There will be blood: expecting violence in Egypt, 2011-2013

Samuli Schielke
February 3, 2015
Tamarod Campaign collecting signatures against Morsi’s presidency, Alexandria, May 2013. Photo by Samuli Schielke

In early June 2013, I wrote the last entry of my blog about  everyday life and politics in Egypt in the time of a revolution. That  entry told about the growing opposition against Morsi and the Muslim  Brotherhood, the Tamarod campaign, and the expectation expressed by many  people I spoke with that “there will be blood” (hayibqa fi dam) or even that “there’s got to be blood” (lazim yibqa fi dam).  This notion was so omnipresent that I at first thought about using it  as the title of the blog entry. But optimistic as I was about the  capacity of the Tamarod campaign to provide a peaceful, civil  alternative, I hesitated, and instead titled the text “Seize the day”.

Some weeks later, the day was seized, and there was blood.

An extreme escalation of anger, mutual accusations, and provocations  were unleashed, fuelled by a media campaign that made no distinctions  between truth and lies, only between friend and foe. (Egypt’s mass media  was brought under nearly total government control after July 3rd,  2013.) A large number of Egyptians (there are no reliable polls to tell  how large) came to agree that defeating and killing the Muslim  Brothers was necessary, right, and good. Throughout July, a series of  violent clashes and massacres evolved. Most of the people killed were  supporters of the deposed president, and the most common cause of death  was sniper fire. The escalation reached its peak on August 14th, 2013,  in the storming of the Rabea El-Adawiya and the El-Nahda Square sit-ins  in Cairo. These were followed by clashes and attacks on police stations  and Christian-owned properties in several cities. Ever since, violence  has continued, with people killed in demonstrations, tortured and  disappearing in prisons, Jihadist bombings aimed at police and military  targets, the military destroying entire villages and towns in their  fight against the Jihadists in the Sinai, and ordinary citizens getting  into fights with each other.

All sides accused the others of being guilty of violence and  legitimised their struggle on these grounds. But there was a great  asymmetry of killing. Those supporting the storming of the Rabea  El-Adawiya sit-in have regularly cited the fact that policemen and  conscripts were also killed and that some of the protesters were armed.  According to the Ministry of Health, the nationwide death toll on August  14th, 2013 was 638, including 43 conscripts and policemen. According to the documentation of WikiThawra (2013a),  in contrast, the nationwide death toll on August 14th was 1,385 (among  them 52 conscripts and policemen), with 399 more (including 48 policemen  and conscripts) killed during the following five days. According to the  same source, the storming of the Rabea el-Adawiya sit-in alone cost 904  lives, among them 7 policemen and conscripts (See Human Rights Watch 2013).  Whatever the exact figures may be, the asymmetry is evident. What  happened was not a battle but a massacre. Granted that nearby countries –  notably Iraq and Syria – have recently suffered much greater bloodshed,  this still does not make Egypt a blessed safe haven surrounded by  chaos, as the Egyptian state media asserts. Between 2500 and 3250 people  were killed in political violence in Egypt between July 2013 and  January 2014 (WikiThawra 2013b), which may not be nearly as  terrible as in Syria yet terrible enough to be at par with the most  recent Israeli campaign against Gaza in 2014 (although Egypt has been  spared the material destruction Gaza has suffered).

Meanwhile, the new regime led by El-Sisi has established its firm  grip on power. A lower level of confrontation continues, and so too does  the asymmetry of killing. Many voices continue to call for the  merciless suppression and killing of Muslim Brothers and their allies  because “this is the only way to deal with these people.” One of the  most absurd consequences of this was the sentencing to death of  1,212 persons, passed by a judge in March and April 2014, for the murder  of three policemen in al-Minya. (In April and June, the same judge  confirmed 220 of these sentences, but they will still be appealed, and  it is unclear at the time of writing this whether the Egyptian judiciary  is committed to killing the sentenced men. See Human Rights Watch 2014).  Many did not find the sentences absurd, but instead argued that  the sentenced were terrorists who had attacked the police and innocent  people. From their point of view, Egypt was under attack by violent and  evil people, and the only way to deal with such people was to either  imprison or kill them.

I do not intend to say that this is a mood shared by all or most  Egyptians—perhaps not even the majority of them. Many others were  sceptical of the polarisation to start with, or have grown sceptical of  it, and a large part of the population remains sympathetic to the Muslim  Brotherhood’s cause. Most Egyptians continue to live in peace with each  other despite irreconcilable political differences. But it is the mood  on which the current regime relied in order to seize power.

The escalation in the summer of 2013 came unexpectedly to many of  those who had come to appreciate and admire Egypt’s “peaceful  revolution” and the flourishing social and cultural activity that the  January 25 Revolution had unleashed. It was a common expectation that  the Muslim Brotherhood or some of their allies might opt for violent  struggle if Morsi were toppled. Such violence of the defeated was  anticipated, and some of it has taken place. But the violence of the  victorious—which by the nature of the asymmetrical relationship of  victory is bound to be more brutal and devastating—has been much more  extreme. The most shocking part of it was not its extent, but the  enthusiasm with which it was promoted by so many who just months earlier  had expressed quite different stances.

