence that could have been carried out by the Brotherhood.

In essence, the myth of middle class “modernity” becomes exposed, opening up the way for possible alternatives in the long struggle against the military dictatorship and its allies.

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