Violence: An Egyptian paradox

Dina Samak , Saturday 29 Jun 2013

Simplistic condemnations of political violence fail to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between injustice and violence, or to understand the fury of the disenfranchised who feel they have nothing left to live for

On 28 January 2011, as a group of young, neatly dressed men were walking up and down Arbeen Street in Suez chanting “Peaceful! Peaceful!” other protesters of almost the same age were trying to storm Arbeen police station for the third day in a row.

The protesters down the road were throwing stones at the Central Security Forces who were firing tear gas bombs at them, but those outside the police station were getting killed in their attack; yet they did not give up until they managed to set the building on fire.

That night more people were killed in different areas in the city; some while trying to capture a policeman hiding in a corrupt businessman’s building, and others while setting fire to a showroom belonging to a prominent businessman and leading member of Mubarak’s then-ruling party.

It was easy to understand why these young working class men did not see a problem in what they were doing, or hear the calls coming from the other side for peaceful resistance. That was their part of the revolution. They went out to break the police state, to send a message that they would not take it anymore, and then they went home.

Almost everyone I talked to that day outside the police station had been insulted, humiliated or even tortured at some point by the police. Even though some of them may have been “thugs” or have committed some crime or another, they believed that the police had never treated them like human beings.

What happened in the Suez Canal city happened all over Egypt during in what both the media and the politicised middle class insist on describing as a “peaceful, non-violent revolution.”

“It is all about justice,” Peter Knoope, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague said during an informal chat in Istanbul a few months ago.

Islamists and other right wing organisations that adopt violence have failed according to Knoope – and I totally agree – to come up with effective strategies to channel popular frustrations and grievances and to become part of the solution instead of the existing problems.

However, for Knoope - and I also agree - a different kind of violence will appear if the world fails to address the most pressing challenge at present - injustice.

Knoope’s fear is echoed in Egypt’s rulers’ failures. The same problem of social injustice is becoming more severe in Egypt, and instead of facing these daily, persistent problems, President Morsi and his government, including the Muslim Brotherhood, insist on kicking all such problems into the long grass, waiting both for an economic miracle that will never come, and for a lame opposition with nothing to offer to get bored.

This too is a far-fetched miracle, as the momentum in the street increases with the country heading towards the mass protests planned for 30 June.

Many political figures in both camps would like to see 30 June as a war against a demon who happens to be standing on the opposing side, with no one questioning the root cause of violence or what kind of messages that violence is sending, should it erupt.

Mourad Ali, the spokesman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, was more than once quoted as saying: "there is information about an arrangement among certain former MPs and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party thugs to cause violence and mayhem in the 30 June demonstrations."

On the other side, the liberal opposition and many on the left accuse Hamas, the militant offshoot of the Brotherhood now ruling Gaza, of playing the major role in the burning-down of police stations and prison breaks that took place during the first days of the January 2011 uprising. These voices claim that Hamas will seek to do the same thing again if events turn rough in Egypt this Sunday.

Both of these scenarios - though I am highly sceptical about the latter - could come true; but neither of them can explain the fury and anger that lead and are still leading to violence in Egypt. Only Knoope’s words can; namely, injustice.

A study by Egyptian researcher and journalist Mostafa Basyouni points out that more than 80 percent of those killed in protests between 25 January 2011 until President Morsi came to power belong to the working class. Many of those slain, according to Basyouni, were unemployed or worked in casual jobs.

Now, as more people are losing their lives in the faceoff between the ruling Brotherhood and the opposition, one can safely say that the same ratio applies to the victims on both sides.

While condemning violence every day, both the Brotherhood and the opposition fails to make sense of the complexity of the relationship between injustice and violence, or to understand that those who go out ready to die in defence of their cause are mostly those who have nothing to live for.

On the Brotherhood’s side you will find those who were promised a better life if God’s rule took control, and on the opposition side you will find those who are angry at the Brotherhood for not making, or at least trying to make, their lives better.

The poor, who happen to be divided between both camps and who suffer daily in run-down public hospitals and transportation, and in gas and bread queues, cannot afford to wait until ballot box democracy brings them a fair life, if it ever does. They want to live as dignified human beings and if they can’t, they don’t mind dying while trying to achieve this.

In the coming days, with violence expected to increase in the street, we will be hearing all kinds of accusations from both camps.

Both sides will be condemning violence and bloodshed, but the truth is they will be only blaming the victims. Some will even go as far as calling on the army to interfere to stop the bloodshed, while others will be calling for political compromises and concessions.

But how many of these will be bold enough to tackle the right question at the right time? Yes, more violence may be on the way, but it is not only about violence. More importantly, it is about injustice.  

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