The battle of Muhammad Mahmud street in Cairo: the poetics and politics of urban violence in revolutionary time

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The battle of Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November 2011, pitching protestors against security forces in a five-day long stand-off, represented a crucial episode of Egypt's 25 January Revolution. Part riot and part carnival, this event opens up a number of questions for historians. This article examines the battle on three distinct scales, paying particular attention to time and temporality. The first scale is the battle's position within the temporality of the Egyptian revolution. The article argues that revolutionary situations are best understood through concepts of liminal time, and that the winter of 2011, rather than the initial stage of the Tahrir Square sit-in in January–February, represented the crucial phase of the revolutionary process in Egypt. A second scale zooms in on street action, focusing on the nexus of class, masculinity and urban violence. Here, raw experiences on the ground inform subjective meanings of ‘violence', ‘politics' and ‘revolution' from the perspective of those who were most directly involved in their making. These experiences also reveal different temporal horizons experienced by diverse participants, which, however, did not remain unchanged as events unfolded. The third scale is historically comparative, delving into spontaneously enacted riotous and carnivalesque urban violence as reflected in classic literature on riots and carnivals in different contexts. The battle of November 2011 allow us to see the generic affinity between these liminal events and the persistence of the riotous and carnivalesque within modern revolutionary situations, as it may help us understand the resurgence of riots within the contemporary world.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273–317
Number of pages46
JournalPast & Present
Issue number1
Early online date22 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


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