And yet this turn was in reality neither sudden nor surprising. Many  Egyptians had been preparing themselves (and were being prepared by the  media) for extreme bloodshed since the beginning of the revolution. If  commentators failed to notice it, it was not because it wasn’t there,  but because we didn’t want to see it. It didn’t fit well into the  beautiful picture of revolutionary resistance. But we cannot separate  beautiful resistance from terrible bloodshed, just as we cannot isolate  the flourishing of cultural life from the spread of violent street crime  in and after 2011. They belong to one and the same process.

How did bloodshed emerge as a promising solution to the tensions and  troubles of the revolutionary period? And how did different people who  were on a particular side of the events from 2011 to 2013 react to the  bewildering violence of the victorious in summer and autumn 2013?

With these questions, I want to contribute to a conversation opened  by engaged academics writing about Egypt (e.g. LeVine 2014; Ali 2014),  in order to try to understand the wide-scale support for killing that  emerged in Egypt in the summer of 2013. My core argument is that  although the violence unleashed after June 30th, 2013  evidently was the result of intentional manipulation and escalation by  the most powerful players involved, ordinary Egyptians’ actual support  for that violence was thoroughly moral in character, a consequence of an  intensifying process of polarisation where the need to defend right  against wrong was caught up in an ongoing sense of tension, confusion,  anxiety and emboldenment.  In this mood of “broken fear” (which is not  the same thing as the overcoming of fear), the expectation that “there  will be blood” was a promise of reaching clarity, purity and truth  through a decisive battle. The incitement to bloodshed and the spiral of  violence can be described as a form of ethical cultivation where a  sense of purity is established through dramatic and radical  confrontation. Paradoxically, during the bloody summer of 2013, moments  of irbak—confusion, bewilderment, loss of solid ground—were  sometimes more likely to open up ways out of the circle of hatred and  confrontation than firm and clear principles. Wickedness and violence  are kin to uncompromising righteousness, and there are times when  weakness and confusion can be the better ethical stance.

A stormy season

Although the uprising on January 25th was initially  celebrated as a non-violent, peaceful revolution, more than 1,000 people  were killed in political violence during the first 18 days that  resulted in the fall of president Hosni Mubarak. The vast majority were  protesters killed by the security forces. The events gave rise to a  veritable cult of the martyrs of the Revolution. In the following years,  violent events followed one another and new martyrs emerged, each of  them associated with specific struggles, claims, and calls for bringing  justice. And as violence became a regular feature of politics, political  struggle became deeply linked with the experience or expectation of the  other party’s violent nature.

In a similarly misleading fashion, Egyptian and international media  presented the revolution as something that united Egyptians while in  reality it divided them. When the military deposed Hosni Mubarak on  February 11, 2011, there suddenly emerged a sense of national unity,  accompanied by mediated narratives of Egyptians being united in victory,  which they of course were not. There were winners and losers.  Antagonism was briefly buried under a vision of unity, a vision that  quickly became a rather counter-revolutionary one, promoting a quick  return to normality for the sake of a new, happier Egypt (Winegar 2011).  Actually there had never been such unity, not even among the Tahrir  protesters. Nationalists and secular movements could coexist with the  Islamist movements only because there was a clear agreement about not  making certain claims or not carrying certain symbols.

After February 11, the revolutionary coalition soon broke up as some  groups were more successful than others in wrestling for a share of  power, while others were too weak to do that and instead opted for  principal resistance. Starting from early March 2011, a split emerged  between major, well-organised, and initially successful Islamist  movements and various other leftist, liberal, and less prominent  Islamist groups,. The latter were too weak and disorganised to seize  power but strong enough to spearhead a series of new protests and  crises. In the course of 2011 they came to be called “the  revolutionaries”. In the following two years, this split developed into  an antagonism between “the revolutionaries” and the Muslim Brotherhood,  the first increasingly viewing the latter as traitors to the cause, and  the latter trying to either co-opt or marginalise the first.

A turning point in this polarisation was the Muslim Brotherhood’s  rise in power through the 2012 presidential elections, and their attempt  to rule Egypt by themselves without sharing power with their former  revolutionary allies (their former allies were not being cooperative  either). This resulted in old regime loyalists as well as leftist and  liberal revolutionaries finding themselves on the same side in a  realignment of government and opposition. Meanwhile, revolutionary  Islamist groups like the Hazemoon turned into allies of the new  Brotherhood-lead government.1 The  rhetoric of the Mubarak and Nasser regimes against the Muslim  Brotherhood was appropriated by supporters of the revolutionary current,  while people who until then had held very little of revolution and  protests, appropriated revolutionary slogans and tactics. The anger of  those who saw their privileges threatened by the emerging rule of the  Muslim Brotherhood came together with the anger of those who saw the  revolution stolen and betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood. It was at this  point that a narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign,  treacherous, sectarian movement that did not—could not—represent the  Egyptian people emerged. A shared narrative was established where the  Muslim Brothers appeared as fundamentalist fascists and enemies of the  nation who needed to be stopped before they take over the entire  country. It did not emerge from nowhere: a number of satellite  television channels close to the old regime put great effort into  creating and spreading this narrative (Armbrust 2013), and most likely  also parts of the security apparatus were at work. This narrative made  it possible to channel oppositional anger (that until then was  channelled against “the system”) against one specific group in the  political scene. On the other side of the conflict line, a different  narrative of polarisation was produced by supporters and allies of the  Brotherhood, claiming that those who opposed Morsi were either  Christians, godless liberals, or corrupt old regime elites—thus, once  again, not the true Muslim Egyptian people.

