Address, not condemn, the reasons for violence

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Sunday 3 Feb 2013

Politicians, whether in power or in opposition, are woefully mismanaging the current crisis — deeming violence the work of thugs, or pressing demands that have nothing to do with unrest in the street

The wave of violence that accompanied the second anniversary of the revolution deserves a closer look to understand its reasons, free of any conspiratorial thinking by those in power or political manipulation by the opposition. They all participated in feeding the frenzy and contribute — through their improper handling of it — to its continuation and expansion.

Conspiracy theories about the violence claim it is fabricated by domestic and foreign powers seeking to undermine Muslim Brotherhood rule for different motives, such as remanufacturing the Mubarak regime or upholding economic interests or obstructing Egypt’s recovery as a regional leader.

While some of these interpretations hold some truth, they are inadequate in understanding the phenomenon in a way that helps remedy it. The first question is the social context associated with the violence that provides it with legitimate cover that did not exist before.

After the first days of the revolution, when police stations and other institutions symbolising oppression were set ablaze, violence became peripheral in the absence of popular and political cover (except at times when the people were forced to react to the regime’s aggression against them), and thus it did not expand.

It was always guided by calls for “peaceful” protest that argued that rights — whether judicial, such as retribution, or social, such as redistribution of wealth and closing the income gap to provide humane living standards for the working class — can be obtained without recourse to violence.

After two years, however, these hopes have evaporated; retribution is long overdue because of protracted trials (some murders such as outside the Cabinet Office are still being investigated and the perpetrators have not been put on trial, although more than one year has passed) and lack of seriousness (those who were put on trial were released, and until today investigations are unable to pinpoint who is responsible for killing protestors).

Meanwhile, the economic crisis is felt unevenly among social strata and their ability to deal with its repercussions in providing basic needs, while talk of social justice continues to be in the realm of promises that never come true.

Meanwhile, there have been incidents that showed violence can be effective. Labour and class strikes were fruitless except when they were accompanied with disrupting operations (the strike by underground train workers versus the partial strike by physicians who were mindful of patient interests).

The issue of the Port Said martyrs — which the Ultras pressed by various means for an entire year that last week culminated in shutting down the stock exchange and blocking roads — ended in death sentences for defendants. Social reality, in light of a retreat in the penal role of the police and its disinterest in tracking down criminals, states that using violence to obtain rights is much more successful than peaceful and legal means.

The social context that feeds into violence is linked to a political context that deepens its causes, because political debate since the revolution until today rotates around the question of identity between a camp that claims to be Islamist, another that is civilian and a third that is secular. Their argument revolves primarily in the cultural realm, separate from social, economic and rights issues that the revolution brought to the surface.

This widened the gap between politicians (in government and the opposition) on the one hand and the people and street on the other. There are no links between the two camps since each is talking on a different plane and the ability of the regime, with its institutions, figures and mechanisms, to express the views of various social forces has eroded.

This comes at a revolutionary moment when the state does not have enough political legitimacy to monopolise the legitimate use of violence. Thus the situation exploded at the slightest provocation, and the trigger was the overlap of the revolution anniversary, confrontations in Alexandria and the verdict in the Port Said case.

Being out of touch with reality, politicians are still unable to understand the reasons for violence and choose to interpret it as political sabotage by thugs, rather than a form of social protest by those who lost faith in the mechanisms and means of peaceful change.

As a result, the reaction of politicians further complicates reality. Meanwhile, the regime decided to impose a curfew in areas of unrest, which demonstrated its bias to the security perception of protestors as “thugs”, and choosing a security solution rather than a social solution in dealing with the situation.

The regime’s invitation to the opposition for dialogue demonstrates that it does not recognise there are social forces that are not in political formations (because the structure of the political system does not encourage them to do so) that are more deserving of appeasement than the political opposition. And that this appeasement can never be in the form of dialogue (at least not in the short term since dialogue is part of the procedure of dealing with crises that these groups are fed up with), but instead through root changes in policies on the ground whether regarding the rights of martyrs and retribution, or the state’s economic biases and their economic and social repercussions.

Meanwhile, the demands of the opposition are indicative of political opportunism and a detachment from reality. It rejected dialogue because it doubts its sincerity and demanded that the regime show flexibility and commitment through political reform (such as constitutional amendments and revising the elections law) that have nothing to do with the grievances of protestors or the social strata that embraces them. They threaten that if these demands are not met they will be forced to boycott parliamentary elections.

By continuing their elitist policies and detachment from revolutionary and social demands that guide the street, today’s politicians — whether in power or the opposition — are making the crisis worse. If the parties in power, in their capacity, are responsible for addressing this situation, then the opposition’s continued blame game, while sustaining the same rhetoric, demands and political outlook, only complicates the situation further.

If this crisis is contained but not remedied (which is the situation right now) it will become even more volatile in the near future, especially in the absence of fundamental changes in the political class in terms of figures, issues, policies and prejudices.

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