Reluctant Radicals: from Democratic Aspiration to Violent Conspiration in the Wake of Egypt’s Arab Spring

Abdallah Hendawy

Advisor: John Dale, Lester Kurtz, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Peter Mandaville, Arm Hamzawy

Johnson Center, #239A
April 26, 2018, 06:00 PM to 08:00 PM


Violent extremism is a world-wide, rapidly expanding phenomenon. Over the past few years, many regions of the world have witnessed an unprecedented influx of insurgents and deadly attacks. In an age of globalization and technological advancements in which economic and geographic boundaries are blurring, ideas of violence are becoming increasingly deterritorialized, allowing extremism to spread rapidly despite all sincere attempts to halt its progression. This dissertation is an effort to understand why, how, and under what conditions nonviolent activists become fiercely violent militants. It relies on actual interviews with active and inactive militants in Egypt and other stakeholders from state and non state parties, taking into consideration all political, social and economic forces that led to the radicalization of a number of the once-nonviolent protesters of the January 2011 Egyptian uprising.The evolution of extremist groups over the past few years has outpaced the available literature. Our understanding of modern day radicalization should include emotional, cultural, social, and historical considerations, and evidence from the participants themselves. The consultation with participants themselves is particularly critical and equally elusive, since most experts in the field have only limited access to direct sources or none at all. This project provides unique insights into the radicalization process, because it analyzes in-depth interviews with people who have undergone the process themselves, while starting from a position of nonviolent activism. Although many Egyptian activists started as nonviolent protesters decades ago seeking democratic changes, and have lived together through the rise and fall of that dream, a select few have experienced a particularly cruel level of state-sponsored violence. Torture and rape caused a deep sense of humiliation, and spawned an immense desire in young activists to take justice into their own hands. Young people experienced systematic abuse that created a common experience for the victims -- feeling completely disenfranchised, infuriated, victimized, and violated by the very state (their state) that that should have protected them. Clouded by a sense of rage and revenge, and supported by powerful ideological narratives to justify the use of violence, the once-nonviolent protesters found their way to violence as a means of attaining a sort of vigilante justice in the short term, in hopes of achieving limited social change in the long term. 

Ajnad Misr defies traditional theories that relegate violence to a single motive and fail to recognize potent human factors that contribute to radicalization, such as emotions of hope, outrage, disappointment, and pride, and domestic cultural components like revenge, shame, and culturally-sanctioned violence. Collective grievances maybe an important factor in driving collective action, but this model encourages us to broaden our perspective beyond traditional paradigms and modalities, and take emotions and culturally-constructed concepts into account, as can they provide explanations to the transformative behaviour of discontented populations.