Tamarod Campaign collecting signatures against Morsi’s presidency, Alexandria, May 2013. Photo by Samuli Schielke

Violence and polarisation were linked to a wider mood that marked the  three or four years long stormy season of revolution (I think “spring”  would a very misleading seasonal metaphor for what happened). That mood  has often been described as a “breaking of the fear.” After the subdued  mood of the Mubarak era, the mood of life became more radical and  outspoken, and full of nervous tension. The examples commonly cited  sound rather sympathetic: a flourishing artistic and cultural life,  couples more likely to show their affection publicly, a great plurality  of different visions of life and points of view, and an ongoing series  of protests and strikes aiming to right wrongs instead of enduring them.  But the same sense of emboldenment has also meant an increase in street  crime, sexual harassment taking more violent forms, people settling  their private conflicts with guns in the streets, an aggressive and  impolite tone of interaction, and the idea that the best way to deal  with one’s political opponents is to eradicate them from the face of  earth.

The novelist Mukhtar Shehata, with whom I work on a research project  about writers’ literary lives in Alexandria, argues that the breaking of  fear has been mistaken for a disappearance of fear. Instead, he says in  an essay written in spring 2013 that we need to ask what has come in  place of the fear that marked the Mubarak era:

“The truth is that neither has fear been broken, nor have any other  emotions been removed. Rather, these are new emotions born out of the  preceding chaos of emotions. … Thus the emotion of natural, immediate  fear is replaced by an entirely new emotion which we do not know but we  call it ‘the broken fear’.” (Shehata 2013a)

In other words, broken fear is a positively existing sentiment: it is  fear, but it is broken, reconfigured in a seemingly chaotic way. It can  be described as an affective complex in its own right that involves  anxiety, excitement, terror, courage, unrest, hope, and an attitude of  assertively sticking to one’s own point of view. Broken fear as the  emotional tone of the revolutionary stormy season does not allow us to  neatly distinguish between positive and negative effects of the  revolution. They belong to the same process, the same sentiment.

As time passed, the destructive side of that process became more and  more evident in the shape of nervous tension, aggression, confusion, and  anxiety. In the traumatising “chaos of emotions” the path of assertive,  aggressive action appeared as a way out.

The situation was further intensified by the rise of the Tamarod  Campaign that began to collect signatures for a popular impeachment of  Morsi in spring 2013, with significant success. The Tamarod movement  represented itself as a legal and non-violent movement to make the  people’s voice heard. But when I was in Egypt in May and June 2013, I  constantly heard people speaking about the upcoming bloodshed they  expected. The expectation was that the Brotherhood would not go  voluntarily. They would fight back fiercely. They would need to be  forced.

Live and Let Die

The escalation of mutual distrust was accompanied by a series of  violent events where supporters of different sides regularly accused the  other side of bloodshed. It is almost impossible to get reliable and  independent information about what exactly happened in deadly events  like the Ittihadiya Palace on 5 and 6 December 2012, where both  opponents as well as supporters of Morsi got killed in unclear  circumstances after Morsi’s supporters stormed an anti-Morsi protest  camp; or the Port Said Prison on 26 January 2013 where tens were killed  by bullets of the police following an attempt by protesters to storm the  prison; or Sidi Gaber in Alexandria in late June and early July 2013  where opponents and supporters of Morsi clashed over several days. A  spiral of mutual accusations emerged where an exchange of opinions  beyond angry shouting became almost impossible, and where each side saw  the other as violent.

M., a university graduate in his early twenties, belongs to a circle  of leftists from a village in the Nile Delta. He lives in Alexandria,  considers himself a socialist, and is firmly opposed to the Muslim  Brotherhood and other Islamist movements. On 28 June, 2013, he  participated in one of the street battles in Sidi Gaber in Alexandria  that evolved both before and after 30 June. Sidi Gaber is one of the key  sites for demonstrations in Alexandria, and in this period it was  claimed by the two mutually hostile currents, which resulted in repeated  clashes (Ali 2013). These clashes took place largely in the absence of  the police, and a small number of firearms were used. As usual, both  sides claimed that the other side was responsible for the violence and  using firearms. This is how M. experienced the clashes on 28 June:

Graffiti  against El-Sisi, featuring the Rabea sign (a hand showing four  fingers). Alexandria, February 2014. Photo by Samuli Schielke

“When the thugs of the Brotherhood attacked us on the 28th when  we went to protest in Sidi Gaber, that brought one to the point that  you have to… You reached a level where you frightened them, and they are  now coming to terrorise you, or to shake you up a bit. And the people  who were hit in front of our eyes…. There was an old man inside the Sidi  Gaber tunnel, I took him out of there, he had been hit by a bullet in  his shoulder. In his arm, the bone… it wasn’t clear, but there seemed to  be no bone left, his arm was smashed. We brought him to the field  hospital. There the doctor said: That’s a dumdum bullet. That’s the same  kind of bullet that killed the martyr Al-Husseini Abu Deif .3 It  made you feel… You reached a point where, if you had had any doubt  previously that those people [the Muslim Brothers] might have done so to  defend a cause, now they were defending the position of power they had.  They would repeat what they did before, they wouldn’t be afraid at all  to repeat it with you or others. […] After that, you continue [i.e. join  the 30 June demonstrations], while at the same time you object to there  being people in the demonstration with you who chant ‘Join us El-Sisi!’  (inzil ya Sisi). But there are also people with you in Sidi Gaber, not at the Northern Military Headquarters,4 people  who love to chant for the martyrs and who hold their pictures, who are  not in the demonstration to support a certain person.

