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Symbols of Blood Sacrifice in the Egyptian Uprising

February 19, 2011

Photo by Abdelrahman Mustafa

When Hosni Mubarak addressed the protesters for the second time on Thursday, perhaps the biggest misstep he made was to invoke the martyrs and to promise to bring their killers to justice. In doing so, he invoked a powerful symbolism of blood sacrifice–with himself on the wrong side.

When I was a professor at the American University in Cairo 1997-2001, we used to do an introduction to liberal arts seminar that involved dozens of faculty from across the disciplines.

One of the texts we invariably read was John Stuart Mills “On Liberty”, and the political science professor who spoke on it invariably led the conversation around to the importance of tolerance and dialogue as alternatives to conflict and war. They were comfortable platitudes but just that—platitudes.

That’s why it was a breath of fresh air when another political scientist, William DeMars (author of a very interesting book on African NGOs) asked one year, “But what about meaningful deaths? Aren’t there things worth dying for? Isn’t death, in the case of people like Jesus and Socrates, crucial to the whole point of their message?”

I keep thinking about that as I reflect on the crucial political role the 300 martyrs to the cause of political liberty in Egypt have had on the success of the pro-democracy movement.

The killing of protesters by plainclothes policemen (many of whom were too stupid or too arrogant to leave their police IDs at home) and hired thugs (baltagiyya, as they say in Egypt) was a turning point in the uprising. After their deaths, their families took to the streets demanding justice. Their pictures appeared on signs, and their names became widely known.

Their deaths were not merely powerful symbols of the need for change. 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 were sacramental, in the sense proposed by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson: signs that become what they signify.

And this put new steel into the will of most protesters so that going home—no matter how deeply entrenched and willing to ignore them the regime appeared to be–became intolerable. It was unthinkable that these men and women would have shed their blood for an uprising that failed.

Photo by Abdelrahman Mustafa

This is why Mubarak’s invocation of the martyrs in his address was so misguided. That the regime was perfectly capable of locating some of the hired thugs and low-ranking policemen who carried out the killings and offering them up as scapegoats no one doubted. But that anyone could trust Hosni Mubarak’s word to punish those responsible, those who gave the orders, was also not in doubt.

Mubarak stood for the regime; and the regime had slain the protesters. That he dared to invoke the martyrs of the revolution in his speech was as much part of what set off the rage of the crowd as their disappointment with his failure to resign in the face of their hopes.

The power of blood sacrifice as a metaphor has deep roots in ancient Near Eastern religious traditions, and in contemporary (and historical) Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It continues in secular cosmologies, such as the notion of military veterans (and soldiers who’ve died) as having sacrificed for the values of their country–freedom, sovereignty, unity, the Fatherland, or whatever.

The power of the Tahrir martyrs to symbolize the need for ongoing democratic reform continues.

On Feb. 13, when Al-Ahram newspaper apologized to the “noble Egyptian people” for three decades of propaganda to shore up a corrupt regime, and promised to remake itself into the “conscience of the people”, it explained its change of conscience with reference to “pride in the pure blood that was shed to defeat the forces of backwardness and oppression” and said it  “sought the forgiveness of the families of the martyrs” for having been on the wrong side of their fight.

One may certainly doubt the sincerity of Al-Ahram. But as my mentor Phyllis Chock once told me, you have to draw on the same cultural truths to tell lies as you do to tell truths. Whether or not people invoke the symbol of the martyrs sincerely is irrelevant to the truth that their deaths are one of the most potent symbols of the ongoing effort to remake Egypt into a country worth their having died for.

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