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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.

But how is such a demand credible?

Katherine Verdery has observed that the symbolic political power of dead bodies lies not in the concrete clarity of their meaning, but rather precisely in their fundamental ambiguity and interpretive malleability (Verdery 2004: 306). Ambiguity, of course, opens up the possibility of multiple and contested meanings.

But what cultural contexts make it possible for the very regime that killed the martyrs of the revolution to insist that the handful of its own who were killed by protesters should also be martyrs?

In a new article recently published on-line in Ethnos, Dan Gilman suggests that the production of the martyrs as empty signifiers begins early, with the emergence of the “martyr pop” music videos.He argues that the mass media early on created an atmosphere of ambiguity in which deaths by violence in the revolution were treated as deaths for the nation–but in a sentimental, depoliticized way. Just how martyrs died for the nation was left ambiguous…

Like me, he is also intrigued by the demand that security personnel be treated as martyrs, and analyzes it thus:

The military regime that seized power in Egypt in July 2013 has suggested that the security personnel, rather than the unarmed protestors who died in the 25 January 2011 uprising, were the martyrs that the nation should celebrate. This rhetorical claim in support of authoritarian suppression of dissent must be understood in the context of the popular culture of the immediate post-Mubarak period, particularly the ‘martyr pop’ music video clips. This mass-media form disseminated a strategically ambiguous rhetoric that celebrated the martyrs but largely ignored the political cause for which they died. Such depoliticization of martyrdom suited the sensibilities of the intellectual class, whose economic and political investments in the hegemony of the neoliberal state outweighed their stated commitments to political change.

 About the video clip: According to Dan, this is

[t]he earliest martyr pop video clip, in so far as I know [. It] is a duet between the singers Ramı Gamal and ‘Azız al-Shaf‘ı, ‘I love you, my country’ (Muh. y al-Dı¯n 2011): the first upload of the clip to YouTube seems to have occurred on 9 February 2011, two days before Mubarak’s ouster….

He analyzes it thus:

Al-Shaf‘ı repurposed the words and melody from a song by the old composer Balıgh Hamdı that memorialized people killed during the 1967 War. The tune accordingly echoes an old-fashioned style of nationalist song whose musical aesthetics more readily evoke a song of unrequited love. The first verse of the sentimental text is:
Say to my mother “do not be sad, my dearest, do not weep for me.: Say to her, “it’s okay, Mother, I die, I die but our country lives.” I beg you, kiss her hand for me, and give my regards to my country.
There are occasional visual quotations of news footage, particularly those that showed people being shot down in the streets, but the bulk of the visual imagery is photographs of the young protestors who were killed. Most of the photographs bear no indication of mourning, such as a black stripe near the left-hand corner, but a number of the faces of the dead have become well known, thanks to wide dissemination of the photos in Egyptian national media – for example, Ahmad Bassyunı, the curly-haired gentleman in glasses, and Sally Zahran, the female martyr depicted in this video. On a more nuanced political level, the first martyr’s photograph shown is not, technically speaking, from the uprising at all, but the famous photograph of Khalid Sa‘ıd, a young man beaten to death by police in broad daylight in the Sıdı Gabir district of Alexandria, six months before the uprising began.


Armbrust, Walter. 2012. The Ambivalence of Martyrs and the Counter-revolution. Cultural Anthropology Hotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Gilman, Daniel J. 2014. The Martyr Pop Moment: Depoliticizing Martyrdom, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology

Peterson, Mark Allen. 2015. In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama. In Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality. Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen, and Harald Wydra, eds. Berghahn Books.

Verdery, Katherine. 2004. Dead Bodies Animate the Study of Politics. In Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader, edited by Antonius C. G. M. Robben, pp. 303– 310. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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