The Threat on “Family Values”: Rapists, Dancers, and the State
During the past few weeks, two sets of accusations have dominated Egyptian social media: a total of ten rich young men accused of serial rape and nine working/middle-class teenage women accused of indecency. The men were accused based on recurrent testaments by their victims. The women were accused based on videos each of them posted on her personal Tiktok profile, where they dance and/or endearingly smile. The state and state-loyal media is covering the latter in intense detail, usually including videos/pictures from the women’s private profiles as proof of their indecency. Meanwhile, the prosecutors’ office and the ministry of interior are keeping the stream of information about the rape cases quite limited, and hence little, if any, is being discussed about these cases out of social media platforms.
On the legal front, the discrepancy is even more evident. The nine women were arrested, six of whom have already been sentenced to two and three years of prison and fines of three hundred thousand Egyptian pounds each. Only two out of the ten men accused of rape were arrested, Ahmed Bassam Zaki and Mazen Ibrahim, and no formal verdicts have yet been brought against them. The gender-based discrepancy is evident in the differential treatment between men who committed sexual violence against others and women who are accused based on acts that did not inflict any harm on any other individual. But it is even more evident in the framing of the legal accusations; the Tiktok women are accused of “violating family values,” but not the rapists.
One incident is exceptionally revealing of the gendered injustice: the case of Menna Abdel Aziz. Menna, a seventeen-year-old girl, reported that she was raped by Mazen Ibrahim while his accomplices beat her and filmed the assault. The film was widely circulated on social media, apparently by the rapist group that publicly threatened to “expose her” if she reported the incident. The rape was also testified by a forensic exam. But by then, as Niveen Ghoneim contends, “this assertion of wrongdoing was devoid of any vindication for the victim who now faces charges of ‘misusing social media, inciting debauchery and violating Egyptian family values.’” The girl who just reported her fresh rape seemed to the prosecutor as a threatening offender who must immediately be kept behind bars, even before the prosecution for the crime she was a victim of begins. Meanwhile, state-loyal media, like the widely circulated newspaper Youm7, questioned whether Menna is actually a victim or in fact a criminal.
Nothing is novel in these incidents, but we must resist the pressure to normalize them and instead allow them to awe us as they should every single time. Radwa Saad and Sarah Soumaya Abed underline a variety of cases that demonstrate how the questioning of the innocence of women victims of sexual violence is part of the standard operation procedures of the legal/policing institution in Egypt (the infamous “virginity tests” being at the center of these procedures). The mistreatment of Egyptian women who face sexual violence is, in fact, not a mistreatment, not an anomaly or an exception. Rather, as Wael Eskandar eloquently articulates, this treatment reflects a standardized code of practice integral to the protection of the system of gendered inequalities by which the Egyptian society is structured and governed.
There might be a class element in the aforementioned cases, especially as most of the rapists are rich and most of the women accused of violating family values are of lower classes. Interestingly, high-class women are granted relative freedom to post their photos and videos on social media platforms without serious fear of prosecution. But the very fact that this minimal freedom to post one’s own photos/videos on one’s own profile is worth mentioning indicates the underlying gender codes through which the proper conduct of women, although vary across classes, are ultimately checked and controlled by the state.
What do these gendered codes, expressed in the pervasive term “family values,” signify? And why does their violation disturb the Egyptian state so much? Joining the conversation with Abed-Saad and Eskander (two readings I highly recommend), I depart from their sociological focus to the domain of political theory. The latter is concerned predominantly with the question of the state: What is it? What are the sources of its power? And what accordingly threatens this power? These are questions that are rarely brought up in our everyday debates on social issues, in which the state is taken for granted as something that we all already know and do not need to contemplate any further.
This presentation of the state as an ahistorical common sense is, as Emma Goldman, one of the leading twentieth-century feminist-anarchist theorists, contends, one of its most cunning tricks. By this presentation, the state forces itself as inevitable and conceals the volatility of the structures that condition its existence. In fact, however, the state power resides in complex matrices of social relations and hence is precarious, for it risks collapsing the minute these matrices are disrupted.
