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The Question of Violence: Context is Everything

He Who is Without a State

by WAEL ESKANDER

t is important to note a fact, forgotten even among many human rights defenders: Every human rights violation is the responsibility of the state. The state is accountable for every crime, even if the abuse happens between civilians. Some may be tempted to contest this rule of responsibility. But in the world of human rights, the state has a duty to protect its citizens against any human rights abuses.

Now that the condemnation part is out of the way, perhaps it’s best to try to understand what is really happening in Egypt, without needlessly trying to blame the violence on the victims. Here I mean both Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters and the protesters. Both have been pitted against one another through policy.

But having established that the state, or the Brotherhood Guidance Bureau, is fully blamed for the unfortunate violent events that are taking place across Egypt, it is still important to understand why instead of who.

The true nature of what’s happening is cause and effect. Justice became unattainable and people are sick of mere promises. The police and the judiciary are complicit with an oppressive regime which does not heed to calls for justice.

It no longer pays to ask the state to enforce justice. They are the perpetrators and there is no one to hold them accountable.

People are finding their own form of justice which, while flawed, may be less flawed than the injustice served by the state. We need to think about the situation rationally, practically and without preconceived notions about the state.

To understand the situation in Egypt, one must not assume the existence of a state. One cannot assume that those in uniform have more legitimacy than other citizens. Therefore the talk of state laws, legitimacy and institutions has little value.

The question of violence

It is important to understand what happened before quickly condemning it. The easiest thing is to condemn violence, but before that, it’s important to understand what lead to it. The use of violence is legitimate when the state uses it as a means to provide justice in society. Violence needs to be just; it needs to be justified. Citizens’ violence in self-defence should not be condemned. Therefore, the context does matter.

The trouble is that people have assumed for so long that violence committed by individuals is not legitimate. But what if it is justified? What if it defends your life? What if it defends a loved one’s life? What if it defends your future? What if it defends your rights?

The assumption that the state has the legitimate right to violence, even if this state is illegitimate and unjust, is a flawed assumption. As soon as the state diverges from justice, the legitimacy of violence gets muddled up.

The police are uniformed thugs. The trouble is that they inflict pain and violence on command without having a vested interest.

Looking at violence from the side of the people, we see they have a direct interest in committing acts of violence. They are not doing it to subdue others, and not to steal what is not theirs. Their violence comes from a sense of injustice as they find nobody to turn to when the uniformed thugs and the politicians take away their rights.

Furthermore the violence is not directed primarily towards individuals but towards buildings that symbolize oppression. It is only when people get in the way that violence is directed at them.

In a sense, we can think of the individuals who block protesters’ path as similar to the police and Central Security Forces, who attempted to stop people from reaching Tahrir Square on 28 January 2011. If we take it a step further, we can see that the individuals being attacked by protesters also associate themselves with the country’s presidency and main political party.

They are just like the former ruling National Democratic Party thugs, but paid in lies, religious rhetoric and promises of paradise.

You may condemn a man being murdered for the violence he inflicts on his murderer. You may pretend to be fair about it and condemn both sides, or even ask for all sides to exercise restraint. In the end, a distanced condemnation does not change reality.

A great part of condemnation relates to countrymen killing one another. This presumes that the police and thugs during the 18 days were not Egyptians.

But if we make the argument that it was justified to have attacked them as representatives of the regime, does it not then follow that Muslim Brotherhood supporters acting in place of CSF troops are representatives of the regime?

When a citizen joins an oppressive police force, and goes so far as to shoot rounds of shotgun pellets at protesters, he is not acting in self-defence. His act is one of aggression.

Some say that a civil war is about to erupt between the Islamists and the seculars. It is my assessment that a war has already begun even if not called a war.

It’s the war of truth against lies, it’s the war of freedom in the face of oppression. It started with the Hosni Mubarak regime and is continuing after his fall with those who wish to extend that form of rule.

It is a war that starts with ideas, spills into control of public space and freedoms and then moves to controlling individual behaviour through fear and oppressive laws. What we see now is popular resistance to a regime which is very much used to employing civilian clothed militias alongside its uniformed police to do its dirty work.

This is not a fight between civilians, this is a fight between civilians experiencing injustice and other citizens with no direct vested interest standing up to them to prevent them from gaining their rights, much like the police.

What state?

The state is diminishing. As long as justice diminishes, the state will keep diminishing.

The state’s role is to rule through consensus. This can occur through fear or through justice. The more injustice prevails, the more the legitimacy of the state is compromised.

When someone cannot trust the fairness of a decision, he may still uphold it because it can be enforced on him. But when enough people do not trust it, force will not succeed. Decisions and laws lose their value if they cannot be upheld for the most part without the use of force.

It is those in power who are responsible for the deterioration of the state because they are responsible for the deterioration of justice. As the state becomes weaker, the legitimacy of using violence becomes weaker.

People have come to be in a perpetual state of resistance. The more time passes, the more people will feel they are without a state. The police, the politicians and their supporters will turn into criminals in their eyes, and their removal will be justified.

An individual who feels there is no state will only trust himself and his comrades. When confronted with the symbols of oppression face to face, it is not difficult to guess which citizen or protester will cast the first stone.

Wael Eskander is a journalist who has written for  Ahram Online and other publications.