Karin Ahlberg: On the utility of truth in Egyptian terrains of necropolitics

In fall 2013, an alleged spy was put behind bars in the Qena governorate in Upper Egypt. The accused’s name was Menes, and his summer residency was Hungary. Menes was caught by a villager who spotted a suspicious device on Menes’s body, and he was put in custody until he was released by an attorney. In 2013, several foreigners were arrested in Egypt on similar accusations. Perhaps the most reported story is that of three Al Jazeera journalists accused of spreading lies and supporting terrorism. They were recently sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison (Al Jazeera 2014).

Menes’s story would not have stood out had it not been for the fact that Menes was a bird—a stork, to be precise. The tracking device that made him a suspect was placed by a Hungarian research team, and this is how we know of his background. The news was soon a source of amusement in national and international media; “Fowl play?” was the witty headline in the British The Independent (Williams 2013). Menes’s story did not end with his release but with his recaption—perhaps because of the stress he suffered in custody—and death. He was reportedly cooked, and there was a lot of talk about stork soup for some days in the Egyptian blogosphere.

The news seemed to confirm what an outsider early on may have concluded about the Egyptian society: its abundance of gossip, rumors, conspiracies, and conspiracy theories. During my fieldwork sometime in 2012, a European embassy employee stationed in Egypt told me, “You meet extremely intelligent people in Egypt, but then, all of a sudden, they say something completely unrealistic and conspiratorial—that Iran and the [United States] are in fact secret allies or that foreigners are to blame for the January 25 revolution.”

The stork story is just one in a row of surreal news coming out from Egypt lately.1 In spring 2014, 529 people were sentenced to death in Minya for the killing of one police officer in August of the previous year.2 A majority of the convicted was subsequently acquitted, but for 183 the death penalty remains. English-speaking press coverage of these stories has often worked along lines of ridicule, exposing the absurdity of the Egyptian regime and parts of society.

For someone familiar with Egyptian social dynamics, the stork drama was not especially surprising; if anything, it was dark comedy—a rather logical continuation of developments in the previous years. The capturing and handing over of the bird to Egyptian authorities followed a period of intense xenophobic rhetoric that sharpened in the aftermath of the 25 January 2011 uprisings. That rhetoric peaked in the summer of 2013, following the ousting of then–President Muhammed Mursi. Animals serving in the intelligence sector also have a recent history in Egypt. In 2010, a shark in Sharm El-Sheikh killed one tourist and seriously injured several others.  The governor of South Sinai said it could not be ruled out that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, orchestrated the attacks by attaching a GPS to the shark. The step from sharks to storks does not seem big. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry responded to the accusation of Mossad piloting the shark by saying the governor “must have seen [the film] Jaws one time too many, and confuses fact and fiction” (Knell 2010).

But what sort of worlds are we speaking about, when, following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, reality itself in Egypt seemed to surpass the imaginative? The trials against the Muslim Brothers in Minya have been called “mockery trials,” but their effects are and will most likely be coldly real. As another stork, this time a human, Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said about the case, “The punishments are deadly serious, but the trials weren’t” (HRW 2014b). Below, I explore what happens if we understand the spying stork and the mock trials as “normal events.” If these stories have a possibility to be credible (yet still laughable), true in the sense that they might happen and that they do happen—someone actually did report a stork as a spy; more than five hundred men really were found guilty of murdering one single policeman—what do they show in terms of the worlds Egyptians are inhabiting?

The making of worlds

Truth making is not simply about saying “this statement is true”; it is not simply about good descriptions or constative statements whose value derives from their correspondence to ”what is.” (Ahmed 2003: 377)

Truth, in Sarah Ahmed’s thinking, is not simply about distinguishing fact from fiction, stork from spy, guilty from innocent. Rather, this “correlation truth” is itself an effect of another type of truth: “the production of ‘is-ness’—as well as politics, whereby ‘what is’ comes into existence as an effect of relations of power, force and legitimization” (378). In short, “to ‘make truths’ is to make worlds; to make truths is to make ‘what is’” (377).

Let’s look at the life, the world, of my friend Hussein. Hussein works as a shopkeeper in Khan El-Khalili, Cairo’s biggest tourism market, and we spent a considerable amount of time together during the dramatic and turbulent years following the fall of Mubarak. Hussein was born in the mid-1980s to a wealthy trader in one of Cairo’s historic neighborhoods. Before starting school, Hussein had lost both of his parents. His father died of natural causes, while his young mother, the youngest wife of three, died in an accident when crossing one of the many unattended train tracks in the suburbs of Cairo. One of his elder brothers let Hussein stay with him. Later, they sold the family house in the historic quarters of Islamic or Historic Cairo3 and built a larger house in a large informal area called Manshiyat Naser.

Manshiyya, as it is often called, is where a great part of the city’s garbage is brought and recycled by the area’s unofficial garbage collectors. Even though this activity is only part of Manshiyya’s diverse population and economy, the poverty and hard life of “the garbage people” (the Zabaleen) is often the first picture that comes up. The area is built on the slopes of Muqattam Hills, with the threat of landslides and falling stone blocks constantly looming. Hussein lives farther down the hill, so his house is not at direct risk. In the family house, Hussein owns the smallest flat, where he, his wife, and their two young daughters share no more than thirty square meters. Before the 25 January revolution threw Egypt’s lucrative tourism industry into crisis, Hussein made more than enough money to support his family. Since then he has been struggling; during the time of my fieldwork, he barely earned enough to put food on the table each day.

Think of Hussein as somebody from a working-class background, who never had the chance to go to university, who had to work hard all his life, who knows hardship but stays away from the drugs that have caught many of his childhood friends in spirals of violence (“their faces are scarred”), unemployment, and poverty. Hussein did not go to Tahrir Square during the uprisings; he stayed in the market, guarding the stores from looters, protecting his neighborhood. It is not that Hussein doesn’t care for or dream of a better Egypt, but the movements associated with Tahrir were somehow worlds apart from the real and imaginary spaces he inhabits.

In the 1990s, one of Hussein’s brothers died in a motorbike accident on the Al-Azhar Bridge—a high overpass leading from Downtown Cairo to Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the Historic City’s centers. It is normally a thrilling ride, as vehicles travel high up, overlooking the rooftops of the old city. Hussein’s brother went off that bridge, falling at least ten meters, possibly fifty. “He was dead, there, at the scene,” Hussein told me. “But still, they kept him in the hospital for three days before they declared him dead. They charged us LE 9,000 a day [about £800]. It would be a lot of money today, but it was a fortune back then. They did it only for the money.”

Another time, Hussein was distraught, asking me for advice. His youngest daughter, a year old, had broken two of her fingers. Hussein had already taken her to three different doctors. The first told him, after looking at the X-ray, that the fingers were not broken. When they turned swollen and blue, he went to another doctor, who concluded that the fingers were broken and fixated them along a stick. The toddler kept on ripping off the bandage, which resulted in a third visit. There, Hussein was told that one should not fixate a small child’s fingers because that might cause permanent damage. She now got a cast. The toddler was still in pain, and her parents could not explain to her that she could not take off the bandage, so she kept on trying to take off the cast. So far, Hussein had paid more than a monthly salary because the doctors in the public clinics would not even acknowledge that his daughter was seriously injured. “What shall I do?” he asked me. The good hospitals would be too expensive; we both knew that.

Truth making rather than “correlation truth”
Ahmed argues that only certain people and institutions will be acknowledged speaking the truth: “to be recognized as speaking ‘the truth’ is to rely on certain distinctions, boundaries and concepts that are assumed to be self-evident, a self-evidence that transforms social forms into worlds, as it becomes evidence of truth in those worlds” (2003: 378).

Let us turn to the trials in Minya. Seen from Ahmed’s perspective, the court system in Egypt was in a position to speak “the truth” about the convicted in the court case—it had proved that these men were guilty along the lines of the correlation truth; a crime had been committed, the guilty found and sentenced. At the same time, it was clear that not all people considered the court to speak the truths. However, and this is key, the verdict (no matter if one considers the judge to have spoken the truth or not) was also a part of truth making; the more fundamental truth made through this verdict is not about what these men did or did not do but that they may have to hang. This truth is what Stork referred to, when saying that the consequences of the punishments were deadly serious. This is the chilling truth, the world, that was made and remade through the verdict; no matter if the court was right in its assessment of the correlation truth, it had the power to make what it said come true.

Ahmed writes, “The worlds we ‘are in’ might not be of ‘our making,’ but they are made, and through being made, they ‘make us.’” For ordinary Egyptians, how do you live and navigate these worlds—these truths—in which the regime has power to sentence more than five hundred men to death for the murder of one single man?

Here I want to emphasize that not all people believe that state institutions speak the truths, or that they are even acting “as if” (Wedeen 1999) they believe it. I think Hussein would have laughed about the stork story, but laughter would not explain the whole picture. In the aftermath of the revolution, Hussein had come to seriously doubt many things that he had previously, if not believed in, at least not scrutinized in detail; the structures that allowed the state to “speak the truth” were quickly disassembling. For instance, he no longer believed that the terror attacks that defined much of the 1990s could be blamed on militant Islamists. “Before the revolution, we thought acts of terrorism were the work of the ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood] or the salafis [conservative Muslims inspired by Saudi Wahibism], but after the revolution it has become clear that this was not the case,” he told me. These days he was rather wondering whether the attacks had been “jobs of an outsider, like Israel or America,” or perhaps the government. He was contemplated if Habib El-Adly, Mubarak’s interior minister, had masterminded the bombing of a Coptic Church three weeks before the 25 January revolution broke out. Those days, Hussein had few “true points” to attach the past to. He kept repeating “maybe, maybe not” as he presented possible scenarios of past events to me, often ending his sentences with a laconic “who knows?” If the interior minister really had bombed his own people, what, then, could not be true in and of Egyptian history?

Since I got to know Hussein, Egyptian security services kept arresting people, shooting people, no matter if the army, Mursi, or Sisi was in power. I saw this closely from the tragic story of my good friend Zeinab. One day, she looked very distressed and told me that her cousin had disappeared. Weeks later, his body was found in the morgue. In fact, it had been kept there while his mother went around to the city’s morgues and hospitals, looking for her son. They had not wanted to tell the dead cousin’s mother too early. Time erases traces. Evidence of torture and fingerprints that the dead body might have carried had faded away once the family finally got access to the body. No one was ever found guilty for the death of Zeinab’s cousin. For Zeinab and Hussein, as for many other Egyptians, neither the law nor the police will ever be there to protect them. For those belonging to the majority, whose voices are not considered to be speaking the truths in the halls of power—whose dead bodies have to be disposed, hidden until they as well are silenced—for them, the concept of correlation truths is subordinated to the truths made through violence that is a central part of the worlds in which they lead their lives. They are all too aware how the Egyptian state labels people terrorists or thugs (baltagiyya), and how, no matter if these signifiers correspond to the signified bodies, they give the police carte blanche to kill the interpellated with little risk of reprisals. Because the labels make their own truth, their own words, they mark out life that is not worthy of mourning (cf. Butler 2010).

If you know that the state is mainly concerned not with making correlation truths but is rather a forceful machine that moves the world forward, then you cannot avoid seeing its ugly face. This is what my friend Hussein did, and increasingly so after the revolution. His increased awareness of the states of the matter, and of his precarious being in these terrains, had broken something inside him. The world being made was a world where the poor, the Islamists (at times), the young, the dissidents—friends and family—could always, unless they trod all so carefully, be victims of the violence both of the state’s police apparatus and its hopelessly neglected public services. Hussein knew this. But he also knew that those in power would keep talking as if they were speaking the truth. Regardless of if this was laughable, what mattered was that those in power also had the power to make such worlds come true. And if you wanted to live, you simply had to watch out.

Truths of necropolitics
Politics “could be thought of as a project of ‘world making,’ in which ‘truth’ is one aspect of the world that is being made and remade” (Ahmed 2003: 378). The enfolding violent worlds put into being partly by past and present rulers in Egypt are akin to what Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics. Sovereignty in this context “means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (2003: 27). Egyptian state institutions are neglecting their people, feeding on them, even killing them.4 Like Hussein, many Egyptians are today “forced into a life of utter or near poverty because their country’s politics and economics keep them deliberately impoverished, disenfranchised, and humiliated” (Alwan 2012: 47). Death lurks around the corner, and for Egypt’s poor, life is also, yet never only, about surviving in its literal sense. People die in the hands of the police, in prisons, or in protests. People die in traffic accidents or from illnesses. Many deaths in traffic could be prevented if the roads were better, if systems for car checks were not so corrupt, if traffic laws were enforced. People would live longer if health services were better, accessible, freely available, and not dependent on bribes and money paid under the table. But people always also try to help each other out, to survive, to live, to love, to laugh.

This is the precarious and violent world of Egypt’s poor that is coming into being under previous and present rulers. These are the worlds being made. The hierarchy of whose life counts in these worlds sometimes becomes painfully visible. I remember a middle-aged, middle-class Egyptian lady at a conference in Cairo celebrating that young, poor men had sacrificed themselves at the frontlines of the revolution to save those with higher class and education. I also remember the attention given to the failed rescue operation of mountaineering middle-class Egyptians caught in a snowstorm in the mountains of Sinai, leading to the tragic deaths of three members of the group. A storm of criticism was directed at responsible state actors, not only for the substandard rescue standby and lies but also for the fact/fantasy that the lost mountaineers would have been rescued had they been foreigners. However, the expectation that the state would come to their rescue and the possibility to mobilize the country’s media illustrate that the lives of these Egyptians mattered. This event would probably not have received the same attention or evoked the same outrage had those trapped on the mountain come from the country’s poor or popular classes.

Every life ought to count equally
What do you do when you know that your life doesn’t count in the records of the state; when your body is as good dead as alive in the eyes of the state; when your life is more valuable as a showcase than in and of itself? Can you (bother to) speak as a “political subject” if you know that you are not counted as one? Hussein was all too aware of this. When hospitals keep dead brothers alive for profit, when three doctors are needed to diagnose two broken fingers, stories about storks or mock trials are not part of the imaginative or fiction but rather part of a larger scheme of the world’s violent enfolding.

For those whose lives do not count in the records of the state, correlation truths are subordinated to the violent truth making that makes reality, makes the world. What does truth matter when you can be arrested by the state, made to disappear or die in custody? Or to be precise, is it not exactly that sad violent truth of death that actually matters, no matter if you are really guilty or not? They can always take you, kill you, try and sentence you, use you to make an argument, or, if you are lucky, rescue you to make another).

But whether you live or die is of subordinate importance to them. This is the truth of necropolitics.

Karin Ahlberg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. Her thesis “They are destroying the image of Egypt” explores how tourism, Egyptian nationhood, and “infrastructures for image making” are entangled in the authoritarian, tourism-dependent, and postcolonial context of Egypt.

1. In January this year, an Egyptian Army doctor announced that the military—then ruling the country—had found the cure for HIV and hepatitis C (Loveluck 2014). A couple of month earlier, a puppet in a television show was taken off air, accused of spreading codified messages to Islamist terrorist (Mackey and Stack 2014).

2. In the coverage of the trial, Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that the charges, apart from the killing of one police officer, include “attempting to kill two others, damaging public property, seizing weapons, illegal public assembly, and membership in a banned organization” (2014a).

3. In English, this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site is often referred to as Islamic or Historic Cairo. In Arabic, however, there is no name for this old urban fabric of the city, and locals normally refer to much smaller areas and neighborhoods by their particular names.

4. Samer Soliman used the adjective “predatory” to describe the Egyptian state’s exploitation of its citizens since the 1990s, showing how shrinking public spending and privatization of land and productive means into the hands of elites, combined with high inflation, had transferred wealth from inhabitants to the state and the regime (2011).

Ahmed, Sarah. 2003. The politics of fear in the making of worlds. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16(3).

Al Jazeera. 2014. Egypt considers pardons for Al Jazeera staff. Aljazeera.com, 20 November.

Alwan, Yassir. 2012. “No ideas but in things”: A documentary art short on message. In Hanan Sabea and Mark R. Westmoreland, eds., Visual productions of knowledge: Toward a different Middle East, p. 232. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Butler, Judith. 2010. Frames of war: When is life grievable? London: Verso.

Human Rights Watch. 2014a. Egypt: Shocking death sentences follow sham trial. HRW.org, 25 March.

Human Rights Watch. 2014b. Egypt: 183 death sentences confirmed in Minya. HRW.org, 21 June.

Knell, Yolande. 2010. Shark attacks not linked to Mossad says Israel. BBC, 7 December.

Loveluck, Louisa. 2014. Egyptian military backtracks on Aids cure claims. The Guardian, 28 June.

Mackey, Robert, and Liam Stack. 2014. Egyptian puppet called terrorist mouthpiece. The New York Times, 2 January.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1): 11–40.

Soliman, Samer. 2011. The autumn of dictatorship: Fiscal crisis and political change in Egypt under Mubarak. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Wedeen, Lisa. 1999. Ambiguities of domination: Politics, rhetoric, and symbols in contemporary Syria. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, Rob. 2013. Fowl play? Stork suspected of spying in Egypt was “killed and eaten” by villagers. The Independent, 8 September.

Cite as: Ahlberg, Karin. 2014. “On the utility of truth in Egyptian terrains of necropolitics,” FocaalBlog, November 26, www.focaalblog.com/2014/11/26/karin-ahlberg-on-the-utility-of-truth-in-egyptian-terrains-of-necropolitics.