M. tells us (in an interview recorded in mid-October 2013) how the  experience of violence came together with a political history of  struggle and created a moment of truth and decision in spite of the  doubts he continued to have. This is one of the most attractive and  terrifying aspects of engaging in a violent confrontation.

Then came 30 June, 2013. Supported by massive demonstrations, the  army deposed Morsi on 3 July and instated a nominally civilian  government. Morsi and the Brotherhood leadership went to prison, his  supporters took to the streets. The dynamic of polarisation and violence  took a different turn.

The expectation among many in the 30 June movement had been that the  Muslim Brotherhood would attack the protesters, which would have  provided a final de-legitimisation of their rule. However, the killing  that did happen on 30 June was almost exclusively related to the  storming and defence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters and  offices. Perhaps the Brotherhood leaders would have wanted to use force  against the protests on the streets but they no longer had the military  and police under their control. Perhaps they did not want to do it  anyway because they knew that it would have de-legitimised them even  more. Whatever the case, with the police and army changing sides, the  balance and asymmetry of lethal force had already shifted.

After 3 July, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies followed a  strategy of mass protests and martyrdom, at times intentionally  provoking the military. They turned every massacre against  protesters—and there were many massacres—into a moral claim for the  righteousness of their cause of “legitimacy”.5 The  new, de facto military government and the 30 June alliance on their  side declared that they were “fighting terrorism” —already before  terrorist attacks began. “Fighting terrorism” means declaring your enemy  to be outside the realms of law, negotiation, and fair treatment. A  “terrorist”, regardless of whether he or she actually commits any acts  of terrorism, is by definition a person who can and must be caught or  killed before he or she can act.

Martyrdom for legitimacy versus war against terrorism was the recipe  for an irreconcilable stand-off that made escalation very easy and  retreat very difficult. The different sides of the confrontation in  Egypt staged a series of powerful symbolic actions in June and July 2013  that left the other party with a choice between humiliating  capitulation and an escalation of the confrontation. The Rabea  el-Adawiya Sit-in was the most tragic of these confrontations. The  supporters of Morsi, who had declared they were steadfast for their  cause up to and including martyrdom, could not retreat. The military and  its allies, having declared their enemies terrorists who  must be destroyed so that the nation can live, could not let them be.  Long before the massacre, everybody knew that the stand-off was going to  result in a massacre. Every symbolic gesture in the name of the nation,  religion, the people, revolution, or the martyrs made it more difficult  to retreat.

Although both sides continued to see the other as the primary  perpetrator of violence, “the war against terrorism” brought a different  logic of violence: a violence of supremacy that no longer fit into the  moral logic of defensive struggle and martyrdom. Such violence of  supremacy no longer abided by the logic of relative equity of response.  It required an inhuman, terrorist enemy to whom such considerations of  equity and proportionality did not apply. Even in the absence of actual  violence, the mere fact that the other side would act in a provocative  manner became an existential threat that legitimised a call to eradicate  them. The more the pro-military party demonised its enemies, the more  demonic did it become.

M. remembers the discussions of those days that increasingly circled  around the desire to put a clear end point to the confrontation  regardless of the cost, to live and let die:

“Then it reached a point where every day you say that these farces  and theatres that were going on in the sit-ins of Rabea and el-Nahda,  and the massacres that happened with them in Isaaf Square or in Ramses,  or at the Presidential Guard… all the incidents that happened made one  say: ‘This farce must have an end’. But how to end it? People tell you:  ‘Just storm it, man! Finish it!’ The thing one heard the most was:  ‘What’s the problem if we finish them off?’ With the same logic of  Morsi: ‘So what if one dies so that the others can live?’ No! No matter  how much the people wanted it to end, and no matter how much you see  that those are your enemies and they don’t deserve to live,  itt’s not  OK that you get to the point of exterminating them so that you can get  rid of them altogether, or so that you can live and take their place”.

But as M.’s strong misgivings show, this was not a smooth process,  and not everybody bought into it. A.S., a man in his mid-twenties from a  bourgeois family in Alexandria, had participated in protests ever since  25 January, 2011. He was on the streets in January and February 2011,  during the Mohamed M. uprising in November and December 2011, and on  many other occasions. He was injured twice and experienced some narrow  escapes from death. Those were the most beautiful days of his life. He  also participated in the 30 June movement, and on 5 July 2013, he was  among a large group of demonstrators facing a large group of Morsi  supporters in Sidi Gaber in Alexandria. The clashes that evolved cost 12  lives. The night after the clashes, he wrote on his Facebook page:

Graffiti by competing political groups (Islamist vs. leftist) in Alexandria, February 2013. Photo by Samuli Schielke

“What happened today in Alexandria wasn’t a victory for us because  we pushed the Muslim Brothers to the sea and caught and killed many of  them, and neither was it a victory for the Muslim Brothers because they  shot us with birdshot and killed many of us. What happened today was a  human tragedy. The people on both sides no longer felt what they were  doing. They just lost their humanity, and were left with their  wickedness and love for blood and burning and killing. They began to  enjoy when they killed more, and boast that they killed somebody with a  knife in his head, or burned his car. That is, when the Muslim Brothers  throw one down from the roof and when he dies they shout ‘God is great’,  celebrating the blood… And when the revolutionaries catch one of the  Muslim Brothers, and he tries to escape, and they gather around him, 100  of them, like hungry animals who found a piece of meat and everybody  wants a bit of it, happy as hell that they killed him and finished off  the agent and traitor. What stopped me in the middle of all that  happened, was when I saw the Salafi man wounded in front of me, the  blood flooding the street, and his eyes frightened. At that moment, I  imagined that my brother who is a Salafi could be in the place of that  man. At that moment, I couldn’t stay the master of my nerves, and I  could no longer understand anything anymore. For me, this has nothing to  do with either religion or revolution, or with citizenship/patriotism (muwatana).”

