The Cry for Human Rights: Violence, Transition, and the Egyptian Revolution

Originally published in Humanity Journal here

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The Cry for Human Rights: Violence, Transition, and the Egyptian Revolution

By Nadine Naber, Atef Said

In January 2011, Egypt and, indeed, the world witnessed something immense and unprecedented: millions of people from every sector of society took to the streets to overthrow their dictator. As known scholars and activists involved and interested in Egyptian politics, both authors of this essay were approached to comment on the momentous events and/or speak about them at public forums. Various media outlets sought out Atef Said, an Egyptian human rights lawyer and sociologist living in the area. The questions they asked, however, were disconcerting and followed a similar pattern: ‘‘What if Islamists take over? What about the fate of minorities and women?’’ Nadine Naber had a similar experience. From Facebook conversations to events at the university at which she taught, U.S.-based audiences consistently asked Naber about the potential for an ‘‘Islamic takeover’’ and the consequences for ‘‘women’s rights.’’

Since January 2011, the revolution has taken many turns and much has transpired: the formation of new political parties; strikes by doctors, lawyers, and professors; grassroots funeral processions for newly declared martyrs; conflicting efforts to draft a new constitution; continued battles over public space; the formation of new feminist coalitions; the launching of massive campaigns against sexual harassment; the election of a new president; public protests and a military coup ousting that president; and a subsequent backlash against the briefly empowered Muslim Brotherhood—to name just some highlights. Yet despite these dramatic upheavals and ongoing changes, the primary questions we are asked by media or public audiences remain the same: what will happen if/when Islamists take over, and what about women and minorities? Speaking at a policy briefing for the United Nations in 2013, Nadine Naber cautioned audience members against reductive Islamophobic analyses that simply blame ‘‘Islam’’ for attacks against women’s rights in Egypt. She urged the international community to take seriously the impact on women’s rights of state-based corruption, sexual violence, and economic violence. But still, one audience member insisted on asking: ‘‘Do you think it [Islam] is going to spread throughout Africa?’’

Our experiences reflect the kinds of analyses emerging from the U.S. media, government, and liberal human rights discourses about the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath. Specifically, they reflect analyses that frame the struggles of the revolution through a liberal-Orientalist cry for human rights that envisions a unidirectional flow of concern and assistance from ‘‘here’’ (the United States) to ‘‘there’’ (Egypt). In this framing, ‘‘women’’ and ‘‘minorities’’ are the primary victims, while Islam is the perpetrator, the specter whose expanded rule would endanger the former.1 The problems with this framing are twofold. First, it identifies Islam as the primary obstacle to the success of the revolution and the realization of democracy in Egypt; and second, it relies on abstract concepts of individual and political rights under the law to evaluate revolutionary success.

Focusing on examples of this trend within public discussions regarding (1) the process of transition following the Egyptian revolution, and (2) violence—specifically, gendered sexual violence and torture in Egypt—this essay interrogates the liberal-Orientalist ‘‘cry for human rights.’’ We are particularly concerned with how this framing of human rights both relies on and reinforces global neoliberalism and its attendant forms of violence. We argue that such analyses fail to account for the complex historical and political contexts in which violence and transition take place and the multiple, interconnected structures of power that impact revolutionary change. Far from questioning the value of protecting women’s rights or human rights, we seek to examine the limitations inherent to liberal-Orientalist epistemological frameworks and to highlight the connections among interpersonal violence, Egyptian state violence, and U.S.-led imperial practices in Egypt.

The application of distorting Orientalist lenses to Egypt and the Middle East in general is hardly new. More than thirty years ago, Edward Said wrote that Orientalism configures the ‘‘East’’ through ahistorical attributes such as religiosity, tyranny, and oppression, which are then contrasted with the ‘‘West’s’’ rationality and modernity. Since the war on terror, numerous scholars have noted how new versions of Orientalism restage this clash of civilizations thesis: we have freedom and democracy, they have violence and terrorism. According to this thesis, Islam and Arab culture are part of an unchanging tradition fundamentally incompatible with civilization and existing essentially outside history.2

Parallel to this literature on new and enduring forms of Orientalism, other scholars have traced the emergence of a particular liberal, abstract conception of human rights, along with a transnational but still Western-dominated institutional apparatus for monitoring and (ostensibly) safeguarding such rights.3 Overall, this literature contends that liberal human rights approaches developed out of Eurocentric contexts of neoliberal expansion and operate through the epistemological structures of individualism and universality and the material structures of capitalism.4 Deploying ethnocentric concepts of human rights (freedom, liberty, and so on), these universalist approaches tend to blame oppression in the global south on abstract concepts of ‘‘culture’’ or ‘‘tradition’’ and have reified colonialist notions of a liberated, developed north and a victimized, underdeveloped global south that needs to be saved by Western heroes.5 Such Orientalist approaches to human rights have been particularly prominent in advocacy related to gender and women’s rights in Arab and Muslim countries.6

Here, we focus on human rights discourses that operate through this convergence of liberalism and Orientalism and argue that liberal-Orientalist human rights not only obscure political and historical conditions but also provide an imperialist vocabulary for neoliberal expansion and military domination. The essay is divided into three parts. We begin first by reviewing the primary events of the revolution itself and the transition period up to the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Our point is not to provide a complete summary but to begin challenging some of the narratives of transition (or failed transition) that have circulated in Western-based coverage of events since the revolution. In the second section, we provide a comparison of reports and analyses of violence—with a particular focus on gender-based sexual violence— under, respectively, the Hosni Mubarak regime, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), and Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. We examine patterns in how and when discussions of violence alternately connected (or failed to connect) interpersonal violence and state violence, used Orientalist logics to conflate and explain both forms of violence, and obscured from view the broader geopolitical contexts that shape the phenomena of violence. In the third section, we focus on examples of U.S.-based discussions of torture in Egypt during the same period that ignored the various factors that extended the widespread use of torture by the Egyptian state—factors such as the adoption of harsh neoliberal economic policies and the transfer of governance to a militarized police state. We also analyze human rights reporting after the revolution that focused only on how violations could be traced to the rise of Islamists in power.

[This is an excerpt. To continue reading, please download the PDF.]

  1. See a good analysis on the Salon website about Fox news coverage during the first few days of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, when most of Fox’s discussion centered on Islam and Islamists: ‘‘The Egyptian Revolution as Told by Fox News,’’ Salon, February 1, 2011.
  2. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979). See also Nadine Naber, Arab America (New York: New York University Press, 2012); Minoo Moallem, Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945–2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Evelyn Alsultany, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
  3. Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013); Miriam Ticktin, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
  4. Sally Engle Merry, ‘‘Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle,’’ American Anthropologist 108, no. 1 (March 2006): 38–51.
  5. Leti Volpp, ‘‘Feminism Versus Multiculturalism,’’ Columbia Law Review 101, no. 5 (June 1, 2001): 1181–218.
  6.  Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘‘Seductions of the ‘Honor Crime,’’’ differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 22, no. 1 (2011): 17–63; Sherene Razack, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

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