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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will be blood illustration 1_ caricature JF Andeel 2013-07-09 English
Copyright: JF Andeel

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

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

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

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


5. Winter storm in Alexandria February 2012medium
Winter Storm in Alexandria, February 2012. Photo by Samuli Schielke


A stormy season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Live and Let Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. graffiti by competing political groups in Alexandria February 2014medium
Graffiti by competing political groups (Islamist vs. leftist) in Alexandria, February 2013. Photo by Samuli Schielke

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

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


No tears for Rabea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. seafront in alexandria May 2013 medium
A the seafront in Alexandria, May 2013. Photo by Samuli Schielke


A plea for confusion and weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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1 The picture got more complicated again in early 2013 when the Salafi Nour Party, formerly the Muslim Brotherhood’s most important ally, changed sides and joined the opposition. In 2013 and 2014, the Nour Party (which is dominated by clerics who have a remarkable history of loyalism towards the Mubarak regime) has stood firmly on the side of El-Sisi, which is a good reminder about the fact that the conflict between religious and secular politics is just one of the important conflict lines.

2 In Summer 2013, this logic of insults gained a new dimension in the practice to ironically misspell words like “coup” or “human rights” as if they were foreign loan words ( إنكيلاب instead of انقلاب,  حكوك الإنسان instead of حقوق الإنسان),  insinuating that concepts such as human rights were imported, empty words that had no bearing for Egyptian reality and needed not to be taken seriously.

3 Al-Husseini Abu Deif was a photojournalist who who was killed in the clashes at the Ittihadiya palacde in November 2012. His killers were never identified, but in the anti-Morsi opposition it was considered certain that they were from the Muslim Brotherhood.

4 The Northern Military Headquarters and Sidi Gaber Station are less than one kilometre apart. The headquarters were a focal point of anti-military protests in 2011 and 2012, and of pro-military sentiment on 30 June 2013.

5 “Legitimacy” refers to the electoral mandate of Morsi’s presidency. But in Islamist discourse in 2013, it transformed into an increasingly abstract and absolute category that referred not so much to the numbers of votes in elections as it claimed the absolute legality and legitimacy of the Brotherhood’s claim for power and the illegality and illegitimacy of competing claims. Because it is an empty, legal category, it turned out to be a poor propagandistic means to regain popular support in summer 2013. It has nevertheless become deeply entrenched in the political language of the opponents of the 30 June movement.

6 There were supporters of the revolutionary current who did not join the 30 June movement because they resented the prominent role played by Mubarak loyalists in it, but in the village, the leftist revolutionary social circles stood united in their support of 30 June.

7 Protesters from the Rabea sit-in tried to expand the area of the sit-in towards the monument of the unknown soldier – an extremely symbolic location for the Egyptian army – and nearly one hundred people were killed when they were dispersed with live ammunition in the early morning hours of 27 July 2013.

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


Samuli Schielke is an anthropologist working on the hopes, frustrations and life trajectories of people from northern Egypt. He works as a research fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. He is author of Egypt in the Future Tense: Ambivalence, Hope and Frustration Before and After 2011 and The Perils of Joy: Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt, and co-director (with Mukhtar Shehata) of the documentary film The Secret Capital that tells about revolutionary activism in the Egyptian countryside.