The morning after the June 30 uprising that brought down Mohammed Morsi, I did an interview with Mohammed Hassan Aazab as he helped hold down four anarchist tents in one of Cairo’s major sit-ins. Shortly thereafter, the military stepped in, removed Morsi from office, and set about rounding up Islamists and shuttering media outlets deemed to be partial to the Muslim Brotherhood. In some cases they shot party members under arrest, even massacring a number of supporters during prayers. Islamists have responded by blocking the airport road and carrying out low-scale warfare in scattered parts of the country.
For anarchists and others in Egypt who remember the last period of military rule after Mubarak’s ouster, a complex situation has emerged: The Islamists they sought to oust are in retreat, but they’re at the hands of a military that could just as easily put other grassroots movements in its sights. The time seemed right to resume my conversation with Aazab.
It’s been nearly two weeks since the 30th. What’s the view, from where you are?
Well, as we all expected, the old regime has started to rear its head again. The Brotherhood loses popularity every day. No new government has been formed, though, so it’s not clear at this point what’s likely to happen. Once a government is formed, we ‘ll know where the next fight’ll be.
Now it seems you’re basically stuck between the army and the Ikwhan [Brothers].
And the old regime. We’re in deep shit. There’s almost nothing to do but laugh.
It seems like the military — especially its leadership — would be more favorable to the old regime. The generals control something like 30 percent of the economy, right?
Yeah, that’s right. The army is at the center of our economic problems. And there’s less chance of addressing that now than there was before, probably, because at the moment people see the army as having prevented a civil war. So, they’re basically beyond reproach. They can do pretty much anything, and no one will ask questions. And if anyone protests, they’ll be deemed traitors.
The other day, when we were talking, you seemed to be personally struggling with your own feelings about the army’s actions against the Ikhwan. What’s your feeling about that now?
Well, I hold two feelings, you know? If we allow the Ikhwan to be the army’s victim today, we’ll be the victim tomorrow. On the other hand, part of me feels like the Ikhwan deserves everything that happens to them. They’ve been playing the civil war card up to now. So it’s incredibly difficult to sort out, emotionally. I’m scared my hatred of the Ikhwan could ultimately cost me my humanity. When I saw the photos of the Brotherhood supporters killed at the Raba’a Adwyia mosque the other day, I didn’t feel anything. I remembered how Islamists had found excuses for the army to kill us on Mohammed Mahmoud.
At the same time, I’m afraid that we’ll never see justice over the Ikhwan’s actions and we’ll regret the day we didn’t eliminate them all. They threw kids out windows of tall buildings in Alexandria the other day for supporting the protests. Before I went up there, I was in the clashes with Islamists on the October 6th Bridge here in Cairo — they were shooting at us with machine guns, and all we had were fireworks and molotovs. Five people were killed. There’s violence happening against Christians in Upper Egypt, and neither the interim government nor the opposition — or even the international community — is talking about it. The media only seems to care about what’s happening in the big cities. Christians are dying and their homes are being torched. The Islamists need to be stopped, they are so dangerous in Upper Egypt.
Is any sort of defense of Christians possible, by means other than the army?
No, they’re just leaving their villages.
It’s interesting hearing you say you’re worried about losing more of your humanity to a hatred of the Brotherhood — the idea that the impulse to eliminate them could make you someone you don’t want to be. Do you feel like that impulse could make Egyptian society — or any society in a revolutionary moment — an unhealthy foundation for any new society?
Yeah, no doubt. We have enough social problems, we can’t afford that.
What’s the way forward, in your mind?
The key problem is the disconnect between our generation and the older generations. Young people need to represent the revolution. We don’t need old faces anymore. As we say in Egypt, they are burned cards; we have no use for them.
What do you think that looks like? Student organizing? You don’t seem optimistic about unions…
I’m very optimistic about the student movements. In the last year there has been a huge student movement, especially in the private schools. The Brotherhood’s first loss was in the universities, actually. They couldn’t challenge the revolutionary movements there.
What was the struggle there about, exactly?
It varies, actually. Generally it was around students’ rights and fighting the management of the universities, often with the Brotherhood students supporting the management. That was happening in all the universities, and ultimately the student movements won those struggles — even when violence resulted, as with the German University in Cairo.
