The History of Violence

Events of the past few days have highlighted the problem of violence in Egypt. The acquittal of police brass from charges that they ordered killing of protesters, the second anniversary of the brutal beating and death of the iconic Khalid Saeed and the twentieth anniversary of the gunning of Farag Fouda by  Muslim extremists,  as well as the sexual harassing of women in Tahrir square, are but a summary of the history of violence in Egypt in the past decades.

Aside from criminal and passionate violence common to all societies, Egypt suffers from both state-initiated violence against its citizens and religious inspired violence directed against a narrow segment of society. The first is a chronic and dull pain while the second is episodic and searing.

The current unhappiness with the presidential finalists has alot to do with the perception that neither offers a clear way to reduce either of these two forms of violence.  Mr. Shafiq is a stalwart of the establishment who must know of the systemic abuses by the Egyptian state police. In the same breath he promises to reform the police he also assures that he will restore order in “24 hours”. Mr Mursi toes the MB line of renouncing violence, yet espouses views that have contributed immensely to the rise of free-lance enforcers of religious orthodoxy.

At the core of this violence is a deficit of legitimacy. The current Egyptian state was created by Muhammad Ali two centuries ago and has been largely an elite business, with reform imposed from the top down. Perhaps that was necessary for a country beaten down by centuries of neglect and abuse. But it is no longer tolerable in current Egypt. The Islamist project is a minority undertaking, in many ways similar to the far-right European projects of the early 20th century. Its attitude toward violence has veered in different directions. When an MB cadre assassinated Prime Minister Nuqrashi in 1948, Al-Banna tried vigorously and vainly to disassociate himself from it. A decade later Islamist violence against Nasser was welcomed by Qutb as he strove to provide a theoretical underpinning for it. Qutb is for the deranged faithful what  Marx was for the confused communist. Since the assassination of Sadat Egypt has lived under the knowledge that the faithful Islamists can perpetrate violence against any segment of society to coerce it into Godly correctness. The state responded with equal and less calibrated excess, and in the process undermined its legitimacy.

The next president will likely be elected by a bare majority. Will that give Shafiq, if he is the winner, the impetus to gain legitimacy by fixing the police, or will it urge him toward greater repression to support his limited mandate?  If Mursi is the winner he will realize that the support for the current Qutbist MB is softer than imagined. Will that nudge the MB into greater tolerance and clamping down on the violent among them, or will it force them to use free-lancers to accomplish social coercion not possible through their weak control of the levers of power?

The question leaves those who care for Egypt with more foreboding than hope.

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