The shock and confusion experienced by A.S. was born from witnessing  the ugly and wicked reality of decisive battles. But the vast majority  of Egyptians only experienced those events through the media—heavily  filtered at best, fabricated and twisted at worst. For those following  the events on their television screens and on social media, neither the  frenzy and joy of killing nor the shattering and confusing experience of  being part of it, were part of their experience of the escalation.  Instead, they received a much more convenient vision about right and  wrong, a vision where their enemies were acting in wicked bloodthirsty  frenzy while their own side was taking measured, necessary steps to  defend the nation against existential threat. When the fantasy of  bloodshed became real, it needed to be heavily filtered to make it feel  necessary and appropriate, to prevent moments of shock and confusion  like the one A.S. experienced. The illusion of acting in a necessary and  limited fashion against inhumanely wicked enemies helped people to  oscillate between two seemingly incompatible stances: A call to kill  one’s enemies, and the insistence that it was one’s enemies who were  being violent. It is one thing to call for a massacre, and another thing  to admit having participated in one. It is much easier to lose one’s  humanity in front of a television screen.

No tears for Rabea

This is the moment when what once had been the revolutionary current fell apart. They did not fall apart after 30 June,6 nor  did they disagree about their enmity towards the Muslim Brotherhood.  But they did split over the violence and the role of the military  leadership. At least in the village in the Nile Delta where M. comes  from, the decisive event was El-Sisi’s call to Egyptians to give him a  popular mandate (tafwid) to fight terrorism. The popular mandate, which was followed by a massacre against Morsi’s supporters already the next morning,7 provided  the key legitimation for the storming of Rabea and el-Nahda less than  three weeks later. Those who joined the large-scale demonstrations of  the popular mandate considered those who didn’t to be cowards and  traitors. Those who did not join the popular mandate (probably fewer in  numbers) thought those who did had sold out the principles of the  revolution.

Those opposed to the popular mandate made recourse to a  counter-discourse against polarisation and killing that had already  formed in June 2013, making use of the notion of humanity/humaneness (insaniya) and the Islamic notion of sanctity of blood (hurmat al-dam),  the prohibition of shedding the blood of one’s own. Among M’s leftist  friends in the village, this stance was made most explicit by a  middle-aged one-time member of the Communist Party who emphasised that  his stance was not a political but a moral one. “If we ask about those  who got killed in Rabea: ‘What were they doing there anyway?’ (eh illi waddahum hinak?),  then what were those killed on 25 January doing there anyway, and what  where they those killed in Mohamed Mahmoud doing there anyway, and what  were they all doing there anyway?”

And yet it would be a mistake to claim that those who refused the  popular mandate were acting in a moral way while those who joined it  were not. In a moment of immediate confrontation, the loss of moral  inhibitions and the outbreak of hysterical anger can be an  uncontrollable, explosive situation where people just freak out. But  maintaining a mood of righteous anger for weeks and months requires a  more conscious work of incitement. It also requires a mood of calm  justification, of necessity in the face of urgency.

Morality’s location is where spontaneous and cultivated emotions  meet, where intuitive gut reactions and reflection come together.  Compassion, love, anger, fear, emboldenment, friendship and enmity can  all be spontaneous affects and moral principles at once, and they can be  extended or restricted to more or less people. Maintaining  uncompromising anger can be just as moral as insisting on the sanctity  of blood. In fact, those of the revolutionaries who in summer 2013 stood  on the side of uncompromising anger were very affirmative that their  stance was the morally righteous one.

M.S. moved in the same circles of revolutionary leftists as M. in the  village. He belonged to those who joined the popular mandate, and for  several months he was not on good talking terms with those who rejected  it. In July 2013, he wrote to me, very angry about what in my view was  my opposition to summary killings, but in his view was my support for  the fascist Muslim Brotherhood. In remarkably internationalist terms, he  criticised me for failing to support the anti-fascist struggle that  should be the shared cause of the left worldwide. When I finally met him  on my next visit in Egypt in October 2013, our tempers had calmed  enough that he could explain to me his point of view.

Yes, he had been calling “down with military rule” during the rule of  the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011/12, but now the  situation was different, he said. As a leftist and secularist activist  and intellectual, he was facing a fundamentally violent fascist  movement, and that movement had to be defeated. As an intellectual, he  explained, he could not successfully fight them in the streets. To do  that, the muscle and the organisation of the army was necessary. For  M.S., this was not just a strategic choice. It was a matter of  principle. As a Nasserist and nationalist, he sees the army and the  nation as united—however, he sees the role of the army as the protector,  not as the leader of the nation. For M.S., who is an active supporter  of the Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, El-Sisi did the right thing  in summer 2013, but he should not have become president. Even months  later, when increasing scepticism spread in the former revolutionary  circles who found it hard to deny the reality of a full-scale  re-consolidation of the old regime, he made his stance clear on his  Facebook account: “So you may call me a mutabbalati (“drummer“,  propagandist for the regime) and old regime loyalist, but still the  Muslim Brothers are not Egyptians just like us, and not all blood is haram”.

