And the future remains, as always, unknown and unpredictable
Bassam El Baroni and Hassan Khan
The following discussion took place in early August 2012 between Hassan Khan and Bassam El Baroni. It catches the early shift into the third of the mentioned regimes. Since this discussion took place many things have happened—many details, many injustices, many political manoeuvres, many deaths, many conflicts and disagreements—but not a lot has actually changed in essence since August 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood might have gained more power, a new constitution might have been passed, and the military might have become less visible on the political horizon, but all these happenings seemed to acquire a strange semi-virtuality under the sheer power of the daily and persistent agonism that has penetrated all forms of being in Egypt. Anything published about the political situation in Egypt will already be old news. Catching up with the news in this currently turbulent land is almost an impossibility. Thus, publishing this discussion a considerable time later than when it originally took place is not about simply providing a source of news but also about capturing the form, shape, and quality of a set of memories as they formulate in a constantly shifting and excessively speedy political and social context.1
Since the uprising in Egypt first began in January 2011, the political status of the country has shifted and mutated: from what seemed a police state with military undertones to a military state with police- and Islamist-led state characteristics to—at the time of first writing this introduction in February 2013—an Islamist-led state with strong police and military state qualities. All throughout this process of agitated mutation there have been constants: mainly the persistence of an atmosphere of revolution in a large segment of society and the inability of these three consecutive regimes to think differently or even use different tactics for the suppression of the critical mass of Egyptian society that is unable to accept the idea of living in deteriorated conditions under cosmetically different totalitarianisms. In the year since this conversation took place everything we have mentioned has changed, several times. The Ultras lost their revolutionary credibility, seemed to have made a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, and held the whole country hostage for a few tense days; the judiciary adopted revolutionary slogans as it tried to defend its power and prerogatives, yet continues to search for backroom deals; old SCAF (the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the ruling body of Egypt before Mohamed Morsi was officially elected as president) was dissolved and a new seemingly Brotherhood-friendly version put into place, yet the military has all its power and wealth intact; Hosni Mubarak has made a smug comeback and his cronies have mostly been released from prison; revolutionary sentiments and forces have ebbed and waned but seem to be very much on the rise again; and the future remains, as always, unknown and unpredictable.
Hassan Khan – You recently gave a talk about “edification,” and what really caught my attention was the possibility that it offered us a new way of approaching a political reality, and so it felt like it was very useful in relation to the period we are living through, because it is a period in which everything is heightened.
Bassam El Baroni – Yes.
Khan – And that is why our positions change all the time and also partially why we constantly keep trying to understand what is going on. I want to try opening up the possibility of how we can understand how things are happening and what is going on exactly. We can start with concrete things. We had that right after February 112 when there were all these songs and commercial products, and there was a celebration of this “celebration,” in quotation marks, of the revolution in the media (the state media as well as in private media), and it was very disturbing for me at the time because it felt like this was the absolute failure of this revolution, and then as time went on these songs disappeared, bit by bit. They seemed to disappear and they did not really catch on, and in a way it was indicative of, I felt, a certain success because it indicated that first of all, people did not believe in this language anymore, these kind of empty celebrations and songs. It felt like that was not enough anymore, but it also felt like there was nothing really to celebrate as of yet, which was proven and remains to be the situation, and that maybe there is something uneasy—even in the positive sense—about how people feel, which indicates a real success actually. It seems to imply that the change is profound and people by nature do not feel very comfortable with big changes, even if the change is not profound on the political level and on the structural level in terms of how the state is constituted, but the change is profound in another sense, in a kind of horizon that lies in front of people, and how they think about it.
Baroni – Yes. When you mention these songs, it might be useful to put them within a short historical context, to outline their significance within a historical lineage, a recent historical lineage.
Khan – Yes. In the ’60s, for example, national songs had massive real success. They were popular, people sang them and listened to them, and believed in them. To this day people look back to these songs (specifically the nationalist songs of the ’60s), which are the only nationalist songs that have any real staying power. The songs that came in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s were all forgotten and do not have the same impact. So that has, of course, to do with, whether it is true or not, people still believing that in the ’60s there was some kind of national project that had some success. And at the time, then, in the ’60s, that was a general, victorious atmosphere, at least until 1967. There was a belief in the nation, whereas in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, these songs were always understood to be just the system, or the regime, or whatever, and people kind of ignored them. And when there was an attempt to reproduce this atmosphere after February 11, it did not have the same impact. In one way it might mean that the revolution failed, but in another way it might mean that the revolution really happened, because it is a revolution, in my perception at least, against the system that produced nationalist songs in the first place.
Baroni – Yes. In a previous discussion we also talked about the idea of delegitimation, and that one of the things that obviously happened, especially in the world of online platforms and discussions on the Internet, is the delegitimation of all the political forces, all the political factors. Whoever is playing, whoever becomes a player within this political spectrum, is instantly kind of delegitimized in a sense. Do you think this idea is also linked to the failure of these songs? How do you think the failure of these songs, or these kind of patriotic emblems, are linked to political delegitimation?
