Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian History x

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Youssef Rakha and Egypt’s new culture of violence

Egyptian History x
Egyptian History x
Al-Ahram Weekly

 ‘To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring’
— William Burroughs


 

As of 28 January 2011, the protests in and around Tahrir Square were never quite as peaceful as people would in later months reflexively claim they were. But no one thought that what had started on 25 January as a call for rights and freedoms, and on 11 February forced Hosni Mubarak (Egypt’s president for 31 years) to step down, would turn into a kind of hopeless vendetta against the police and, later, albeit to a mitigated extent, also against the army — to a point where people could no longer credibly make that claim.
Already, through the first half of 2011, society was breaking up into sect-like factions in a way never seen under Mubarak, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations representing not so much political interests as pseudo-sectarian fanaticisms. No longer was the revolution a fight between anti-change Mubarak partisans and pro-change liberal democrats; loyalties were rather demarcated by three general categories: pro-state citizens, Islamists and — whether sincerely democratic or pro-Islamist — “revolutionaries”. In time, each would come to have blood feuds with all the others.
Till the end of the year violence remained mostly state violence, however, sometimes posing as pro-state violence by independently operating “honourable citizens”. But increasingly the thugs said to be employed by police to suppress protests turned out to be the neighbours acting spontaneously out of loyalty for one or another of those three categories; and only organised groups could even be identified as a collective force to be assessed or argued with as such — the football team supporters known as Ultras, for example, some of whom were well-meaning “pure” revolutionaries, others Islamist instruments conscious of their role.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems the ouster of Mubarak had left the country poised for civil war. And, whatever else you think of the army or of the army-based July 1952 order, it is probable that, if not for the military’s role as a binding factor for both patrimony and the state apparatus, civil war would have ensued. Indeed civil war has since then become the avowed aim of the Islamists and, sometimes, when the anarchic impulse takes over, of the revolutionaries as well. Imperceptibly, in a matter of months, “peaceful regime change” thus gave way to an eye for an eye and a revolutionary rhetoric emptied of social import and consisting solely of directionless, increasingly violent protest.
If you tried to specify a moment in time when the shift occurred, however, that moment would probably be the evening of 19 November 2011. It was during “clashes” in the side streets leading from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Interior, notably Mohamed Mahmoud Street, that revolution-as-vendetta emerged in all its hideousness, sustained by nothing more than the cruelty of riot control and the stubbornness of its victims. For six days young people armed with stones and Molotov cocktails — Ultras, Revolutionary Socialists, 6 April Youth Movement members and just plain police haters — tried to storm the ministry headquarters. By the time the battle was over, more than 50 were dead and hundreds injured; notable among the injuries was the loss of one or both eyes as a result of policemen aiming for them.
Even now it is claimed with inexplicable pride that the noble sacrifices of the Mohamed Mahmoud protesters were the reason the military “handed over power to civilians”. The revolutionaries making these statements don’t seem to be aware that what this amounted to was facilitating a partial alliance between the military and the Islamists whereby the latter won both the parliamentary and the presidential elections to the detriment of society at large, including the revolutionaries themselves. What the slogan “Down with the rule of soldiers” really meant was “Let’s hand ourselves over to fanatics and terrorists who have neither respect for the state nor moral integrity nor even the modicum of administrative competence to run the country” — and yet, three years on, having turned on the Islamists with Tamarod, the revolutionaries can still congratulate themselves on raising that slogan.
“War crimes under the rule of soldiers” would simply not deter them, though — not only the protesters but also the activists and politicians who, while more or less encouraging such suicide, were seldom if ever involved in the fighting. Further complicating the situation was popular impatience with the protests. The average citizen was by then quite sure that demonstrations had no tangible benefits and quite a few negative effects — traffic congestion, risk of injury and, of course, bad business — nor was it always clear by what precisely these young people were driven.
But even among pro-25 January intellectuals, activists and analysts, it was evident that both the economy and security had suffered considerably since January, with chaos, violent crime and heightened deprivation unrelated to the events of last winter taking hold. However fuzzy the picture, it was clear that the ousting of Mubarak could not in itself lead to positive social transformation. What was not so clear perhaps was how the political scene could reduce to so hollow a power struggle whose scions at best paid lip service to “the martyrs” of the past eight months, at worst cast them in the role of the hired thugs from whom they were becoming indistinguishable, throwing in 19th-century-sounding charges of espionage and conspiracy for good measure.
It seems to be at this point that the revolution — so called despite being an essentially pro-democracy and human rights-oriented uprising — was voided of all political, let alone moral substance. That the protests were but a playing card in the hands of profoundly reactionary forces didn’t matter to young people keen on taking revenge on the police. Nor was the police learning the really very simple lesson that violently suppressing a protest is just like stoking a fire.
Thus the logic of bad blood was firmly established in the space of a single year, with the principal demand of the protesters from November on being execution for the killers of “our brothers” — a not only implausible but legally impossible procedure, and one that seemed at odds with the point of the revolution itself, protests having started in opposition to such aspects of institutional life as emergency law, the police state and summary justice.
As “Mohamed Mahmoud” became an emotional reference point, the army continued to embarrass itself by showing even more vindictiveness towards protesters than the police. On 9-10 October, 28 Coptic Christian demonstrators had been brutally killed by army deployments in Maspero, not far from Tahrir Square. On 1 February, the police stood aside while 70 Ultras from Cairo were killed by local hooligans following a match in which their team lost at Port Said Stadium. At this time one particular slogan of the Ultras and others summarised the status of the so called “ongoing” revolution: “Either we avenge their death, or we die like them.” It was jokingly and not so jokingly asked, “Well, did you avenge their death?” And the reply always was, “No, we died like them.”
