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A Psychological Anthropologist in Tahrir Square

April 25, 2012

Celebration in Tahrir Square, 25 Jan. 2012, marking one year since the beginning of the uprisings. Photo by Malak Rouchdy. Used by permission.

“On the evening of 28 January, I decided that I must return to Egypt,” begins Mohammed Abouelleil Rashad in his account of his participation in the uprising in Tahrir Square in late January and early February.

The article is entitled “The Egyptian Revolution: A participant’s account from Tahrir Square, January and February 2011” and appeared in the April issue of Anthropology Today.

Psychological anthropologist Rashad was living in London when the uprising broke out. Like many other Egyptians who had been living outside their home countries, he leaped at the chance to return and be able to help push out the old autocratic regimes that had denied them political rights.

Rashad brings up several points that as contributing factors into why the uprising succeeded.  The first was that a division of labor was very quickly set up in Tahrir Square, which he refers to as “a poignant erasure of the relations of political domination and subordination to which Egyptians have become so accustomed,” in that it symbolized ordinary civilians breaking away from the bureaucracy that had characterized Mubarak’s government.

Tahrir Square

Another prominent theme was the square itself.  The symbolism of Tahrir Square cannot be overstated–it was a center of the 1919 Egyptian rebellion against English colonial rule, and the word Tahrir itself means “liberation.”

Physically, the location of the square (in the center of Cairo, surrounded by government buildings) was demonstrative of what the protestors were taking on in trying to bring down the regime, but it could also symbolize the determination that they felt–even though they were surrounded by these monolithic structures, symbolic of the regime that had had an iron grip on the entire country for 30 years, they were still willing to risk everything to voice their anger.

In addition, Rashad writes extensively of the difference between being in the center of the square and being near to the edges, referred to as “the front.”  He writes,

At the Front, the physical boundary between ‘liberated’ and non-liberated territory, the dominant mood was paranoid.  The Front was a psychological as well as physical border, marking the limits of the reality of revolution as it was experienced in the heart of the square… while the center of the square, where the revolution went on uninterrupted, represented the quotidian reality of the revolution’s universe.

Unity and Difference

Rashad also briefly touches on the ideological transformation of the revolution.  He writes,

Among the initial goals of the protestors were and end to police brutality, the termination of Egypt’s 30 year ‘state of emergency,’ the removal of dramatic social inequalities and the endemic poverty caused by systematic corruption and mismanagement.

Over time, however, the demands of the protestors coalesced into the single phrase “Mubarak must go.”

He writes,

Throughout, we were sustained by our unanimous agreement on a clear goal: the regime must be removed… at times it seemed to me absurd that so many thousands of people could express their complex and diverse grievances in such simple, even reductive terms.  Then I realized that it could not be otherwise.  Protestors come from all walks of life… and the only way their togetherness could be realized was through a simple yet powerful demand.”

This unity was one of the main factors generating strong feelings differentiating “us and them” that sustained the Tahrir community through the struggle.

As the differentiations of who is “us” and who is “them” continue to change in Egypt, as salafist groups who played no part in the uprising continue to benefit from the revolution, and as tensions over the present and future continue to grow, it is interesting to reflect on the energy and hope that drove the uprising in Tahrir just a year and a half ago.

— by Jack Nelson and Mark Allen Peterson

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