In the 1990s and 2000s, waves of political protests and strikes surged in Egypt, year by year. Those who follow these labor mobilizations were not surprised by the revolutionary events of 2011. Since the International Monetary Fund restructuring agreement of 1994 and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Egyptian farmers protested at being evicted from their small holdings by the mechanization of agriculture and by the prerevolutionary landowning classes’ reclaiming of estates. Workers’ groups re-organized and held nationwide strikes and sit-ins in response to the privatization of factories, the closing of manufacturing collectives and the liberalization of trade with China, Russia and the European Union. Social movements, the Muslim Brothers, the judges’ syndicates challenged political exclusion and authoritarian rule. And feminist groups - middle-class seculars, Islamic feminists, working-class populists, and others –grew more visible and central to protest movements.
In the period between 2003 and 2006, levels of mass protests in Cairo escalated dramatically, driven by the renaissance of an Arab nationalist sentiment and antiwar mobilization caused by the outrage at the US invasion of Iraq and the Israeli raid on Lebanon. Both of these actions centered on the bombing of civilian targets and infrastructures, inflicting mass casualties largely ignored and rendered invisible by US and Israeli media coverage, but covered extensively in the Arab media. This period also witnessed the rise of a new assertiveness among the political opposition parties and the formation of new fronts and alliances among leftists, liberals, and democratic Islamists in Egypt aiming to end the three-decades-long state of emergency (initiated after the assassination of President Sadat in 1981), to identify alternative presidential candidates to replace Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, and to block the accession of his son, Gamal.
The security state’s initial response to the rising tide of protests during the 1990s was to attempt to delegitimize, intimidate, and blur both the image and the message of these movements by infiltrating and surrounding them with plain-cloths thugs, deputized by police and paramilitary security forces. Whereas in the 1990s, baltagiyya ( the gangs of “thugs” and networks of violent extortion rackets seen as emanating from the informal settlements surrounding downtown Cairo) were identified as terrorist enemies of the security state, by the 2000s, the baltagiyya had been appropriated as useful tools of the police. The Interior Ministry recruited these same gangs to flood public spaces during times of protest. They were ordered to mix with protestors and shout extremist slogans in order to make activists look like “terrorists”, or, alternately, to wreak havoc, beating civilians and doing property damage in the area of the protest, while, of course, brutalizing the protestors themselves.
These practices aimed to to produce what I call the baltagi effect. This effect not only terrorized the protestors but also generated new images for domestic and international media and criminological narratives for international security agencies and local law enforcement. Protestors were re-signified as crazed mobs of brutal men, vaguely “Islamist” and fiercely irrational, depicted according to the nineteenth-century colonial-orientalist figurations of the savage “Arab street”[ a re-occurring figure in Hollywood movies].
Protestors became targeted as assemblages of hyper-sexualized terrorist masculinities; necessary and codependent constituents of twenty-first century liberal incorporation and geopolitical domination. In Egypt, the security state thus deployed and revived the Islamaphobic, gendered, and anti-working-class metaphor of the “Arab street”, rendering peaceful political movements with overwhelming public support into hyper-visible, but utterly unrecognizable, mobs. The production of such hyper-visible parahuman subjects* is regularized by discourses that cohere around powerful metaphors; in this case the overarching metaphor of the “Arab street”, whose meaning is enhanced by a field of other gender and culture metaphors, in particular the “time bomb”, the “predator”, and “the slum.”
This dovetailed with police development of gang injunctions in North America, originally called “street terrorism” laws which emerged in dialogue with simultaneous attempts to police and reform gang masculinities in the informal urban settlements of Cairo. Of course “time-bomb masculinity” is also just a dumbed-down and depoliticized “suicide bomber” trope, which has become the justification for ratcheting up surveillance and undercutting civil liberties in the Middle East, as well as European Cities. In this sense, it represents the ultimate militarization of the respectability discourse of modern urbanity.
Another important factor in the development of this security state narrative was that of the rapidly changing consumer cultures of the middle and upper-middle classes in Egypt; upper-class women in Egypt needed greater access to broad sectors of the city in order to enact new consumer identities and practices. And they are loathe to risk class degradation by mixing with the popular classes that took over the city center after the middle classes moved out to new suburbs and gated cities. Thus by moralizing and gendering what was essentially a class conflict over social cleansing of urban consumer spaces, officials and NGOs were able to demonize downtown boulevards with the same discourse that criminalizes “slums.” Efforts to evict masses of rent-control tenants and popular-class venues from downtown Cairo were framed as dealing with the problem of boys radiating explosive sexual indiscipline.
[In other words, the victims of the dissolution of the social contract – ‘explosive youth fulfilling suppressed needs unfulfilled by the corruption and ineptitude of government’ in the progressive narrative- are conscripted into the criminological (and/or moral) narrative of the necropolitical security State, aided, however innocently and not always, by revanchist evangelical or emancipatory social movements on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum.]
In response such counter-challenges to popular protest as ‘woman should preserve their honor by not joining demonstrations’ and to the public spectacle of orchestrated baltagi effect in the 2000s, Egyptian feminists generated plans to publically deploy gender and class-specific protests in order to resist the performative cultivation of terrorist hyper-masculinity by the Egyptian security state. Since the staging of “terrorist-mob” performances depended on the powerful colonial metaphors attached to the bodies of brutal working-class men, Egyptian progressive organizations realized that placing “respectable” (i.e. upper-middle-class) women in mass protests would play a crucial symbolic role. Women’s intervention in the public space became politically powerful because the human-security state had invested so intensively in generating and hyper-visibilizing women as subjects of piety, self-policing, moralization, and cultural security. In this context, activists theorized that if women (particularly those visibly marked by class and moral bearing as pious and respectable) were to stand up against the police, rather than collaborate with them, the logic of hyper-visibility and misrecognition could be subverted, at least to some extent.