Khan – Before the revolutionary events that are still ongoing since January 2011, I always had the feeling that the state would collapse. I did not imagine that these events were going to happen, but I imagined that the state would collapse. This is what I thought was going to happen in the next ten years: that the Egyptian state was going to implode, that there would be a chaotic period, and it would really be the collapse of that system under its own weight and its own corruption, etc. And then what happened is also part of this imagined scenario, so it does not cancel out this idea that the state is collapsing, because part of the collapse of the state is the revolution, I think. And, of course, part of that process is the delegitimation of every institution within the state. But even more profound, I think, is that the accepted values, constructions, and figures are also being delegitimized. You have mentioned that a lot depends on who is practicing delegitimation. In any case, even if it is done, it is always done under duress. SCAF had to do something, and when they did that thing, they delegitimized one of their tools, and they paid a price to achieve that thing as in the case of when they cracked down on Egypt’s NGOs.3 SCAF arrested these people, and then they let them go, so SCAF kind of delegitimized the judiciary by doing this. But they made the decision in the first place to implicate the judiciary in that situation as part of their political manoeuvres, and I think that these political manoeuvres were never made with the regime’s total consent.
The actions were made under duress, but if they (the judiciary and the military) could afford not to do this, they would have rather not. Because they felt threatened, afraid, and panicky, they kept doing things that delegitimized institutions and values, as well as the father figure, which you mentioned in a previous conversation. I find it exciting and dangerous as well, because it could mean that people will lose complete belief in any possibility; but on the other hand, it is maybe also exciting because it implies that there might be a possibility of a moment where we will be forced to think of completely new structures, maybe in the future.
Could you continue to speak about the father figure?
Baroni – Yes. One of the things that I think was really part of the political structure in Egypt, the social political structure, was the sacredness of the father—not the family kind of father, but the political father figure. Of course this was basically all around the mostly Arab regimes, which all have this construction of a father figure, and then the state is all structured around a hidden father figure. The actual father figure is not actually that important, but it is the symbol of the father that is—I mean, this is why we find a photo of the president in all political establishments or bureaucratic institutions. The presence of the father looming in the background serves everywhere as a reminder, a symbolic reminder, of the force of the father figure, and then this force of the father figure structures, or is supposed to structure, how we position our power within the system, or our power as individuals. So I think that the delegitimation that we mentioned earlier is very linked to this idea of a rebellion against any kind of authority of a father figure. Even the symbol of a father figure is kind of refused, and I think, interestingly, in a way there is a kind of humility that is being used against institutions, against people who practice politics in Egypt, to destroy this—the potential of any father figure emerging. Even after Morsi became president, very quickly he was instantly humiliated in a sense, even if it was a symbolic humiliation online in people’s discussions, jokes, and so on. And this is a practice that I think is new. Not in the sense that people were not retaliating against the father figure before, but I think it is the sheer degree of it in that actually nobody seems to be able to escape it, whatever their political position is.
This practice is actually a new thing in that it is not only about SCAF or the president, but about anybody who speaks with a political voice. And this is why I think when we discussed Mohamed ElBaradei’s position previously, we were talking about him just being present through his Twitter voice. I think that Twitter is a mechanism he is using because his tweets are in a sense an avatar for him, and using this voice is what protects him from being delegitimized, and I think he is very aware of the power of delegitimation. I do not know if he is fully aware that this could actually work to his advantage in the long run, but after this revolutionary process nears or comes to an end, he could emerge as somebody who is still intact in terms of political legitimacy while everybody else is kind of delegitimized and does not have the authority to speak any longer on a secure political level.
Khan – But, he has also been critiqued a lot for only communicating through Twitter, for being distant, uninvolved, elitist. Who has Twitter in the first place? So, I mean, yes, I see the point and there is some truth in it, and in some ways his position in the public imaginary I think has shifted. People now are more willing to see that he is untainted, but at the same time he remains ineffective.
Baroni – Yes, well, I think in a way, if you want to be effective, the price that you are going to have to pay for being effective is being delegitimized. If you now want to partake in politics, and you actually partake actively, and even if you are doing some things that are positive, the speed at which you do them is significant (I think a lot of politics has to do with the speed). One element that we did not touch upon in our chat earlier is that everything is so sped up. There is a constant pressure by people, by the public, to speed things up, and I think even if you are doing something positively, this pressure ultimately will make it quite problematic, because you are probably not going to be up to speed because of the complications in a wrecked political system. To get things done probably needs some time. So I think yes, the charge of elitism is valid and I think to some degree you can charge ElBaradei with that—but on another level I think it is also a kind of, let’s say, a wisdom that comes from an understanding of a revolutionary situation as an outsider. He is definitely an outsider, so his actual identity as an outsider is constantly and easily attacked. I think he just decided that it is better for him to remain on the outside. I do not think his outside position comes from elitism, although he does come from a certain kind of political class that is definitely not your normal kind of political class, which has been present for the last thirty years or so.
Khan – That works to his advantage, I think.
Baroni – Of course, but at the same time, it is also alienating. He speaks a language that is a bit alien to all the political forces that are active, and with that he is always attacked as being elitist, so it is not necessarily true that he is elitist, but I think that there is an issue of communication. His vocabulary is very different I think, and I think after a few months following the revolution he discovered that stepping aside might be best for him. And I mean even if he is aside, I think he is not effective, but he is definitely taking on the role of a moral voice, and that is why Twitter is the most suitable channel, because I think, yes, people do not have Twitter, the majority, but what he says gets around. It gets filtered into TV comments and into newspapers.
Khan – It gets reported. It gets reported on online news portals, as a news item. I can say that in a strange way, he is doing something that you are very critical of, because he is being the father figure. He is being the role model. And, you have critiqued the Muslim Brotherhood for trying to play that role.
Baroni – No, but I think the thing with him is that it is of course a completely different idea. He is a role model, but he is a role model for a specific event. With the Muslim Brotherhood, they are not about an event. They represent a way of life and are role models as a way of life.
Khan – Can you explain what for you is problematic about that?
