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The Power of Apology and the (Re)Construction of Political Culture in Egypt

February 26, 2011

Speech acts have the potential power to change social reality. The apology, as a speech act, has the potential power to restore a breach in existing social relations. But an apology can also be perceived as perfunctory or insincere.

The latter was my culturally-conditioned response to the the apology by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces now running the country for the attack on the protesters by Army personnel. I dismissed the apology as just another piece of political face-saving.

Not so the anonymous author of the English Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said“, who wrote:

My trust in the army was shaken after yesterday’s events. It was awful & most protesters felt betrayed by the army that promised NEVER to attack us. The army’s apology has helped. It’s the first time ever someone ruling Egypt apologises for a mistake. Mubarak always accused victims of being the attackers. I now have a cautious trust in the Army. That’s my own personal view on the situation.

Apologies, as any linguistic anthropologist knows, express negative politeness. They signal the speaker’s awareness of having impinged on the hearer’s negative face, the desire of social actors that their actions be unconstricted, their rights respected and their  freedom unimpeded. That’s what’s being expressed by the first two lines of the “Khaled Said” post: “My trust in the army was shaken after yesterday’s events. It was awful & most protesters felt betrayed by the army that promised NEVER to attack us.”

The power of any speech act to affect social reality depends on the contexts in which it is uttered by the speaker and received by the hearer. My hearing of the speech is conditioned by a cultural framework in which a) politicians rarely apologize for even the most egregious errors; b) when they do, the apologies usually seem perfunctory; c) if a politician apologizes, that apology will immediately be construed as “too little too late” by political opponents (which reinforces frames a and b).

The anonymous poster articulates his/her own context as conditioned by a frame in which a) members of the ruling class never apologize for face-threatening acts; instead b) they frame the person whose face was threatened by their words or actions as the aggressors whose actions forced them to reluctantly employ verbal or physical force.

Any given culture will have a range of strategies for expressing this aspect of negative politeness. The offences which elicit apologies and the strategies selected to realize them provide clues to the kind of speech acts the community regards as face-threatening acts, the relative seriousness of these acts and, more broadly, what kinds of rights and freedoms the culture accords to different kinds of social actors.

The moderator of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page is pointing out that in apologizing the army is breaking with decades of political tradition and forging a new tradition in which the government apologizes to people which entails a recognition that it has obligations to those people.

At the same time, one action does not a new political culture make. Hence the poster points out that he has moved from a position of “trust” to one of “cautious trust”.

(For my non-anthropologist readers who may think I’m reading too much into a mere 68 words, that’s what linguistic anthropologists do. Human communication is semiotically dense and the amount of social information and contextual framing that can be performed by even a short utterance is truly amazing).


Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 4, 2011 5:22 am

    Whoa…. real linguistic anthropological analysis. This is the FIRST TIME in weeks that my google alert has actually turned up something legit. 🙂

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