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Egypt: Violence, Crime And the Hip-Hop Identity – Sudanese Youth in Cairo

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Egypt: Violence, Crime And the Hip-Hop Identity – Sudanese Youth in Cairo

Natalie I. Forcier

11 December 2008

The trauma of displacement that faces refugees all over the world frequently manifests itself in negative ways. Young Sudanese refugees living in Cairo find themselves on the margins of society and are drawn into a life of violence. Natalie Forcier examines the gang culture that has emerged. Looking at two such groups, Outlaws and Lost Boys, based in Northern and Southern Cairo, and how the politics of their home country combined with the harsh existence in Cairo plays itself out violently. She concludes that programs should focus on addressing the underlying issues of lack of structured activities and limited access to educational and skill training opportunities in order to quell the violence

The youth of the Sudanese refugee community in Cairo, Egypt have transformed their identities in response to the structural barriers they face and their displacement experience. Some of these transformations have been positive – creating social peer networks and forging a new individual identity that rejects the refugee stereotype of poverty. However, other transformations are negative — creating violent rivalries between two groups (the Outlaws in areas of northern Cairo and the Lost Boys in areas of southern Cairo) whose attacks and retaliation have caused countless severe injuries to both rival group members and other refugees. In addition, some of these youth have begun to rely on criminal activity as a livelihood strategy, capitalizing on an intimidating identity resulting from the violence perpetuated by Sudanese youth.

Violence and criminal activity among youth are the result of underlying social and economic issues, which in this case have been compounded by marginalization and an inability to integrate within Egyptian society. In the case of the Outlaws and Lost Boys, these underlying problems are lack of access to education as well as other structured activities, programs, and opportunity and deprivation of traditional sources of identity, respect, and masculinity.

The groups, the Outlaws and Lost Boys, play positive roles in the lives of these young men. They support each other emotionally and financially, assisting one another in finding housing and work opportunities. They also ensure that if one member is in the hospital that he has access to food, clothing and money as necessary. Young men frequently pool their money together to help out a member who may be going through a particularly rough time. In addition, both groups plan structured recreational activities such as football tournaments, parties, Nile cruises, and trips to the beach.

On an individual level, these young men have chosen to adopt a physical manifestation of the hip-hop identity (style of dress, external mannerisms). This manifestation is not an attempt to mimic African-American culture, but rather is a rejection of the proscribed refugee identity characterized by poverty and lack of opportunity in favor of an identity that emphasizes material wealth and financial success. In being excluded from mainstream society, they have chosen to redefine individuals who warrant respect, and have identified these individuals as non-white men who confront the system, overcome obstacles and promote an African/black identity, most notably hip-hop artists and African-American sports stars, but the most prominent and revered figure being Bob Marley.

The style of dress associated with the hip-hop identity is characterized by designer labels, jewelry, and an overall look that (due to globalization) represents wealth. To a certain extent, this physical manifestation is not a farce, as the clothing they wear is more expensive than the traditional alternatives available in Cairo. However, their distinct choices to have two sets of pants and three shirts of a certain style versus three times as many of a traditional style, indicates a desire to project an alternative self-image.. Although the style of dress is hip-hop, the style of music is more commonly reggae or reggaeton, further showing that the values of honor and respect are being reassigned to non-white men who have defined societal constraints or “the system” at large, not simply African-American rap artists.

In addition to the social support and activities offered by the groups, the Outlaws and Lost Boys offer young men a sense of belonging and group identity of which they have otherwise been deprived. These young men have separated themselves from the conflicts and group identity markers traditionally associated with being Sudanese (geographic politics, tribal affiliation, religion) and therefore do not belong to any type of traditional, coherent, structured group. Some members view this as a positive aspect, noting that “We have 200 men from two different religions and seven different tribes and we live together and eat together in peace.” Unfortunately however, a new conflict has been manufactured that perpetuates inter-group violence. Another young man explained, “The things that happen in Sudan, those aren’t our problems anymore. Our problems are here. North, South, tribes, religion, that is not who we are. We are Outlaws. We are Lost Boys.”

The violent acts committed by the Outlaws and Lost Boys are brutal. Attackers many times target knees and elbows with the intent to permanently disable the victims. The final blow is a machete to the forehead. These types of attacks do not comprise the majority, but occur frequently enough to be well known. The majority of attacks are cuts on the arms resulting from alley fights while trying to obtain money, mobile phones, or jewelry. The inflictions on the arms are the result of the victim attempting to shield himself from the machete when being swung towards his head. It is important to note however that the majority of members of the Outlaws and Lost Boys do not own machetes or weapons of any kind. Of those who do, the primary reason noted for owning or carrying weapons is protection, and an only a smaller subset (approximately 20-30 individuals) routinely engage in violent activities.

In many ways, the Outlaws and Lost Boys have recreated the civil conflict in Sudan, positioning themselves as soldiers fighting for a cause rather than armed youth engaging in randomized violence. This is exhibited through: (1) accused affiliations pitting the two groups against each other because of support from the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Government of South Sudan (SPLA/GoSS) and the Khartoum government; (2) the strategic, mission-like character of a majority of the attacks; and (3) the language used by the young men when speaking about the reasons behind the violence and the injuries inflicted upon others.

The power of purported political alliances does not lie in any truth they may have, but rather in the fact that many individuals believe them to be true. A geographical conflict between two groups, fueled by allegiances with different sides of an independence movement, allows some to “justify” their violent actions on a political basis, at least in the moment. At several points members from both groups accused the other of receiving support, whether financially or through assistance in working with Egyptian authorities, from the SPLA/GoSS or the Khartoum government. Individual members would make these assertions of the other group, although the allegiances were never consistent (both groups were accused of receiving support from SPLA/GoSS and the Khartoum government). When questioned about this, it was always denied and refuted, although individuals also were quick to characterize the entire situation as “political.” While both sides vehemently denied ever having contact with government authorities, they were convinced of the political affiliation of the other group.

Although some of the acts of violence committed by young men have been spontaneous, all indicate that a majority of them are extremely well planned and executed with targets, maps, exit strategies, and contingency plans. Individuals from both the Lost Boys and the Outlaws were able to detail the different strategies used by their group as well as the others in attacks they had witnessed. Many times attacks had been planned days in advance, sometimes even with advance warning to the other group. Both groups referenced intelligence-gathering mechanisms employed prior to attacks, most commonly through female counterparts, although noted that these were rare as such activities were extremely difficult and dangerous.

The language of depersonalization indicates that young men truly view members of the rival group as “the enemy” rather than as individuals. One group used the word “mission” to describe the violent activities, while the other group used the word “campaign.” To correspond with this terminology, all attempts to stop the violence were referred to as “peace treaties” or “peace agreements,” which are drafted in rounds of “negotiations.”

During several occasions, non-group members have been injured during attacks by attempting to stop the violence. Many young men explained this by saying that the only reason people they are not targeting may be hurt is because sometimes “civilians get involved.” The word “civilian” was used on several occasions to describe bystanders to violent attacks. When I asked a young man to clarify what he meant by “civilian” he said, “A civilian is someone not involved in the conflict – like a normal person.” This in turn implies that they view themselves as the opposite of civilians, individuals who are involved in “the conflict” — soldiers.

There are a separate set of reasons that perpetuate the violence and cause it to continue beyond initial incidents: acts of disrespect, retaliation, and gossip. It is worth discussing each of these in turn and how they cause the violence to continue.

Many acts of retaliatory violence occur as the result of members of the rival group simply being present in their territories. Many will travel to rival group areas to visit family members or girlfriends, and leave without engaging in criminal or violent acts. Nonetheless, merely “stepping foot” in the area is considered a severe transgression. Benard (1986) notes that “[t]he kind of acts of violence most common among refugees [are]…quarrels over the allocation of goods but also over quite trivial matters, escalating into violence in a manner that has been described as infantile” (627, emphasis added). However, this “infantilization” of refugees in displacement that causes violence also fits into a larger framework as a psychological defense mechanism in response to “their dependency, their dubious legal status, and the arbitrary nature of the power and the rules they are subjected to” (Benard 1986: 627).

Retaliation is a strong impetus for causing attacks to occur between groups. Retaliatory justice is highly integrated with informal codes of behavior associated with informal networks resulting from marginalization from mainstream society, including situations where police protection or legal justice may not be feasible. Police authorities are rarely, if ever, engaged in these situations for three reasons: (1) to involve the authorities would label the victim or bystanders as a “snitch,” one of the worst titles possible in street culture; (2) many of the young men do not have legal refugee status or visas; and (3) the areas in which the young men live lack police protection in general, and as such even if the police were called, there is no guarantee they would come. The only perceived available option, retaliation, reiterates the concept of an equal punishment for an equal offense, and “rough justice” as practiced by these young men is viewed as holding a higher level of justice since those wronged are entitled to claim their rights directly.

Many retaliatory attacks target individuals that were not involved in violence. On several occasions victims would name the same three individuals from the rival group as the perpetrators. This became problematic when the individuals accused would have an alibi for their whereabouts that I could personally corroborate. When explored further, it was found that not only is blame quickly assigned many times incorrectly, but also that this information is used to fuel retaliatory attacks and for police reports. Young women play a particularly key role in perpetuating the gossip, as they maintain friendships and relationships with young men in both groups and on several occasions have invented stories about being attacked or robbed in order to use the rival group to carry out personal vendettas.

Acts of disrespect, retaliation and gossip can be viewed as the fuel that ensures the continuance of violence between the two groups. In the struggle for masculinity, respect and legitimacy, violence is both the means for obtaining these values and the way in which they are deprived. Being the victim of a violent attack is considered an emasculating act of disrespect, while being the attacker embodies the opposite values.

Ignoring the violence and its underlying causes will not stop the problem. Groups will continue to grow as younger generations age and begin to face the same structural barriers as these young men. In order to stop the violence, the underlying problems causing youth to assert themselves in this manner must be addressed. Programs aiming to broker peace agreements between the two groups by working with leadership have been unsuccessful in the past and the anger resulting from failed peace agreements can actually spike violence. Instead, programs should focus on addressing the underlying issues of lack of structured activities and limited access to educational and skill training opportunities in order to quell the violence.

Work Cited:

Benard, C. 1986. “Politics and the Refugee Experience.” Political Science Quarterly 101 (4): 39-62.

* Natalie I. Forcier is with the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University, Cairo

Written by torit1955

December 13, 2008 at 10:38 pm