Egypt: the necessity of revolutionary violence

  • April 7, 2013

People & Protest

Despite a glorification of the Egyptian revolution as a “non-violent” one, violence has been a part of the uprising since the first stone was thrown.

All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.

C. Wright Mills

Violence is related to notions of justice. In Egypt there are two forms of justice that we have been fighting for since January 25, 2011: social and retributive. Their absence has been compounded by the ongoing application of structural forms of violence against us: primarily economic and judicial. As a result, Egyptians increasingly see the state as having lost its monopoly over what Weber calls the “legitimate use of physical force”. Weber used this concept in his article Politics as a Vocation to describe a population’s sanction of state forces to use violence against it to maintain “order”.

In Egypt, this sanction has come under question repeatedly, as successive regimes have allowed its forces to shoot at us on the streets and to torture us in their cells, while punishing none of the police perpetrators of crimes against the revolution.[1] Despite the glorification of an eighteen-day revolution as non-violent, violence has been a part of this revolution since the first stone was thrown on January 25, 2011 – followed three days later by the torching of police stations on the Friday of Rage – and until today. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly clear that violence is a necessary means in the effort to undo the logic of a state dominated by elites and their foreign backers, who disregard the revolutionary demand of “bread, freedom, and social justice.”

On February 11, 2011, governments across the world praised Egyptians for completing what they took care to depict as nothing more than a political revolution against a dictator. The hypocrisy in these statements was lost on many observers, who failed to consider these same governments’ close political and economic ties with Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and their role in propping up his thirty-year regime of suppression and exploitation.

The most appropriate label for the dynamic of this relationship is neocolonialism, a term coined by former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah to describe how foreign powers maintain their economic interests in a country by partnering with a local elite as proxy rulers, thus directing the governance of the country without undertaking the costs of a military occupation.[2] Under this power-sharing agreement, both camps’ interests are prioritized over those of the population at large. To project legitimacy onto this political arrangement, governing elites in many cases adopt a rhetorical gesture toward an anti-colonial revolutionary moment.

In Egypt, this moment was the July 1952 “Free Officers’ Revolution”, to which military generals pay tribute to this very day in order to bolster their position of power in national politics. Since the Camp David Accords, the US government has sponsored the Egyptian military, thus securing its dependency on the United States financially and technologically, and thereby guaranteeing the generals’ allegiance to American policies in times of political uncertainty. The generals’ monopolization of vast sections of the Egyptian economy has consequently remained untouched under Washington Consensus-inspired economic reform programs.[3]

By repeatedly forestalling retributive justice against members of the police and military for murdering and maiming protesters throughout the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has revealed its interests in maintaining the same neocolonial system, in which the gatekeepers – the security forces – remain unpunished before the population. The Brotherhood’s economic policies, mapped out below, are a further manifestation of their commitment to their predecessor’s logic of governance.

In light of ongoing economic and judicial violence, opposition to the new regime becomes ever stronger. The street violence currently spreading in Egypt makes a clear statement: a growing rejection of the current status quo of power arrangements, a simple no.[4] While some claim that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt is on the verge of collapse, in fact, it is the neocolonial model that is being contested. The frontlines of violent resistance to state-sanctioned force are the main arena of that contestation.

On Economic Violence: The Economy in the Molotov Cocktail

One of the clearest signs of the Brotherhood’s reincarnation of the logic of Mubarak-era governance is their maintenance of economic violence. Under the Mubarak regime, this had peaked in the neoliberal policies of the Ahmed Nazif government. It was this group of ministers who oversaw the selling off of countless public sector companies to friends and partners in the name of privatization, the cutting of subsidies from which the poor benefited, and the subsidizing of agro-business exports instead.

All this was sanctioned and supported by international financial institutions that had been pushing for these measures since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. These neoliberal policies significantly increased the gap between rich and poor in Egypt, and represented an act of sustained economic violence. Although it might have seemed invisible, this violence crushed the livelihoods of countless Egyptians, forcing throngs into life in slums and in the insecurity of informal workplaces.