By the first anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud, aided by revolutionaries who for some reason believed they would be more amenable to protests, the Islamists had monopolised power more or less completely. The liberal democrats representing 25 January maintained a sort of honorary presence and increasingly allied themselves with the old guard, while Mubarak partisans who had been cast from the scene — doing so in collaboration with a posited “deep state” whose existence no one has been able to demonstrate — were said to be working in the dark to bring failure not to the Islamists per se but to the revolution in general, in the same way as the police is even now still said to be waging a campaign of revenge against “the pure youths of 25 January”.
During the Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary protests, one young activist who had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, the iconic Jika, was killed by police. But clashes were quickly cut short when Morsi issued a constitutional declaration placing his decisions literally above the law, and the revolutionaries who had voted for him moved their protest to the presidential palace in Heliopolis. For the first time, on 5 December, 2012, Islamist members of the public in no way affiliated with state institutions were given pellet guns and electroshock batons and sent to disband the protest, torturing and interrogating revolutionaries at the palace gate in full view of the police, who did nothing to stop them and even attempted to persecute the victims.
From that point until the forced disbanding of two Islamist sit-ins on 14 August 2013 — they had been staged in protest of Morsi being deposed by the army on 3 July following millions-strong protests against “the rule of the Guide [or the leader of the Brotherhood]” on 30 June, the police having readjusted its position and effected “a reconciliation with the people” — violence was no longer state violence. Through the second half of the year during which Morsi was in power in particular, clashes between Islamists and pro-state citizens were the order of the day — and the spectre of civil war began to haunt Egypt like never before in its modern history.
Now over 600 Islamists were killed in 24 hours. Yet, despite terrorist and sectarian reprisals as well as continued clashes between Islamists and pro-state citizens, with police and army maintaining a firm grip on Islamist and revolutionary activity, from 14 August until the second anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud the shadow of complete collapse seemed to be lifting. With the memory of Mohamed Mahmoud and the revolutionaries striking back in force, however, November was an occasion to take stock of what seems to be one of the more lasting social consequences of the revolution — not the mere incidence of violence as such but the protest culture that has pushed “the historical trajectory” of 25 January off on a largely disruptive, not to mention disturbing tangent.
The unprecedented spread of violence — or, to borrow a Lebanese phrase, “the civil-war mentality” — expresses itself at a range of levels. Aside from pro-army parties foolishly calling for greater state violence in the context of the military’s “war on terror” — and the Islamists, with what limited moral and material resources remain available to them, even more foolishly waging just such a war — the revolutionaries have yet to go beyond the paradigm of “Either we avenge their death, or we die like them” for their subversive role to have any effect beyond playing into Islamists’ hands — to see the fine line between acts and discourse that effectively oppose state abuse and ones that end up justifying it. Likewise the police have yet to understand that their power lies in truly serving society, not merely demonstrating their capacity for murder, abuse and straight-faced lies.
While Islamist and pro-Islamist mayhem resulted in police firing into the Cairo University campus, killing one student protester, the opposition to state violence that had often united revolutionaries and Islamists to the benefit of the latter seemed to be doing its work again. In the buildup to and the wind-down from the second anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud, many of the same issues were played out again as if scripted in advance; and the by now old, oppositional culture of “peace” — of pro-25 January intellectuals and commentators who rejected political Islam just as much as they did state abuse — was once again proved well and truly futile.
A memorial plank for “the martyrs of Mohamed Mahmoud”, once erected by the government in Tahrir Square, was destroyed by revolutionaries who, eager to show their loyalty to their dead comrades, attempted to monopolise the area for their own demonstrations. Both pro-state citizens and Islamists challenged the revolutionaries’ claim to the Tahrir Square area that day, however; and when the revolutionaries eventually moved to the Shura Council to protest against military trials for civilians in the constitution and the newly introduced demonstrations law, the police violently intervened. Star activists who had since declared their opposition to the new law and insulted the police in the media were all but illegally arrested — their trials are ongoing; and, though not military trials, they are just as “vengeful” and unfair; they could just as easily have happened before the demonstrations law was passed, too.
Most people seem to approve of the army-led persecution not only of Islamists but also of revolutionaries, and likewise most people remain unhappy with inadequate security and economic recess. Yet, despite the existence of distinct categories of citizen with distinct loyalties, it is more difficult than ever before to actually direct blame. Pro-Islamist students are wrong to be supporting the Islamists’ avowed agenda of bringing life to a standstill, subverting state institutions and proving “the coup” incapable against the will of the majority, for example. But is the police not equally wrong to “desecrate the sanctity of the Cairo University campus”, killing a student?
Are pro-state citizens not wrong to turn their support for the army into a pretext for the worship of the person of Commander Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, whom they want to become president, in a way that renders not only 25 January but any hope for any form of liberal democracy a joke? Are the theorists of peaceful regime change not wrong to confuse such hopes and their procedural requirements with the very palpable threat of an Islamist pseudo-state? And how is the economy ever going to pick up speed with security concerns continuing to top the agenda of anyone in power? How indeed can security concerns be stayed before Islamists and revolutionaries stop waging war on the state?
The answers to these questions will no doubt emerge in the trial-and-error efforts of the months and years to come, but with few if any lessons learned present attitudes do not bode well for the future. And perhaps a different and more profound answer should be sought in an effective antidote to the revolution’s legacy of violence — not only in the material world but, more importantly, in the moral realm of absolute right and emotional rhetoric, be that patriotic, religious or revolutionary.

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