At Ain Shams University, the movement was combatting thugs and the corruption of the security forces on campus. At Misr International University, it was about the safety of the main road, after two students died. At Elshorouk, it was about medical care, after a student died in the university clinic. At El Nile University, it was over a building the government was trying to seize — something happening at many universities, actually.
Like a student center?
No , I wish. They wanted to take a classrooms building. They were actually trying to seize educational space.
How did these victories affect the movements? Are students still active?
Yeah, they are. And now they’ve started forming a union of the students’ movements all over Egypt. They’re working hard, a lot of meetings and activities.
What are the major issues at this point?
Releasing students arrested going all the way back to the January 25 revolution, the right to decent dorms in the universities, and kicking security out of the political life of the university.
Are students leaving universities radicalized?
It depends on the student. It’s probably impossible to say, one way or the other.
Among anarchists in particular, are there aspects of this revolutionary process that you have all felt connected to, beyond taking down Mubarak?
Real organizing didn’t really even begin until after Mubarak’s ouster. We started gathering, talking to people, printing up writing about our ideas, and organizing meetings in downtown cafes in front of whoever was there. Then in the clashes on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, we found ourselves actually fighting beside each other.
I imagine that was a fairly traumatic experience. I found just walking past the murals creepy. Did that shape anarchists?
Of course. After removing Mubarak, working in the streets was incredibly difficult. Horrible things happened in Tahrir, and no one believed us. People believed the army and the Islamists. This last year and half, after removing Mubarak, there’s a way in which you could say we were actually fighting our own community, and by the time Morsi took office we were just utterly dispirited.
That was why you told me you’d given up on politics when we met?
Yeah, exactly. I’ll tell you something as an example. At this point, 90 percent of Egyptians don’t believe that the army shot people with live rounds in Tahrir during the clashes outside the prime minister’s headquarters after Mohammed Mahmoud. A lot of us were there and four of our friends died in front of us, and people act as though we’re lying. Shit like that just crushes you.
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No mention of nonviolence in this whole interview. Couldn’t you have asked about this? It is the true basis of what hope there is, the lack of it the true basis if the problems. Were the nonviolence of the movement more robust, they would have petitioned the military not to intervene (whether that would have been successful is another question, of course). Had they brought Morsi down with the “civil disobedience” that was threatened, and were that truly nonviolence, that would have been a massive contributor to the hope for the future. Nonviolence still struggles for a place on the table, all the time, as people try to think in terms of power.
No. Egyptians aren’t on the hook for contributing to anyone’s hope; certainly, they’re not on the hook for contributing to ours, as the neoliberal economic policies forced on them for the last 30+ years, and the brutal dictatorship under which those were imposed were both at our behest, and overwhelmingly to our benefit. I’m not interested in asking people being shot at to respond to the presumptions of people, here. Rather, I think the more effective (though admittedly more gradual and demanding) course toward reducing violence is taking seriously that other people — regardless of their background, culture, education, or any other factor — are just as capable of making meaningful decisions about their lives as we are. And whatever it takes for us to adjust to that orientation is a contribution to nonviolence.
By “what hope there is”, I meant what hope there is in Egypt, for Egyptians and the many others they affect. And yes, in turn, for the world as well. Every narrative of “a people” is ruptured with each death.
Nonviolence is not a hook for hanging meat or some instrument of imposition of legalistic, juridical sentiment in the wielding of power; indeed, the patient, painstaking deconstruction and reconstruction (enconstruction) of such operations are part of the necessary work of nonviolence when it is give to thought, an all too rare occurence; such techniques and renderings of in terms of “conscience” are of a piece with what keeps nonviolence from growing and reaching greater, liberating effectiveness and fundamental grounding and fruition.
We are not necessarily “other people”. Nonviolence is not simply about “reducing violence”. Only the survivors are capable of making decisions; the numbers killed remain important, and nonviolence can reduce those numbers in the long run. Yet even the rubric of “short term” and “long term” can not master nonviolence, which is its own irreducible fundament. Nonviolence is not a neoliberal economic policy. Nonviolence is not founded on imposing presumptions, and in any case lies in the heart of any cause, even those in which violence is used. Careful abstinence from “taking sides” (the side of nonviolence as a critical movement theme, say, or not) fails to understand that every gun already bears within itself a rich importation of knowledge and influence, disclosing world and possibility with the impacted force of the bullets of the gun’s very meaning as a gun, without firing a single shot. Perhaps it is nonviolence that must disclose this truth.