Interestingly enough, one of the most renowned quotes of Goldman is “If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.”. It is interesting because we could still, a century later, observe the tension between political projects that present themselves as serious and profound and the simple and apparently insignificant act of dancing a woman performs. Goldman’s main critical contribution is challenging the apparent profoundness of these projects, be them the state or the revolution, to also elucidate their often hard to understand anxieties from what might appear as simple and apolitical acts–like dancing. Looking at the Egyptian state from this perspective, we should be able to explain, in terms of the social relations that brought about and sustain this state, why the latter is so anxious about some women dancing and smiling on Tiktok.
State-Building/Nation-Building: The Three Promises of Nationalization
Genealogies of the contemporary Egyptian state begin from different points in history: the independence from the Ottoman Empire, the formal recognition of the independent monarchy, or the later declaration of the Egyptian republic. Alexander Schölch contends that the three claims of independence echoed a similar narrative, whose foundations reside in an aspiration for a nation-state whose clients are the indigenous people, an Egypt for the Egyptians.
In a monograph with the same title, Schölch begins his examination of the genealogy of this aspiration from the nationalist discourse Mohamed Ali’s endeavors for state independence forcefully centered in the public sphere. Framed vis-à-vis the rule of colonial empires, the independent state postulated by Muhamed Ali Pasha, himself a foreign invader, summoned the support of the indigenous population in return for their relative partnership in the governance of their state and its resources. This promise was never entirely met, but they set the foundations for the de-colonial discourse of indigenous empowerment from which the successive projects of an independent Egyptian state followed.
At the core of this promise, there was the pillar of promoting an indigenous middle class to participate in governance. This started with Muhamed Ali’s bureaucratic class, which was essential to replace the Mamluks’ influence on one hand and facilitate his aspired administrative expansion on the other. Later on, as Egypt was brought into the orbit of Western colonialism in the aftermath of the Convention of London (formally the Convention for the Pacification of the Levant) in 1840, Ali and the successive rulers from his dynasty endeavored to instate a national sentiment, so as to facilitate the mobilization of the indigenous population against potential Western invasion and/or influence. This gave more powers to the indigenous middle class, which further involvement in governance became essential to facilitate the mobilization of the nation, on the side of Ali dynasty, against the Western “other.”
This class, however, became so powerful that their prevalence eventually dominated the powers of Ali’s dynasty itself, forcing on it a series of incremental power concessions that eventually gave them control over the bureaucracy, the security, the military, and a significant portion of the economy. The most vital episodes of these series are the military revolts led by Ahmed ‘Urabi in 1882, which forced the promotion of Egyptians to the top echelons of the military leadership; the national uprisings led by Saad Zaghloul in 1919, which expanded the powers of the Egyptian government vis-à-vis the monarchy; and the ultimate nationalization of the state by the “Free Officers” coup in 1952. As this class granted itself the entitlement to represent the indigenous population and act on its behalf, they turned the national sentiment that brought them to power against Ali’s dynasty itself. Eventually, as the “Free Officers” declared the republic in 1953, they situated their new state in juxtaposition with both the West and the equally foreign abolished monarchy. It is this state that is still in power to this date.
It is important to note that the nationalization discourse was not only limited to the political and the economic. At its core, national identity is a cultural imagination, a notion of a collective self that is fundamentally distinct from the foreign—the non-national “other.” One essential element of that cultural identity is its bracketing of class variance. It is through this bracketing that the promise of redistribution of resources to improve the Egyptians’ living standards, pioneered predominantly by the Nasserist regime that overthrew Ali’s dynasty and declared the Republic of Egypt, was abruptly replaced by a promise of a rich and powerful nation, rather than nationals. In return, these nationals were promised protection of their national sentiment against foreign cultural influence.
From the brief discussion above, we could argue that the promise of indigenous empowerment, later dubbed “nationalisation,” took three forms, over three different phases. Initially, it was a promise of empowering an indigenous middleclass to participate in the administration of the polity and the economy. Later on, the “free officers” emphasized the issue of economic distribution, rendering the nationalist promise one of redistributing resources to improve the living standards of the ordinary citizen. This promise was confronted with a mixture of elitist greed and colonial resistance, bringing about an arrangement in which the nationalisation predominantly served a very small class of the indigenous population, mostly belonging to the bureaucratic elite (mainly in the military, the security, and the judiciary). While this meant further fulfillment of the initial promise, empowering an indigenous middle class, it also meant the emptying of its nationalist value; for this new elite were set in the position of suppressing the rest of the indigenous population, initially on behalf of the colonisers, then on behalf of a postcolonial state structured on the same mode of exploitation albeit administrated by an indigenous class.
The result was the extension of the repressive state which essence is the control of the indigenous population to keep their resources available to the local and the colonial elite. But the sustenance of this state necessitated some grounds for social consent, especially after the failure of the Free Officers Nationalist-Socialist hegemony due to a mixture of corruption and colonial intervention (See Sarah Salem, AntiColonial Afterlives in Egypt). With the failed project of economic distribution and the defied nationalist purpose of the promotion of an indigenous middleclass, consensus could only be attained through fulfilling the third nationalisation promise to the utmost: the protection of the indigenous culture from cultural imperialism.
The Wasati State: The Invention and Securitisation of an ‘Authentic’ Culture
This protection is what is currently manifested in the form of stalwart defence of the so-called family values. “Family values” is a term that was introduced recently to the legal infrastructure of the Egyptian state, but which existed in various other forms beforehand. Its introduction came with the Cybercrime Law (Law no. 175) passed in April 2018. Article 25 of this law states explicitly the prohibition of online activities that “infringe on any family principles or values in Egyptian society.” All women arrested in the crackdown on Tiktok performers have been accused under this law. However, as Basil El-Dabh underlines, “even before the existence of this law […] vaguely-worded charges related to family values and public morals have commonly been used in the Egyptian legal system.” For example, Article 10 of the Egyptian constitution, which conveys the state’s role in protecting “[the family’s] cohesion and stability, and the consolidation of its values,” was used in the crackdown on homosexuals in the early and mid-2000s. Flashing further back, Laura Bier’s Revolutionary Womanhood cites several examples from Nasser’s era in which the discourse of the state protection of the family values was used to legitimize a wide variety of state programs, from birth control to female education. Whether to crackdown on dissent or to justify economic policy, the protection of the “family values” as an institution based on gender difference had been at the core of the Egyptian state’s legal and political discourse.
The balance of power between the competing elements of the ruling regime was both a determinant and a function of the agency delegated with the protection of the designated family values and the national culture writ large. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and up to the coup in 1952, the tensions between the secular Effendis of the Egyptian bureaucracy on the one hand and the Islamic ‘Ulama of al-Azhar and other religious institutions on the other over claiming how the “authentic” Egyptian behaves defined the fractured discourse of national identity. Each side invented a conception of that authentic identity and accused the other side of betraying it. And each accusation of betrayal involved an accusation of imitating an imperialist culture. For the ‘Ulama, the Egyptian authentic character was Islamic, but was secularised by Western imperialist forces and their local allies. For the Effendis, the authentic Egyptian is secular, but was Islamized by the Ottoman Empire and their local allies.
This deadlock was resolved by the military-security regime seizure of cultural and legal institutions in the aftermath of the Free Officers’ coup, instating a culture of Wasati Islam monitored by the military-security state itself. Wasati literally means middle-grounded, and that is precisely the political and cultural function it played: It resolved the tension between discourses of national Islamism and others of national secularism by inventing an Egyptian identity “in-between.” This in-between-ness is fluid and contentious, and hence serves to provide the state with a degree of flexibility in policing the Egyptian culture according to their temporal interest in mobilising against one segment of the population or the other. By giving itself the power to determine what the “median” is and then act on behalf of the population to protect that median, the state could put both Islamist and secularist cultural behaviors in check and crackdown on its cultural rivals by dubbing them either secular or Islamist “extremists.”
As the security apparatus enforced itself as the cultural patrol, cultural “extremism” was turned into a security issue. For that securitised order of things to sustain, however, the protected Wasati values, although ill-defined, had to be framed as undisputedly definitive of the Egyptian culture and at the same time under serious and continuous threat of hijacking by colonial forces and their local allies. Diversity, in such order, is redefined as diversion; for there had to be one imagination of authentic values/culture for the duty of its securitised protection to be plausible. Once these cultural codes were put forth, a plethora of misfits came about and were made into examples of deviation. The classical cases, of course, are the ostracised Egyptian Jews in the aftermath of the declaration of the republic. But many other subjects, like the gays in the early 2000s and the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the 2013 coup, experienced some degree or another of cultural “othering.” These subjects were not conceived as mere deviants, but as “external” offenders that threaten the “authentic” way of life of the indigenous population. Their behavior, therefore, was conceived as both imported and violent; for it permeates the society without the consent of its guardians.
The issue of permeation is worth underlining, for it remains coming up in the discourse of family values in today’s Egypt. I find Tamer Amin one of the most influential spokesmen of the state in such regard. Amin is a television presenter known for his fierce defence of both the ruling military regime and the alleged “family values,” and the son of a media tycoon that worked closely with Mubarak’s regime. I heard the phrase “permeating our household” from Amin in two entirely different contexts: once in stressing the threat of the Tiktok culture on “our young women”; the other in describing the failed attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood and its international allies to convert the Wasati identity of the Egyptian youth.
Two presumptions are common in Tamer’s description of the two fundamentally different alleged threats on the presumed authentic national culture, the liberal threat from the West, and the Islamist threat from the East. The first is the presumption of a middle-point where the behavior of Egyptians should remain. Behaviors that move beyond this point in any direction are not only considered deviant, but also foreign or foreign-influenced. The second is the presumption that the Egyptian youngsters, especially women, ought to be protected from forces that seek to permeate the boundaries of the household, or in other words to surpass the father, and encourage these youngsters to rebel against the family values this father has set and the postcolonial state had long protected.
Bahiyya: Egypt the Woman
It is important to state the obvious fact that the whole project of state-building in Egypt, like most postcolonial states, was dominated by men (Feminist critiques on nationalism explore the implications and heritages of that in extensive detail–e.g., Mrinalini Sinha's "Gender and Nation," Jennifer Thomson’s “Gender and Nationalism,” and Fateneh Farahani and Suruchi Thapar-Bjorket “PostColonial Masculinities”). The colonial administration was an androcentric institution par excellence: a collection of army officers managing law and order, businessmen managing economic extraction, and aristocratic orientalists managing the cultural portfolio: all men. The de-colonial movement and post-colonial state were both, as Hamid Dabashi points out, produced within the “condition of coloniality.” This condition was marked not only by male domination, but also by a common perception on the part of the indigenous population that the supremacy of the colonial men over their lives renders them effeminate.
By extension, the act of rising against the control of foreign men was framed in dominant culture as an act of masculine heroism; in which the indigenous male hero rescues an imagined persona of a nation that is always referred to in feminine names–Bahiyya, Misr al-Fatah [Egypt the young woman], Om al-Belad [the mother of all countries], Om al-Donya [the mother of the world], etc. (On this, see Wilson Chako Jacob’s Working out Egypt). Abed and Saad underline the primacy of this discourse in the 1919 revolution, which fought for and successfully achieved the independence of the Egyptian state:
[The revolution started after] several Egyptian women were subject to rape by British soldiers. The interpretation of the incident was such that the rape of “our women” metaphorically became the rape of “our nation,” which disgraced the national family honor. The instilled notion of “honor” was used to mobilize male supporters who believed they had a duty to support, defend and protect their nation against the dishonorable British occupation.
The imagined femininity of the nation is the other face of the imagined restoration of the “manhood” of the indigenous men who rose up to protect the family and reclaim the women abused by the occupiers (other men), the ultimate mother of which being the nation itself, Bahiyya, a female name commonly used in cultural references to Egypt. The nation-state was thus discursively created in the image of a nuclear family, the mother being Om al-Belad (as the national anthem refers to the Egyptian nation), and the father being the protective military-security state.
Not only was the ruling elite that constituted the postcolonial state all men, but they are also still all men. The Egyptian state is still dominated by the military, the police, and the judiciary institutions, all of which blatantly condition the application for working in most of their agencies to being a male (with very few exceptions), as well as businessmen, male bureaucrats, and male clerics. These men are by no means a unified front. Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen showed that conflict, rather than comradeship, is the natural state of the postcolonial state in Egypt. But if one issue all the men in the ruling elite can come together over, it would be sustaining their patriarchal state; for this state is the main pillar of both their control, based on the empowerment of men in the “military, security and the judiciary”–the three institutions vernacularly referred to interchangeably with the Egyptian state, and their legitimacy, based on the popular consent by other men to these male-dominated institutions to act as gatekeepers that protect their families, particularly their women, from the permeation of foreign values.
Egypt, Bahiyya, never speaks on her own. Someone always speaks on her behalf. And it is always men who speak in her name. Egyptian women are living the same reality today. They are always present, but as a subject spoken of rather than actually speaking. They are the silent population that the military-security state sets itself on representing and protecting. They are the unconditional supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who are, according to a long list of statesmen (some of which were compiled by Ahmed Taylor in 2014), including the former prime minister, Hazem al-Biblawi, “infatuated by his handsomeness” and therefore supportive of him regardless of his mandate or achievement. While Egyptian women never expressed this infatuation, and no rational being would support a president based on his looks anyway, plenty of male journalists, presenters, and statesmen, including Sisi himself, claimed the silent support of women on such irrational, often dubbed “feminine,” basis. These women are also the constituency that “approves the sacrifice” of soldiers to keep the state in power.
Sisi made the unconditional support of women into a presumed reality by simultaneously thanking them for it, and excluding them from the public sphere so that they are never given the floor to freely express whether they actually are supportive of him and his policies or not. Combining this with politically insignificant yet ceremonially spectacular gestures, such as marking the year 2016 the women’s year, Sisi pioneered (what Hind Mahmoud refers to as) a state feminism that claimed Egyptian women and spoke on their behalf. It is in the name of this silent/silenced population that the state which lacks actual support from real constituencies justifies its authority.
For the state to remain able to exercise its authority by speaking and acting in her name, the woman should never exceed her assigned role as a silent symbol. The state feminism operates in a way very similar to what Lila Abu-Lughod describes in her famous critique of what might be referred to as colonial feminism, used to justify western intervention in Muslim states. These forms of fake feminisms ensure the presence of the “question of women” in the public sphere but the women themselves. This order facilitates the statesmen the articulation of an imagined vulnerable woman in need of protection. Women, therefore, are permitted to the public sphere only in the form that empowers the security state and celebrates its patriarchal role as their protector not only from foreign men, but also from foreign values that threaten her authentic character; the character sketched to her by the statesmen whose power feed on her representation.
Any woman that does not abide by these lines is, therefore, a threat to the very existence of the state, for it fails the securitisation of culture that the security state justifies its existence based on. She is also a traitor that empowers through her action the imagined “external other” that permeates the guardianship of both the father and the military-security state, the latter being the ultimate patriarch which legitimacy is predominantly based on the promise of sustaining the father’s power over the culture of his household. Preventing these women from openly challenging the identity enforced upon them by the patriarchal family values is, therefore, an existential battle for the security state
Dancing Women are Security Threats, Rapists are Legal Offenders
It is this existential element that explains the discrepancy outlined in the opening of this article, between the way the state dealt with rape and the way it dealt with Tiktok performances.
Rape was conceived as a social offence, dealt with through standardized legal procedures set by the law. While Egypt’s Penal Code (Article 267), particularly in its post-revolution update in 2011, sets firm punishments on rapists, including the death penalty, it is structured in a way that encourages mitigation and settlement. Article 17 gives license to judges to mitigate prescribed punishments in cases of adultery, rape, and sexual assault. Rape marriage, to date, remains uncriminalized and dealt with through family rather than criminal courts. Until 1999, judges were allowed to settle rape cases through forcing a marriage between the rapist and the raped, after which he is entitled to rape her legally. While this is no longer a legal verdict, it still has its legacy in the treatment of rape cases as issues of social honor, which could be settled by marriage or other social arrangements, rather than acts of violence that demand legal prosecution.
The prosecutor's office did not, however, treat the cases of rape with such a laidback approach this time. The judiciary seemed to be taking the issue with more vigilance than they usually do, and that was recognized and saluted by the Egyptian National Council for Women. Nonetheless, unlike the women accused of dancing on Tiktok, the men accused of rape were dealt with through normal legal procedures. Being informed on the incident, the chief public prosecutor asked the victims to file formal cases. Next, a prosecutor was assigned and a court case was opened. The assigned prosecutor gathered evidence, listened to witnesses, and then issued an arrest warrant and began interrogations. Meanwhile, the media was kept away from hearings and other formal procedures, and its reporting of the case followed the standard legal and ethical code: referring to the person under arrest as the accused rather than the convict and shading his face in the pictures they circulate.
That was not the case with the Tiktok “convicts.” First thing, the women were arrested. Next, campaigns of defamation followed on the state-loyal media. Before the interrogations, these media platforms presumed the women’s guilt and labeled their cases as “scandals.” Then legal allegations were tailored to ratify their already publicly established conviction. In terms of the timeline, their legal conviction was exceptionally rapid. In terms of narrative, the conviction was celebrated on the state-loyal media as a national victory for family values. And unlike the rapists, the pictures of the women’s faces, together with profiles that capture their whole bodies, were extensively circulated on newspapers and television programs. Both the legal procedures and the media framings of the Tiktok women’s cases mirrored not the standard procedures of legal conviction, but rather the way the security state and its loyal media treat political prisoners framed as enemies of the state. For these women were in no way legal convicts, but were in many ways, some of which they might have not known, a threat to the security state and the patriarchal codes that condition its existence.
The incarceration of women for merely dancing on a dancing app is not an act of authoritarian irrationality, and the media silence on serial rape is not mere reluctance. They are two pillars of a political system made on the promise of keeping women in check, a system that finds itself at stake whenever a woman becomes vocal. Seconding Eskandar and Abed-Saad on that observation, I hope that I could bring in a theoretical/historical perspective that explains why it is the case. This perspective joins a century-long conversation in feminist-anarchist political theory of the state. It aims not to discourage the exposition of the gendered injustice and the calls for correcting it. Yet, it renders visible that an actual alleviation of this injustice demands acts and discourses that are more radical than mere calls for correction. It is not a mistake to be corrected for, but a manifestation of a norm that conditions the very existence of the state; the state that is ironically asked in these calls to alleviate the injustice.
The practically effective resistance of this injustice demands a radical revision of the social contract that empowers the postcolonial state and the articulation of a new contract that transcends the postcolonial heritage of patriarchy. We should listen to Goldman’s century-long call to resist the idealisation of postcolonial notions of claiming cultural control. Like colonial control, this one was also androcentric, a product of a contest—entrenched in the colonial condition—over reclaiming the indigenous men’s control over “their” women. While the nationalist de-colonial project was possibly a step towards emancipation, further emancipation, one that permits Egyptian women to freely dance without risking imprisonment, would only be possible after we emancipate ourselves from the dialectical condition of coloniality, and think of alternative world possibilities that center not the freedom of the state vis-à-vis an external other, but the freedom of the individual vis-à-vis the state.