Why did Egyptians cheer a massacre?
Mona el-Ghobashy and Janis Grimm on Rabaa and Egypt after the coup.
Photo: Mosa’ab al-Shamy
On August 14, 2013, Egypt’s military launched an attack on an anti-coup encampment in the central Cairo roundabout Rabaa al-Adawiya. The ensuing massacre killed more than 1000 people in a matter of hours, one of the single largest one day death tolls in Egypt or any other Arab country. As Jannis Grimm points out in his new book, this public mass killing not only failed to generate a moral shock galvanizing opposition to the regime, but most Egyptians - including many of the activists of the January 2011 revolution and ostensible liberal intellectuals - cheered the brutal massacre. To this day, there has been no real accountability. The act of profound public violence underlies the core nature of the regime of Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi, reproduced daily in the tens of thousands of political prisoners and the brutal repression of any sign of public dissent. Sisi’s Egypt is what Rabaa made it.
For the last decade, scholarship on Egypt has been understandably dominated by studies of the 2011 revolution, detailing the drivers of the January 25 uprising, the dynamics of the protest, the role of social media, and much more. A much smaller corpus of books, most notably Neil Ketchley’s Egypt in a Time of Revolution and Amy Austin Holmes’s Coups and Revolutions, take on the revolutions’s grim aftermath: political polarization, a military coup, the bloody repression of the counter-coup protestors culminating in the Rabaa massacre, and the consolidation of an exceptionally repressive new form of autocracy. Now, two outstanding new books recenter the Egyptian political experience around the 2013 coup: Mona el-Ghobashy’s Bread and Freedom and Jannis Grimm’s Contested Legitimacies.
Mona el-Ghobashy’s Bread and Freedom offers perhaps the single best narrative of Egypt from 2011 to the present which has yet been written. Her finely grained, beautifully crafted storytelling reveals the sheer complexity of the revolutionary period and the multiplicity of actors trying to navigate a profoundly uncertain environment. Her focus on this radical uncertainty recalls Charles Kurzman’s account of the Iranian revolution, undermining any linear narrative by which any single actor - the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, or anyone else - either predicted or controlled the course of events. The radical uncertainty of a “revolutionary situation” has profound implications, particularly when coupled with incipient violence and existential identity fears.
Ghobashy’s narrative very effectively captures the rapid polarization of politics after Mubarak’s fall. She shows the toxic interaction of the Muslim Brotherhood’s existential fears of a secular-military alliance to repeat the disastrous experience of the Nasser years with the fears of activists and anti-Islamists that the Brotherhood would strike a deal with the military to shut down the street and hijack the revolution. In this transitional period, with dueling legitimacies and multiple institutional sites for conflict, “no rules or agreements, even constitution-making rules, are irreversible.” In other words, what I at the time called “Calvinball,” with everyone making up the rules as they went along.
That existential uncertainty drove polarization, making compromise impossible and incentivizing intransigence. She departs from conventional narratives which focus blame on the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad el-Morsi for being insufficiently inclusive or failing to reassure their non-Islamist counterparts. In her telling, Morsi’s Presidency was from the start a weak and besieged civilian leadership under attack from all sides rather than a calculating incipient autocracy bent on imposing Islamic law. But under conditions of existential uncertainty, and with the there was no way to credibly reassure their critics - and little incentive to try.
Ghobashy’s retelling of Morsi’s short presidency graphically shows the logic and process of polarization. The clashes at al-Ittihadiya palace, Morsi’s forcing through of a polarizing Constitution, rising street violence and crime, violent attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices across the country, all of this was filtered through a polarizing identity discourse. Ghobashy shows powerfully how these polarizing dynamics emerged through the process of contestation under existential uncertainty, rather than blaming any one actor or singling out any one action. The result, though, was mutual demonization and extreme polarization which, ultimately, explains the euphoric embrace of the July 2013 military coup by so many long-time critics of the military and the feverish enthusiasm for the Rabaa massacre. By the time of the massacre, most Egyptians had come to consider the Muslim Brotherhood as not fully human: foreign-linked terrorists, robotic followers of a cult. And that’s always been one of the most critical steps preceding history’s worst mass killings.
Jannis Julien Grimm centers his new book around the aftermath of the military coup and the Rabaa massacre, building around the puzzle of how many Egyptians “defended the massacres as a legitimate police operation against terrorist forces.” In contrast to Ghobashy’s granular reconstruction of the lived experience of politics under existential uncertainty, Grimm attends to the dueling symbolic universes underlying the absence of moral shock over the Rabaa massacre and the underappreciated successes but ultimate failure of the Anti-Coup movement.
Many accounts of the Syrian uprising have emphasized the critical importance of moral shock, public outrage over regime violence which triggers a cascading loss of legitimacy for the regime which carried it out (see Wendy Pearlman’s excellent work theorizing the importance of emotions, moral identities and narrative for more). One might have expected the mass public killings in Rabaa to have generated something similar. But it didn’t. Instead, it cemented a legitimacy rooted in hypernationalism and the glorification of the state, with mass violence against the Islamists at Rabaa something to be glorified and celebrated rather than something hidden and shameful.
Grimm focuses on the dueling symbolic politics of the state and the Anti Coup Movement, the rhetorical devices by which each side built and sustained a worldview which legitimated the actions of their community. He carefullly analyzes a wealth of statements, publications, social media postings and more produced by supporters of the Anti-Coup movement. He shows the power of the branding of the Rabaa four fingered symbol, for instance, and details their rhetorical efforts to claim an identity beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. And he details the counternarrative of the state, explaining both the ultimate failure of the Anti Coup Movement and the potential vulnerabilities of the regime to competing claims on nationalism, as revealed in the later protests which erupted against the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi sovereignty.
Grimm’s narrative about the consolidation of competing discourses is in line with the findings of an article and related report which I wrote with Deen Freelon and Sean Aday a few years ago examining Egyptian social media. Our finely grained network analysis of tweets from Egpyt showed graphically how online communities sorted themselves over time into increasingly hermetically sealed clusters. Islamist and anti-Islamist clusters consumed such different information streams that they almost might as well have been living in different worlds — and within those clusters, both emotional frames and psychological incentives pushed towards ever more extreme in-group solidarity and out-group demonization. Grimm’s study of rhetorical framing by and about the Anti-Coup Movement before and after Rabaa very much demonstrates the same dynamics in action.
Ghobashy and Grimm certainly advance our understanding of Egyptian politics after the fading of the revolutionary glow of 2011. But they do more than that. These books force us to grapple with the radical uncertainty of revolutionary moments, the unsettling potency of mutual demonization (with social media feeding the toxic dynamics), and the frankly terrifying ease with which well-meaning, liberal minded actors can descend into enthusiastic cheerleaders for mass state violence. Those lessons extend far beyond Egypt, far beyond the Arab uprisings. Both books are recommended for those interested in Egypt or the Arab world, but also comparative politics, democratic transitions, revolutionary moments, and state violence.