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Martyrs Without A Cause? Egypt’s Revolutionary Martyrs as Empty Signifiers

July 23, 2015

What is the meaning of martyrdom?

The difference between a martyr and a victim is the investment of a slain body with meaning by a public. The martyrs body indexes the circumstances of his or her death and, through this, the wider context in which that death occurred. Invested through ritual and representation as a martyr, the death becomes a rhetorical call to the living to live differently, to change the context in which their death occurred.

But systems of meaning are always contestatory, and usually contested. Who gets to be a martyr, and what their martyrdom means became an issue relatively early in the revolution.

In a recent article on the Egyptian revolution, I wrote:

The term “martyr” (shahid) was widely used to describe the protesters who were killed by plainclothes policemen and baltagiyya (hired thugs). The veneration of protesters who died at the hands of the state served as a turning point in the uprising. Protesting for political reform against an oppressive regime that tortures, imprisons and kills its opponents without respect for law, they were themselves killed by the regime. They became powerful symbols of the need for change. Their deaths put new steel into the will of many protesters so that going home—no matter how deeply entrenched the regime appeared to be or how futile the protests seemed–became intolerable because it was unthinkable that these men and women should have shed their blood for an uprising that failed.

Walter Armbrust suggests that martyrs served an important function in the revolution:

The regime and its sympathizers started generating a fog of patriotism long before Mubarak left office, and it provided ample hiding space for anyone who feared close scrutiny in the post-regime environment. The martyr inconveniently asks, ‘who killed me?’ and true revolutionaries take up the cause, also asking, ‘who killed them?’ in the hope that they can beat the false patriots out of the fog (Armbrust 2012).

So far, so good. But one of the things that fascinated me were subsequent demands by police that their dead be considered martyrs, too. I wrote:

In July, less than five months after the Tahrir Square uprising ended, the Police Officers Coalition requested that the handful of security police who died in the uprisings be accepted as police martyrs, and that their families receive compensation.

What does it mean for the revolution if anybody who died during the revolution is a martyr for the revolution? I suggested:

In asking that police who died in clashes with the protesters be considered among “the injured of the revolution”, the Coalition and its allies in the interim government were essentially reframing the logic of martyrdom, removing the villains, and positioning death in Tahrir as participation in a national rite of passage irregardless of who died, or at whose hands.  According to this logic, the resignation of Mubarak at the climax of the rite becomes a kind of expiatory act that demonstrates the power of the Egyptian people and releases those below Mubarak from guilt—they are all patriots, after all—and reincorporates them back into the body of the Egyptian nation—the very opposite of the meaning the martyrs have for most of those who planned and carried out protests in Tahrir.

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Interview With Reem Abou El-Fadl About “Revolutionary Egypt”

July 21, 2015
I have a chapter in this new book on the Egyptian revolution.

I have a chapter in this new book on the Egyptian revolution.

“there is the responsibility that comes with any social science study, particularly in an area fraught with legacies of colonization, authoritarianism, and dependency. As academics and students, we exist within structures of power and knowledge making that enable us to influence significantly the way in which policymakers, journalists, and investors deal with the people of the area we study—in this case, ninety million Egyptians”

That’s a quotation from Reem Abou El-Fadl about part of the motivation behind her new edited volume on the Egyptian revolution in the on-line magazine Jadaliyya. Reem is interviewed about the book in a recent post.

Reem describes the book thus:

The book project brought together thirteen scholars from academic disciplines as diverse as political economy, comparative politics, and social anthropology. They wrote their first drafts in 2013, but these were continually revised and updated as events unfolded, so we now have four years of collective reflection in the book. Its chapters span Egypt’s post-Mubarak and post-Mursi political transformations, all considered in light of earlier periods. During that time the authors have drawn on interviews, media resources, and first-hand observation, as well as archival research conducted in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, the Gulf states, Britain, and the United States.

I’ve already posted about this great new book from Routledge on the ongoing Egyptian revolution Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles. I have a chapter in the book.

Here’s what she says about my chapter:

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Thinking About Liminality in Tahrir Square

July 7, 2015
I have a chapter on the Egyptian revolution in this new book.

I have a chapter on the Egyptian revolution in this new book.

As I struggled to make sense of the dramatic changes in Egypt from January 2011 forward, I was surprised to find that the set of concepts that worked best for me came from the work of Victor Turner: process, field, social drama, antistructure, and, of course, liminality.

Liminality is the state of being “betwixt and between” two states or categories. It can refer to a person between two stages in a rite of passage; it can refer to states of virtual experience, including film viewing; and it can refer to a society in a state of revolution as one normal ends but a new, stable normal has not yet emerged.

In my position as a professor of international studies, especially going to interdisciplinary conferences with geographers, historians, economists and political scientists, where I bring an anthropologist’s perspective to various “global issues”, I find liminality increasingly to be a concept that is “good to think” with.

