A Multidimensional View of Legal Cynicism: Perceptions of the Police Among Anti‐harassment Teams in Egypt

Published date01 June 2018
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/lasr.12326
Date01 June 2018
A Multidimensional View of Legal Cynicism:
Perceptions of the Police Among Anti-harassment
Teams in Egypt
Magda Boutros
In Egypt in 2012, several anti-harassment groups were established to respond
to an increase in sexual violence in public spaces and to the failure of the state
to tackle the issue. Anti-harassment groups organized patrol-type intervention
teams that operated during demonstrations or public celebrations to stop sex-
ual assaults. This article examines how activists perceived the police in five
anti-harassment groups between 2012 and 2014, and the role these percep-
tions played in groups’ decisions about cooperating with the police, and on-
the-ground strategies of action. I argue for a multidimensional view of legal
cynicism that conceptualizes legal cynicism as composed of three dimensions:
legitimacy (a sense that law enforcement agencies are not entitled to be
deferred to and obeyed), protection (a perception that the law fails to protect
rights and provide public safety), and threat (a perception that the law repre-
sents a threat). This approach helps uncover the various meanings that legal
cynicism takes for different actors in different contexts, and how actors justify
their strategies of action based on their specific perceptions of the police’s
legitimacy,protective role, and threat.
In 2012 in Egypt, a year into the revolutionary wave that led to
the downfall of Mubarak and ushered in a period of political
instability, new activist groups were established to combat sexual
violence against women in public spaces. Activists created “anti-
harassment groups”
1
to respond to a stark increase in the fre-
quency and severity of sexual violence in public spaces, and to
the failure of the state to tackle the issue (El-Nadeem Center,
I wish to thank John Hagan, Charles Camic, Laura Beth Nielsen, Susan Sterett, and
three anonymous reviewers, for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article.
Special thanks to my graduate student peers at Northwestern University for their invalu-
able help and support. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude and respect to the
men and women I interviewed, for taking the time to talk to me, and most of all for the
important work they are doing. This research was made possible thanks to the support of
the Buffett Center for International Studies at Northwestern University.
Please direct all correspondence to Magda Boutros, Northwestern University, Sociol-
ogy Department, 1810 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL 60208; email: magda.boutros@u.
northwestern.edu.
1
The groups worked on combating all types of sexual violence, from verbal harass-
ment to physical assaults and rape. I use “anti-harassment groups” as a translation of the
Arabic majm
u(
at muk
afa:
hat al ta:
harush, as this is the term that activists used to define their
groups.
Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 2 (2018)
V
C2018 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
368
Nazra, and New Woman Foundation 2013; Nazra 2012; Nazra
et al. 2013). Anti-harassment groups organized intervention
teams of 15–30 volunteers that were dispatched to Tahrir Square
during large demonstrations and to downtown Cairo during pub-
lic holidays to stop cases of sexual violence, and in particular
mass sexual assaults by large groups of men (Boutros 2017; Hol-
lemeyer Taylor et al. 2014; Langohr 2013; Zaki and Alhamid
2014). This article examines how activists in five anti-harassment
groups perceived the police, how these perceptions changed
depending on the context, and what role different perceptions of
the police played in decisions about strategies of collective action.
Scholars define legal cynicism as “a cultural orientation in
which the law and the agents of its enforcement, such as the
police and courts, are viewed as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill
equipped to ensure public safety” (Kirk and Papachristos 2011:
1191). They argue that people who are “cynical about the law”
are less likely to cooperate with the police and more likely to use
violence to resolve conflicts (Carr et al. 2007; Kirk and Matsuda
2011; Kirk and Papachristos 2011). While most studies of legal
cynicism have examined what behaviors are more prevalent in
places where legal cynicism is widespread, we know little about
how people who are cynical about the law choose between differ-
ent possible strategies of action (Bell 2016).
To examine this question, I argue for a multidimensional
view of legal cynicism that goes beyond asking whether people
distrust law enforcement, and asks; what, about law enforcement,
do people contest, and why. The findings suggest that there are
three dimensions through which people view the police; legiti-
macy (a sense that law enforcement agencies are not entitled to
be deferred to and obeyed), protection (a perception that the
police fail to protect rights and provide public safety), and threat
(a perception that the police represent a threat). A multidimen-
sional view of legal cynicism helps reveal the various meanings
that legal cynicism takes for different actors in different contexts,
and how these meanings matter for strategies of action. Existing
studies have mostly examined how legal cynicism shapes individual
strategies of actions, but little attention has been given to strategies
of collective action (Hagan et al. 2016). This article extends legal
cynicism theory by examining how legal cynicism, in its various
meanings, matters for social movement organizations.
Based on participant observation and in-depth interviews
with activists in five anti-harassment groups, the findings suggest
that all groups shared a generalized distrust in the police, but
they viewed the police’s legitimacy, protective role, and threat dif-
ferently. Differences in these perceptions across groups and in
different intervention contexts help explain why groups adopted
Boutros 369
different policies regarding police cooperation. Further, the dif-
ferent intervention strategies that anti-harassment groups devel-
oped were influenced by their specific brand of legal cynicism;
depending on which dimension of legal cynicism they empha-
sized (lack of legitimacy, failure to protect victims’ rights, failure
to maintain public order), anti-harassment groups elaborated dif-
ferent intervention approaches.
Theoretical Framework: A Multidimensional View of Legal
Cynicism
The concept of legal cynicism emerged in the late 1990s as
part of a line of criminological research that sought to challenge
subcultural theories of crime. Arguing against the idea that crimi-
nals have a higher tolerance of deviance than the law-abiding
majority, scholars contended that people’s feelings of injustice, or
cynicism about the legal system, could explain violence (Hagan
and Albonetti 1982; Matza 2010; Sampson and Bartusch 1998).
Studies in American urban neighborhoods showed that distrust
in the law and legal system—legal cynicism—is more prevalent
among racial minorities and the poor, and in disadvantaged
neighborhoods where people are more likely to have negative
experiences with the police (Carr et al. 2007; Hagan and Albo-
netti 1982; Kirk and Papachristos 2011; Sampson and Bartusch
1998).
The most comprehensive conceptualization of legal cynicism
was elaborated by Kirk and Papachristos, who define legal cyni-
cism as “a cultural orientation in which the law and the agents of
its enforcement, such as the police and courts, are viewed as ille-
gitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety”
(Kirk and Papachristos 2011: 1191). Building on sociological the-
ories of culture (Lamont and Small 2008; Swidler 1986), they
conceptualize legal cynicism as a cultural frame that filters peo-
ple’s perceptions of the law and constrains individuals’ options
for resolving conflicts (Kirk and Papachristos 2011: 1197). Thus,
legal cynicism does not cause specific behaviors but rather makes
them possible or likely.
A burgeoning scholarship attempts to understand the conse-
quences of legal cynicism. This line of research has mostly
focused on American urban neighborhoods and examined two
consequences of legal cynicism: rates of violence and rates of
cooperation with the police. Quantitative and qualitative studies
show that people who are cynical about the law are less likely to
involve the police when faced with a problem, preferring to
resolve it by other means (Kirk and Matsuda 2011; Kirk and
370 A Multidimensional View of Legal Cynicism

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