The purpose of narratives.
It is clear that the first casualty of conflict, war and politics is the truth. What happens is that the parties to any serious struggle construct a narrative of events which serves to support their particular side and is put forward as the truth. These narratives present a one-sided picture in which the side producing them have right on their side, have done nothing wrong and that the other side has done bad things and even committed crimes. However, just because both sides are at it, does not mean that one side is not more guilty than another or that both sides are equally guilty.
The difficulty for those who are not directly involved in a serious dispute or war is to try to assemble from the evidence available to their eyes and ears and based on experience which of the competing narratives is closest to the truth and which side, if any, bears the bulk of any offences or crimes. This is the actual case in any civilian dispute, whether or not it arrives at a tribunal or court. If it does then it is up to those who sit on the tribunal or the judge/jury in a court case – if they are honest – to weigh the evidence and decide which narrative is most trustworthy before reaching any conclusion.
In the case of uprisings, civil wars and revolutions the stakes are even higher, the narratives are even more forcefully made and the situation becomes even more complex. In such cases, it should be remembered that states facing unrest have the greatest resources and power to create their own narratives and to ensure as far as possible that these dominate mainstream dialogue. It can do this by banning alternative media outlets, flooding existing media outlets and controlling the streets. The state has also the power, the resources and the ability to conduct what are known as black ops. That is to say they can employ people as agent provocateurs, carry out covert actions and blame these on the opposition.
Anyone who thinks that some official sections of state organisations do not get up to such Machiavellian and nefarious acts is naive. But so to do some sections of religious and political groupings. However, the latter are usually less powerful and capable of conducting extensive black ops and provocations. Take for example, the US and UK states narratives on the war on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Take the domestic narratives of the British state over inner city riots in 2011 or the US states domestic narrative over the ’Occupy’ activists, compared to that of the rioters or the occupiers. There are countless other examples – to numerous to list. The Egyptian state is no different and in many cases has been worse in creating negative narratives for those opposed to it and positive ones for its own conduct.
The narratives in Egypt.
In the case of Egypt, the current narrative of the state is broadly that the Muslim Brotherhood are undemocratic, sectarian, weapon-bearing activists and terrorists wishing to destabilise the Egyptian Government and economy. They therefore deserve all they get – including a brutal massacre of their supporters. Those who support this narrative also point to the fact that some Muslim Brotherhood activists do carry guns and other weapons. There is also a publicised suspicion that some Brotherhood activist are guilty of burning churches and of brutalising people not belonging to their religious denomination. The latter also point out that the Muslim Brotherhood, elected to power used that power to pursue its own agenda and was not inclusive. Other charges have been made concerning corruption and unconstitutional economic investments.
The Muslim Brotherhoods pro-Mursi narrative is different. It is that there has been an unconstitutional coup and a return to brutal military rule. Their narrative includes the assertion that a massacre of protestors against this alleged coup occurred and that further outrages have been conducted against unarmed protestors. Further they insist that they are all peaceful, democratic and desirous of social and political inclusion for all Egyptian people. More than that, Brotherhood representatives assert that their previous election to governance was legitimate, constitutional and beneficial for the future welfare of Egyptian society.
It is clear that there are many problems with both narratives. Both are partial and one-sided. However, concerning recent events there is also an asymmetric imbalance. Even if one accepts completely, as I do, that the Morsi government was one-sided and not beneficial for the general population of Egypt; even if one accepts that some of their members are gun toting activists – even terrorists – and that some or even all of their leaders are corrupt and self-serving; even if one accepts that all the churches burned down were set alight by Islamists and not pro-government agents; and even if one objects to the imposition of Shariah law and any future restrictions for women and non-Muslims, again as I do, there is still a problem with what transpired on August 13th and since. With this in mind, the following pertinent questions arise.
Do these transgressions, some as yet unproven, deserve the indiscriminate punishments which were inflicted upon protestors – most of whom may well have been innocent of such crimes? Was not the correct procedure to investigate the church burnings and bring to justice those who perpetrated these acts. Was the correct procedure not to arrest and prosecute those who carried weapons in pro-Morsi sit-ins and demonstrations? Was not the correct procedure to investigate and impeach any corrupt Muslim government officials? Furthermore was it correct for the military to allow a gathering of stick and other weapon-bearing individuals to surround a mosque and stay there threatening the inhabitants of the mosque?
If one is truly against demonstrators being armed would the correct procedure not have been to, disarm these opposing activists and disperse them? If those in the mosque were armed with guns why was no-one outside taking cover? Why were some unarmed besiegers keen to get in to use their fists and sticks against those inside if those inside had guns? Why are government supporters assaulting western press reporters for carrying the possibility of an alternative narrative?
Whilst there is much to criticise, campaign against and even condemn concerning many Islamist supporters, the massacre and group demonisation of vast numbers of Egyptians is absolutely inhumane and counter-productive. Indiscriminate individual brutality only begets individual retaliatory brutality. Mass indiscriminate brutality, invites mass retaliatory brutality. The indiscriminate war on terror elsewhere as been the most fertile ground for incubating terrorist cells. Since the Bush and Blair state war on terror is there not more sectarian terror? Is the situation in Egypt likely to be different than elsewhere in the middle east? Lets hope so.
One needn’t take the religious or political side of the Muslim Brotherhood or extremist Islamists to take a position of opposition to the brutality of the military regime. One needn’t defend the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic vision for Egypt to condemn the recent massacres. Humanist values trump political posturing. If one wishes to campaign for and promote a more humane form of society, than a theocratic Islamist one, one doesn’t forward that desire or project by perpetrating or supporting brutality against those who wish for a theocracy. One leads by example, and the example set by the military is to mercilessly crush those who disagree with them or challenge their right to power. Its an example no one really wishing peace, bread and justice in Egypt should support physically or intellectually.
In any big issue such as this in which sides become polarised and which existential concerns drive the two sides to desperate measures, it is inevitable that onlookers also take sides. This often creates a secondary tier of narratives which on the basis of accepting some sources of evidence over other sources, justifies support for one side or the other – or even justifies a distancing from both sides. Conserving this initial position can also have a momentum of its own. Once more facts are revealed and one primary narrative seems more problematic than the other, then a face-saving, or credibility-saving supplementary narrative is often constructed. This is likely to occur in Egypt as it has in other similar tragic events in other regime changes.
The main culprits in these retrospective secondary narrative rationalisations are the bourgeois media and state media outlets themselves. But the left often falls into this trap also. Rushing into accepting evidence, which has not been sufficiently verified, can lead to positions which later become potentially embarrassing and problematic. Attempts can then be urgently made to cover up or rationalise the position earlier adopted in order to save face or credibility. The most notorious anti-capitalist example of this phenomena was the disastrous classification of social democrats in 1930’s Germany as ‘social fascists’ by Stalinists only to reverse this position in the Spanish Civil War a few years later. However, were this occurs it reveals the bankruptcy of those, who like every other consummate politician, wriggle and squirm at being caught out in this way.
In uprisings, civil wars and revolutions this potential to naively or prematurely adopt a narrative or choose a side is frequently an invitation too tempting for many to resist. But the lessons of history for those opposed to the capitalist mode of production and the state, is to be extremely cautious and careful before accepting narratives promoted by the official organisational representatives of political parties or a state, particularly when that state authority is being seriously challenged as is the case in Egypt.
Hedging bets by sitting on the fence when states massacre citizens with whom we disagree is not really a revolutionary or a humanist position, let alone a revolutionary-humanist one. The primary litmus test of adopting a revolutionary working class position in such conflicts is the question of safe-guarding all human rights – not just those of the bourgeoisie. If there is ever to be a workers revolution against the capitalist mode of production, workers will have to overcome, religious, gender, age, ethnicity and other differences, not make these lesser ‘identities’ a basis for indifference or what amounts to total disdain for the massacre of others. We need to begin as we intend to continue.
Roy Ratcliffe (August 2013.)