Yet already by the end of 2011, the Brotherhood’s business leaders were praising the economic policies of the Mubarak regime and placing all the blame for the exploitation and theft that had been rampant in Egypt on the “corruption” of individuals. More recently, Morsi’s government has been seeking means of “reconciliation” with Mubarak’s cronies – many of them recently acquitted in cases of theft of public land and the laundering of public funds – as a “sign of reassurance”  to foreigners to invest in Egypt’s economy. While proclaiming a discourse of revolutionary governance and a rhetoric of charity, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), are actually entrenching the neoliberal course that failed the majority of Egyptians, and was one of the main reasons that led us to revolt. Taking a closer look at what this means will help decipher the anger on Egypt’s streets.

Mohamed Morsi’s hunt for external financial support among European trade partners and in the Gulf States comes as no surprise, given that the budget deficit is increasing and foreign reserves are reaching unprecedentedly low levels. Meanwhile, a 4.8 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which Egyptian authorities have made multiple attempts to obtain since the overthrow of Mubarak, has been held back time and again largely by the unceasing protest on the streets against it.

The argument made by the promoters of the IMF loan – and there are many, both in the Egyptian government and among international financial “experts”[5] – is that the only way to reduce the deficit is to take the loan. This, they argue, will serve as a certificate of confidence in Egypt’s economic standing. Taking the IMF loan, the reasoning goes, will in turn lead to the opening of a floodgate of foreign loans, which will increase the cash flow necessary to “stabilize” the Egyptian economy. Rather than challenging the dominance of local and global capital over the current economic equation in Egypt, the simple solution of borrowing is aimed at maintaining the neocolonial logic of governance, and has one gaping blind spot: the needs of the Egyptian people.

Indeed, there is one powerful argument against borrowing: IMF structural adjustment policy prescriptions, upon which past loans were conditioned, were a principal cause of the January 25 Revolution. Taking the IMF loan will mean even more hardship for the poor – especially through higher sales taxes, a reduction of certain subsidies and continuing inflation – thus only fueling the revolutionary spirit against the current state of affairs. Only those who prioritize the good standing of the “economy” over the actual plight of the people can ignore the role of IMF policies in drastically increasing inequalities.

The apparent agreement among foreign and local elites to deny the conditionality of the loan reveals the power sharing logic of the neocolonial relationship.[6] One of these conditions is the drastic cutting of subsidies that make up thirty percent of Egypt’s current budget.[7] The last time there was a major attempt at cutting food subsidies was January 1977, also in the wake of IMF and World Bank prescriptions. The riots that followed – perhaps a preamble to January 2011 – quickly led then-president Anwar al-Sadat to reverse the policy. Although the access of big business to subsidized goods and services must be assessed, the place to look for economic reform more urgently is the thirty percent of Egypt’s national budget that goes towards servicing foreign debt. The more money Egypt borrows, the higher the percentage of the annual budget that goes towards servicing these debts.

In this respect, South Africa’s experience offers an example to learn from – and a warning: rather than rejecting the servicing of illegitimate, odious loans inherited from the Apartheid era, the post-Apartheid government simply continued to service them. Today South Africa’s debt servicing has reached 41.3 percent of its gross domestic product and is the second largest bill in the national budget, leaving insufficient funds to vital costs like healthcare and education. Despite being born of a revolutionary moment, the African National Congress (ANC), once in government, prioritized the demands of international financiers over the needs of its own constituency.

By contrast, the newly elected president of Ecuador Rafael Correa, took a radical decision in January 2009 to default on illegitimate debts making up a quarter of Ecuador’s foreign debts, after a government assigned debt audit committee deemed them odious.[8] The leaders of Egypt are at this same crossroads and can choose between repaying a dictator’s debts or evaluating and renouncing the implicated role of international banks and Mubarak’s business partners in accruing debts.

Political economist Harry Cleaver explains that borrowing after periods of social struggle has historical precedent as an attempt by sovereigns to subvert further revolt. Borrowing has proven to be a temporary band-aid that only superficially boosts the economy, while making it increasingly difficult to find local solutions to economic problems and deepening the long-term dependency on outside forces. Greece is the most recent case in point, in which, following public outrage and mass protest, borrowing has only led to more debt servicing, more borrowing, and an amplifying of the crisis. Meanwhile, citizens’ demands for a debt audit have fallen on deaf ears.

The hypocrisy of foreign promoters of the IMF loan is demonstrated in their language, for if these foreign powers really meant their celebratory words on February 11, 2011, they would not be demanding that the Egyptian public now, while in dire economic straits, pay back a dictator’s debts. By having lent to Mubarak’s regime, international financial institutions and governments have become complicit in its crimes: we should not be speaking of Egypt’s debts being “forgiven.” Rather we should be demanding that the creditors be held accountable for providing loans to a regime that they knew full well was in power against the will of the population – a regime that used those funds, often with their own interests in mind, without any process of public accountability.[9]

When the United States sought Egypt’s support in invading Iraq in the early 1990s, the entire Paris Club organized a massive debt relief package for the country. Not to do the same now is further proof of the hypocrisy of these centers of capital, and a manifestation of the neocolonial logic that governs their policies. For the Brotherhood to pay up for Mubarak-era borrowing underscores their subservience to, and thus implication in, the economic order of domination.

On Judicial Violence: The Decoy in the Ballot Box

Besides its practice of economic violence, the Muslim Brotherhood’s assent to the neocolonial order in Egypt is even more apparent in the FJP’s record on retributive justice and its ongoing use of judicial violence. Since Morsi’s election, and indeed before, Egyptian courts have continuously found innocent security force members on trial for attacking and killing Egyptian activists and protesters.

This policy goes even for Mubarak regime members like former Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly, who received a three-year sentence for a money-laundering misdemeanor, while the courts cleared the Ministry’s leaders of any responsibility for years of overseeing an apparatus that kidnapped, tortured and killed Egyptians, most publicly during the first eighteen days of the revolution. Al-Adly then received a life sentence in the summer of 2012, not for involvement in ordering the use of deadly force against protesters, but rather for failing to prevent the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising.

A further element of structural violence lies in the Brotherhood’s failure to undo the logic of institutional injustice that reigned during the Mubarak era. Thus the criminal justice system, with its laws, courts, and prisons, its interrogation practices and forensics, remain a part of the web of repression carefully crafted by the Mubarak regime to crush political dissent. Today, even under the rule of President Morsi, control of this web remains mostly in the hands of the Mubarak old guard. State apparatuses have functioned with the aim of protecting their cadres, rather than serving some form of justice, not least in situations of political protest.

In Giza, two cases of police murder of citizens were documented in a recent video, with clear witness accounts describing a police force at liberty to terrorize and kill innocent civilians. On 27 January, security forces kidnapped activist Mohamed al-Shafei: fellow activists and lawyers tried desperately to find him, but one month later, his body appeared in a Cairo morgue, where officials had been hiding it. Meanwhile, the courts consistently delay relevant paperwork, and coroners often report self-harm or accidental causes of death even when several eyewitnesses have come forward with evidence to the contrary.

While the new regime leaves long-standing institutional forms of violence unchecked, it is also seeking control of as many of these spaces of violence as possible, and preserving the Mubarak-era logic of attempting to violently crush revolt, no matter what the cost. The FJP government’s attempt to suppress political protest prompted a new wave of violence just prior to the second anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution in January 2013.

One instance of this occurred in Alexandria on 19 January, when security forces arrested or kidnapped thirty-one people in front of a court that had yet again postponed the trial of police officers accused of killing protesters in Alexandria during the revolution’s first eighteen days. This was simply the most recent example of the courts’ failure to see justice served on behalf of the revolution’s martyrs. In an act that then revealed the regime’s hypocrisy, it permitted the illegitimate trial of the new arrestees – many of whom, as usual, had been tortured and sexually assaulted in prison.[10] Ten of the thirty-one arrested were under the age of eighteen: this included a child with cancer who was prevented from treatment during his eleven-day incarceration.

The regime used this level of violence yet again against a protest at the presidential palace on February 1, 2013, when security forces shot and killed protester Mohamed Cristy. In his pocket, a note was found with instructions that his funeral be a revolutionary one like that of Jika – the 6 April Movement activist, Gaber Salah, whom the police fatally injured in Tahrir Square in November 2012. Like many other revolutionaries, both martyrs had voted for Mohamed Morsi, but the ballot box had not delivered the justice they sought. And so they had continued protesting. In recent weeks, hundreds like them have been subjected to sexual assault, torture and detentions without charge or trial, and tens have been killed.

A further moment of judicial violence that incriminates prosecution investigations, and the criminal justice system as a whole, occurred at the trial of the alleged killers of seventy-two al-Ahly football club fans, or “Ultras Ahlawy”, in February 2012. The Ultras Ahlawy posed as a threatening component of the revolutionary struggle against police forces since the outbreak of the revolution. In my mind, there is no doubt that the Ministry of Interior used the opportunity of a match between al-Ahly and the al-Masry club in Port Said to carry out its revenge by manipulating sports rivalries to organize a massacre of the small group of al-Ahly fans present at the stadium.

After locking the gate on the al-Ahly fans’ side, the lights were turned off in the stadium, and seventy-two Ahly fans were stabbed, choked and trampled to death. While the trial of police officials was separated from that of civilians, investigations into the cases had already proven that many of the twenty-one civilians sentenced to death were not even present during the massacre. In response to the manipulated death sentence, issued on January 26, 2013, the city of Port Said erupted in violence. Police forces killed dozens, injuring and arresting more daily as the violence intensified.

The city has since declared waves of civil disobedience that have spread to nearby port cities. It is clear in this case that the security apparatus exploited a football rivalry first to punish a group for their actions, and, even more treacherously, to turn two clubs, and in reality two cities, against each other by manipulating the courts to carefully determine who is punished and who is not.

The more the regime adds violence to the lack of retribution for past abuses of power, the more protest spreads. In early February 2013, activist Mohamed al-Gindi disappeared and, days after being admitted to the Hilal Hospital, died due to injuries sustained under severe torture. Al-Gindi was from the Delta city of Tanta, where protests raged, along with nearby Mansura, following an initial forensic report that listed a car accident as the 28-year-old activist’s cause of death. Across the country, the rage and violence against a system maintaining pre-revolutionary forms of institutional violence is on the rise.

Contesting Violence: The Sword of Simon Bolivar

The local and foreign powers that make up the neocolonial order share one fear in Egypt: the spreading of resistance to the slipping legitimacy of the neocolonial state. Accordingly, despite the ongoing revolution on Egypt’s streets, the new regime has shown its hypocrisy in entrenching the path of economic violence, while ensuring that judicial violence continues. The Egyptian authorities have attempted every form of counter-revolutionary propaganda, repeatedly condemning any act of non-state violence as paid thuggery or petty criminality. In parallel, they have employed the age-old tactic of crushing violent opposition with ever intensifying violence, including torture and sexual abuse, as well as strategies of divide-and-rule which pit city against city and divide society over issues of gender.

Meanwhile, the regime’s backers have utilized every method at their disposal to extinguish the raging cycle of revolutionary violence in Egypt. This includes simple strategies like silencing violence out of the early narratives of the revolution. Besides the economic support outlined above, foreign partner governments are either supplying Egyptian security forces with weapons and training, or merely turning a blind eye towards the violence in this “democratic transition.”

We are now in a new phase of the revolution, in which the decisive battle for the system’s perceived legitimacy manifests itself as an almost daily occurrence on Egypt’s streets. The most vital arena of this contestation is over the use of violence, without which this revolution could not go on. “Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon,” Frantz Fanon wrote, reflecting on the Algerian revolution.[11] Without the violence of colonization – whether wrought by foreign or local powers – the violence of decolonization would not be necessary. If we are to take the neocolonial reality in Egypt seriously, then we have much to learn from Fanon’s analysis of colonial Algeria. For, as he goes on, “the agents of government speak the language of pure force… he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native.”

Ever since January 28, 2011, many revolutionaries have been responding to state violence with revolutionary violence. On that day, thousands attacked police stations out of anger and a desire for retribution for years of repression at the hands of a violent police apparatus. Many had family members or friends who had been tortured in those prisons and who had been held without charge: those attacks were a rejection of that power in our neighborhoods. During the following months, violence has had a continuous presence in marches and protests, though primarily in reaction to the onslaught of military or police force.

Violence is an ugly thing. My emphasis on revolutionary violence is by no means a celebration of violence itself. Serious measures need to be taken to oppose a neocolonial order that is made up of such a great degree of terror. Furthermore, the severity of revolutionary violence is an attempt to take very seriously the unspeakable cost of lives that were given in opposing this regime. At this point we urgently need to make a distinction between different orders of violence.

In his essay “Critique of Violence”, Walter Benjamin differentiates between two types of violence: mythical and divine. In her article “Terrorists and Vampires: Fanon’s Spectral Violence of Decolonization,” Samira Kawash describes the latter as “violence against violence… that breaks through and destroys the cycle of mythical violence, the ‘cycle maintained by mythical forms of law’ (Benjamin 1986: 300).” This divine, revolutionary violence only “interrupts” and “deposes”; unlike that of the mythical state, which uses violence to impose a law that always empowers the sovereign, and crushes the population. Kawash goes on:

[D]ecolonization is not the violence of the colonized that threatens bodies or properties; decolonization is rather the excessive violence that threatens reality as a whole… As irruption and interruption, it is neither means to something else nor a condition for its own sake; outside means and ends, this violence shatters the very world that has determined the value and distinction of means and ends.

If we take the neocolonial order seriously, then we must be open to the necessary tools to make its end a possibility, rather than muddling through with the language of reform or democratization. The distinction here is between the violence of decolonization, which is beyond means and ends, and organized violence, which is a means to an end. Again South Africa is a striking example, where even the ANC, whose freedom-fighters bore arms, transformed a revolutionary moment into yet another model of neocolonialism. Violence is therefore an ugly but necessary means of opposing the indescribable ugliness of the order of things amongst which we live. Fanon described the aim of unorganized violence as “absolute disorder,” not in the sense of complete social chaos, but rather the destruction of the order of terror – the unrestrained injury, torture, rape and killing of citizens with impunity.

The main shortcoming of the “opposition” parties in Egypt is that while they reject the current regime, they do not challenge the neocolonial reality itself. They speak the same language of the state – that of elections, stability and negotiations – while merely trying to propel the same structure in their preferred ideological direction. For example, no opposition group has stood its ground on plans to boycott elections, despite knowing that the process is consistently overseen by those aligned with the eventual victors. They speak the same regime language of stability, as for example in an agreement which opposition leaders signed in late January 2013 calling for stability and denouncing revolutionary violence.

Meanwhile, the key participants in resistance and mobilization against the regime in Egypt are the countless revolutionaries on whose behalf no one speaks. The unending performances of words – negotiations, broken promises, deceptive speeches – have not only caused us to lose faith in our representatives but in the medium of speech itself. Fanon’s perspective that, “[t]he natives’ challenge to the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view,” applies powerfully to our neocolonial context. As Amr Abdelrahman writes, Egypt’s revolutionaries make no demands, because they acknowledge that “nobody listens and that nobody is worth addressing.” This inability of words to alter the status quo highlights violence as a necessary path.

As Benjamin explains, “violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.” With the ever-increasing loss of faith in the regime as well as its legal process, protesters are using pure force to challenge the legal order, the order of rule itself, which is what the regime fears most. At the frontline battle against security forces in Simon Bolivar Square a few days after the anniversary of the Mohammed Mahmoud massacre in November 2012, a teenager wearing a kufiyya told me, “I am here because of my future.” The boy went on to tell me, “There is no place for me in this country.” He was about fifteen years old, and has probably spent more time in low paid work than attending class at school. He was responding to the state’s economic violence in kind. The global dimensions of this confrontation cannot be overlooked. The battles on Egypt’s streets against police forces in American uniforms are shaking the foundations of the neocolonial order.

The attack of Muslim Brotherhood cadres on a peaceful sit-in at the presidential palace in December 2012, with the backing of Central Security Forces (CSF), deepened the case for revolutionary violence. Days before the second anniversary of the revolution, on January 23, 2013, a video was released announcing the launch of the Black Bloc in Egypt. This phenomenon is merely a recent and sensationalized manifestation of the more widespread violent opposition to state violence, which explains the swift acceptance and proliferation of the trend on the street. Rather than appearing as a new movement, the Bloc has spread as a tactic for remaining anonymous in direct opposition to security forces.

Towering over the battles waged in and around Tahrir Square is the statue of Simon Bolivar, surrounded by charred trees and sidewalks pried clear of their tiles for use as ammunition against the soldiers of the CSF. Following the weeks of clashes in Tahrir Square last November, the sword of the statue of Simon Bolivar that had loomed over the battle for all those days disappeared. The missing sword is a powerful metaphor for the contest over legitimate violence that to this day takes place in the statue’s shadow.

No matter how they are articulated or who is even listening for an articulation, in order to subvert the entrenchment of the neocolonial order in Egypt, it is vital that violent forms of revolutionary struggle are maintained. For without the burning of police stations on January 28, 2011, Egyptian protesters would never have overpowered the state security forces, nor would they have dethroned Mubarak. Without responding to constant attacks of excessive force with stones, flares and Molotov cocktails, we would have posed no threat to a system that oppresses us. Without revolutionary violence, the chances that we will be able to shatter the neocolonial chains in which we find ourselves are even smaller.

Without revolutionary violence there would be no revolution — and we would never have gotten as far as we have today.

[1] There are countless examples of this relentless state-sanctioned violence. A few recent examples include police torturing to death activist Mohamed al-Gindi, the filmed stripping and beating of Hamada Saber, and the increasing numbers of testimonies of torture and sexual assault in state security prisons, arguably proving that these now form a structural phenomenon.

[2] Like other leaders who rejected the logic of neocolonialism, Nkrumah was eventually sidelined by a CIA-backed coup in 1966.

[3] Abul-Magd ends this article, on the army and the economy in Egypt, with the observation, “an elected president will certainly fail to demilitarize, and nothing will change.”

[4] John Holloway puts it similarly in his discussion about the Zapatistas, “In the beginning is the scream. We scream… Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.” John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 1.

[5] By making other grants and debt relief conditional on the IMF loan and its conditions, wealthy countries further practice their role in the neocolonial order, imposing increased exploitation and economic dependency.

[6] A rare exception to this denial are statements made by a UK official.

[7] Despite the IMF’s discourse of poverty reduction in articles such as this, neoliberal policies tend to affect the poor most heavily.

[8] Elsewhere, Patrick Bond writes, “Debt repayment has become an important mechanism for transferring wealth from the people of the South to financiers of the North. According to the United Nations, developing countries paid 1.662 trillion dollars in debt servicing between 1980 and 1992. This amount is three times the original amount owed in 1980.” Patrick Bond, Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa (London, Pluto Press: 2000), 188.

[9] This seemingly minor matter, the way in which legal structures act to protect multinationals and rich governments in the global North, opens up a Pandora’s box regarding the complicity of the international legal framework in the global neocolonial order. See Sundhya Pahuja, “The Postcoloniality of International Law,” Harvard International Law Journal 46, no 2 (2005), 459-469.

[10]  This filmed testimony of Ayman Mihni recounts the torture and rape he underwent in a Central Security training camp in Alexandria.

[11] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 35

Philip Rizk

Philip Rizk is an independent filmmaker and member of the Mosireen independent media collective in Cairo.

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