The brutal dictatorship could have been overthrown much sooner were nonviolence a cause on the lips of many around the world. The dramatic reference/introduction in your reply of “people being shot at” is a striking failure to understand nonviolence in some of its most rudimentary elements. To call actively forwarding (which is not yet violently imposing, permit me to note), or even just inquiring about, the cause of nonviolence a kind of easy route, over and against a “more gradual and demanding” one in the form of careful observance of internal integrity you stress as being in service of the cause of a reduction of the violence of presumption, is simply false as concerns the cause of nonviolence and smacks of the very paternalism you are at pains to avoid. More than that, it fails to understand the fundamental turn of nonviolence and remains couched in a kind of “nonviolence as secondary effect and not a cause for its own sake” form that predominates in neoliberalist culture, one might say.
Part of the heart of nonviolence is recognizing incapability. When 90,000 + are dead in Syria (I realize we are talkig about Egypt — and how dare we?!), we may take stands on this issue without becoming colonists, yet we may not, I think. chalk such mortality and torture, etc., up to the “hardship” of the “difficult path”.
Satyagrahis of the world unite! I paraphrase Marx — who could never have said this, but in his own strange way actually did say precisely this without knowing it — only in order to highlight that there can be a sense of global, international causes. Yet among all such causes, nonviolence, which is not simply about reducing violence, remains a limping slave of every other cause.
You are in the postmodern solution and posture, more or less. It’s not very good, in my view. Perhaps the concept of “waging nonviolence” has either eluded you or is an unfortunate elision.
Joshua Stephens did another interview with Nana Elhariry that gives a valuable perspective on what is going on in Egypt http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/17465-interview-anarchism-tamarrod-and-sexual-violence-in-egypt . The Egyptian “revolution” like virtually all political revolutions is simply substituting one set of male rulers for another rather than fundamentally addressing the root causes of the extreme violence, inequality and oppression of women in Egyptian – the patriarchal organization of society. As I understand anarchism, it is about changing the structure of society from hierarchical to horizontal. Almost all of the main political factions participate in, encourage or passively condone violence against women aimed at blocking their active participation in the “revolution.” Until enough people, both men and women, begin to see the revolution as a struggle against patriarchy the so-called revolution will remain nothing more than the usual changing of the guard.
It is interesting to note that this operation of patriarchal replacement can be rewritten as replacing one violence-based system for another. Anarchism, which really isn’t going to be in play significantly in Egypt in any case, operates at the limits of postmoderism by working the negation in the attempt to usurp current dominances, notably patriarchy. As such, it remains in line with a certain, deep affirmation of violence, retaining it to some extent, sanctioning (however anarchism can actually sanction something) necessary violence, which always means that some innocent kid is just going to have to be blown up by accident, of course, which would be collateral damage in a horizontal culture I guess.
The replacement of the vertical/patriarchical with the horizontal is the replacement of one neutral conceptuality for another. This falls in line with the basic, subtending and pervasive structure of postmodernity or late modernity of having other structures do a kind of “double duty” for nonviolence. At issue for anarchism is the violence of patriarchy. This is not exactly synonymous with nonviolence or anti-oppression. In this regard, nonviolence remains the woman to the Man of some new order or other. The fundamental turn of nonviolence lies in a basic shift of taking up the substantive issue of nonviolence itself, something that is irreducible. It can not be adequately developed under any other rubric.
This is why anarchism and other postmodern developments do not adequately support nonviolence movements or even see their importance, necessity and potential. Were the nonviolence element of the revolution in Egypt more robust, it would have been able to release itself from dependency on the army. It would also facilitate the more radical change of thought necessary for the type of inclusion you rightly see as important here. Yet it wouldn’t fall prey to the problem that anarchism remains utterly poor at accepting or even admitting the role of some hierarchical structures. A mixed, poly-archical form is quite simply necessary for various projects and entities to develop and function. That, in itself, remains a neutral conception for which nonviolence is not exactly required. In fact, that nonviolence as an independent and thematic substantive concern is never exactly necessary, which is precisely why it remains enslaved like a subordinated wife to a paternalistic husband, even in the very anarchism in whose conception and directive of “anti-oppression” lies the simple, inner truth it seeks to avoid admitting: nonviolence. It feels, rather, that nonviolence is castration, to be blunt, and aggressively situates it in its diatribes as complicity with the state, successful movements of nonviolence in the more positive form beyond mere pacifism be damned, basically. But then, damnation is the very lifeblood of patriarchy. Its new name is “collateral damage”. We would be looking, then, at the collateral damage of an actual, enacted anarchism, which is far in any case from arising.
