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Bloodshed, Liminality & The Ends Of Egypt’s Revolution

August 23, 2017

The Ends of RevolutionThe word “ends” has at least two significant meanings.

We can speak of “ends” as goals, aspirations or outcomes. For example, we might ask, “What are the ends of the revolution? Full democracy or just regime change?”

But we can also speak of ends as conclusions, completions or abrupt terminations: “This is the end of the revolution.”

These two meanings are often in tension with one another–and they certainly are in the title of the recently released special issue of Middle East Critique entitled “The Ends of Revolution in the Arab Middle East,” edited by Eric Hooglund. The issue includes two rich and provocative articles on Egypt by two leading anthropologists.

The issue opens with an essay entitled “The Ends of Revolution: Rethinking Ideology and Time in the Arab Uprisings” by Sune Haugbolle of Roskilde University and Andreas Bandak of the University of Copenhagen. They draw a contrast between the promise of Tahrir Square and the current realities of “a ruined Syria, a Yemen being bombed, a Libya in disintegration, and an Egypt on the slide to state-centric fascism.”

They write:

Was this the end of revolution, a stillborn moment that caught fire but transformed and today has lost its radical potential? Or does the end goal of revolution still call forth actions to establish a new and different world, a better one? What, in other words, are the ends of revolution?

Egypt is well-represented in this collection, with two significant and thought-provoking essays by anthropologists with deep ethnographic roots in the country.

In the paper “There will be Blood: Expectation and Ethics of Violence during Egypt’s Stormy Season” by anthropologist Samuli Schielke, of Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Germany, the author asks how bloodshed emerged “as a promising solution to the tensions and troubles of the revolutionary period?”  As he examines the cycle of violence, Schielke sees the bloodshed as incited by political actors toward particular ends, but focuses on why their incitement worked: because it involved fundamental moral orders.

He writes

“The incitement to bloodshed and the spiral of violence can be described as a form of ethical cultivation where a sense of purity is established through dramatic and radical confrontation. Paradoxically, during the bloody summer of 2013, moments of irbak—confusion, bewilderment, loss of solid ground—sometimes were more likely to open up ways out of the circle of hatred and confrontation than firm and clear principles.”

Schielke argues that we “cannot separate beautiful resistance from terrible bloodshed, just as we cannot isolate the flourishing of cultural life from the spread of violent street crime in and after 2011, as they belong to one and the same process.”

And yet, he says, we have. Schielke turns from his explanation of the process to the failure of many commentators on the revolution, including social scientists, to see the shift to bloodshed and describe clearly as it was occurring.

He writes:

if commentators failed to notice the inherent cultivation of violence, it was not because it wasn’t there, but because we didn’t want to see it.

Drawing on Bjorn Thomassen’s (2012, 2015) call for an anthropology of revolution that utilizes Victor Turner’s concepts—particularly that of liminality—anthropologist Walter Armbrust of Oxford University argues that “revolution understood as a Liminal Crisis allows us to see the rise of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi not as a straightforward restoration of the old regime, but as both a revolutionary outcome and as an instantiation of a New Authoritarianism that has been making significant strides toward power in the wake of the 2011 revolutions.”

While most of the liminal situations studied by anthropologists take place in the contexts of rituals, which control the dangers of liminality.  A revolution, by contrast, is precisely a state of liminality in which no conventional controls exist. In such situations, Tricksters—beings who are at home in liminality and embrace and exploit contradictions rather than resolving them—can rise to power. As-Sisi is just such a trickster, Armbrust writes.

But Armbrust argues that Egypt’s liminality, while particular, is not unique.

more broadly, the structuring of liminality through the global political-economic order of contemporary capitalism both creates a generalized precarity outside the most elite levels of society, and at the same time predisposes those compelled to live in precarity to be attentive to political Tricksters.

We need look no further than the 2016 elections in the US, Armbrust writes, to see tricksters gaining power in an increasingly precarious world in which liminality is exceeding the capacity of social and political structures to contain it.

The collection concludes with an essay by Bjørn Thomassen discussing the idea of revolution as a period in which people may feel stuck in the liminal stage, and suggesting what the paths out of this may look like.

Here’s the abstract:

This article argues that one can analyze revolutions as ritual passages, as spatial and temporal liminality. In most Arab countries that experienced radical upheavals and revolutionary dynamics during and after 2011, people may feel ‘stuck in liminality.’ The aftermath of revolutions is what Arnold van Gennep termed the phase of re-aggregation and which Victor Turner also described as redress. Even in those states where institutional arrangements on the surface have been recomposed, perpetual crises seem everywhere. This situation characterizes a number of post-upheavals in the world. In this article, I draw on examples in Arab countries to reflect on how the current ends of revolution can be understood as perpetual liminality, and what it would take to exit liminality. I stress that legal and judicial processes are formalized and ritualized means toward re-aggregation, which have to go along with a cooling down of emotions and a taming of violence at the social level. This requires transforming the categories of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ of a revolution and adopting the language of ‘ordinary politics’ to replace revolutionary language. The re-aggregation process, however, is complicated by the fact that new regimes gain their legitimacy from available symbols of the revolution itself.

In addition to the Egyptian focused articles, the issue also contains an essay by Miriyam Aouragh entitled “L-Makhzan al-’Akbari: Resistance, Remembrance and Remediation in Morocco,” “Freedom, Power and the Crisis of Politics in Revolutionary Yemen,” by Ross Porter, and “The Most Beautiful Friendship: Revolution, War and Ends of Social Gravity in Syria,” by Thomas Vladimir Brønd.


Armbrust, Walter. 2017. Trickster Defeats the Revolution: Egypt as the Vanguard of the New Authoritarianism. Middle East Critique, 26(3): 221-239.

Haugbolle, Sune and Andreas Bandak. 2017. The Ends of Revolution: Rethinking Ideology and Time in the Arab Uprisings. Middle East Critique, 26(3): 191-204.

Hooglund, Eric. 2017. “Editor’s Note.” Middle East Critique  26(3): 189–190.

Schielke, Samuli. 2007. There will be Blood: Expectation and Ethics of Violence during Egypt’s Stormy Season. Middle East Critique, 26(3): 205-220

Thomassen, Bjørn. 2017. Endnotes: Wandering in the Wilderness or Entering the Promised Land? Middle East Critique 26(3): 297-307.

Thomassen, Bjørn. 2015. Thinking with liminality: To the boundaries of an anthropological concept. In Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality. Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen and Harald Wydra, eds. Oxford/New York : Berghahn Books.

Thomassen, Bjørn. 2012. Notes towards an Anthropology of Political Revolutions. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(3): 679-706.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Farid permalink
    August 28, 2017 12:18 pm

    What an concise and thorough review of the special issue. Now I’m going to tuck into these excellent ideas

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