Support for the violence of supremacy did not necessarily go hand in  hand with support or respect for the military’s role. R., a woman from  Alexandria active in the revolutionary movement, invested no hope in the  military, but she would also shed no tears for those killed in Rabea.  When I met her in spring 2014 and we sorted out our different points of  view, she insisted that what was happening was “two armed gangs  finishing each other off”. The Rabea sit-in was armed, she told me.  There were only perpetrators, no victims. She and many others put much  effort in discursively establishing a symmetry of violence that would  allow one to claim the position of a righteous outsider and not to ask  certain uncomfortable questions.

Be it in the exposed militancy of M.S., or in the way R. took  distance from the events by placing equal blame on the parties involved,  these stances required reflection, consideration about right and wrong,  means and ends. They and others were involved in what contemporary  anthropology calls ethics (Laidlaw 2013; Lambek 2010; Mahmood 2009): the  reflection about the relationship of values and actions, and the  cultivation of those values as attitudes. They had strong opinions about  right and wrong, and they had thought about them well. “Ethics” sounds  sympathetic because it is associated with being good, consistent,  responsible, and trying to do the right thing. But when people argue  that the good, right and responsible thing to do is to kill their  enemies, then ethics reveals a darker side of human wickedness that  needs to be taken seriously.

In the past couple of decades, Western anthropologists have become  reasonably good at recognising the ethics involved in Islamist  revivalist piety even while its ends and aims can be radically at odds  with what most anthropologists themselves believe in. Anthropologists  have been less good, however, at giving the same benefit of doubt  to paranoid nationalism. One can speculate about the reasons. My hunch  is that this is because anthropologists in their own societies are often  politically and ideologically in open conflict with supporters of  populist and paranoid nationalism. We can speak with more ease about  people who are not our immediate enemies. But this is not an excuse. If  we can give extreme piety the benefit of doubt about its ethical nature,  then we must be able to give the same benefit of doubt to extreme  nationalism.

With this, I do not mean to say that we should become relativists who  agree that whatever people claim to be right is right for them.  Morality is about living with others. It is about contact,  communication, and conflict. There are no relativistic cultural islands.  M.S.’s recourse to the leftist internationalist discourse of  anti-fascism is a case in point. What I mean is that we must take  seriously the fact that human evil and wickedness are rooted in the  desire to defend the good. There is no safe realm of ultimate goodness.

A plea for confusion and weakness

To have a consistent moral stance, one needs to engage in  reflection—alone or, more typically, with others—about what is right,  what is important, and what is to be done. One needs to cultivate it in  acts and attitudes. But moral reflection also requires moral oblivion.  To have faith in something, one must be sceptical about things that  might trouble that faith. Even better, one should not think about such  things at all. One has to develop sensibilities and attitudes that make  one sarcastic, condescending, or angry about acts and claims that could  constitute a competing sense of right and good. One has to use double  standards without noticing that one is doing so. In short, one has to  make oneself immune towards views and ways of living that would trouble  the sense of right and good which one has worked hard to make one’s own.

At no other time is moral oblivion as crucial as in the time of a  righteous struggle. This, if any, is the moment of clear, firm stances, a  moment of action, a moment of purity. It is a moment when it is  necessary not to see things from your enemy’s point of view, and not to  question one’s own position, but instead to go with the flow of  righteous anger. Remembering that the bearded man lying on the street  could be one’s own brother would destabilise the consistency of the  struggle and contaminate its oblivious purity. Purity is a very dirty  business.

Such ethics of purity and struggle came to dominate the scene in  Egypt in the summer of 2013, preceded and made possible by two and a  half years of polarisation and the mixture of aggressive emboldenment  and anxious uncertainty that, for the lack of a better word, was called  “broken fear”. Among those who sided with el-Sisi’s “war on terrorism”,  an excitement of extreme anger and disbelief towards those who stood on  the other side—liars, terrorists, not Egyptians like all of us—combined  with a convenient oblivion about the real shape and extent of the  killing and torture that was being committed by one’s own side, worked  towards a sense of certainty that centred on the positive value of the  nation and a sense of urgency that centred on the threat of terrorism.  This made the bloodshed that followed not only possible, but also  justified, measured, and necessary from the point of view of those who  sided with the “war on terrorism”.

If terrible crimes can be committed in the name of lofty values, if any stance and any action  can be ethical with the help of some hard work of cultivation,  reflection, and oblivion, if anger and fury are such a successful way to  prevent potential doubt—then what hope can there be? Can there be a  moral stance that may not, in the right circumstances, join the campaign  for the mass killing of those whose stance is wrong?

Poster supporting the presidency of General AbdelFattah El-Sisi in a village shop, Egypt, March 2014. Photo by Samuli Schielke

Consistency and reflexivity do not provide a way out. A refusal of  political violence in the name of “humanity” and the “sanctity of blood”  can be as consistent and well-thought as the call for a relentless “war  against terror” for the sake of a strong nation. The same applies to  the commitment to martyrdom and confrontation for the sake of “Islamic  Law and electoral legitimacy” (el-shari‘a wa-l-shar‘iya), or to a  Jihadist bombing campaign of “martyrdom attacks”. Each stance relies on  some things taken for granted, some questions not asked, some  instinctive gut reactions escalated and others suppressed.

But of course, humans are seldom consistent. Consistency requires  struggle—both in the sense that one must sometimes struggle to maintain  an “illusion of consistency” (Ewing 1990), as well as in the sense that  meaningful struggle is the most powerful way to maintain that illusion.  Peace, in comparison, is a messy and hypocritical affair of compromises,  concessions, and questionable deals.

And yet struggle creates not only moments of clarity but also moments  of confusion, moments when the cultivation of certainty and oblivion  fails. One such moment was A.S.’s shock when the beauty of struggle  transformed into the joy of killing. Another such moment is described by  M., who does not reject political violence in principle, but who soon  after 30 June became suspicious about the military leadership’s aims and  shared in the discourses of humanity and sanctity of blood. But in the  middle of an unresolved stand-off and a media uproar of one alarming  report following the other, he, too, began to hope that the storming of  the Rabea el-Adawiya sit-in would put an end to the escalation. At first  he even bought into the official narrative of “self-constraint” by the  police:

“We were happy when the storming of Rabea began. In the beginning,  when the storming began, we were sitting together and watching [on  television]. We thought: ‘Beautiful! They are evicting them without  hurting them. Just shooting some tear gas at them…’ And all the stuff  that was told on TV at first and all the images that were broadcast on  ONTV or the other channels that were covering it.8 […]  We were all… or never mind ‘we’, let me just speak for myself. I was  sitting and watching, and I was happy that it was over, and that it was  just tear gas without excessive violence, and I said: ‘Now you really  are doing something. You are decreasing the tension inside the people  against the Muslim Brothers. You put an end to it, and relieve people  from the violence that was accumulating inside those in the Rabea and  el-Nahda sit-ins’. And then, when the numbers became known, and the  aggression and violence that happened, and the horrible way they dealt  with the people inside the Rabea sit-in… And graver than the numbers of  people who got killed was how the people who previously were angry about  violent treatment against anybody were no longer angry when the  violence was against others and far from them… It makes your realise  that before, you weren’t against violence just because you are against  violence. People were against violence because it targeted them. When it  turned away from them and targeted those they hate, it became good. Now  they want it, prefer it, and they demand that it is used against those  people, and they tell you that that’s the only way to deal with those  people”.

M.’s stance was not a consistent one. More precisely, he did not try  to depict his decisions and choices as consistent, because he  experienced a confusion that he could not, or would not, rationalise and  explain away. Unlike M.S. who was firm in his stance of a righteous  struggle by all means necessary, M. could not experience joy from seeing  his enemy defeated once he realised what that meant in practice. He  could not resist the temptation to see his enemies as fellow human  beings.

It can take a lot of strength and integrity to immunize oneself  against escalating polarisation and incitement to moral anger, “to  maintain one’s humanity”, as those who were against escalation and  bloodshed in summer 2013 put it (Youssef 2013). But in a time when so  much emotional and ethical work is invested in creating and maintaining  enmity, weakness may also become a virtue. Being a coward can rescue one  from the destructive stand-off of fearless confrontation (see Shehata  2013b). The sense of irbak—bewilderment, confusion, and loss of  solid ground—can become an antithesis to fiercely cultivated  determination and oblivion. These sentiments came too late to prevent  the bloodshed. But maybe they can show a way out from the deadlock of  certainties.


This paper is based on lectures I gave at Stanford University in  January 2014 and the University of Cambridge in May 2014. I am grateful  for Aisha Shahid Ghani, Sharika Thiranagama, James Laidlaw, and Johannes  Lenhard for offering me the occasions to discuss, develop, and write  this essay.

Creative Commons License. The text of this work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.  Copyright may apply to images.



Ali, Amro. 2013. “Marching To Sidi Gaber: Alexandria’s Epicenter Of Upheaval.” Jadaliyya, 22 July.Http://Www.Jadaliyya.Com/Pages/Index/13054/Marching-to-sidi-gaber_alexandria%E2%80%99s-epicenter-of-u 

Ali, Amro. 2014. “The Insecurity Of A Security State: What Can Hannah Arendt Tell Us About Egypt?” Politics In Spires, 7 Marchhttp://Politicsinspires.Org/Insecurity-security-state-can-hannah-arendt-tell-us-egypt/ 

Armbrust, Walter. 2013. “The Trickster In Egypt’s January 25th Revolution.” Comparative Studies In Society And History 55, 4, Pp. 834-864.

Ewing, Catherine. 1990. “The Illusion Of Wholeness: Culture, Self, And The Experience Of Inconsistency”. Ethos 18, 251–278.

Human Rights Watch. 2013. “Egypt: Security Forces Used Excessive Lethal Force: Worst Mass Unlawful Killings In Country’s Modern History.”, Www.Hrw.Org/News/2013/08/19/Egypt-security-forces-used-excessive-lethal-force

Human Rights Watch. 2014. “Egypt: 183 Death Sentences Confirmed In Minya: Case Makes Mockery Of Right To Fair Trial.”, Http://Www.Hrw.Org/News/2014/06/21/Egypt-183-death-sentences-confirmed-minya

Laidlaw, James. 2013. The Subject Of Virtue: An Anthropology Of Ethics And Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lambek, Michael, Ed. 2010. Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, And Action. New York: Fordham University Press.

Levine, Mark. 2014. “Accounting For Egyptians’ Exuberance For Violence.”Tikkun Http://Www.Tikkun.Org/Nextgen/Searching-for-answers-to-the-violence-in-egypt

Mahmood, Saba. 2009. “Religious Reason And Secular Affect: An  Incommensurable Divide?” In Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, And  Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, And Free Speech(Townsend Papers In Humanities; 2), Pp. 64-100. Online Document:Http://Escholarship.Org/Uc/Item/84q9c6ft

Shehata, Mukhtar Saad. 2013a. “Al-‘atifa Wa Al-siyasa.” Al-hiwar Al-mutamaddin 18 June 2013. Http://Www.Ahewar.Org/Debat/Show.Art.Asp?Aid=364672

Shehata, Mukhtar Saad. 2013b. “Ana Jaban.. Wa-anta Al-shuja‘.. Hadhihi Kull Al-hikaya.” Al-hiwar Al-mutamaddin 27 July 2013.Http://Www.Ahewar.Org/Debat/Show.Art.Asp?Aid=370559

Wikithawra. 2013a. “Hasr Qatla Fadd I’tisamay Radi’a Wa Al-nahda Wa-tawabi’iha.” Https://Docs.Google.Com/Spreadsheet/Ccc?Key=0aphkfhfs3jyxdfbfwvuysk4ysujlqkezv3vsdnizt2c#Gid=0

Wikithawra 2013b. “Hasr Qatla ‘ahd Al-sisi/‘adli Mansur (Muhaddath) Hatta Yanayir 2014.” Https://Wikithawra.Wordpress.Com/2013/11/12/Sisicasualities/

Winegar, Jessica. 2011. “Taking Out The Trash. Youth Clean Up Egypt After Mubarak.” Middle East Report 259, Pp. 32-35,Http://Www.Anthropology.Northwestern.Edu/Documents/People/Takingoutthetrash_winegar.Pdf

Youssef, Bassem, 2013. “Alas, Nobody Lives There Anymore.” Tahrir Squared, 17 July. Http://Www.Tahrirsquared.Com/Node/5297



1 The  Picture Got More Complicated Again In Early 2013 When The Salafi Nour  Party, Formerly The Muslim Brotherhood’s Most Important Ally, Changed  Sides And Joined The Opposition. In 2013 And 2014, The Nour Party (Which  Is Dominated By Clerics Who Have A Remarkable History Of Loyalism  Towards The Mubarak Regime) Has Stood Firmly On The Side Of El-sisi,  Which Is A Good Reminder About The Fact That The Conflict Between  Religious And Secular Politics Is Just One Of The Important Conflict  Lines.

2 In  Summer 2013, This Logic Of Insults Gained A New Dimension In The  Practice To Ironically Misspell Words Like “Coup” Or “Human Rights” As  If They Were Foreign Loan Words ( إنكيلاب Instead Of انقلاب,  حكوك  الإنسان Instead Of حقوق الإنسان),  Insinuating That Concepts Such As  Human Rights Were Imported, Empty Words That Had No Bearing For Egyptian  Reality And Needed Not To Be Taken Seriously.

3 Al-husseini  Abu Deif Was A Photojournalist Who Who Was Killed In The Clashes At The  Ittihadiya Palacde In November 2012. His Killers Were Never Identified,  But In The Anti-morsi Opposition It Was Considered Certain That They  Were From The Muslim Brotherhood.

4 The  Northern Military Headquarters And Sidi Gaber Station Are Less Than One  Kilometre Apart. The Headquarters Were A Focal Point Of Anti-military  Protests In 2011 And 2012, And Of Pro-military Sentiment On 30 June  2013.

5 “Legitimacy”  Refers To The Electoral Mandate Of Morsi’s Presidency. But In Islamist  Discourse In 2013, It Transformed Into An Increasingly Abstract And  Absolute Category That Referred Not So Much To The Numbers Of Votes In  Elections As It Claimed The Absolute Legality And Legitimacy Of The  Brotherhood’s Claim For Power And The Illegality And Illegitimacy Of  Competing Claims. Because It Is An Empty, Legal Category, It Turned Out  To Be A Poor Propagandistic Means To Regain Popular Support In Summer  2013. It Has Nevertheless Become Deeply Entrenched In The Political  Language Of The Opponents Of The 30 June Movement.

6 There  Were Supporters Of The Revolutionary Current Who Did Not Join The 30  June Movement Because They Resented The Prominent Role Played By Mubarak  Loyalists In It, But In The Village, The Leftist Revolutionary Social  Circles Stood United In Their Support Of 30 June.

7 Protesters  From The Rabea Sit-in Tried To Expand The Area Of The Sit-in Towards  The Monument Of The Unknown Soldier – An Extremely Symbolic Location For  The Egyptian Army – And Nearly One Hundred People Were Killed When They  Were Dispersed With Live Ammunition In The Early Morning Hours Of 27  July 2013.

8 M. And His Friends Would Not Watch Al-jazeera Which They Disliked And Distrusted Because Of Its Pro-muslim Brotherhood Bias.

All by
Samuli Schielke