Turns out I’m not the only one thinking about liminality in such contexts. A special issue of International Political Anthropology on “liminality and cultures of change” in 2009 led to a series of discussions and, through them, the publication of a new edited volume, Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality edited by Agnes Horvath, Bjorn Thomassen and Harald Wydra.

I have a chapter (Chapter Nine, in fact) in this book, entitled “In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama.”

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International Sociology Of The Arab Uprisings

July 4, 2015
The latest issue of the journal International Sociology features three articles on the Egyptian revolution, as well as other articles on the Arab uprisings generally.

The latest issue of the journal International Sociology features three articles on the Egyptian revolution, as well as a couple of other articles on the Arab uprisings generally.

The latest volume of the journal International Sociology offers a special issue on Arab uprisings edited by Mohammed Bamyeh and Sara Hanafi.

Three of the six articles are about Egypt, and two are about the Arab uprisings generally but at least touch on things Egyptian (the remaining article is about the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE)

The issue opens with an introduction by Mohammed Bamyeh and Sari Hanafi in which they suggest that the most interesting thing “about the Arab uprisings is that they were surprising.”

Sometimes one hears in public discussions voices that reject the notion that the uprisings were surprising, and insist that there were clear signs of them all along. But none of the experts on the region saw such signs, and even local intellectuals who had sincerely wished for revolutions never saw them coming. In fact, whenever they had sought, before 2011, to describe how a revolution would happen, their frame of reference was a variety of Leninism – that is, the model of organization that is least relevant to the study of the Arab uprisings. In any case, there is nothing more common that after-the-fact reconstructions of events, so that they appear to have been destined all along to put us on a revolutionary path.

The uprisings in the Arab World “continue to supply us with a repertoire of surprises, counter plots, setbacks and successes.” Key questions for sociologists of the revolution are:

  • Where did these movements come from?
  • How do they relate to older movements in the region?
  • What do they tell us about how to study social movements and revolutions?
  • What are their distinctive features?
  • What features do they have in common with older movements and revolutions worldwide?

The first article on Egypt is “We ought to be here: Historicizing space and mobilization in Tahrir
Square” by Atef Said. Here is the abstract:

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“Words of Witness” Captures The Ambiguity of The Egyptian Revolution

July 3, 2015

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Words of Witness, Mai Iskander’s compelling account of the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square that led to the resignation of 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak, is as a fascinating account of the cultural construction of knowledge and the mediatization of this process in the digital age.

That’s the beginning of my recently published review of what proved to be one of the best documentaries on the Egyptian revolution that I’ve seen. And I’ve seen many.

What I liked most about this film was that instead of trying to focus on the revolution as a whole, it focused on a particular person, journalist Heba Afify, and her efforts to make sense of what is going on and represent it in narrative form for her audiences.

The review continues:

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“Torture Is Part Of State Policy” In Egypt

July 2, 2015
Karim Hamdy was arrested at his home and turned up dead in a police station less than 72 hours later.  This photograph circulated widely on Twitter.

Karim Hamdy was arrested at his home and turned up dead in a police station less than 72 hours later. This photograph circulated widely on Twitter.

“Violence and torture are inversely proportional to the expected reaction when the case is publicized.”

That’s a quotation from psychiatrist Aida Seif al-Dawla, founder and executive director of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture.

Her interview with Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Mada Masr, appears in the latest edition of the Middle East Research and Information Project on-line under the title “‘A Beast That Took a Break and Came Back’: Prison Torture in Egypt.”

Here are a few excerpts:

After the June 30, 2013 protests calling for an end to the Muslim Brothers’ rule, torture increased. But the public stopped wanting to see it, and started to label accounts of torture as lies. Some opted instead to acknowledge that torture is happening—and to endorse it. This is the major difference from before. The state will always oppress, but it is no longer so important for the state to hide its crimes of torture as it was in the past.

Sympathy with torture survivors is conditional.

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Spreading Alerts in Egypt and Elsewhere

June 18, 2015
When people keep getting warnings but nothing ever happens... they just start ignoring them.

When people keep getting warnings but nothing ever happens… they just start ignoring them.

One of the interesting things about living as an expatriate in Egypt and India was that you received frequent warning messages telling you that the embassy has intelligence that something might happen and so you should limit yourself to necessary travel. We seemed to get one or two of these per week.

And nothing ever seemed to happen.

So travelers and expatriates alike routinely deleted alerts unread because the sheer quantity of them created a lack of credibility.

I was reminded of this recently because someone asked me about the advisability of using social media to send out alerts and warnings about health issues.

And I thought: one of the silly things institutions keep trying to do  is to seek to use social media to do the kinds of things that broadcast media do well:

  • disseminate information,
  • circulate advertising,
  • distribute propaganda

In broadcast media, you have a center where messages are created, and a mass audience whose only common feature may be the broadcast media they consume.

When we try to imagine social media performing the functions of a broadcast media, like sending alerts, the process immediately appears to be problematic because:

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