Baroni – First of all where does this idea of the importance of being a role model come from in the Muslim Brotherhood? It comes from the idea that is inscribed into their kind of manifestos—that they want to...that they perceive themselves as ultimately being the lords of the universe; I think that is the proper translation.
Khan – Masters of the universe.
Baroni – “Lords” is a better word, I think.
Khan – You are referring to what Safwat Hegazi said recently in a TV show, specifically.
Baroni – Yes, he is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and he said—
Khan – He claims not to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Baroni – He is a very specific character that we could discuss later. In any case, one of the most annoying things about dealing with people who are part of the Brotherhood system is that they deprive themselves of their individual desires, or they pretend to, which is something I do not know if anyone can actually do. They pretend to control all possible desires in relationships, both public and professional, coming from their belief that they should always be in control and that if they give windows into their desires, then they think they are losing part of their ability to control situations. This is why they control situations very, very well. They participate in a training process, an edification process that is of a specific vernacular, which teaches people who join the Brotherhood that they are the lords of the universe and that they are supposed to be the ultimate role models for the sake of spreading their discourse and their identity.
They are not just spreading these things, but replicating them. The idea of replication is a very important factor in their discourse. They are looking at how to replicate themselves so in the end the whole society becomes one big Brotherhood with its inscribed rules and protocols, and so on and so forth. When we were talking about ElBaradei’s political discourse, it is a very different thing, because for him this is not a way of life and also it is not linked to religion at all. Of course, the Brotherhood’s values are linked to religion somehow, through their use of holy texts to make claims, to make their moral values valid. They use Quranic texts to validate these values and inscribe them within a tight field of morals that people are supposed to spread, being the ultimate human beings and the lords of the universe and all that. By contrast, ElBaradei’s voice is really about a specific time—a moral voice that is about a specific time, a specific event regarding what is right to do in this particular event—so I think it is not a historical moral voice, it is a moral voice that is...
Khan – Strategic.
Baroni – That is strategic and linked to a specific event.
Khan – You have described the Brotherhood as having an army-like structure in a way, so I would like to think about the three very different types of armies that exist within Egyptian society right now: one being the Brotherhood, one being the military itself, and I guess you can also say the police force and the Ministry of Interior. I was not thinking of them, but let’s say the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Ultras,4 who are also militaristic in another way, having discipline and a sense of almost militaristic group identification and drills. So these are three forces in society. Of course the Ultras are the smallest force of them, because they are the newest, youngest, and are the least entrenched in existing power orders. They are the most outside contingent, but they still represent a certain force, at least among young people. They have a certain glamour among the youth. So there are three very different militarized factions within Egyptian society at this moment. I think it might be interesting to discuss that.
Baroni – Of course, when we talk about militarism it is important to note that we are not necessarily talking about groups that use weapons as such, but military structures and—
Khan – The only actually armed group of these three is the military itself. [Addendum: later in 2012, it became evident that the Muslim Brotherhood was also armed, although the extent, range, and kind of arms the Brotherhood used in some attacks on anti-Morsi protestors is disputed.]
Baroni – The military itself, yes. I think with the Ultras what is really interesting is the magnet that they chose to build their force around, which is football, or soccer, as it is known elsewhere. Of course, I think in recent history, Turkey and other countries saw the rise of similar groups affiliated with football clubs.
Khan – They are everywhere, but I think what is very unique in Egypt is the way they have become politicized.
Baroni – In Turkey they have also become very politicized, but in Egypt I think not only have they become politicized but they have actually entered public consciousness as part of the revolution, which I think happened nowhere else. They actually became part of the revolutionary forces, of the people, of the rebels. For that they were punished quite harshly in the Port Said stadium incident.5 And you were talking a few days ago, when we were discussing the Ultras, about a particular member, quite a prominent member—
Khan – Jimmy Hood.
Baroni – Yes, Jimmy Hood. His real name is...
Khan – Gamal?
Baroni – Yes, Mohammed Gamal. He was on a TV interview with a really despicable—
Khan – —with the ex-football goalie of the Egyptian team in the ’80s and ’90s. He was a member of the National Democratic Party, a member of Parliament.
Baroni – He was the goal keeper for the—
Khan – For the National Squad.
Baroni – —for the National Squad in the World Cup in 1990. He was not a bad goalkeeper. He was quite a good goalkeeper, but he is a really vile character and has been a TV show host for some time now for sports talk show programs. Can you tell me about this incident?
Khan – Yes, this incident and other incidents, actually. First of all Jimmy Hood is obviously a member of the Ultras but he never identifies himself as that, because they have a habit of not speaking to the media, which is part of their self-identification. Ultras do not talk to the media and do not identify themselves as people who speak to the media, which already is kind of interesting. So Jimmy Hood says that he is a journalist who covers the Ultras, and who is sympathetic to their ideas and causes, but that he is not an Ultras member himself. This is how he defines himself, and this is how he explains that he is speaking to the media, because the Ultras themselves will not talk to the media. So by definition because he spoke to the media he is not an Ultras person per se—that is interesting already, although I guess you can say that he is a member, but I do not know how it really works.
The other thing is that Ahmed Shobeir—who is a typical product of the Mubarak political system and a crony of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the ex-president’s party which was in control of much of Egyptian politics—was a very corrupt figure who was also a football player; this is typical. Shobeir was the kind of person who benefited from the system and also promoted it, and he was a member of Parliament for Tanta, which is a city in the Delta. There was an incident two or three years ago between Shobeir and the Ultras, so there is a history to the antipathy between them, where the Ultras said they were going to make him lose the elections in Tanta, and they campaigned against him. Not supporting anyone else, they just campaigned against Shobeir in Tanta, and I think it got a bit messy because the Ultras had been accused of being rowdy and vandals. Before the revolution there was a long feud with the authorities, the police (as is typical of football fans), and so there is already a history between this specific figure and the Ultras. But then with the revolution, Shobeir commented in the media—
Baroni – Attacking everybody.
Khan – —attacking everybody, smearing everybody, accusing everybody of being a foreign agent or a saboteur.
Baroni – Even before the revolution...
Khan – Yes.
Baroni – Just attacking anyone who was successful, basically.
Khan – This was his style and it was part of the politics of the period. The idea was to compromise all elements of society, so that nobody could have a real position. Since the revolution, of course, this tendency became even more blatant and common, but because these people are opportunists, they all tried to change their position in some ways, to adjust with the changing times. And so Shobeir, which seems very ironic, actually confessed on-air that he was forging his elections, the last elections, which he lost. He was complaining about how he lost because his opponent, who was also from the same party, the NDP, forged his election and he knew this because he had forged his own, and he said this on TV! Anyway, to get back to the point, Shobeir has his TV show, and he attacks everyone on it, but especially the Ultras. There had been this long feud, and then he invited Jimmy Hood to appear on his show.
Baroni – Yes, after the Port Said incident.
Khan – Exactly, after the Port Said incident, in which over seventy people were killed, and Jimmy Hood—
Baroni – And I think we need to also make clear what the Port Said incident was.
Khan – Yes.
Baroni – Because I think a lot of people outside of the Egyptian context—
Khan – —do not know about it. Perhaps they know, but don’t understand what it was exactly.
Baroni – It was definitely something. When friends, who are not from Egypt, started asking questions about it, they had no idea about what we knew, because it is kind of embedded in the code.
Khan – Embedded in the code?
Baroni – Yes, embedded in the code of how we instinctively know that this is the doing of certain forces and so on. When you live in Egypt and understand its politics you instantly know this—
Khan – —that the event was a set-up. But, there was a lot of evidence (not just embedded in the code) that the Port Said riot was actually organized by the cops.
Baroni – Yes.
Khan – OK. So, briefly, on Port Said—there was a match between the Al-Ahly football club from Cairo and the Al-Masry football club, based in Port Said. In the second half of this match, suddenly the gates of the stadium were locked and thousands of thugs attacked the other side (i.e., the Al-Ahly fans) without the police or the army doing anything to stop them. And actually the gates were opened to allow the thugs to pass through, and they entered on the Al-Ahly side, which was full of Al-Ahly Ultras, called Red Devils, and over seventy people were killed. Some were stabbed, some were thrown from the stadium, from the stands, and some were crushed. In total around seventy-six Ultra football supporters were killed in this incident.
Baroni – And what evidence was there to prove that these were paid thugs that did this?
Khan – Well, first of all there was evidence that doors to the stadium were welded shut, so people could not get out—that is number one. Number two, all these people had weapons like knives and machetes, and these kinds of weapons. It is even said some had shotguns; they had entered the stadium with these weapons without being searched, without being caught. Also, some people say that there were certain individuals there who are known to have been NDP. There is also another theory that these were also football fans that were incited to do this. I would say it was probably a mix of both: that there were actual thugs, paid thugs with weapons, and that in the heat of the moment they incited whoever into it, as the situation turned totally chaotic. But what is remarkable is that the security forces did absolutely nothing. There is also video footage of the chief of police in Port Said at the beginning of the match and then he leaves at halftime. There were many, many indications that it was a completely managed event.
And the idea was of course to punish the Ultras for their role in the revolution, but not just their role in the revolution, their role since. Since February 2011, every time they would go to a match they would do several things: one they would sing their songs, which they are quite well known for, songs which are mostly about insulting the cops, the Ministry of Interior, the Mubarak regime, or honouring the memory of the martyrs (people who were killed during the uprisings). There are also songs about being Ultras, so they have different genres. But what is remarkable about these songs are the lyrics, which are very, very witty and pertinent, like the song “Ya Ghorab W’Meashesh” (You crow nesting in our house). They get to the point, basically, that the police are black crows who are living among us, and kind of spoiling our lives. Or their other song “Mish Haninsah El Tahrir Ya Welaad El Wiskhah,” which means “We have not forgotten Tahrir you sons of bitches,” more or less. And that is also another great song; I think the title kind of explains what it is about. So for the continuous and various battles that have happened between the police and the demonstrators, the Ultras have always gone and actually physically been involved in fighting, so this is something else they are famous for—for going and fighting with the cops, hand to hand, or throwing stones, or being shot at, etc.
But what is remarkable about the Ultras for me, other than these things—and of course they have been very significant in purely physical ways—is the fact that they have produced their own aesthetic. For example, the font they use to write their slogans is very specific and distinctive. The flags they make, because they also have flags and banners, are also famous, as are their firework displays, which all come from football culture obviously. And actually the most impressive thing is their synchronized stadium tactics (i.e., a bit like what they do in North Korea), where they create these human panels with the portraits of martyrs or of sentences that are usually slogans or phrases against the regime or pro-revolution. It is really incredible the way these things are done because they are spectacular. As much as they communicate a sense of joy, through songs and football culture, they also communicate an extremely disciplined ability—and this is part of their aesthetic. So that’s one thing I find interesting about the Ultras.
Another thing I find interesting about the Ultras is that they are a force that became really politicized by this revolution, and through that politicization have actually introduced in Egyptian public discourse very crucial and critical elements that nobody else, including “intellectuals,” have been able to introduce. So the idea of freedom for the Ultras—although ironically they are highly disciplined and in most other countries would be considered to be a fascistic or hooligan kind of group, they actually introduced this concept of individual freedom, through a demand to enjoy their sport. So they introduced that concept of freedom, and wed it to a concept of pleasure, which seems to be extremely crucial. For them, it is specific. For them, it is football that is pleasure, but that does not matter, because it is not the point what that pleasure is as much as the idea of pleasure itself.
What is interesting—and I am going to go back to Jimmy Hood because I’ve seen him speak on several occasions other than the Shobeir incident—is that the first time I saw Jimmy Hood speak I was really impressed because he was defending the use of swear words and saying that this is part of football culture, and that we should have the freedom to use these words, and whoever thinks that people are going to stand and support their teams without cussing the other side is stupid. He said this on TV, and it was really impressive, a total shift in the way of addressing public discourse in Egypt, that as I said even intellectuals would not do. Intellectuals are too constrained by their ideas of being good so that they have to theorize their opinions in a way that makes them distant, while Jimmy Hood, in this case, was speaking about his very directly, bluntly, and blatantly, and saying this is our right to do that, and that is radical. I find that radical.
If we go back to the Shobeir incident, what was really interesting is that Shobeir invited Jimmy Hood after the Port Said massacre to interview him. He was surprised that Jimmy Hood accepted and appeared. Shobeir introduced him and they were having a very polite TV exchange when suddenly Shobeir said that he was actually surprised Jimmy Hood had come on the show. Jimmy Hood then explained in a very, very polite fashion, without cussing, why he would not be honoured to sit in front of someone like Shobeir, who makes his living off of the blood of others, referring to the Port Said incident. He then critiqued Shobeir harshly, on live TV, on his program, and stood up, took off the mic, and said, “I refuse to continue this program with someone like you,” and left the studio. It was great. It was very powerful. The way it was done, again, was in a very disciplined fashion. It did not seem to be hysterical or narcissistic. It seemed to be very savvy. It seemed that he wanted to make a certain point about this figure, and his position in the media, and how media functions, and he made that point in a profound way, and then left. So this is somehow what I can say about the Ultras in a way.
So, the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, and the Ultras are three factions that have a militaristic edge to them in different fashions.
Baroni – We also previously talked about the idea that the other religious factions in Egypt, the Islamist factors or, rather, factions within political Islam, were not as disciplined as the Brotherhood in terms of their suppression of desire. The Salafists, for example, have had a very long and varied series of events, whereas the so-called Salafi Sheikhs (Preachers) release videos, or videos are taken of these preachers saying very unusual and—
Khan – Outrageous.
Baroni – Yes—outrageous things. But, during the past year and a half or so we have seen many different videos, and many different things that the Salafists have been claiming and doing, so that for many Egyptians, who are not very aware of the Salafi movement, it was quite shocking that we have been living with people with these ideas for quite some time. I think that one of the problems with the former regime was the limited capacity to express ideas (due to the fact that everybody thought they were being monitored), so what ended up happening is that many of the different facets of Egyptian society did not know anything about the others. What we have seen since February 2011 is that there has been a learning process where we begin to learn about the different ideas formulated over the past thirty years in our society, whether they are extremist religious views or political ideologies that have influenced people, even in the case of the Ultras. In a sense there was very little awareness—even by intellectuals or other members of society who were not very close to the football scene—about who these Ultras really were.
Khan – When I first heard of them in 2008 I was very curious about who they were. I thought in the beginning that they were like militias being created by the NDP via the Al-Ahly club. To turn football fans into informal militias, which is obviously completely opposite to what they are, this is what I imagined they were at that point.
Baroni – OK, but there was a sense for most of us that they were just troublemakers. There was no way of knowing who they were, and it is very strange because one thing that the revolution did was it actually revealed who people were. Whether it was the Ultras, the Salafists, or the Brotherhood (even though we knew about the Brotherhood probably more than these others), we found out who these groups were since the revolution began. We also found out about the army, because very few people during those eighteen days (of the initial uprising) distrusted the army, and I remember myself speaking not very respectfully about the army in one situation, and then being beat up because of that during the revolution because I thought the idea that the army would take over would be a disaster. I think the majority of Egyptians felt that the army being handed power was the best thing; this is what they ultimately wanted. After the revolution began, after those eighteen days, what was uncovered was really basically the differences being suppressed, the information that was always being suppressed about different movements, different identities, different—
Khan – Including the army.
Baroni – Including the army itself, which was gradually—
Khan – Revealed.
Baroni – —revealed, and I think this is one of the most interesting benefits of the revolution, that we are not dealing anymore with unknown entities. You had a sense before that everything was an unknown entity. You could only know so much about anything, and I am wondering how this was managed, how this actually happened, how were they (I am not even sure here if “they” should be used) able to—how were we able to develop this kind of system where information about anything was somehow muddled up and...
Khan – It is a sign of a regime existing—this fact that everything was mystified and that the institutions of the state were mythical. This regime was born in the ’50s and strengthened in the ’60s, strengthened to the point that even after the massive blow of 1967 it managed to go on for forty more years, even after 1967, which is quite incredible when you think about it. I think that is why the system was understood and accepted, because the regime was part of society, completely part of society. But what happened over the past decade is that they, the regime and society, drifted apart. The affective bonds, the minimum requirements that allow for an agreement between them, were broken or at least severely weakened. They truly drifted apart, and for many reasons. The mistakes the regime made, developments and mutations within society itself, and the different things that happened, their sum total was that this drift happened. The regime and society really started to become disentangled to the point where, again with what happened in Tunisia, the example of the possibility of a regime being taken out was enough to incite that separation, and to basically surprise everyone.
There are two things here; one is the potential this drift unleashes, and the other is the danger of this potential being appropriated. For example, the Ultras—or not just the Ultras, but every group that has come out since the revolution—immediately all the forces in society try to exploit it, such as political forces, the Muslim Brotherhood, the SCAF, or other political figures, or whoever. So the Ultras come out, and then immediately there is Ultras Sabahi (supporters of Leftist-Nasserist political figure Hamdeen Sabahi), Ultras ElBaradei (supporters of opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei), and Ultras Abu Ismail (supporters of extreme-right wing Salafist figure Hazem Salah Abu Ismail). Ultras is another sign, another danger maybe.
Everything is immediately taken over, also by advertisements, that is its logic, but also not just within the commercial sector there. It happens in the political spectrum very fast. It happens everywhere—that is part of the delegitimation you were speaking about. So one wonders, is it possible to maintain, not institutions maybe, but some of this revolutionary energy in the middle of this constant appropriation? On the other hand, I will go back to this feeling of unease that everybody shares. People are unhappy and I think people are unhappy not only because nothing of what they wanted happened. If we were lucky—which we were not—and really good things had happened, and some people who had some sense were able to be in charge and start a process that made sense, I think the unease would have been much less. But even then, I suspect there would have been a level of unease within everybody that has to do with maybe the feeling of what you called the father figure falling, which is a big thing.
If you have lived with the father figure all your life then there is a sense of loss with the regime. And it is not a sense of loss for Mubarak himself, because he failed as a father figure—and especially in his trial, he humiliated himself, which was worse than being humiliated by others. It was the worst thing he could do. It is why he is basically forgotten now, which is amazing: this man who for thirty years dominated public life in Egypt was forgotten in a year, or a bit more. He managed to do that by humiliating himself, by not managing to live up to the idea of the father even in his loss, even in his defeat. He was unable to maintain a sense of dignity. He could not play the role that Gamal Abdel Nasser would have played.
Baroni – Or even Saddam Hussein.
Khan – Or even Saddam Hussein, exactly. Even Saddam Hussein.
Baroni – Because with Saddam Hussein’s—
Khan – —with Saddam Hussein’s fall there were theatrics. The way he was executed, for instance.
Baroni – The way he went up there with pride and a sense of respecting himself, respecting his history no matter how brutal and bloody. He has still up until this very day people who support him—probably not his dictatorship, but him as a character. They want to affiliate themselves with him as having a sense of Arab dignity of sorts.
Khan – Yes, right, and Mubarak completely failed at that.
Baroni – He even failed at that, and I think probably it was because of Saddam Hussein. I think because he saw that when you actually stand up (with Muammar Gaddafi it was the same thing, and both Hussein and Gaddafi ruled military regimes), when you actually continue, when you take your last breath as a soldier, and are prepared to die as a soldier, you will be killed. When you are ready to do that, when you are ready to stand up to the last moment as a soldier, you will be killed, you will be taken revenge upon, but if you sink into this—
Khan – Pathetic.
Baroni – ...pathetic, whatever it is.
Khan – Self-pity.
Baroni – Yes. Then he actually managed to delete himself from public memory, while up until this very day there are still some people thinking of Saddam Hussein, or even Gaddafi, as rulers who managed to stand up to something, even though they were dictators.
Khan – Right, Mubarak has basically failed to stand up to anything, including himself.
Baroni – Exactly.
Khan – He is really an exceptional character!
Baroni – It is quite an achievement.
Khan – Quite an achievement—it is true. But that is exactly what he has done, he has really deleted himself, intentionally deleted himself. So what is that, then? The question that arises is, what are people looking for, then?
Baroni – What are people looking for? Of course we cannot generalize. This is one thing, but I think that I sensed early on that people do not have a replacement or a ready idea for what they want to replace when they take down a system. And this was what was happening during the eighteen days following February 11. People did not really know what they wanted after Mubarak left. People do not really know what they want in specific terms and not in general terms, so this vacuum leaves a group like the Muslim Brotherhood a very nice piece of cake that is ready to eat on the table.
But people who are not actually part of that structure, like the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Islamists in general, what do they really want? They do not know what they really want. I think it is quite obvious. But they do know what they do not want, and that is important. They know that they do not want the father figure. They know that they do not want the ideologies that have dominated the political discourse locally and internationally for the past few centuries. They know that the only thing they do want is a kind of freedom, an undefined freedom, and this is very evident in the Ultras’ case. So I think what is happening now is a manifestation of a very deep change in the future in political systems, which we have seen all over the world failing differently in different ways, and to certain degrees. The current financial crises are very indicative of that.
The only thing different political movements have in common, in different parts of the world, is this sense that change is not really about wanting a democracy. It is really about wanting a better quality of life in general, and that better quality of life will not come from exhausted things like democracy, exhausted ideologies like socialism or capitalism and so on. What needs to be changed is something that is much deeper; it is something that is about the rules themselves between an individual and society. The rules that shape the bonds, the agreements—a word that you like to use, “the agreements”—the contracts between the individual as an individual functioning with his or her full individuality, in relationship to a society. These rules need to be rewritten and reorganized, and I think that is a very difficult thing.
At one point in the upcoming years these ideas will begin to shape into some form of ideology, some form of political movement that has a weight, but for now they are just feelings, emotions, and ideas that do not yet have the vocabulary to structure a proper argument. This is why most people involved in these movements, in revolutions, always use the tactic of delegitimation. It is much easier to delegitimize, but it is much more difficult to build. Delegitimation is about deconstructing; it is about destructing. But the idea of building is very difficult, because the vocabulary is not there.
Khan – But do you really think that people do not want something like democracy?
Baroni – No. I think people want democracy, but they want it because it is the only political system that still has some sort of validity. After a long dictatorship, it is very logical to want democracy; if there is a real democracy, a change of power every four years is a kind of protection, a safety valve from going back into the same age of dictatorship. So I think people want democracy for very pragmatic reasons. But in terms of what it has to offer as a political system, I think there is great doubt everywhere about it. I do not think that people see democracy as they used to.
Khan – Yes, but we are speaking about the population in Egypt, and I think people in Egypt now see democracy much more than they did before, and are more supportive of the idea than they were before.
Baroni – I think out of purely pragmatic reasons. I think the understanding of democracy in Egypt is also quite different than elsewhere. There are different understandings of what democracy is, just like there are different understandings of what secularism is, but I think the general idea is that democracy is a pragmatic process, and that it is about voting. It does not come with the baggage of a certain history, so it is then OK for all the different political factions in Egypt. But this makes it very susceptible, a term that can be easily manipulated, because you have taken away all the culture of it. All the aesthetics, the morals, the ethics, the historical philosophy built into this term are taken away, and it just becomes a voting process, a way of getting somebody into power and removing that somebody from power.
Khan – Yes, that is part of the problem.
Baroni – It is a problem of course, but this is the democracy that most people in Egypt understand. When we say they want democracy it is because it is the only guarantee, if structured properly, which is highly dubious, that another dictator will not take the stage in Egypt for the next thirty years. But at the same time it is very difficult to build a philosophy of democracy. What democracy means is a question that people are not very interested in. Or perhaps there is too much noise that actually stops this question from ever really being put on the table in a constructive way. What does it mean and how do we structure this democracy with a sense of values and with a sense of ethics for this particular country, for this particular situation?
Khan – We basically decided to speak about politics and social change without coming close to art at all, which I think is fine. We do not need to come close to art somehow. With the Ultras I would like to just add that I find it interesting that this is a group whose identity politics positively produce an aesthetic, and it comes out of their need to identify who they are, and that actually produces an aesthetic, and not just an aesthetic, but produces actual aesthetic products, whether they are songs, or slogans, or banners, or ways of demonstrating that are strong, pertinent, communicative, successful, and radical in some ways. So I find them interesting and it is surprising that the Ultras present us with a strange example of identity politics succeeding in becoming progressive in a way, partially because their members do not identify themselves in this way. They do not identify with progressive politics because...they are teenagers.
Baroni – Yes. And freedom is important to them. Their sense of identity as free individuals, I think, is heightened at this age.
Khan – Yes, but they are very strict. I mean, they have very strict rules and they are very disciplined individuals. They are a collective doing things.
Baroni – Yes, but this collective only acts in certain situations as opposed to the Brotherhood, whose acts are a way of life. The Brotherhood is a collective that is life binding.
Khan – But the Ultras would tell you the Ultras is a way of life. And maybe it is not a way that can last very long for each individual because it seems to be very connected to male, teenage culture. Probably as an Ultras member grows older he just naturally—
Baroni – Drifts away.
Khan – —drifts away. He will be sympathetic probably to the collective because it is part of him, but the collective will not be so central, I imagine, over time. It is really a movement that is connected with youth, very much so. But I think its significance lies just in what it offers to the rest of society actually.
Baroni – What do you think it offers?
Khan – It offers these ideas and their practice as a way of doing things. It offers the possibility of a politics that is not about the moral high ground, actually. Joy and pleasure are a part of it in a crucial way, and it is not an elitist movement at all. It is a totally popular movement. Most of its members come from popular classes, so it is wedded to this context in a profound way. In a way this gives it a sense of success that one can argue is the same about the Muslim Brotherhood (although the Muslim Brotherhood is a middle-class rather than popular movement). The Brotherhood has, because of its infrastructure and affiliation with professions that serve society, like doctors and engineers, a very strong connection to social reality in a totally different way. Football itself is very populist, and the Ultras have tried to take back the sport.
Football was politicized from the beginning and was used by the regime to distract. I remember that when Gamal Mubarak would attend a match, sports broadcasters would mention him and then the camera would pan and zoom onto him. It was so annoying. So football was used by the regime, and the Ultras tried to claim it back. Another thing that Jimmy Hood said that I found interesting, in explaining the birth of the Al-Ahly Ultras (Red Devils) movement in Egypt, was that it came about during the African Cup of Nations when they raised the price of the tickets. And so the Ultras were trying to demand cheap tickets because it was their right to enjoy the game; this is part of their ideology as such, the right to enjoy a game.
Baroni – This was in 2006?
Khan – Yes, 2006 or 2007. So they were actually born out of the Mubarak regime, but in a way they exceeded it, while the Muslim Brotherhood was born much earlier of course, as part of an earlier epoch, which it is in my opinion unable to exceed.
Baroni – Yes—I think they will not be able to exceed it either, because they depend on a very father figure–like structure, whereas the Ultras have a quite different structure.
Khan – Well, there is a hierarchy in the Ultras. There are “capos,” who are like captains that control the crowd. The capo orchestrates, like a conductor. Actually, even visually he looks like a conductor, standing at the end, perched up high, and doing signs with his hands. These signs make people sing specific songs. I do not know how else the group is structured beyond what they do in the stadium.
Baroni – We saw some of this actually during the initial protests. Where there were conductor-like—
Khan – Figures.
Baroni – —figures kind of starting certain chants, initiating certain chants, and so on.
Khan – Yes. So we will see. I do not know what will happen to the Ultras. Maybe they will also be delegitimized. It is also possible. Maybe their force will break down. It is possible, but I think even if that happens, it is not just them; I think it is what they represent as a perspective that is interesting, and maybe that will take another shape.
Baroni – What do you think the end of all this delegitimation is?
Khan – It is hard to tell. If I am optimistic, I think it would mean we would lose absolute faith in any structure and understand that any structure is constructed and it needs to be and has to be strategic for our needs, to serve us in a way. If I am pessimistic, I could say that we might lose faith in life itself. And then we would lose faith in everything, all structures and institutions including life itself, almost. Then there would be no interest in trying to create a society that works anymore, but rather just pure atomization and absolute civil war between every individual and the other. This model is how Egyptian society has been for a long time anyway, during the Mubarak period and up until now. But maybe that is what would happen because some people would argue that this belief in the legitimacy of structures and the legitimacy of justice is important. But maybe they are important abstractly, because I do not think it is important within the society we know. I have to say that because this society is so corrupted that I cannot see any way that we can have belief in it as is.
We have to say this justice system is illegitimate. We have to say that the whole state is illegitimate. On the positive side, it might also imply that we can maybe come up with alternatives. That is, of course, way down the line. If we are going to imagine the possibility of producing new alternative models, I think that is really ahead. But maybe that is part of what happens. The other thing is that Clare, my wife, mentioned that this delegitimation is not new. We all knew that everything was illegitimate before, but people constructed a parallel world, a parallel economy, and this functions with that delegitimized space somehow. Now the corrupted system has gone to its roots.
It’s not just that we know the system is illegitimate. The system is desacralizing itself at its deepest level, I hope. The problem is that what we see, of course, is that much of the media and all the different regimes are always fighting that process. They are always trying to retain this sacrosanct space or sanctity.
Baroni – The term fawda (chaos) is always used.
Khan – Yes, chaos.
Baroni – Chaos, that is the—
Khan – Scare word.
Baroni – —the scare word, yes. And it was just used today actually by one of the Brotherhood members when he was asked about the 24th of August, a kind of orchestrated protest set for that date, which is supposed to be happening against the Brotherhood. He said that there was a fatwa issued a couple of days ago by a sheikh (preacher) who said that people who protest against the Brotherhood could basically be killed.
Khan – Their blood has no price.
Baroni – Yes, exactly, which means it is OK to just kill these people, which actually does not make this sheikh any better than Mubarak. And of course there has been a...a very strong backlash, and somebody asked one of the Brotherhood members about this and he said, “We are against this kind of statement.” They are always very strategic. They claim that they are against this fatwa of course, but we are also against chaos. I think these individuals who come from a specific era or are entrenched in certain ideologies cannot relate to this process of everything being delegitimized, so delegitimation in their eyes is chaos. I think that is the basic issue at play here. This is why chaos is always—
Khan – Used in the media.
Baroni – I think the ultimate fear is that there is nothing sacred; that nothing is sacred anymore.
- Transliteration notes: There are different spellings for Ahmed Shobeir, which seems more popular, but Shobair is also seen. There are also different spellings for Egypt’s president: Mohamed Morsi, Morsy, and Mursi. Morsi is the spelling that usually appears in American contexts, Mursi in the UK, and Morsy in Egyptian or Middle East–based English journals. In this discussion, Morsi appears. According to Wikipedia, Quran is the most frequently used spelling in English, so we will use it here.
- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office on February 11, 2011.
- On December 29, 2011, ten “civil-society organizations” operating in Egypt were raided and interrogated by SCAF for the continued social and political unrest in Egypt. See Sarah A. Topol, “Egypt’s War on NGOs,” Daily Beast, February 6, 2012, http://fillip.ca/8bla.
- Ultras are passionate soccer fans, and according to Sarah el Deeb, they “became a major force during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the subsequent tumultuous transition.” See Sarah el Deeb (Associated Press), “Egypt: 38 Soccer Fans Charged with Violence,” USA Today, March 14, 2013, http://fillip.ca/76l5.
- In February 2012, a series of riots took place that initially erupted at Port Said Stadium, where over seventy people were killed in clashes between fans of the al-Masry and fans of the al-Ahly clubs. It is worth noting that a “section of al-Ahly supporters, known as the ‘ultras,’ played a prominent role in the protests against ex-President Mubarak.” However, twenty-one defendants, all al-Masry fans, were sentenced to death for their alleged participation in the riots. See “Egypt Football: Death Sentences over Port Said Stadium Violence,” BBC News, January 26, 2013, http://fillip.ca/h8du.
About the Authors
Bassam El Baroni is a curator and writer based in Alexandria, Egypt. In 2010, he was co-curator of Manifesta 8, Murcia, Spain. He was director of the non-profit art space Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) from 2006–12 and is currently a PhD researcher in Curatorial/Knowledge at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently curating the 2014 eva International Biennial of Visual Art, Limerick, Ireland, and co-curating (with Anne Szefer Karlsen and Eva González-Sancho) the 2013 Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), Norway.
Hassan Khan is an artist, musician, and writer. He lives and works in Cairo, Egypt.