In its own telling the Egyptian revolution began with days of anger that broke the barrier of fear. Egyptians raised their heads and proudly looked to a new day. It ended with ecstatic manifestations of popular acclamation as the military took power from an elected civilian president and embarked on a campaign of violence against his supporters. In the intervening years scholars, officials and activists have sought to explain the successes and failures of the uprising largely with reference to the interests, analyses, and practices that shaped the activity of the many actors in these events. The language of emotion has largely dropped out of the analytic frame despite subsequent allusions to revolutionary betrayal, disillusion, and despair.
One exception is an article by Wendy Pearlman, “Emotions and Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings” published in 2013. Pearlman argues for the importance of emotions as crucial to any analysis of the uprisings, including the Egyptian revolution. Her viewpoint differs significantly from the one I employ here because she appears to think of emotions as more akin to what many researchers in the field would call moods or background feelings. She describes emotions as orientations toward the external environment that shape cognitive evaluations of the world. Thus she presents emotions as influencing cognitive evaluations or as themselves influenced by them. She proposes consequently that changing the emotional orientation of people toward external events, including political ones, will change their evaluations of those events.
The seventh anniversary of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is an appropriate time to revisit those initial claims about the importance of emotion. Did emotion play a significant role in the revolutionary period and, if so, how? Were Egyptians insufficiently rational and emotionally too volatile to make a democratic transition feasible? Even a first attempt to respond to these questions requires a more careful look at how we understand emotions and their historical and social contexts. Initially it is crucial to understand that there are now and have been, for centuries, two distinct ways of understanding human emotion. One way of looking at emotion is as the antithesis of rational cognition; the other way, now backed up by significant research and philosophical inquiry, is that emotions are a form of cognition and without them we cannot be rational.
In what follows I pursue the view that emotions are neither the antithesis of cognition nor a background condition that affects and is affected by our evaluations, including our moral evaluations, of the world external to us. Emotions, in this framework, are those evaluations. They are cognitive processes without which human beings cannot engage in purposive rational activity. As might be expected with any evaluative process of something as complicated as the situation of human beings in the social and physical world, emotions reflect our beliefs about the nature of that world, about the possibilities and dangers it holds, and about how others respond and expect us to respond.
The Egyptian government, then led by President Hosni Mubarak, established January 25 as Police Day as a national holiday in 2009. Police Day commemorated an event that decades earlier had provoked Egyptian anger. On that day in 1952 British soldiers assaulted an Egyptian police station in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and 41 Egyptians died. Fury at that assault is often said have ignited the attacks on European-owned stores and European individuals in Cairo the following day when shops were destroyed and scores of people were killed and injured in an event whose specific origins remain a mystery. Police Day was thus a somewhat ambiguous holiday. It celebrated resistance but it also celebrated a police force and ministry of the interior that, with its violence and corruption, no longer merited the respect of millions of Egyptians.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians demonstrated January 25, 2011 until dispersed by the police using tear gas, clubs and concussion grenades in Cairo and other cities. Public support for the government plummeted over the following days especially as demonstrations were violently repressed in Suez. One widely viewed video featured a lone demonstrator who opened his jacket and approached a policeman, daring him to shoot. Filmed on a cellphone from a balcony overlooking the street you can see the demonstrator drop to the ground, the pop of the gun, and the sudden cries of the observers in the apartment.
Organizers announced that January 28 would be the Friday of Rage. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Cairo and other cities after a tense couple of days. In addition to the mass demonstrations, scores of police stations were attacked and thousands of prisoners were released as local jails and prisons were destroyed or left unguarded. Police disappeared from the streets and a prolonged period of public insecurity followed. Even the first deployment of tanks by the Egyptian armed forces into Tahrir Square in Cairo was met by violence until it became clear that the army was not about to launch an armed assault on protesters.
As William Reddy argues, naming emotions makes them less ambiguous and us more committed to them. If true for individuals in the moment it is equally true of historical reconstruction. January 28 was the “Friday of Rage.” Must it necessarily have been a day when all protestors expressed their rage? Is “rage” a good description of what hundreds of thousands of Egyptians felt that day? And is it the only valid description? As the noon prayer came to an end on January 28 I stood among hundreds of Egyptians who had gathered at the Mostafa Mahmood Mosque. Surrounded by young riot policemen with shields, helmets and batons, my initial response was fear. As the police opened a path for the crowd to head down Arab League Street and as it became clear that demonstrators vastly outnumbered police I felt relief and exhilaration. Perhaps as a foreigner I lacked an adequate appreciation of Egyptian emotional responses but given what people around me were saying as well as videos still available on YouTube I think my own experience was common. So clearly there was not just rage, even if we had all assembled in response to a day of rage. Rage may also be too blunt a word although it is a good and correct translation of the Arabic word, ghadab, that named the day. Perhaps outrage is a better approximation of the relevant emotion or perhaps indignation. These words, however, give a very different sense to the dominant emotion. They clearly add a moral dimension to the emotional description.
If anger was the right word, the source of the anger is more difficult to discern. One common explanation is that deprivation, hunger, and poverty cause anger. From Egypt to Iran and Tunisia and the United States inequalities of wealth and income provoke anger that then translates into disruptive political interventions by the afflicted. Anger is said to drive the poor to attack the rich and appropriate their property.
But, again, is anger the right name? Why is anger rather than envy or greed the dominant emotion fueling such an attack? Angry people might demonstrate but in Egypt there are good reasons to think it was urban middle and lower middle-income people who demonstrated and talked up their anger at the regime. Property theft, by the rich and poor alike, was widespread during the revolution but it does appear to have been driven primarily by greed or avarice. Sometimes it involved violence but more frequently state property and unguarded private property were simply stolen.
Anger was widely perceived as the dominant emotion of the early days of the uprising. We might be forgiven for forgetting that for decades Egyptians and external observers have debated the role of anger in the country’s social and political life. There are many convenient explanations besides deprivation for the anger of Egyptians. Rage figures prominently in some accounts of contemporary Arab and Islamic politics. Take, for example the 1990 article “The Roots of Muslim Rage” by Bernard Lewis. Lewis proposed that a significant (but undefined) number of Muslims, whom he termed fundamentalists, were at war with secularism and modernism. In this he was largely echoing modernization theories of the 1950s and 1960s that argued the transition from tradition to modernity provoked profound psychological unease or disease among affected populations. Lewis proposed that the introduction of Western economic, political and social institutions had led to worsened outcomes for most of the population in Muslim majority countries and that what he called a “mood” of anger and resentment spread among people who were increasingly aware that, as heirs to “an old, proud, and long dominant civilization” they were being cast aside by their inferiors. He argued that the “instinct of the masses” in locating the sources of their increasing poverty and lack of freedom in the West was not wrong. He further argued that there are “moments of upheaval and disruption, when deeper passions are stirred, [and]…dignity and courtesy towards others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred….”
Lewis’s critics were not slow to react. In this they followed a path set out by Edward Said. Muslims, Arabs, and especially Palestinians were indeed angry they agreed but not because of lost civilization glory, modernization, or secularism. Their anger rose from precisely what Lewis scanted: dispossession and despoliation, particularly, of Palestinians. They thought Lewis was wrong to suggest that anger was unjustified or that it was rooted in a centuries-long cultural tradition but he was not, evidently, wrong to think that pervasive anger ran deep and wide and that it was a societal rather than an individual response. If Palestinians are frequently angry (and likely far angrier than Israelis) it may have less to do with their mood or their culture than with the constant repetition of word and actions that are demeaning and destructive and the absence of any safe spaces in which to recover. So at least one Palestinian psychologist proposed to me over lunch one day many years ago during a seminar I had helped to organize about trying to ameliorate the trauma of seeing a loved one die violently.
Anger, in the way that Lewis and many of his critics use the word, is usually described in hydrological, geological or meteorological terms. This is often called a “hydraulic” theory. Anger is a fluid and, although it can be dammed, channeled, or contained, these attempts can fail. Then the pressure becomes too great and like a volcano or a geyser it overflows, erupts and destroys everything in its path. Such metaphors are common but research in psychology, cognition, and philosophy all indicate they are both wrong and useless. An emotion, including anger, is a cognitive process not a hydraulic one. It is a way we have of evaluating events in the external world.
To the degree that accounts of the Egyptian revolution place emphasis on cognition, they focus on interests and behavior. Frequently they focus on the interests and behavior of the working class. This is so for all versions of political economy whether so-called rational choice microeconomic modeling or the soft political economy critics of neo-liberalism. In a field still torn by the debate over Orientalism it is understandable why emotions vanished from an academic literature concerned that Egyptian workers appear more or less as rational as European or American workers. Thus, in line with contemporary theories of social movements the interests of Egyptian workers are held to be destabilizing and oppositional but not necessarily emotionally profound. Indeed most scholars consider the discontent of the lower classes and their desire to redistribute the wealth of society a permanent feature of social life that, in non-democratic societies, only the coercive might of the state prevents. The intrusion of emotions into social life in this literature is often seen as an idiosyncratic aspect of Egyptian society or culture.
The insistence on interests and the exclusion of emotions from understanding revolution is more surprising considering that revolutionary leaders have often not shared it. Ayatollah Khomeini famously asserted that revolutions were not about the price of watermelons although he provided no definitive answer as to what they were about. Lenin described revolutions as festivals of the oppressed, a description echoed in a discussion by Sahar Keraitim and Samia Mehrez of Tahrir Square as a mulid. One bit of evidence in my own experience supporting their view is that when I entered Tahrir Square very early in the morning of January 29 one of the first people I encountered was a man with a large tray of cookies that he was giving out in celebration as if at a popular religious festival. My understanding of the argument Keraitim and Mehrez make is not that the demonstrations in Tahrir were religious but that the repertoire of practices deployed in revolution must make some emotional sense to the participants. Thus, to see the demonstrations in Tahrir as if they were events in which marchers proceeded to a central location, listened to speeches, and then dispersed is misleading. So, too, estimating the number of demonstrators based on the idea that Egyptian urban squares could only hold a limited number of people is misleading because, as in a festival but unlike a rally, people were constantly coming and going.
So far I have drawn on contemporary research on emotions from many directions—psychological, philosophical, and even medical—all of which suggests the hydraulic approach to understanding emotions is both wrong and useless. This includes the work of Antonio Damasio on the neuroscience of the brain, summed up usefully in his book Descartes’ Error, the lengthy work of political philosophy by Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, and The Navigation of Feeling, historical sociologist William Reddy’s study of the period before and after the French Revolution. The common thread of these works and many more is not simply to reject the Cartesian dualism of mind and body (including the brain) and the Humean dualism of passionate attachment to goals and cold reasoning about how to reach them. Rather they propose that emotions are cognitive processes that direct our attention to events in the world through which we evaluate their implication for our own goals and well-being. Emotions are cognitive processes even if we are not always conscious of how they work. As evaluations emotions combine our beliefs about the world, including the social world, with our understanding of the importance of our goals for ourselves.
Anger is not a deep well-spring of energy ever-ready to be tapped nor is fear an immobile barrier to be broken once and for all. Fear can immobilize us when we understand the danger of an occurrence and re-evaluate downwards the importance of an activity or goal in which we are engaged. Fear, like anger, is a cognitive response to events external to our own lives. Before January 25 Egyptians did not confront a barrier that was later shattered. Before January 25 most Egyptians understood that the police state in which they lived was intact even if it was not as concerned to prevent the presence of all oppositional speech or actions as had been the case under Nasser, Sadat and even the early Mubarak period. After January 29 Egyptians observed that the capacity of the police forces had been severely weakened. Consequently there were few limits imposed by the government on overt speech or public mobilization. Political leaders, from the Muslim Brothers to the Revolutionary Socialists, thus became bolder and appeared to be less fearful and more courageous. What had not changed was that, no matter how courageous the opposition became, most high government officials including within the armed forces had not accepted in principle or in practice that freedom of expression or association as foundational.
To the degree that anger combines an ethical evaluation (are we legitimately obstructed?) about our own goals with a sense of their importance the expression of anger will differ across society and within society as well as over time. So too will any action we undertake. As Neil Ketchley has proposed in a recent book, many Egyptians viewed the police and the jails attached to police stations as the most salient obstructions to their lives. These Egyptians, almost entirely from working class neighborhoods, experienced profound anger about particular police and particular stations. Something like one quarter of all primary police stations in Egypt were destroyed during the last few nights of January 2011 by local residents. Ketchley’s account suggests that the destruction of the police stations in such large numbers and short a period of time occurred because the police had already concentrated their efforts on the massive demonstrations in Cairo and other cities.
The demonstrations had been called to express anger but it does not require deep analysis to think that the anger of the demonstrators was different than the anger of those who attacked police stations. Nor is it a stretch to think that as news of the assaults on police stations and some of the large prisons where prisoners were freed over the following days Egyptians came to realize that the threats of police violence that had inhibited speech and public presence were greatly diminished. Thus rather than seeing these differences as based on preferences or styles or interests, contemporary understandings of emotion suggest that different Egyptians evaluated the role of the police in their lives and the ways in which they significantly affected their lives in different ways. There was and is no single kind of anger that Egyptians expressed or ought to have expressed if we think of anger as evaluative and cognitive. What shook the Egyptian government was the confluence of these two streams of anger, themselves made up of many decisions by particular people on their own or in small groups.
If anger often involves a belief in the illegitimacy of an obstacle then what particular obstacles did Egyptians focus their attention on and how did they come to see them as illegitimate? How did they come to believe that attacking that obstacle to their well-being was more important than the response it threatened? Answering this question will require us to look more carefully at how different groups among the Egyptian population understood government policies to be unfair. For some Egyptians police corruption and brutality were immediate concerns; for others these were significant concerns but appeared to be systemic problems rather than immediate threats; for others no doubt the decision by the government to shut off any electoral path to change the previous fall was more telling.
Whatever emotions Egyptians expressed in 2011 they likely still experience today. Anger, fear, and courage (not to mention many other emotions) are still part of Egyptian life, but they are now evaluations that must be made within the context of the difficulties of the revolutionary period itself, the reconstruction of the police forces, and the implacable unwillingness of the armed forces to accept peaceful disagreement and political opposition. It is thus not surprising that for many Egyptians new emotional responses to the world have become dominant. It is to explore more of these issues that I hope to devote forthcoming entries.
I plan to write several more entries on understanding the revolution through the emotions but before ending two points are worth making. First is that if emotions are indeed cognitive evaluations of the events in the world external to ourselves then revolutionary periods must be emotionally fraught and we should expect to see a maelstrom of rapidly changing emotions. As the ordinary institutions and expectations break down in a revolutionary upheaval we should expect that people—individually and in contact with each other—should rapidly revise their evaluations of the meaning of those events for their own well-being. Rapid emotional change may have been indicative less of the volatility of Egyptians than of the volatility of the social and political environment. In such a situation ,it hardly seems plausible that people would retain the same cognitive evaluations of (or consequent commitments for) abstract goals such as democracy or “rule of law” whose very definitions are subject to significant debate during a period of intense, rapid, and nearly constant change. This does not imply Egyptians did not desire democracy, rule of law, or an Islamic state, or socialism; it simply implies that by 2013 they may have had very different ideas about what those goals might be or what the impact of trying to attain them would be.
Second, while human emotions are plastic to some degree there is reason to believe that a prolonged period during which it proves to be impossible to solve problems posed in the external world itself has emotional consequences. The unethical psychological practices designed by American psychologists to induce “learned hopelessness” among Iraqis were based on real psychological research. The primary method involved is to ensure that experimental subjects are conditioned to believe that nothing they can do affects their condition.
In one of the earliest entries to this blog I noted that the Egyptian Armed Forces wanted one thing above all else: to ensure that Egyptians never came to believe that their words or actions affected state policies. Even when state policies do change it is crucial that they not be seen to change in direct response to popular participation or public criticism. Hannah Arendt once wrote of the importance of arbitrary rule as more than a result of dictatorship; it was, she proposed, a method of rule because it sapped any sense of agency. Egyptians are not experimental subjects and the analogy is necessarily inexact but it looks as if the years since 2013 have been a prolonged and significantly successful attempt to deprive Egyptians of belief in their own agency or, in other word, of hope. If the past is any guide it will not last forever but while it does it will be a profoundly unpleasant world in which to live.