Women political protestors in Egypt drew on a social history of Arab nationalist modernity that embodied the nation in the figure of a woman (particularly the respectable, literate, middle-class mother.) So when women professors, medical doctors, lawyers, university students, and syndicate leaders began to command the barricades at major political protests, it became difficult for the state to draw on class and geopolitical phobias to portray them as terrorists; the thugification tactic or baltagi effect unraveled. Granted, the international media, and even many Egyptian reporters, could easily believe that crazy thugs could emerge “naturally’ from within a group of working-class male leftists and Islamists. However, when middle-class Egyptian women were harassed, terrorized, and brutalized by men during protests, this allowed for a disarticulation of the body politic of the protestors from that of the brutalizers, enabling a recognition that the baltagiyya were cops in plain clothes, not men from within the dissident organizations. This strategic placement of certain classes and gendered bodies at the forefront of protests successfully eroded the “Arab mob” metaphor.
The state responded by shifting its aims from using demonized masculinity in order to delegitimize political opposition to using state-imposed sexual aggression in order to undermine class respectability. Women who protested were sexualized and had their respectability wiped out, not just by innuendo and accusation, but literally, by being sexually assaulted in public and getting arrested for prostitution, being registered in court records and press accounts as sex criminals, and the getting raped and sexually tortured in jail. Any woman who protested would be juridically categorized as a prostitute, would be given a police file and a criminal record, and would have her body and psychological integrity broken. The aim was to render impossible the figure of the respectable, pious protestor against the police, rather than as a victim protected and rescued by the police.
The El-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo’s campaign against harassment and torture in public space and jails began in the 1990s, but expanded in the 2000s as the baltagi effect began to impact the practices of protest and repression. However, rather than aim to rehabilitate the respectability and piety of the harassed protestors, El-Nadeem kept the light on critique aimed at the state, the practices of the security services, police, and prison officials. Shame, immorality, and hypocrisy were to be exposed in the security state (not among working-class boys). And middle-class professionals who collaborated with the state – in particular, doctors, social workers, and aid officials –were held responsible for “crimes against humanity” in El-Nadeem reports.
El-Nadeem made a bold move; rather than try to rehabilitate the reputation of middle-class political protestors, they insisted that even “real” prostitutes did not deserve disrespect and harsh treatment by the police and state. El-Naddem made the pioneering move to offer legal aid and psychological treatment, not just to political dissidents abused and branded as prostitutes, but also to actual working-class sex workers whose public rights and erotic capital were being violated and extorted by police rackets and state violence. In 2007, everting (turning inside out) the essentialist gender politics and respectability projects of the UN-linked campaigns, El Nadeem and allied organizations made another bold move, queering the NGOization framework again by reaching across gender and class divides to report of the state’s harassment and abuse of male prostitutes and youth labor protestors.
Conversations in critical race theory concerning the logic of hyper-visibility focus on processes whereby racialized, sexualized subjects, or the marked bodies of subordinate classes, become intensely visible as objects of state, police, and media gazes and as targets of fear and desire; a phobogenic or moral panic encoding process. Paradoxically, when subjects are hypervisibilized, they remain invisible as social beings; they are not recognized as complex, legitimate, participatory subjects.
One route by which subjects can escape the logic of hyper-visibility is to strive constantly for respectability. This path entails a historically class-phobic, gender-essential moral praxis consisting of self-disciplinary practices that are depoliticizing and aim for assimilation. In the nineteenth century this kind of liberal-progressive politics of respectability was called “temperance” and was linked to vice policing and punitive moral reform of working women and boys. In the late twentieth century, respectability politics was associated with the promotion of the values of civility and ‘gender mainstreaming’ in secular “civil society”. This dovetailed with the promotion of piety, gendered labor discipline, and moral self-management by Islamic and Christian neoliberal movements. To state my hypothesis as simply as possible, this strategy for moving from hyper-visibility into respectability tends to naturalize social hierarchies and modes of government and make security-state power less visible, accountable, and contestable.
However, other traditions of gender activism have developed more productive options for disarticulating the logic of hyper-visibility. These tactics turn the gaze back on the state to the interests, histories, and power relations that generate certain race, sex, and moral subjects and metaphors. This supplants the criminological narrative with a critical project of subversive recognition and embodied occupation that can potentially rearticulate spheres of disciplinary power.
This strategy of ‘critical desecuritization”* does not count as a liberal theory of resistance since it does not pretend to predict how parahuman subjects will speak, or which interests will be articulated, once their spectral or shadow characters, these securitized figures of fear and desire, begin to be dispelled. Desecuritization praxis does not guarantee a progressive or liberal sense of telos. Nor, on the other hand, does it cling to the notion that the most authentic or effective resistance will be morally or religiously appropriate for its “cultural context.” Through these types of praxis, subversions of power, even mass insurrections within gendered, sexualized, and class-repressive human security regimes, can surge suddenly onto the stage of history.
*hyper-visibilization: the spotlighting of certain identities and bodies as sources of radical insecurity and moral panic in ways that actually render invisible the real nature of power and social control.
*Securitization: the reconfiguration of political debates and claims around social justice, political participation, or resource distribution into technical assessments of danger, operations of enforcement, and targeting of risk populations.