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The Discoursive Conditions of Protest Backlash: Political Violence and Islamist Mobilization in Egypt After the Military Coup

Contentious Politics
Political Violence
Social Movements
Mixed Methods
Jannis Grimm
Freie Universität Berlin
Jannis Grimm
Freie Universität Berlin

Repression usually works – except when it doesn’t. At times, it is not until authorities employ violence that collective actions gain momentum in mass demonstrations, or that protesters radicalize in a militant uprising. At times, the outcome is reversed: only two years after the Arab Spring, massive state violence against Islamists protesting a military coup in Egypt, failed to produce backlash – both, in terms of a sustainable protest-coalition across ideological cleavages, and in terms of political radicalization. Even when violence peaked in two brutal massacres in mid-August 2013, outrage over state repression stayed limited to the ideologically aligned segment of society. Starting from this puzzle of disparate reactions to similar events, this paper examines the trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Anticoup coalition in the immediate post-coup period. Adopting a discourse theoretical perspective on contentious politics and drawing on a combination of protest event analysis and post-structuralist discourse analysis, it is argued that the contra-intuitive findings on the aftermath of the Rabaa and Nahda massacres - absent backlash, limited political violence, no radicalization of contentious repertoires - are due to a disregard for the manifold interpretations surrounding the massacre: In the context of a polarized public, the Islamists’ nonviolent protest campaign under the banner of ‘legitimacy’ was unable to generate resonance and support. The Islamist’s inability to modify or extend the campaign’s frame in a creative and inspiring way forestalled not only the creation of coalitions beyond the ideologically aligned opposition spectrum. It also precluded popular solidarity when civilian protesters were targeted in the massacres of Rabaa and Nahda. Within the context of growing perceptions of insecurity in the population – owing to the day-to-day violence on the streets – the Anticoup coalition did not succeed in defending its own version of events against that of the security forces. Ultimately, this paper highlights, how a certain choice of symbolic repertoires may restrict the building of broader coalitions of contenders, precluding potential backlash effects and thus ultimately limiting mobilisation’s chances.
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