Messages from Tahrir: Signs from Egypt’s Revolution, ed. Karima Khalil, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011
Tomorrow is the Third Revolution. No way of putting it could be more ridiculous, but there is hope yet. As this book shows, the inventiveness of Egyptians and their ability to play with the truth are such that nothing much can be predicted with any accuracy. Another 28 Jan could be in the making as I write this — almost too late for the print press, always too early to say. What that would actually bring about judging by what we have seen so far is of course anyone’s guess. But contrary to the prevailing discourse, the situation is far from resolved; “external forces” against whose intervention we are still being warned, whether capitalist and American-led or Dark Ages-oriented and cowardly or both, are all too happy with thug-, police- and Islamist-supported military control. The middle-class shamelessness which perhaps rightly perceives “stability” — Mubarak’s catchword to be in its interest, is more comfortable with dictatorship, which eliminates moral responsibility, than the gamut of rights and duties entailed by citizenship. Yet accusations of being foreign agents levelled at young men and women willing to give their lives for that gamut, often by people whose very existence depends on foreign forces, are predicated not on such relatively simple truths but on the identity politics-bolstered lie that there exist powers with the magical ability to brainwash millions of unaffiliated Arabs, forcing them to demand what they might not actually want. It is a lie that sits well with both Arab nationalist and theocratic fascism.
Still, anticipating renewed large-scale protests (as planned) on 9/9, thinking of the limits of popular will in effecting change in the absence of either unified political leadership or willingness to engage in conflict, it is something else that the signs and images showcased so glitzily here bring to mind — a sort of poststructural space for the intersection between Image and Tweet on the one hand, and the tweet-image and mass protest on the other — the way in which that space, however attractive in itself, can be divorced from local, consensual, day-to-day reality. Much has been made of both the importance and the impotence of the “white revolutions” of 1989 since the fall of the Soviet Union, the way in which they handed over weak and institutionally dysfunctional societies to the demons of global capital, giving way to ethnic and religious (civil) wars. The truth may be that they simply, savagely uncovered political reality, telling people who they are, letting them think about who they want to be. But neither Tweet nor Image were available to “the Eastern Bloc” in the way they have been available to the Arab Spring. And it is the effect of their availability on said truth that makes it interesting to peruse this coffee-table insurrection. A Levantine-looking young man, his head wrapped in a pretty scarf, has a sign attached to the front of his street-chic sweatshirt. “Egyptian and Proud,” it says in Arabic and English. As the frontispiece of what remains, willy nilly, a global capital-oriented celebration of events not yet followed through, the image is far too cool for comfort.
Of course, to judge the book by its cover would be silly; and Messages from Tahrir does afford a fairly comprehensive — and very realistic panorama of the 18 days that, life- and reality-changing as they were — beautiful, courageous, admirable, enlightening, have as yet changed neither life nor reality, contrary to what the book says, AND COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE. It is well to talk about a wonderful transformation, but it must be understood by now that most of us will not live to see its fruit — and glossy picture books will not make it ripen any faster. The slogans featured here are of course nonetheless compelling, by turns moving, ingenious, humbling, comic; combined with their manner of presentation — “No Talking Until He Leaves” taped to the mouth, “Out” on a red card raised by a man dressed like a football referee, “We Will Not Be Made Dunces [literally: Party Hats] Of” inscribed on a party hat on the head — they demonstrate resourcefulness and determination. They affirm values of freedom, peace, non-sectarianism, but they tend to converge on the fairly restrictive prospect of an aging puppet dictator stepping down, postponing questions about what he actually stands for and, understandably enough under the circumstances, ignoring the much more complicated but also much more relevant question of how like him Egyptianness has become — nothing really to be proud of.
Even the most meaningful among the actual bite-size messages are simplified and/or generalised statements of intent designed by and for the informal media, and like the protests on the whole, narcissistically gazing at themselves from the moment they come into being, driven less by a self-sustaining vision than by responses to the crimes of the powers that be, and inevitably commodified in the process. That is all of course fine. The question is to what extent such messages have actually helped to generate responsible revolutionary consciousness that could take this further — peacefully or not. After initially refusing to support the patently legitimate demands of the protesters, then dithering for the longest time, then endorsing the absolute authority of the military establishment, Obama’s congratulatory use of the word silmiyyah or “peaceful” in a public address did not prevent the US from exporting tear (and reportedly nerve) gas to Egypt as early as two months after Mubarak stepped down. Until tomorrow morning at least, the message from Tahrir is the sight of black-clad Central Security lining the edge of the principal, circular traffic island and massive riot and military police deployments all around. Tomorrow is the Third Revolution, and another 28 Jan could be in the making as I write this, but I do not personally believe more people should die until there are convincing signs that the Arab Spring is about transforming local, consensual, day-to-day reality, not about symbolic gestures followed by the equally reprehensible lie of self congratulation.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha