Monday, November 27, 2017

Speaking out loud and remaining invisible (or: is graffiti literature?)

This is a fragment from a longer photo essay about wall-writings in Alexandria. As part of my ongoing fieldwork on literary writing, I occasionally photograph graffiti in Alexandria, Egypt. They are usually what Thomas Northoff calls "word graffiti", writings in public space that have something to say. (So I'm not after "street art", and luckily there are enough others busy doing that.) Special thanks are due to Youssef El Chazli in whose forthcoming publication Everyday Alexandria the complete long photo essay will be published.

Are these writings literature? Some of them have undeniable literary or poetic quality. And even when they don't, they do contribute to something like a poetry of open spaces – poetry in the wider sense that they suggest imaginative and associative ways to restructure open spaces, give them symbolic depth and complexity. But literature is both more and less than the aesthetic, imaginative work of words: it is an institutional field (in the sense described by Pierre Bourdieu) in which some forms of writing, speech and reading are included, and others excluded (Michael Allan has made a good point about this in his recent book).

The question is thus not whether wall-writing is literature or not, but how some wall-writing may become literature. Social media is instrumental for such becoming.

The writings on the city's three-dimensional walls often mingle with the metaphorical walls of social media feeds as inhabitants of the city are engaged in poetic, transient conversations and commentary on their phones while they move through their city. Sometimes the different poetics and materialities of wall-writing also converge when social media memes reproduce photos of wall-writing. During the intense days of revolutionary political contestation, photos of expressive messages on walls were often shared and distributed to underline one's stances. I first encountered them as images of wall-writings in Alexandria or Cairo that were photographed and circulated on Facebook by people who lived in those cities. Increasingly, messages on walls have become distributed online as aphoristic texts out of context. This growing online circulation of wall-writings has in turn inspired new ways of writing on open-air walls. As the mood has become more subdued and fearful in the recent years, and political wall-writing rarer, a different genre has become more visible: poetic messages – often songlines by popular bands:

“And I wonder how your fragrance spreads without your presence”. Song line by Jadal, Jordanian pop-rock band. To the right of the song line is a stencilled advertisement for hearing aids. Corniche by Ibrahimiya, Alexandria, September 2017. Photo by Samuli Schielke.

This is a decidedly hybrid genre that thrives on the interface between the virtual and open-air walls.

Two young women I know (they both come from a family I know in a village and have moved to Alexandria to study) often post photos of wall-writing on their social media feeds, either as background images of their Facebook walls, or as individual posts. They collect and save images on the Internet, where one of their main sources is the Facebook site Gudran/Walls. The site had over 100,000 followers by summer 2017. It is administered by an Egyptian but some of the wall-writings posted recently on the site appear to come from the Levant. The writings are sometimes religious, philosophical or political, but most importantly romantic. They often have clear literary ambitions, tending towards an aphoristic or poetic form. Many are also signed, thus laying a claim to individual authorship.

S., a university student in Alexandria in her early twenties, told me why she often posted images of this genre of graffiti on her Facebook account:

"In my view, the images of graffiti are better because everybody sees them and they communicate what people want to say, while posts are not seen by all, because images draw the attention of the eyes. […] And besides, people interact more with the image than when you write text."

A., a university students in her late teens who lives between the village and Alexandria, saw the online images of graffiti as part of an emerging generational youth culture:

"I in my opinion find them very useful, especially after the revolution and the spread of underground artists, and they also have a better future because most people in my generation are interested in this kind of writings."

The two women's appreciation of such hybrid messages – analogue turned digital, writing and image at once – and skill in dealing with them is telling of the transformation of both written and visual culture in the digital age. The crossover between walls of brick, mortar and wood and the digital wall is central for the attraction of the genre.

Just like three-dimensional wall-writings, also their digital avatars are mostly anonymous. Additionally, they also become decontextualised and delocalised. Images posted on Gudran/Walls always contain a transcription of the message because the handwriting may be difficult to read. Some of the writings are signed, but their circulated images are never dated and never localised – except incidentally through dialect and references to events like the Syrian civil war. Their indexical and referential relation with specific persons, conflicts or issues is entirely or largely severed. They transform into travelling aphoristic literary texts that are appreciated as such by those who circulate them. According to A:

"The images I post are by unknown people, and I don't know what the motivation is behind the pages that upload them. … I select them on the basis of the similarity between what is inside me and what is written. … That is, I use these images to express what I don't know to write in a direct manner in a Facebook post."

For A., images of wall-writing work in a way that is analogous to the memorised verses of poetry, songs, and proverbs that have been part of the culture of expression in different languages since age immemorial. The digital walls of S. and A. respectively generate something like a poetic map of some of their stances, moods, and public emotions. In their wall-writing posts, they both appear often as romantic, sentimental, religious, and committed to their parents and families - and sometimes as ironical or sarcastic:

“Never mind.” (An expression used in Egyptian Arabic as an excuse or to soothe somebody who is upset). In the comment section, M. has posted a caricature where a person is surrounded by characters who all say “Never mind.” Posted by S. on 22 March 2017. Probably seafront of Alexandria. Date, photographer and original source unknown.

A. also often posts and circulates images that are explicitly political or socially critical, reflecting her more outwardly rebellious attitude, like this one which she forwarded to me sometime after  I interviewed her. It, too, is a song line:

“They sedated you in the artery and said: your apathy is good for the motherland”. Song line from Al-Watan (Motherland) by the Lebanese band Mashrou Leyla. Photography and original post by Fares Abdallah, 23 February 2017. Location unknown.

While the images of such texts are delocalised, for A. and others who circulate them, they resonate with a knowledge of the entire song as well as the class habitus and worldviews associated with the artists and style of music. The music of Mashrou Leyla in particular resonates with a liberal, even rebellious attitude but importantly also with (the aspiration for) a bourgeois, cosmopolitan habitus. But this is of course not the only story A. and her virtual wall have to tell. A different selection of her online posts would show her as somebody very committed to her mother. Like the poetry one cites, the images they post move in that productively ambiguous space where they are common popular culture and intimate expression at once, and may stand in contrast to other roles and expressions they cultivate, without necessarily entering a conflict with them (this something which was pointed by Lila Abu-Lughod already in the 1980's in her work on Bedouin women's poetry).

Speaking out loud and remaining invisible

Writings on all kinds of walls – those made of mortar, brick and concrete as well as virtual ones – combine disclosure, anonymity and intimacy, and cross over conventional limits of ordinary and literary language. This makes them interesting as historical witnesses of various kinds of conversations that go on among the inhabitants of a city, both straightforward as well as poetic.

Whenever I arrive in Alexandria (I live in Berlin but come often for shorter or longer visits), I take the minibus from al-Mandara to al-Manshiya and read the graffitis on the Corniche. Having read them often and knowing where to expect them, I also read their absences. For me, this has proven a good way to get a sense of the current mood and situation, because wall-writings tell me about issues that might not make it into the news (such as love affairs and job ads), and because they contain voices that I may not otherwise hear by people whom I may never meet.

The grand old man of Egyptian sociology Sayed Oweis (1903-1988) paid remarkable attention in his work to such writings in public space, which by the way have a long tradition in Egypt. In his book "The Chanting of the Silent" (هتاف الصامتين) he studied messages written on vehicles (something that is very common in Egypt today as well) that he documented in the 1960's. For Oweis, the people who wrote their messages on vehicles were “silent” in the sense of being sub-altern, not heard among the hegemonic voices of late Nasserist Egypt. And yet in Oweis' work, the sub-altern certainly do speak, and eloquently so. But they do so on the condition of their invisibility. I doubt whether the 21st century wall-writers generally speak from the sub-altern position in which Oweis located drivers and vendors of the late 1960's. The music of Jadal and Mahsrou Leyla cited in two of the above images speaks mainly to young people who either command or aspire to a cosmopolitan sense of global connectedness. Rather than a means of expression for people who are otherwise silenced, walls are better understood as a space that is accessible to subaltern and nonhegemonic voices, but not to them alone.

In that sense, wall-writings can be literature because they participate in a poetic making of moods and space that relies on words and imagination, and - most importantly - they are read and circulated in that capacity. But in another sense, they differ from the institutional meaning of literature, because "literature" in the institutional sense has aesthetic, formal, linguistic and other mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, which wall-writing does not have.

Wall-writing relies on the productive tension between speaking out loud and remaining invisible. This tension makes wall-writing a very effective means to communicate and to contest public moods and values, and also to express impolite and aggressive claims, as well as stances that may otherwise be censored. Wall-writing and street art therefore thrive in times of protest and conflict. Their ability to mark and occupy physical space makes them even more potent as means of conflict and contestation. The rise and decline of revolutionary graffiti in Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt since 2011 is a case in point. But wall-writing can be and is used also to legitimate those in power, as well as for altogether different aims. This open-endedness towards different uses – both contrary as well as unrelated ones – makes wall-writings a helpful entry point among others to understanding life in a plural but not pluralistic city like Alexandria that is connected by roads, railway lines, streets, circulations of people, goods, money, ideas, messages and images, while at the same time divided by lines of class, demography, religious and political faiths. They express and make visible a plurality of stances and views, but also point at the precarious, at times explosive nature of their coexistence.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Resistance to what?

Recently I attended a public lecture by Douglas Blum, a political scientist (with ambitions to be a cultural sociologist) who is involved in youth studies. He told that in current debates in youth studies, the old “agency” vs. “structure” debate has made a remarkable comeback. I found that somewhat surprising, since I have learned from anthropological debates in the past two decades that it makes little sense to pit “agency” against “structure”: Conformity and submission to power require a lot of agentic effort, too. And who am I to determine which of the different structuring powers humans live with is “structure” and which may support their “agency”? I was therefore surprised that scholars in other disciplines would still hold to a conceptual opposition where “agency” meant only and exclusively individuals' capacity to act differently from, in opposition to, or in ways not anticipated by “structure.” (What is meant with “structure” here are the traditions, mores, habitus, and relations of power that shape the individuals who grow up in a given society.) I told this to Blum after the talk, and he was somewhat surprised that anybody would think of agency in any other way than that. From his point of view, „agency“ without a its structural counterpart would explain nothing. It would then be simply identical with the ability to do something. And why invent a jargon word for something that is already clearly expressed in plain English?
In Egypt, to reach full adulthood is a highly conventional and pre-structured affair, but the path towards ideal normality is a rocky one. It takes resources, effort, wits, initiative and innovation to do become the kind of woman or man who is good, normal and respectable in a conventional sense. And some people fail. Many are critical of the cost and effort it takes, but few question the underlying aims and principles of the process. So adulthood in Egypt is not a story of the binary of the society's power to shape me versus my ability to do something different (except if you belong to the few who question the whole conventional package). It is a story about the ability to do something that from the point of view of the people involved is important to do.

The consequence has been that I have largely stopped using the word „agency“ in my academic writing because in the way I understand it, it indeed would not add anything to the plain English concept of being able to do something. Many others have had this insight way before me. Saba Mahmood credibly questioned the assumption that the exercise of agency would automatically imply a striving for freedom. James Laidlaw proposed abandoning the concept altogether because it comes with the underlying assumption that the researcher knows better what is and is not structure and what kind of action counts and what not. I agree with both.

And yet anthropology (and social sciences in general) remains haunted by this binary because it points at something that is close to the heart of most scholars in a very leftist academic discipline: the possibility of resistance.

In some of my own work, I have tried to take distance from resistance, and instead I have followed trajectories of people who rather than resisting the compelling „grand schemes“ (such as religion, other moral ideals, love and marriage, social mobility and migration) which they subscribed to, lived along with them in a sincere but half-hearted way: not resisting them, but also not crafting their lives consistently according to them. Evasion, ambivalence, and ambiguity were words I often used when writing about their life trajectories. In some cases I had expected to find resistance, but found none. While some of my friends in urban intellectual milieus would question the theological foundations of the Islamic revival, in the village where I did fieldwork, those theological foundations were beyond questioning and doubt, irresistible and highly compelling – so much indeed that they were also shared by and argued for by people who nevertheless would not live according to them. In other cases, I encountered acts that looked like resistance but did not seem to pose a threat to the powers they were aimed at. Some people I met were proud of their ability to manipulate the corrupt regime in which they were forced to live. They worked badly, diverted ressources, and told me that doing so gave them a sense of dignity and power. I preferred not to interpret this as resistance against the regime, but rather as a form of scornful accommodation that unintentionally became a part of the way Egypt was – and still is – governed.

But then came the revolutionary uprising of January 25, 2011. Along with many other anthropologists, I tossed all my misgivings about resistance and enthusiastically shifted to a much more engaged mode of writing: not just about the revolution, but for the revolution. Now there was open resistance against an oppressive regime, many of my friends and aquaintances were involved in it. How could I not support them? Their story became the last chapter of the book, and it is a chapter that does not fit in well with the rest. Analytically, it is weaker than the preceding ones, written very much still in the moment of the contestation, openly partial (which I'm OK with) and at times bluntly partisan (which I'm not OK with). But I could not leave it out either. It was a part of the reality I encountered, and it was perhaps the part I sympathised with most.

Interestingly, different readers have interpreted the theme of ambivalence, accommodation and resistance in the book quite differently. On the one hand, Maria Golia, a journalist who reviewed the book, highlighted it as a work that shows that while some Egyptians are revolting against the state, many others work hard to be part of it. On the other hand, the anthropologists Nadia Fadil and Mayanthi Fernando mentioned the same book in a critical essay where they argued that my work was part of an approach that privileged resistance towards the Islamic revival and failed to take seriously my interlocutors' ethical work to fit in to conservative values and institutions. (Personally I find the second reading distorting, and I have argued elsewhere how come. But evidently my book could be read that way, too.)

Perhaps different readers saw different things depending on the specific struggles which they themselves cared about. And while I may not have intended to write about resistance, I certainly did phrase my argument explicitly in opposition to the theoretical take Fadil and Fernando subscribe to. In the spirit of academic debate they replied by highlighting their arguments in opposition to others, including mine. Could one say that I was resisting their preferred way to understand what was going on, and they were resisting mine and others'? It does not sound like the right way to phrase it. We would usually not call academic difference and disagreement resistance. To speak of resistance implies that there is an asymmetry of power, and only when I'm in the weaker position acting against those in the stronger position, it is resistance. This asymmetry gives „resistance“ a moral high ground in exchange for strategical disadvantage.

Therefore it is a common rhetorical trick to depict those one criticises as more powerful than oneself. I have not been innocent of using that trick. It goes easily unnoticed because people who use that trick commonly don't think that it's a trick. They understand that this is what is really going on: my position is the weak and truthful one against your strong and oppressive one.

So when we as academics question the romantic search for resistance (and let me repeat: I agree that we should), we are also questioning somebody's (possibly our own, possibly our peers', possibly our interlocutors', possibly our society's) taken for granted assumptions about who is powerful and oppressive, and who weak and righteous. (And we may also question whether all power is oppressive, and whether the weak are generally righteous.) Or to return to the “structure” and “agency” debate: we are questioning claims about what actually constitutes the relevant “structure” against which we are supposed to measure “agency”.

In a poetry slam in the UK in 2017, the poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan presented a powerful poem about the pressure she as a British Muslim faced to fulfill a public expectation of how and what she ought to be in order to be accepted as a human among others. In a passage that received large applause from the audience she said:

because if you need me to prove my humanity
I'm not the one that's not human

Her poetic performance is precisely the kind of resistance academics are best acquainted with: speaking truth to power. In fact I became aware of her poem because some fellow anthropologists posted the Youtube video and accompanied it with words of recognition and praise. They were among precisely the same anthropologists who have credibly argued against the romantic search for resistance, and who have pointed out that the search for those who resist excludes those who don't.

So clearly the debate was not about resistance as such, but rather about the question: resistance to what?

Manzoor-Khan expressed in powerful poetic words that which some anthropologists have argued in academic prose. They have worked to question and unsettle (or should I say resist) taken-for-granted secular-liberal assumptions that they (for a large part rightly so, I would say) see as dominant and hegemonic in western societies. This is why they find it important, when writing about Muslims, not to privilege those Muslims who critique, rethink or resist their conservative or established religious traditions, because such privileging would in fact only reproduce the liberal-secular hegemony's bias, and put more pressure on European Muslims to be what the secular public sphere wants them to be instead of being themselves. But this is of course not a fundamental critique of resistance. Rather, theirs is a demand for a different target of resistance: not conservative values and religious traditions, but an all-pervasive, silencing secular-liberal hegemony should be resisted in order to make visible its underlying mechanisms of exclusion and violence.

Which resistance should be recognised and supported, and which claims for resistance need to be taken under critical scrutiny? This is a question that can and indeed should be part of social scientific inquiry, debate, and questioning.

In my view, such questioning is most convincing and truthful when it is empirically based, grounded in the knowledge and awareness of concrete social contexts and conflicts – because otherwise we will keep conveniently questioning only those claims we already find questionable. Some examples of what I mean:

At the time of its emergence in western Europe at the end of the 19th century, Zionism was a liberatory protest movement insofar that it rallied for Jewish self-assertion against hegemonic European anti-Semitism. But when it turned into a successful colonising project, Zionism became the ideological foundation of a regime based on violent conquest, dispossession and dominance over Palestinians. Opponents of Zionism rightly assert that the colonising spirit was ingrained in the movement from the beginning. And yet many current liberation movements also carry chauvinist and supremacist tendencies that may or may not become actualised depending their success and changing historical circumstances. Zionists today may in turn claim that Israel is a precarious and small David facing the hostile Golyath of the Arab countries, but this claim becomes questionable to say the least when we consider that Israel is in possession of nuclear weapons, has unconditional support by the world's leading superpower, successfully and continuously occupies territories it has conquered by wars it has won, and routinely cooperates with the secret services of neighbouring Arab countries.
Liberal secularism may be powerful enough in Europe to naturalise some forms of pluralism and difference as good, while problematising and scandalising those forms that don't fit into its own logic. Liberal media in Europe may celebrate Muslims who prefer not to follow ritual obligations such as Ramadan fasting as ”courageous”, but in fact it takes no less courage to refuse to shake hands with the opposite sex when doing so causes a moral panic in the same liberal media. But in places like, say, Egypt, liberal secularism may not have that unchallenged power, and it is questionable if the same discursive-institutional structures that can be found at work in western Europe even exist in much of the Middle East. Not shaking hands with the opposite sex causes no scandal, but breaking the fast in daytime during Ramadan often does, and in some countries (not in Egypt though) it is a criminal offence. In most parts of Europe being a Muslim is a stigma, and hatred towards Muslims is the currently predominant form of racism. But in most of the Middle East, being a Muslim is an unmarked category of normality. Christianity, heterodox Islamic faiths, and non-religion come with a stigma of difference and require declarations of loyalty.

Some supporters of Islamist movements in Egypt have claimed that Muslims are the persecuted religious group in Egypt. Followers of certain Islamists movements (especially the Muslim Brotherhood) in fact are severely and brutally persecuted, and some of the followers of those movements would like to identify themselves as ”the Muslims” in exclusion of other Muslims, such as those who support the regime, or those who work in the security apparatus and persecute them. Theirs is a claim that is sincerely made and it needs to be taken seriously as such, and yet it should not be taken for granted, unless we are also willing to take for granted claims by white supremacists that white people are being discriminated in the USA.
All of this has been stated by others many times, and may not be new to any of my readers. Nevertheless, I find it important to remind myself as a researcher that I need take distance to analyse and understand the specific desire and romance of resistance that I may be most drawn to. This is not a call to unideological impartiality, which would be an illusion anyway and usually only hide my ideological bias without overcoming it. Rather, a reflective distance to my own desires and causes may first of all help me to recognise the tremendous work that goes into conformity, and also to recognise that overall, pursuits conformity and adaptation probably are vastly more prevalent than resistance among most humans. Second, such reflective distance may also help me to take seriously stances that go against the grain of the stances I hold. This, by the way, is not the same as taking them for granted. Taking someone seriously means to engage with them and to consider the possibility that their claims might be true or at least effective, and this can be an engagement in agreement and disagreement alike (impartiality, paradoxically, can also be a way to not take people seriously). Third, such reflective distance warns me of the danger of useful dichotomies. If I put all my effort into challenging, for example, either a liberal-secular hegemony in Europe or a conservative identitarian hegemony in the Middle East, I will miss out the fact that neither really are that hegemonic in either place, nor are they the only important discourses around, nor are they clearly distinct from one another; and they are also far from united internally. And what is a hegemonic power at my workplace maybe quite different from what is a hegemonic power at my home. Last but not least, such reflective distance may help me to inquire about the specific balance of power in a given time and place that makes some people and positions powerful and others less so – even if it means that those who I thought to be the courageous resisting ones may turn out to command a fair share of hegemonic power and privilege.

But to give up resistance as a value and an aim altogether would mean to accept that the power of the strongest rules the world and it's okay. Yes, the power of the strongest largely does rule the world. But it's not okay.

Friday, October 27, 2017

In Defence of Our Universal Double Standards

I'm reposting this old essay that was published originally in 2015/2016 by Allegra Lab and Qira2at because it related to an new essay that I'm writing right now and that I will post soon.

In English:
In Defence of Our Universal Double Standards

دفاعاً عن معاييرنا “العالمية” المزدوجة: الأخلاق والنقاء والارتباك والعداوة بين “نحن” و”الآخرين”
(ترجمة عمرو خيري)

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Love with the Ugly Face of Alexandria

(This is the beginning of an article I'm preparing for publication that is called "Where is Alexandria: Myths of the City and the Anti-City in Alexandria after Cosmopolitanism. This excerpt was published by Cairobserver in February 2017: A first version of the full article is already published online in Arabic by Taralbahr: أين تقع الإسكندرية؟ أساطير المدينة والمدينة النقيض بعد المرحلة الكوزموبوليتانية.

In March 2015, on one of my many journeys between Berlin and Alexandria, I landed in Borg El Arab airport west of Alexandria late at night. The airport is 50 kilometres away from the city centre, but close to many thriving industrial areas, holiday villages, and up-market suburbs that have been built west of the city and along the North Coast in the past two decades. At the airport I was picked up by my friend Mustafa who moved some years ago from his native village to the district of Agami at the western edge of Alexandria. Agami is known among the Egyptian bourgeoisie as a pleasant beach resort. Mustafa, however, lives three kilometres away from the coast in an informal neighborhood on a small hill right behind the Chinese Housing (al-Masakin al-Siniya), an area of large public housing blocks. The Chinese blocks were built in the 1980’s as company housing of public sector companies by an Egyptian-Chinese joint venture. For decades, the Chinese Housing has been an area where poor and marginalised people would live, people who lack the means to build a house of their own in an informal settlement. It has a bad reputation as a place marked by gangs and crime, but the reality is much calmer. Mustafa and I moved in the area with no sense of risk even late at night. He quite likes it there. Two years earlier, an Egyptian employee at a foreign research institute in Alexandria had been shocked to hear that I frequented the Chinese Housing. She said that she was surprised that I was still alive. For her it was a no-go area, definitely not a part of her Alexandria.

Next evening, I continued my journey on a minibus to the opposite end of the city, the neighborhood of Mandara where I usually live in Alexandria as a guest of the novelist Mukhtar Shehata. The distance from Agami to Mandara is 35 kilometres on the direct route through the city centre. To avoid congestion, the minibus takes a longer but faster detour via the International Road south of the city. The International Road crosses Lake Marioutiyya on a landfill bridge where the nauseating smell from pollution occasionally compels passengers to hold their noses. The road passes poor informal areas in inland Agami, the up-market suburb of King Mariout, vast chemical and cement factory complexes, and the up-market City Center shopping mall (far from the historical centre of the city). Finally, the minibus enters the city again along the 45 Street in what is known as “the East of the City” (Sharq al-Madina). Approaching the end of the line, the minibus turns to smaller streets, passes the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the al-Azhar University (one of the main sites of learning for foreign Muslim students who come to Egypt), and finally enters the busy Mallaha Street surrounded by shops, market stands, and congested by private cars, taxis, minibuses and toktoks.

Eastern Alexandria is symbolically divided class-wise by the Abu Qir suburban train line, the seaside being relatively well off, and the inland often poorer. I live almost exactly at the class border, next to the railway line. On the wealthy side of the railway are the Montazah Gardens, the Fathallah shopping mall, the Sheraton Hotel, and the beach. On the poor side begins a concrete jungle of both poor and middle-income areas, informally built in the 1990’s and in perpetual construction, where 15-floor towers are now replacing older five-floor apartment buildings.

In Mukhtar’s words, this is “the ugly face of Alexandria.” And it would be difficult indeed to find the Chinese Blocks, the International Road, or inland Mandara beautiful in any conventional sense. However, It is not simply the poor face of the city. The suburban crescent that surrounds the old coastal core of Alexandria is made up of poor, middle-income and upmarket districts alike. Millions live and work in the suburban crescent and only enter the iconic sites of the city on the seafront and the old centre on weekend and holiday outings. The ugly face of the city has little on offer for a romantic weekend, but those who want to understand what kind of city Alexandria is today and what it may become, should not miss it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stability as a Utopia: Revisiting Egyptian youth as they grow older, and the future tense as time passes

"Most people are weird, and they need to work really hard to be like everybody else"


Individual humans are usually strange and peculiar in many ways. In consequence, they need to spend great effort to be like everybody else, with varying degrees of success. This visible and invisible effort at conforming, at being accepted by others, and at living a normal life, is one of the most daunting tasks of coming of age and crafting an adult life. In northern Egypt where I have conducted fieldwork for many years, many people take this work for granted but struggle to succeed. Others are critical of it but pursue it all the same. Few search for alternatives.
Recent public and academic interest in youth and especially Muslim youth (what about Christian youth, one may wonder) has often highlighted three kinds of youthful figures: actively pious people searching to fashion their lives according to religious ideals; revolutionary activists who seem to embody the desire of „the youth“ for freedom, dignity and a better life; and migrants and refugees who take risks and face hardship in their search for a better future. All these figures embody transformation and change. They all do deserve attention indeed, but what they leave out of sight is the fact that much of the time, young and not so young people alike are busy with realising taken-for-granted expectations and striving for „stability“ - that is, the means to realize a full conventional adulthood. The paradox, however, is that just like pursuits of transformation may fail or be successful in unintended ways, also pursuits of stability may produce something else than expected. The attempt to reproduce the known good – same as ever, only better – propels societal dynamics that can have unsettling consequences.
Based on conversations with a handful of Egyptian men in their 20s and 30s who are in the process of establishing themselves socially, the presentation revisits some themes and arguments of my book Egypt in the Future Tense, sketching possible questions for future research.

Sound recording of a lecture I held at the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University, 21 September 2016. Listen here:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I'm no longer updating this blog. But please look at these new works by me that deal with Egypt in the time of revolution and counter-revolution:

- Buy and read my new book
Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration and Ambivalence before and after 2011
Indiana University Press, 2015. It costs 30$.

- Download and read the revised version of the final blog post:
There will be blood: Expecting violence in Egypt, 2011-2013.

- حمل واقرأ الترجمة العربية للجزء الأول من المدونة، ترجمة عمرو خيري، القاهرة: دار النفيسة، 2011
Download and read the Arabic translation of the first two parts of the blog, from January to March 2011, translated by Amr Khairy and published by Dar El-Nafisa in Cairo in 2011:
هتتأخر على الثورة: دفتر يوميات عالم أنثروبولجيا شهد الثورة (You'll be Late for the Revolution: The Diary of an Anthropologist who Witnessed the Revolution)

- Watch online the documentary film about the village revolutionaries, directed by Mukhtar Shehata and me:

- For more texts and information, see my research homepage

Monday, June 23, 2014

"There will be blood"

I stopped updating this blog in June 2013. But I am publishing this long essay that was written during spring 2014 here on this blog until it gets published elsewhere.

There will be blood

Expecting violence in Egypt, 2011-2013

Caricature (c) by JF Andeel, July 2013. Courtesy of the artist

From January 2011 until early June 2013 I was occasionally writing a blog about everyday life and politics in Egypt in the time of a revolution. The final blog entry, written in the beginning of June, told about the growing opposition against Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Tamarrud campaign, and the expectation expressed by many people I spoke with who were certain 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 present that I at first thought about using it as title of the blog entry. But optimistic as I was about the capacity of the Tamarrud 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 was unleashed, fuelled by a media campaign (the mass media were brought under nearly total government control immediately after 3 July) that made no distinctions between truth and lies, only between friend and foe. 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 14 August, 2013, in the storming of the Rabea El-Adawiya and El-Nahda Square sit-ins in Cairo, which were followed by clashes and attacks on police stations and Christian properties in several cities. Ever since, violence has continued, with people getting killed in demonstrations, tortured and disappearing in prisons, Jihadist bombings aiming police and military targets, and ordinary citizens getting into fights with each others.

All sides accused the others of being guilty of violence, and legitimised their struggle by the violence exerted by the other side. However, there was a great asymmetry of killing. Those supporting the storming of the Rabea El-Adawiya sit-in have regularly cited the fact that also policemen and conscripts were killed and that some of the protesters were armed. According to the Ministry of Health, the nationwide death toll on 14 August 2013 was 638, including 43 conscripts and policemen. According to the documentation of WikiThawra (WikiThawra 2013), in contrast, the nationwide death toll on 14 August was 1385 (among them 52 conscripts and policemen) and 399 more (including 48 policemen and conscripts) were 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.

One year later, the new regime lead by El-Sisi has established its firm grip on power, but a lower level of confrontation continues, and so 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” (el-nas di mayinfa‘sh ma‘ahum gheir keda). One of the most absurd consequences of this call for killing in order to stop violence were the death sentences that a judge passed in two processes in March and April 2014 on 1212 persons in 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 facing an attack of 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 among 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 others despite irreconcilable political differences. But it is the mood that helped the current regime to seize power, and that resulted in a wave of killing that will haunt Egypt for a very long time.

The escalation in summer 2013 came unexpected to many of those who had come to appreciate and admire Egypt's “peaceful revolution” and the flourishing social and cultural activity that the 25 January Revolution had unleashed. It was a common expectation that the Muslim Brotherhood or some of their allies might opt for violent struggle if Morsy were toppled. Such violence of the defeated was expected, 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, and more shocking. 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 for extreme bloodshed since the beginning of the revolution, and if many Egyptian and foreign commentators failed to notice it, it was not because it wasn't there, but because we didn't quite 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.

What this essay is about

I have been on and off in Egypt before and during the revolution, and I have accompanied some circles of friends who describe themselves as “revolutionaries” (a position that from 2011 to 2013 was marked by a double rejection of the old regime establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood) in Alexandria and a village in the Nile Delta, and I have tried to understand the often troubling and contradictory nature of the revolutionary experience in ordinary life. I was not in Egypt in the summer 2013 and did not witness the polarisation and escalation that happened July and August. But I did see it growing in the months and years before. This is the background from which I ask two key questions: 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 one particular side of the events from 2011 to 2013, react to the bewildering moment of violence of victory in summer and autumn 2013?

With these questions, I try to contribute to a conversation opened by engaged academics writing about Egypt (e.g. LeVine 2014; Ali 2014), trying to understand the wide-scale support for killing that emerged in Egypt in summer 2013. My key argument is that the violence unleashed after 30 June, 2013, 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. (There is no doubt that leading politicians and officiers manipulated the media and moral anger in a cynical and calculating fashion to promote their struggle for power. But on the level of general opinion among Egyptians, the moral quality of the polarisation was real and powerful. And one should take seriously that politicians often enough actually believe in some of their own lies.) 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. Tragically enough, it works. The incitement to bloodshed and the spiral of violence can be described as form of ethical cultivation where a sense of purity is established through dramatic and radical confrontation. Paradoxically, during the the bloody summer of 2013, moments of irbak, that is, 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.

Bewilderment and confusion was the mood in summer and autumn 2013 among some (probably a minority) of the leftist revolutionaries whom I know. They had participated in the 30 June movement, but expressed a sense of shock, confusion, and frustration about what resulted from the popular coalition in which they had participated. It is a sentiment that I share with them. As an academic committed to support the revolutionary process in Egypt, I also supported the uprising against Morsy in summer 2013. The realisation of having participated, if only by the very weak means of academic essays, in a counter-revolution that has restored the Mubarak regime with some reforms and adjustments, and at an enormous cost of lives, causes moral trouble. It puts question marks on one's role as an academic whose job is to be critical and to ask difficult questions. What happened cannot be undone. But we can try to understand how it could happen.

 The story I tell is a highly partial one. I do not make any claims to speak about Egypt or Egyptians in general. It is the story of people who consider themselves as “revolutionaries” through a double opposition towards the Mubarak regime on the one hand, and Islamist groups, on the other. A different story could be told if we looked at Muslim Brotherhood supporters, or at sympathisers of other Islamic movements, or at old regime loyalists, or at the many people who did not take such firm stances. But the people who are the framework of my analysis describe themselves as left wing revolutionaries. This is their vision of the events, and my vision of the stances they took.

One of the events of the revolution

Much critical energy has been spent on asking whether what happened after 30 June 2013 was a coup or a revolution. This is a misleading question.

There are two standard answers to that question. One is that it was a coup because Morsy was the legitimate president and he was overthrown by an alliance from within the acting government and institutions of the state – most importantly the Ministries of Defence and Interior – and eventually the minister of defence who directed the operation became the new president. The other is that it was a revolution because it was based on a genuine mass movement of a great variety of Egyptians who overthrew a failing president who refused to listen to the will of the people. It is true that the president was removed from office by the minister of defence, which is a textbook case of a coup d'etat. It is also true that this was supported by very large mass demonstrations which had a revolution as their explicit aim. But in reality either claim is not an analytical but a moral statement. Coup is bad, revolution is good. Saying that what happened was a coup is saying that what happened was bad and wrong. Saying that what happened was a revolution is saying that it was good and right, or at least it was good and right in the beginning. But this is a misleading choice. First, it relies on an unquestioned narrative of popular legitimacy, be it by elections or demonstrations: If “the people” can be shown to support it, it is good. But beloved dictators are far more terrible than hated ones because they can get away with much worse crimes. Second and most importantly, the “revolution or coup?” choice is misleading because it is based on the assumption that revolution is good. But why should we assume that a revolution is a good thing? Revolutions are processes in which people get killed, things get broken, and in the end the most powerful and ruthless parties gain power. In 1951, Albert Camus looked back at the great revolutionary transformations in Europe and noted:

“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State. 1789 brings Napoleon; 1848, Napoleon III; 1917, Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini; the Weimar Republic, Hitler. These revolutions, particularly after the First World War had liquidated the vestiges of divine right, still proposed, with increasing audacity, to build the city of humanity and of authentic freedom.” (Camus 1991)

Instead of the coup-revolution choice, I propose something more unpleasant. The polarisation and violence that followed 30 June, 2013, has damaged Egypt and Egyptians in a deep and long-lasting way. It has not only resulted in the killing of several thousands of people, it has also fractured and split the society in a way that will take generations to repair (and there may be much more bloodshed and damage ahead before the work of repair can even begin). It has helped in the establishment of a populist dictatorial regime that will rule Egypt with an iron hand for many years to come (although I need to add that many consider that an accomplishment and not a damage). Last but not least, it has largely destroyed the revolutionary movement which either allowed itself to be co-opted by the counter-revolution, or was marginalised by the military vs. Muslim Brotherhood confrontation, or was suppressed and imprisoned. However, this was not some sort of tragic derailment from the right track of revolution. Instead, we need to understand the 30 June counter-revolution as a consequence of the revolution, “one of the events of the revolution” as one of the village revolutionaries called it. It is a continuation of the revolutionary process, a process of increasingly nervous tension and polarisation and of the use of symbolic politics of confrontation where martyrdom and violence play a crucial part.

Believing in the glorious nation

By spring and summer 2013, the leftist revolutionaries from the village had come to consider the Muslim Brotherhood a greater enemy than the old regime. For them, it was a matter of civil or secular versus religious politics – among other reasons. But the conflict line that divided Islamists from supporters of a civil and/or secular state would never have been sufficient to create the 30 June coalition. Also the dramatic infrastructural problems (fuel shortage, electricity cuts) that became rampant during Morsy's rule would not have been sufficient to create such a coalition. The most powerful and successful accusation against Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood was not that they were fundamentalists, but that they were traitors to the nation. The opposition towards Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 was successful because it was primarily articulated in nationalist terms.

The reality of Egypt after 30 June 2013 took a lot of Western academics and others by surprise because they did not quite anticipate the power of nationalism. In a time when the study of globalisation and transnational movements is in fashion, nationalism has not been a sexy research topic. In recent anthropology of the Middle East and Islam in particular, the nation has been most likely to appear in the framework of a critical study of the “secular nation-state,” implying an opposition of religion and secularity where the nation state is the side of liberal, secular framework of power, and thus distinct from, even opposed to, society. The idea that the state is an external upside of power that is opposed to, even adversary, to society and its moral and ethical values, is a very liberal and very American idea. But people in the Middle East often have a much more ambiguous relationship with the state. They are oppressed by and at odds with some institutions of the state such as bureaucratic institutions, the police, and so on. But at the same time they often express a very firm love towards the nation, towards the army, towards military struggle for national liberation. And through a highly expansive public service, a very large numbers of Egyptians are also government functionaries in one way or another, so that the image of an invisible and invincible “deep state” needs to be complemented by the vision of a less mystical but very substantial “wide state” (Brown 2013).

Egypt is a God-fearing country where fearing and trusting God is a key part of people's moral and spiritual worlds. But it is also a militantly nationalist post-colonial country with a firmly rooted tradition of a national struggle where people believe in the Nation, the Army, and the Glorious October War. Patriotic values were enormously strengthened and magnified in the revolutionary uprisings across the Arab world in 2011. The national flag was always a central and highly ambiguous symbol that could be used to claim patriotic unity for the sake of quite opposed aims and ideals (Winegar 2014). Before 2011, there was a widespread sense of frustration that was sometimes expressed in anti-patriotic terms. Such kind of anti-patriotic frustration largely disappeared in 2011, and instead, enormous emotions were located in the body of the nation and “the people”. The revolution was very much a process of learning to love the nation that until then had showed little love to her sons and daughters. In 2011, that emotion was still directed at an abstract body of the nation and “the people” in the remarkable absence of a revolutionary leader. In summer 2013, love for the nation became heavily personalised in the figure of a venerated leader: Abdelfattah El-Sisi, glorified as the saviour of the nation in songs and posters that have covered homes, public spaces and businesses across the country. Supporters of Morsy have tried to depict him in similarly heroic terms, which was not easy because he was notoriously uncharismatic when in office. Paradoxically, he has meanwhile proven himself to be a much more inspired and charismatic political prisoner.

Image circulated in social networks and as a printed poster, depicting El-Sisi as „Lion Heart”

The anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued in regard to the Danish caricature crisis of 2006 that Western publics failed to understand the “labour of love” invested in the person of the Prophet Muhammad which made symbolic attacks against his person a matter of grave moral injury and anger (Mahmood 2009). Looking at the highly sensitive manner in which many Egyptians have reacted to any kind of critique of the Egyptian Army and Nation (be it by foreigners or by Egyptian critics of the military leadership) in 2013, it seems that also military struggles like the October War, the army, and the unity of nation have a similar kind of labour of love invested in them – a labour of loving something that is often not easy to love. In a similar manner, there is also an ongoing cultivation of a strong sense of moral anger at those who act or speak in a disrespectful manner about the things into which people invest so much love. Love is not just a sweet and kind thing. It is also the ground of cultivating a sense of being very easily offended - and an urgent need to retaliate.

Martyrdom and killing

Although the 25 January uprising was initially celebrated as a non-violent, peaceful revolution, more than one thousand 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 raise to a veritable cult of the martyrs of the Revolution.

Martyrdom in fact preceded the uprising. A key turning point was the murder of Khaled Said by police officers in Alexandria in summer 2010 that resulted in a first wave of protests, and turned Khaled's portrait into one of the most iconic images of the revolutionary period. The founding martyr of the revolution, Khaled Said has since been followed by thousands of others, although only a handful have made it into the prominent gallery of the revolution's martyrs. As violent events followed one another, new martyrs emerged, each of them associated with specific struggles, claims and calls for bringing justice. Often, the blood of the martyrs itself became the key ground of mobilisation: more important than any political aims was to “bring justice for them or die like them” (ya ngib haqquhum ya nmut zayyuhum).

The link of martyrdom and non-violence is paradoxical. The Egyptian revolution was framed as non-violent although lots of people got killed, and the killing continued and continues. Until today, movements calling for protests make a point of claiming that they are non-violent – and their opponents work hard to deny that claim.

Faisal Devji has pointed out that Gandhi, although known for his powerful use of non-violent tactics, was not in principle opposed to the possibility of violence and war. According to Devji, Gandhi actually supported the idea of war as a purifying moment in certain situations (Devji 2012). Non-violence is not about nobody getting hurt. Instead, non-violence is about occupying a moral high ground through an asymmetry of violence. The central moral principle of non-violence is that the other side does the killing. And this is where martyrdom becomes such a powerful weapon. The most tragic events have often been the most successful events of the revolutionary movements because they have made people angry, because they have provided grounds of rightful anger. As the confrontation continues, killing, martyrdom, and a righteous anger against the perpetrators become a central ground for the continuation of the struggle.


The revolution began in a polarised situation where opponents of the Mubarak regime were pitted against the regime and its supporters in an antagonistic manner. However, 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, because there were winners and losers. Antagonism was briefly buried under a vision of unity – a vision that quickly became a rather counter-revolutionary one, propagating a quick return to normality for the sake of a new, happy Egypt (Winegar 2011). Actually there never was unity, not even among the Tahrir protesters. Unity was claimed by silencing certain key differences. During the first sit-in in Tahrir Square, for example, nationalists and secular movements could coexist with the Islamist movements 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 to weak to do that and instead opted for principal resistance. Starting from early March 2011, a split emerged between the major Islamist movements that were well organized and initially very successful in the struggle for power on the one hand, and various mainly leftist, liberal and also some Islamist groups, on the other. 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 – which partly corresponded with a long-existing split between Islamist and other political groups that had been frequently and successfully exploited by the Sadat and Mubarak regimes in favour of one or the other side depending on circumstances – 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 to marginalise the first. This picture is complicated, however, by Islamist groups such as Hazemoon, the followers of Hazem Abu Ismail who participated in protests against the military rule in 2011 and 2012 and only joined forces with the Muslim Brotherhood in summer 2012.

A turning point in this polarisation was the rise in power of the Muslim Brotherhood through the presidential elections in 2012 and their attempt to rule Egypt by themselves without sharing power with their former revolutionary allies (and 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 new set-up of government and opposition, while 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 oppositional 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. 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 Morsy were either Christians, godless liberals, or corrupt old regime elites – thus, once again, not the true Muslim Egyptian people.

During the years of the revolutionary stormy season, the landscape of political struggle was mapped by insults and stereotypes more than by positive identifications. In spring 2011, there were agendat - “people with (foreign or particular) agendas”; baltagiya – “thugs”, which originally means gangsters on the payroll of the police and the government, but was used to indicate civilians fighting on the opposing side in a street battle, whichever that side may be; and after the fall of Mubarak, there were filul - “remnants” of the old regime. When the logic of political polarisation shifted, so did the insults. In autumn 2012, khirfan - “sheep” became the standard insult against Muslim Brothers, implying that they were sheepishly taking orders rather than acting of their own accord. On their side, Islamists had turned the originally positive identifications ‘almani - “secularist” and laybirali - “liberal” into accusations insinuating that liberals, secularists, and socialists were in fact kuffar - “infidels”, an accusation that was avoided in public discourse but more often made in the informal circles of local politics. In Summer 2013, the new situation was once again accompanied by new insults: irhabiyin - “terrorists”; and ‘abid el-biyada - “slaves of the military boot”. (Andeel 2014) These and other insults not only structured the political field; they also denied those at whom they were addressed the capacity of being a persons with reasonable choices of his or her own accord. Instead, they depicted supporters of the other side as delusional, stupid, and wicked. Whatever they would say could be safely assumed to be a lie.2
This 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 Morsy got killed in unclear circumstances after supporters of Morsy stormed an anti-Morsy protest camp, 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 Morsy 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.

The killing of protesters in January and February 2011 still caused a sense of shock and anger that was big enough to bring Mubarak to fall even if it wasn't enough to actually topple the regime. Since then, many Egyptians had increasingly learned to cope with violent events and developed legitimatory narratives and tropes such as “Why were they there anyway?”, “They must have done something bad”, “They must have attacked first”, that were repeatedly cited to legitimise police brutality against protesters since autumn 2011. Although it was unlikely that one would accidentally find oneself in the middle of street clashes – they were highly localised, and life continued as usual only few blocks away – political violence became normal.

At the same time, supporters of the revolutionary current were becoming increasingly disillusioned about peaceful action. Their repeated failure to make a difference by means of elections, and their relative success in stirring up the situation through street action at some occasions, compelled more and more of the people I know to argue in winter and spring 2013 that elections and peaceful means were inadequate to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power and to establish what they hoped to be a truly revolutionary government.

One paradoxical component of this vision was the trope of “Muslim Brotherhood militias” that was regularly cited between 2012 and 2013 by opponents of the Brotherhood who claimed that the organisation was training paramilitary troops that were stepping in place of the security apparatus. The Muslim Brotherhood is a very well organized group indeed. On some occasions they in fact were acting as an informal police force against their opponents (most prominently during the Ittihadiya clashes in November 2012 – with all the brutality that goes along with police work in Egypt, see Human Rights Watch 2012). But the vision of the “Muslim Brotherhood militias” proved out to be an exaggeration simply because in street battles that evolved in 2012 and 2013, the Brotherhood's supporters and their allies usually were at the losing end. This created a paradoxical mixture of fear and opportunity: the perceived need for firm defence against “militias” was combined with the practical realisation that the Muslim Brotherhood was actually quite weak and could be defeated in a street battle (Salem 2013).

This paradox was further amplified with the rise of the Tamarrud Campaign that began to collect signatures for a popular impeachment of Morsy in spring 2013, with significant success. The Tamarrud 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.

Broken Fear

The expectation that the others would fight fiercely was grounded, in part, in one's own readiness to fight. So ideological polarisation is not the whole story. More was needed to make bloodshed seem a reasonable, even desirable path of resolution.

The now proverbial “breaking of fear“ has been frequently mentioned as one the few true of accomplishments of the uprisings of 2011 in the Arab world. Authoritarian regimes like those of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Asad relied strongly on fear as the driving force that compelled citizens to avoid head-on confrontation and to be complicit with the system even if they hated it. This sentiment is well caught in the idiomatic expression yimshi ganb el-hita - “to walk by the side of the wall”, that is, to mind one's own business and to avoid the confrontation and exposure that would result from pushing one's way in the middle of the street.
The revolutionary uprising marked a moment when a lot of people stopped walking by the side of the wall and instead boldly asserted their will, point of view, and way of doing things. There was a shake-up of all kinds of social taboos and inhibitions. Opinions that had been kept secret were openly expressed. Conflicts that had been suppressed were openly carried out. 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 2013)

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 standing 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.

In winter 2012/13, a friend of mine argued that the only way out of the current deadlock was to go from house to house and to kill all the Muslim Brothers. Powerful and destructive as such “fighting words” (Bangstad 2011) can be, they are not yet the same as fighting. This mentioned friend is known as a man whose words are bigger than his deeds. Nobody expected him to follow his own advise. Eventually, when the killing actually began (although it happened on squares and not in houses), he was against it. Such fantasies of violence are part of the process towards actual bloodshed, and yet they might have meant little if it weren't for the possibility to turn them into a reality. Broken fear was the condition of that possibility. For it also affected many taboos and inhibitions that were about maintaining social peace.

Peace is not obvious. It needs to be maintained. Often it is maintained at quite some cost. Especially in situations where people live in close proximity and mutual dependency while they may deeply dislike each others, peace can be much more important than justice. Rural customary law (‘urf) councils, for example, are often primarily aimed at reaching a compromise and restoring peace rather than establishing truth or delivering justice. But in the mood of assertive, anxious emboldenment, the mechanisms of keeping peace became increasingly hard to uphold, and a terrible, decisive battle became an increasingly attractive and likely option.

Decisive battle


The famous 18 days of January and February 2011 did feel like a decisive battle. But soon it became clear that the struggle had only begun and that little had been decided. In early autumn 2011, in a time when the still great expectations of radical change faced the resilience of the old system that continued to rule Egypt in the shape of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, I for the first time heard people talking about a decisive, bloody battle as a solution.

Today, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood refer to Youtube videos where Brotherhood leaders argue that the death of some is acceptable to reach the good of all, in order to prove that the Brotherhood always was up to violence as a path to power. But the Brotherhood leaders were just saying what a lot of other people were saying, too. In October 2011, for example, one of the revolutionary leftists from the village argued to me that the peaceful revolution had come to a dead end, and that the only way to truly overcome the Mubarak regime and to make a fresh start would be a Libyan-style armed revolution – in other words, a civil war. If it would cost the lives of 10% of Egyptians, it would still be a small price for a better future for the country, he said.
In spring and early summer 2013, a terrible decisive battle was expected and desired – not only by the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood but also many of its supporters and allies who at that moment still believed that the army was on their side. There was an escalation of more or less open mutual threats which, in turn, could be utilised for mutual accusations for promoting violence.

Caricature published on an Islamist satirical Facebook site. Text on the hand reads: “[electoral] legitimacy is the red line”. Text on the face that gets beaten up reads: “liberalism; secularism; communism; socialism”. Images and social media posts like this often were copied into anti-Brotherhood media that used them as a proof of the inherently violent nature of their opponents.

The idea of a decisive battle is based on the promise that it will establish how things are, show who is the boss, and replace anxiety and ambivalence by certainty and clarity. It is very attractive because for a part of it, it is true. Struggle can establish clarity.
M., a university graduate in his early twenties, belongs to the circle of leftists from the village. 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 (and 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:

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... Maybe... 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... if you had had any hope that those people [i.e. 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.
The anthropologist Oskar Verkaaik, writing about ethnic violence in the city of Hyderabad in the province of Sindh in Pakistan, argues that daily life and also low-level conflicts are characterised by ambiguity and negotiability where there is space for playfulness and where radical ideas don't need to result in radical acts. But when the people involved sense that there is an urgent existential threat for collective survival, and when people are getting killed, there emerges a “condensation of negotiable beliefs into a single existential truth, a conviction that leaves no room for other memories or beliefs.” (Verkaaik 2004: 140) Verkaaik argues that notions of ethnic purity alone do not lead to violence. Most of the time, people with mutually antagonistic visions of purity live in peace. But when violent confrontation occurs, then such notions get connected with deeds, and people involved sense that truth is revealed, that things are clear and certain. Following Verkaaik's argument, I suggest that the ideological polarisation and power struggle of different movements and institutions did not as such result in the escalation of violence that was unleashed in summer 2013. The expectation of bloodshed grew and gained concrete shape because it was accompanied by an assertive mood of broken fear and by repeated events of bloodshed that provided more and more certainty and clarity about the upcoming decisive battle.


Then came 30 June, 2013. Supported by massive demonstrations, the army deposed Morsy on 3 July and instated a nominally civilian government. Morsy and the Brotherhood leadership went to prison, his supporters took to the streets, and 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 delegitimisation of their rule. However, the killing that did happen on 30/6 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 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, and turning every massacre against protesters – and there were many massacres – into a moral claim for 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 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. According to Verkaaik, the confrontation in Hyderabad in 1990 reached a point of no return partly through the use of powerful symbolic politics that made it impossible for the other side to retreat without losing face, which resulted in a situation where police officers facing a women's march had no way out and freaked out, with deadly consequences. In a similar manner, 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 Morsy, who had declared to be steadfast for their cause until martyrdom, could not retreat. The military and its allies, having declared their enemies for 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 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.
This logic was not new – it had its beginning already in spring 2011 when protesters would react to refusal by the government to accept their demands by raising their demands. And it had always successfully prevented compromises and constructive solutions.
The shift in the asymmetry of violence and the irreconcilable stand-off were accompanied by macabre shifts in how people spoke about martyrdom sometimes, and legitimate force at other times. Many people who saw themselves as revolutionaries continued to celebrate the memory of martyrs like Mina Danial (killed by the army on 9 October 2011), Sheikh Emad Ezzat (killed by the army on 16 December 2011) or Jika (Gaber Salah, killed by the police in November 2012) while at the same time supporting the army and the police in killing the supporters of Morsy. Among the Brotherhood supporters, same people who in January-February 2013 had legitimised and defended the killing of protesters by the police in the Port Said prison Massacre, now found themselves as the targets of new massacres executed by the same police force. As the supporters of Morsy claimed those killed by the police as martyrs, those opposed to them accused them of “trafficking with blood”, that is, turning the deaths of their own into a political asset. But the way the Brotherhood employed martyrdom as a political asset was not so different from the way in which the revolutionary current had repeatedly turned the deaths of their own into powerful symbols of struggle, nor was it more strategical than the way Egyptian media publicly remembered the deaths of Egyptian soldiers and policemen killed in bomb attacks and the military campaign in the Sinai.

A graffiti depicting Mina Danial and Sheikh Emad Ezzat, Cairo, February 2013. Photo by Samuli Schielke

 Portrait distributed on social networks depicting Hala Abu Sha‘sha‘ who was killed in el-Mansoura in July 2013 during her participation in a pro-Morsy demonstration

TV footage from the military funeral of conscripts killed in action in Rafah in the Sinai, distributed as a still image on social networks in August 2013

Although both sides continued to see the other side as the primary perpetrator of violence, “the war against terrorism” brought a different logic of violence: a violence of supremacy that no longer fitted 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 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 most heard was: ‘What's the problem if we finish them off?’ With the same logic of Morsy: ‘So what if one dies so that the others can live?’ No! No matter how much the people wanted it to end, and you see that those are your enemies and they don't deserve to live – It'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 Morsy supporters in Sidi Gaber in Alexandria. The clashes that evolved cost 12 lives. The night after the clashes, he wrote on his Facebook page:

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... 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 the 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 what 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 any more. For me, this has nothing to do with either religion, or revolution, or citizenship/patriotism (muwatana).”

A.S. was shocked and confused when the beauty of revolutionary street action transformed into a bloodthirsty frenzy. For him, this particular struggle – unlike all preceding ones – brought no clarity but confusion, a shattering of the certainty he had had. And yet it would not shatter his enmity towards the Muslim Brothers, although it did alienate him from the short-lived alliance he and others like him had made with military enthusiasts.
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 most. 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. And 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 about 30 June,6 nor did they disagree about their enmity towards the Muslim Brotherhood. But they did split about violence and the role of the military leadership. At least in the village in the Nile Delta, 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 a massacre against Morsy'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 as cowards and traitors. Those did not join the popular mandate (probably fewer in numbers), saw that 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 humanist 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 the village leftists, 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 mistaken 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 and 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 face of urgency.
Morality's location is where spontaneous and cultivated emotions meet, and 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 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 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 told. 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 his book The Rebel (Camus 1991) first published in 1951, Albert Camus addresses murder as the key philosophical problem of the 20th century – a philosophical problem in the very practical sense that philosophy has provided justifications for the oppression and killing of people for the sake of higher aims and ends. This problem quite evidently remains relevant in the 21st century, too. Low, criminal ends can seldom cause such havoc as high, lofty ideals can.
This is not to ignore that power struggles and the defence of vested interests propelled much of the events in summer 2013, nor is it to ignore that there were people in charge who cynically and cunningly employed moral panic in order to consolidate their power. But power and interests are not separate from moral concerns. To defend „our“ way of life is a matter of interests and values alike, it is about what we value highly as the right and good, and it is about the specific rights and the material goods that we enjoy and do not want to give up. Truly cynical people are rare, and many mass murders have been committed by people who were idealists on their own terms.
In her reportage Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt shows that the most terrifying part about Eichmann was that he was not the fanatical monster as which the prosecution tried to depict him. Eichmann saw himself as a law-abiding citizen who had read Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason but later replaced the Kantian idea of abstract duty by the Nazi idea of duty towards the Führer (Arendt 2006: 136-7). In the terms of contemporary anthropology, Eichmann was engaged in a reflection about the relation and form of acts and norms. If the engineer of one of the world's greatest mass murders can be described as an ethical man, then we need to rethink what we actually intend when we talk about morality and ethics.
One of the key tasks of anthropologists is to take seriously points of view and visions of life they do not share, even if they strongly disagree with them. Understanding rather than judging should be our task. In the past couple of decades, Western anthropologists have become reasonably good at recognising the ethics involved in Islamist revivalist piety although its ends and aims can be radically at odds with what most anthropologists themselves believe in. Anthropologist 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 out 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.

The cultivation of moral injury, the way people develop a deep anger about seeing, say, their national symbols or their venerated religious figures challenged, is a good case of how moral oblivion works. Another case is the kind of academic leftism that is very strong among anthropologists in the West. Anthropologists can be highly critical about global power inequalities while not paying much attention towards the way in which their own careers are rooted in a class society.

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 summer 2013, preceded and made possible by two and 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”, a societal and medial 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?
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, and 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), as it also applies to a Jihadist bombing campaign of “martyrdom attacks”. And 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. in the following. M. does not reject political violence in principle, but soon after 30 June he 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 out-roar 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, and 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 got 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, now 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 – or, 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 have joy about seeing his enemy defeated when 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 not to follow the escalation of polarisation and 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, also weakness can become a virtue. Being a coward can rescue one from the destructive stand-off of fearless confrontation (see Shehata 2013b). Temptation can become the change of creating a crack in the carefully crafted wall of an absolute good-evil binary. The sense of irbak – bewilderment, confusion, and loss of solid ground – can become an anti-thesis 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.


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1The 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, 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.

3Al-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-Morsy opposition it was considered certain that they were from the Muslim Brotherhood.

4The 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 Morsy'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.

6There 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.

7Protesters 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.

8M. and his friends would not watch Al-Jazeera which they disliked and distrusted because of its pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias.