Death as Method: State and Revolutionary Discourses on Death and Martyrdom

By: Sharbat 

     In this essay I will attempt to tackle different categories of martyrdom, how they’re deployed and for what purposes. I will make recourse to the state’s rhetoric that is manifested in public ceremonies “honoring” the mothers of our martyrs. The main points of reference will be a video from one of these ceremonies, another from a similar ceremony held in the Coptic Cultural Centre and a third video from a talk show that did an exclusive on mothers of martyrs during mothers’ day. Here the state frames the soldiers’ death as a victory and honor for their families, one that is worth public recognition and awarding. I explore the political connotations of this death-perversion, and consequences of turning a person in their totality, their life and death, into an idea and the repercussions of denying mourning. Furthermore, I will be looking at martyrdom in relation to revolutionary discourses and notions of honor, gift and sacrifice. 

(I) The Making of a Martyr

We think about death – seemingly universal and absolute – as also made: as inflicted, staged, performed, invited, imagined, witnessed, celebrated, remembered, mourned, narrated, forgotten, told, sung, painted, photographed, filmed, belittled, feared, depoliticized, and charged with revolutionary significance. (Mittermaier, 2015).

State-Sponsored Martyrdom

This section will investigate the ways in which states, particularly the Egyptian state, appropriate death for the purposes of state and nation-building as well as enforcing a particular imaginary of the nation and national unity which it propagates through public rhetoric and state-owned media. I argue that the state exploits the death of its subjects and uses it as an instrument with which to consolidate its own power. 

Mobilizing Political Support 

As a media spokesperson I was standing since the start of 28 February 2011 to as my duty as a journalist demanded and I saw the strategic plan that is targeting our nation. I cannot waste this opportunity, my being here with you, I have to tell you the magnitude of the conspiracy against Egypt exceeds anyone’s imagination. We must understand. The Muslim Brotherhood with the help of the CIA and the MI6, the global Zionism their target is to eradicate the Egyptian state they are preparing for a parallel government (insurgency) if the president doesn’t succeed in the referendum by 51 or 52%, they want to cast suspicion over the legitimacy of the Egyptian government! They want to bring the MB to power once again. Who among us wants that? They call us heretics, atheists, they are not convinced by Muslims nor by Christians. For this reason, for the sake of every martyr who died for Egypt: go out there and place your vote, place a rose on the gravestone of every martyr. Every vote for Egypt is a rose on their gravestones.

Here, this woman’s narrative is quite telling in terms of demonstrating (and propagating) a particular imaginary of the Egyptian nation-state from which the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have been strategically expelled. The MB are externalized from the nationalist narrative and reconfigured as de facto traitors. Typically, as is prevalent in the official state and media discourse in the current political moment, the MB represent a powerful discursive tool: a threat, which is intensified by alleged “evidence” (i.e. “mokhatatat”/ “hokooma mowazya”) of ways in which that threat may become realized. By announcing her profession as a journalist, this woman gives her own narrative considerable currency, implying special access to insider information on the workings of the MB. She claims that if the president (Abdelfattah el Sisi) doesn’t win the election, those conspiratorial plans will become reality. Furthermore, she constructs a direct relation between honoring the death of martyrs and supportive political action: voting. Thus, in her rhetoric the honor of the martyr’s death is contingent on political actors performing their civil duties, and supporting the current regime. Here the nation and the current regime are used interchangeably, the martyr died for the nation, under the current regime therefore the duty of the living is to sustain the legitimacy of the current regime to honor the sacrifice made by the is also important to note the context within which this speech took place. This was in the Coptic Cultural Center, it is therefore plausible that the speaker’s awareness of her audience’s antipathy and fear towards the MB informed her narrative by playing on the threat of the brotherhood, with which Copts specifically, are all too familiar. This has been a standard tactic in securing advocacy for the current president who positions himself as the paternalistic guardian of Copts vowing to protect them from the horrors of terrorism. 

Suppressing Political Dissent 

Do not dare forget 2011 and 2012 when we brought the metal bars and locked ourselves inside our homes do not forget now we go out, at dawn we go out, at night we go out, the girl goes out, the mother, the young man, the boy goes out, all in safety and security.

Do not dare forget, do not forget that you are now in living in safety. Do not get distracted by bread crumbs (lo’met el eish). I swear to you if the millions of the world were to be provided to us and we ate the best food, without security it would be tasteless in our mouths. You mustn’t allow the word “inflation” to make you forget the safety and security that you are living in. 

The only country where nobody goes to bed hungry is Egypt. The only country that counts as a home for all the Arab states is Egypt. All the Arab countries… We’ve seen what happened to them. None found a country to welcome and accommodate them like Egypt did. Like Egypt embraced them. 

Imagine if we lost Egypt. I swear by the name of God we would not find a homeland “watan”, we would not find anywhere to take us in. Do not waste the blood of our children, do not waste the blood of our children I am begging you, Egypt is too precious.

The one who speaks about the chicken that’s expensive or the meat or the rabbit, for us the most important thing is safety and security. Go and see our great army that doesn’t eat or drink to provide for your safety.

The speaker’s words allude to the indispensability of memory, as the space in which the martyr’s symbolic immortality is constantly made, and remade. She cautions the public against getting “distracted” by dietary needs, which her rhetoric suggests are minor concerns and must be treated as such, in comparison to the more important requisite, security. Not surprisingly, in the most popular slogan of the 2011 revolution “eish, horreya, aadala egtemaeya” (Bread, freedom, social justice), food was the first and primary demand. In the current financial situation more and more workers are finding it difficult to feed themselves. In response to this, potentially impending revolt, the speaker brings up the events of the 2011 revolution framing it within the context of fear. Reminding the people how scared they were to leave their houses. Thus, her narrative serves to suppress political dissent and keep the public subservient and dormant with regards to current material challenges to their livelihoods. Furthermore, she follows this with the powerful words “do not waste the blood of our children”, which suggests that expressing political concerns about inflation and the current financial situation not only distracts from the more pressing issue of security, more than that, it betrays the purpose for which the soldiers had died. Similarly, in the South African context McClintock notes, “All too frequently, male nationalists condemn feminism as divisive, bidding women to hold their tongues until after the revolution” (McClintock). At the Nairobi Conference on Women in 1985, the delegation of the African National Congress has stated: “It would be suicidal for us to adopt feminist ideas. Our enemy is the system and we cannot exhaust our energies on women’s issues” (McClintock, 1991). Nationalisms are forged around fictional homogeneity and presumed similar experiences of subjects, creating a singular common goal from which to diverge is to betray the collective. In this context particular narratives of struggle are given voice at the cost of silencing other narratives, that are as much constitutive of subjects’ experience. 

The Denial of Mourning

His space is empty in our house. Alhamdulillah happiness does not enter our home anymore, not anymore. Alhamdulillah I am not sad.

            The implications of holding award ceremonies for the mothers of martyrs are manifold. Within those events it is common practice for the presenter to speak about the mother’s “joy” which she feels (or should feel) because her son died for an honorable cause. This negation of mourning is, in my opinion, extremely problematic. It cultivates feelings of guilt in mothers who mourn the loss of their children, because it frames their mourning as misdirected. Soldiers are gifts to the nation and as such their sacrifice must be celebrated not mourned. In this formulation not only is the mother’s mourning negated but so too, the personhood of the soldier who died. This person amounts to one sacrificial act, and then a symbol. One is tempted to call this a reduction but the valorization of the soldier, the figure of the martyr, makes this difficult. Although it indicates the disproportionate value that the state puts on lives/deaths of different subjects. Here it commemorates the death of the soldier as a regeneration of life of the nation. This, in the state’s discourse, warrants not mourning but celebration. It assumes that the mothers did not lose their sons, instead they gained martyrs. In this way the mourning process is marginalized, what is presented to the public instead are moments of pride. Which is not to say that the mothers do not truly experience a sense of pride, as this is not an attempt to substantiate the true nature of the mothers’ emotions rather it is to expose how those emotions are being framed by the state in a very particular way. As Scheper-Hughes articulates it, “Emotions are discourse; they are constructed and produced in language and in human interaction. They cannot be understood outside of the cultures that produce them” (Scheper-Hughes, 2018). The problem then arises when we consider that unlike the Brazilian mothers who are “coachedin the art of resignation”, Egyptian mothers appear to be forcedinto resignation and participation in public performances of pride. It is also worth noting that one of the videos which showed a mother’s passionate speech about her martyred son during one of the award ceremonies, was titled “El-Sisi’s crying while honoring the mothers of the police and military martyrs”. In so doing, the uploader shifted the focus from the mother’s impassioned words and redirected it at the president instead. This ironically reveals the main purpose of the ceremony, which is not necessarily to honor the mothers period, but to make honorable the category of “mother of the martyr” as it factors positively in the consciousness of the public and reinforces the sanctity of the state. This explains why this ceremony was broadcasted on national television, Gilman argues, “television has retained its educational role for the intelligentsia”, in this case state, “to lecture the subaltern masses in proper nation-building behavior” (Gilman, 2015). 

Contextualizing Death: The Performativity of Martyrdom

            In this section I will explore the collective efforts, in works of memorialization, to construct the martyr.AsMittermaiernotes, “martyrdom is a label assigned retroactively. We need to be mindful of the gap between the moment of death and subsequent acts of memorialization” (Mittermaier, 2015). Her work suggests that the making of a martyr has little to do with the event of their death and much to do with how his/her death is contextualized and remembered by the public. The gap to which she is referring calls our attention to questions of when, why and by whom the decision is made to reconfigure death and categorize is as martyrdom. Hers is also an important intervention with regards to intentionality, she writes, “the making of martyrs in spaces such as Tahrir Square was ad hoc, improvised, uneven, contentious, and precarious. It is probably safe to assume that even those who came to protests dressed in funeral shrouds – indicating their readiness to die – hoped not to die. Often the making of martyrs has little to do with the martyrs’ intentions” (Mittermaier, 2015). Furthermore, this conception of the performative construction of martyrdom inserts it within the framework of an ongoing collective process rather than a moment exhausted by the death of an individual: “it is the magic of revolution to turn victims of state violence into revolutionary martyrs. The memorialization of rather ordinary young people, who posthumously came to be known less through their biographies their images, transcended the line between individual and collective: We are all Khaled Said” (Mittermaier, 2015). Mittermaier offers a poignant account that reflects on the collective process of memorialization: “Here we can think of the people who witnessed Mohammad Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, the person who took a picture of his body in flames, those viewing the picture later on, those watching the funeral procession, the picture and story circulating in the international media, those tasked with teaching his story (or not teaching it), anthropologists reflecting on his story, and those reading their reflections”(Mittermaier, 2015). Here, every act entailed in the quote is not only an act of memorialization, it is also a practice integral to the production martyrdom. This formulation of martyrdom as a category constructed, validated and reproduced primarily by the other, begs the question, does martyrdom exist outside of these collective acts? Outside of its performativity, recognition, naming and the social context within which it is produced? Another potent way of thinking about martyrdom(s), which might also be helpful in answering these questions, is to view them as part of what Ghannam calls, “death narratives”, which she argues are performative in the way “produce the good ending they seem to only acknowledge” (Ghannam, 2015). Hence she contends, “They trouble conventional distinctions between myth and reality, self and other, religious and secular, the living and the dead, and the supernatural and the human” (Ghannam, 2015). Therefore, martyrdom when considered as part of what Ghannam calls “technologies of immortality” is encompassed/produced by these narratives which “should not be analyzed or evaluated in terms of their factuality. They are not bound by the truthfulness of an empirical reality. Rather, their social and religious values are derived primarily from their ability to performatively constitute a moral reality that produces positive effects” (Ghannam, 2015). 
Honor, “Worthy” Causes and Hierarchies of Martyrdoms

Alhamdulillah, I am not sad because my son arrived to God with dignity and pride. He was my happiness and after him there is no happiness.

This section will deal with the notion of honor that circulates in narratives on death indicating a particular hierarchy of martyrdom. In her statement the mother of the martyr expresses a fundamental belief that her son has died with dignity. The notion of dignity is central to constructing martyrdom. The death of a martyr is without a doubt, an honorable death. But who determines what counts as an honorable death? In the violent clashes in the Port Said stadium a young name named Anas was killed. What prevailed thereafter was a popular opinion which held that Anas’ death is in fact martyrdom. This opinion was disputed by important religious figures who insisted that Anas had lost his life over an unworthy cause; in other words, his life was “wasted”. Because football is leisure; therefore, Anas’ being at the stadium during the events that transpired is actually a testament that he had been wasting time which he should have, more righteously invested in worship. This position sparked the outrage of Anas’ family, particularly his father who insisted that Anas died a martyr of “ghadr”. According to his father Anas’ death was a consequence of acts of “ghadr”/ betrayal, “planned and commissioned by unidentified actors to punish and discipline the Ahly Ultras, who were famous for challenging the police and for their active participation in many protests”. In this way he challenges the authoritative discourse of religion which condescendingly framed Anas as a martyr of a match “shahid el matsh” rather than “shahid el ghadr” hence postulating a hierarchy of martyrdoms in order of legitimacy. 

Gift and Sacrifice: 

On Collective Constructions and the “Political Afterlife of Dead Bodies” (Mittermaier, 2015)

It is clear that notions of gift and sacrifice permeate discourses on martyrdom. Whether in death for a political cause or for the nation-state –death for social change or death for maintaining the political status quo- it is often taken for granted that a martyr is a political figure who sacrifices their life for the sake of a greater purpose. However, much like the structure of the gift, which stipulates an obligation to reciprocate, the martyr’s death must be matched by the people for whom it is believed the martyr had died. Metteniemer poignantly asks, “What kind of future we need to bring into existence to justify their sacrifices?” This question alludes to the idea that sacrifice is only partially actualized in the moment of the martyr’s death, hence death, by this perception, constitutes an incomplete sacrifice. Rather, death must be supplemented by future collective efforts geared towards performing the presumed will of the dead such that it ensures that the sacrifice is complete, and not merely another death gone in vain. Mobilizing the concept of sacrifice reasserts that the sacrificial act is generative, it produces, if not an equal or immediate reciprocation, then at least a recognition or disposition to act in accordance with the martyr’s wishes or political motivations. Sherine Hamdy writes on Ahmed Harara who lost both his eyes at the hands of the police, during two separate attacks, “He became known as ‘the living martyr’”(Hamdy, 2018). The ostensibly irrational pairing of the words “living” and “martyr” suggest that although he did not literally give up his life, nonetheless he performed the ultimate sacrifice which could only be embodied by the martyr. The reoccurrence of similar assaults targeting the bodies and “bodily abilities” of revolutionaries urged some activist to call on the public to donate their corneas after they’ve died; a particularly contentious petition given the state’s normative stance against organ donation: “the cornea donation campaign not only acknowledged the bodily sacrifices of the revolutionaries: it sought to continue from where they left off. Supporters of the campaign spoke of the capacity of the dead body to continue to fight for the cause of justice as a metaphor for the revolution itself” (Hamdy, 2018). This powerful sentiment attests to the resolute recognition that one must give back to those who sacrificed for our collective betterment or “for the good of the nation”, so that even in death, one must reciprocate. 

Willing Yet Mournful: The Sacrifice of a Mother 

Like his Excellency Mr. president has taught us, when we speak of the Egyptian woman we speak of the mother who exerts herself, the sacrificing mother, who leads and guides and teaches and raises her sons to respect the nation and respect the other. 

No woman here warned her son against joining the army because of its threat, on the contrary the women here did not spare their sons they offered them, willingly. 

Those who pay the price are the mothers, but it’s not about paying a price it is about them welcoming the challenge and welcoming resilience and welcoming aspirations for tomorrow. 

This essentialist conception of a mother which inscribes a pre-ordained disposition towards sacrifice and in particular towards a willingness to sacrifice children for the state has many problematic connotations. It precludes any possibility of mourning and constructs a totalizing narrative that claims to reveal the truth of the condition of mothers whose children have died. Against this simplistic fiction of mothers who do not mourn, a counter narrative emerges in the rhetoric of the mothers themselves:  

No mother sees her son cut up in pieces by a bomb and says to him… and says to him this is your destiny, Diaa. Not in that very instant, she wouldn’t celebrate or be glad that he… that God chose him to become a martyr. God willing.

This brokenness of speech represented by the semiotic “…” challenges the capacity of language to narrate particular experiences of violence. In the stutters, slurs and silences the dead are “reappearing as gaps between words: landscape in ruins, language in ruins” (Sime, 2013). This suggests a dissonance that manifests in an obligatory interruption of speech. This dissonance may be read as a criticality against the state’s authoritative discourse which disallows mourning. The woman’s statement calls out the absurdity in expecting a mother to celebrate the death of her son, as participating in the ceremonies that the state holds would require. Similarly in Palestine, Peteet notes the emergence of “a critical narrative of the revolutionary era and leadership”. Where, “women’s experiences of loss were told metaphorically in terms of ‘blood and milk,’ calling forth bodily substances associated with birth, nurturing, and death, thus evoking the specificity of maternal sacrifice and the conflation of life and death”. She writes on Um Ali who gave 5 of her children to the resistance,  ” ‘We gave our blood and milk’, Um Ali shouted angrily, ‘and look how we are living–we are barely able to feed ourselves, we have been abandoned! We gave our children, and they [the PLO] have left us’” (Peteet, 1997). In both accounts the women are distrustful of and betrayed by the nationalists’ actions. In the prior statement, Um Diaa seems to only resign to her son’s destiny when she interrupts her own sentence and reformulates it to say “God chose him”. This seems to be the only way by which she can make sense of the events of his martyrdom, thus an alternative arises to the conception of “a gift to the nation”, which is: “a decision of God”. These two conceptions may not be mutually exclusive, in fact they often run in parallel as God is regularly invoked in the state’s discourse and by the mainstream media, both of which reassert the guaranteed martyr’s journey to heaven. This suggests a conflation between God/state and God/revolution. Hence the revolutionary slogan, “La illah illa Allah al shahid habib Allah”: “There is no god but Allah, and the martyr is God’s beloved” Mittermaier. 

 (II) The Unmaking of a Martyr

Strategic Ambiguity and “State-Enforced Collective Amnesia” (Gilman, 2015)

Daniel Gilman discusses what he calls the martyr pop moment, making a commentary on the ambiguity of certain lyrics in songs on martyrdom that proliferated in the pop culture industry during and after the January 25threvolution, which he claims results in the “de-politicization of martyrdom” and hence sets the stage for the “reinscription of political meaning”(Gilman, 2015). 

The martyrs of 25 January

Who died in the events of January went and parted from life

The martyrs, we must be proud of them

And congratulate them, [they have] paradise and heaven

Gilman wirtes, “This pop cultural initiative helped to obscure or wipe away the original political aims of the protestors alive and dead, turning those events into a palimpsest on which the post-Morsi regime could easily inscribe a narrative that suited its ends better”(Gilman, 2015). He argues that singers and technocratic producers were reluctant to disclose their political sympathies, hence constructing these careful ambiguities, to avoid alienating pro-Mubarak segments from the Egyptian population; the majority of which incidentally belong to the class of elites and have a strong influence on the culture industry. These strategic ambiguities involved reducing the martyr to a figure for whom the listener’s pity is evoked, given the uncontroversial statement that this is making “it is a shame that these young men died”. The danger of this deliberate erasure/blurring of political context is that, “If martyrs are ambiguous, then so too is martyrdom as a concept; this conceptual ambiguity helps us see how quickly a revolutionary moment can be reabsorbed into state hegemony” (Gilman, 2015). Another occasion in which ambiguity was strategically invoked is in the rhetoric of the presenter of the ceremony held in the cultural Coptic center who states, “We must mention Officer Nagwa el Haggar the first female to become martyred in the police force in the eventsthat concern the church in Alexandria”. These “events” to which he is vaguely referring are events of religious persecution, where Copts were targeted during Palm Sunday celebration and attacked by gunfire. Not only does the presenter avoid labelling the attack, he recognizes only the death of the police officer as martyrdom, marginalizing the deaths of Copts who were originally targeted and killed. Labeling the attack would call attention to the failure of the state to protect its minorities, this threatens the authority of the current regime specifically because President Sisi has a made it a point to continually promise to protect Coptic minorities. Hence the presenter is reinforcing the Egyptian state’s stance with regards to withholding the category of martyrdom from anyone who falls outside the victims of the police and military. 

Authoritative Discourses, Legitimacy and the Nationalist Imaginary

            The de-politicization of martyrs in the mainstream media and hence the ambiguity surrounding martyrdom has created a discursive vacuum which the state exploited to insert its own politically charged martyrdom. This is evidenced by the controversy of returning to the official state holiday on 25thof January, “Police Day”. What had become a day to remember the revolution and its martyrs, is now once again a day designated to celebrate the victories of the police and commemorate the loss of policemen. “Memories become contested when distinct persons or entities appropriate them in order to form a counternarrative—or an account composed of counter memories (Foucault 1977)—to a normative history. It is at this point that the study of memory becomes the study of the politics of memory” (Sime, 2013). In another incident, the military attacks on Rabaa El-Adawia, deaths of the Morsi supporters was greatly understated, “According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, over 600 civilians were killed and more than 2000 injured. The Muslim Brotherhood estimates the death toll to be 2000. Just as significant, many eyewitnesses reported at the time that the only way for relatives to obtain a death certificate was to confirm that the deceased had committed suicide (considered a grave sin in Islam)” (Mittermaier, 2015). Not only did official state agencies and state supporters negate the martyrdom of the people that died, they framed their death as a suicide to defame the deaths of the political opposition. In yet another case, “those defending the Egyptian police force have long insisted that Khaled Said died not from the beating but suffocated after having swallowed a packet of hashish” (Mittermaier, 2015). These incidents indicate not only the Egyptian state’s self-appointed monopoly on legitimate martyrdom, but its readiness to dishonor any death narrative that comes close to threatening its exclusive claim on martyrdom. 


Being killed is an event. Martyrdom is a literary form, a genre. — Daniel Boyarin 

            This paper has demonstrated how martyrdom is a particular political, privileged form of death that is distinctively generative – in that it produces various political effects. Through this investigation, it is made apparent that notions of god, gift and sacrifice can be mobilized to further two completely diverging political causes – political change (revolution) and political legitimacy (consolidating the power of the nation-state). This is because the underlying political motivation for both causes is nationalism be it people oriented or state-oriented. McClintockwrites,“Nationalisms are dangerous, not in the sense that they should be opposed, but rather in the sense that they represent relations to political power and to the technologies of violence”(McClintock, 1991). Martyrdom gives agency to the dead in that their death becomes a reassertion of its own grieveablity a claim to immortality. In other words, martyrdom is the subversion of “death’s final silencing act” (Ramzy, 2015).

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