Nonviolence renders “revolution” differently; nonviolent revolution is envolution, operating both from within and without, turning the turning of revolution yet again, giving thought to the unthought of revolution, its “mere” side-effects and collateral damage: violence. It refuses that violence not merely in a strategic gesture, any more than anarchism seeks to bring into being horizontal structures merely on the way to some new patriarchal state as a kind of strategy. It arises independently and is situated in an irreducible relation to the other. The others, those others, my sisters and brothers in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Corcoran Prison, in Guantanamo, etc.
Nonviolence is the turning in which the mere accident of means in means-ends, goal oriented rationality is taken up and taken on as an independent, thematic and substantive issue to the irreducible end of ameliorating specifically violence, collateral damage, harm, in thoughtaction. This is essentially post-postmodern and post-anarchistic. Neither simply thought nor action, nonviolence is the post-postmodern par excellance, what is uniquely unfolded in fateful realization and emergence, in the revolution of revolution itself (something you are certainly calling for here) , in the transformation of revolution to the envolution that can foster defection, assimilation, inclusion and the very “horizontal” structure you see as important.
I couldn’t disagree more with assertion that the horizontal restructuring of society is a “deep affirmation of violence” Horizontalism operates far differently than your staw-man dialectic, “by working the negation in the attempt to usurp current dominances, notably patriarchy.” It is revolutionary in the true sense of the word, the creation of something new rather than destroying the old. It is revolutionary in the sense of the agricultural, the industrial, the information revolutions. You are stuck in the old “political” view of revolution as one group (of men) taking power from another. In regard to nonviolence, horizontalism looks to “change the world without taking power.” Horizontalism, as hierarchal patriarchy, is also a system of values, morality and ethics. In this regard, one of the primary values is the resolution of conflict through non-violent means. Human history makes it quite clear, that the primary means for resolving violence in hierarchically structured patriarchal societies is through violence. Most humans are so hierarchically socialized that they can’t even imagine how a society could be organized in way where violence is not necessary. Your comments illustrate this all too well.
The affirmation lies in the pervasive lack of the thematization and substantive engagement in thoughtaction of, specifically, nonviolence, as such and irreducibly. The best role of horizontalism, which I do not oppose at all, is along with other structures, including some used of hierarchical structures in a full-fledged “enarchy”, or post-anarchic form. The simpler version of targeting and avoiding all hierarchy is doomed to failure and would indeed require much violence to keep it going. Enarchy favors mixed forms and is rooted in a deep ethic that entails including a robust moment of, dimension of, and capacity for anarchism and horizontalism. But in enarchism, hierarchical structures, designed with an ethic of disassembeability or deconstructability (well, hopefully they wouldn’t need deconstruction due to this thoughtful approach), can be used for what they have to offer.
The form you use here is the very pitch of postmodern response: that something must do double duty to produce nonviolence as a kind of result or side-effect. You think a nonviolent society is imaginable if only horizontalism rules. And rule it would have to do. What of people with “wrong thinking”? Somehow it would entail violence as enforcement. In any case, the idea of this double duty is fully of the regime of violence. The enarchical is by no means a hopeless retention simply of hierarchy. It is a truly post-anarchical conception. But it is still a neutral concept and form. There is no replacement for nonviolence and its essential, substantive movements.
Your conception of “nonviolent means” likewise is of the regime of violence, although it is certain to the good in a lot of ways. The turn of nonviolence, which is the revolution of revolutions, into the form of envolution, is much closer to the ideal you espouse changing the world without taking power. This is much more on the order of the gesture of the “en-” of “enarchy”, “envolution”, “enconstruction” and so forth. The mere reversal of verticality into horizontality much more on the order of the Hegelian and Marxian “world stood on its head”. Enarchy, enconstruction, envolution are a more conceptually alerted version of the ideals you are forwarding. You are fully missing these things and pigeon holing what I’m saying, partly due simply to the limitations of the operating principle of horizontalism, I guess. Ditto the limitations of anarchism as such.
But the fundamental turning of nonviolence remains radically independent and accomplishes itself in the shift from nonviolence as means to nonviolence as ends and substantive concern. It is this turn that patriarchy finds most troubling and difficult, even to understand.