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Evil Foreigners Versus Authentic Egyptians in TV Debates Over the Meaning of the Tahrir Square Protests

May 27, 2012

How did media figures construct their identities during the 18 days?

Stance, in sociolinguistics, refers to the ways people use language to establish identity by positioning themselves with one group or another; literally, “who do I stand with?” Of course, in establishing in-group identities stance also established out-group identities.

Sociolinguist Reem Bassiouney, associate professor at Georgetown University and author of the excellent Arabic  and  the  Media:  Linguistic  Analyses  and Applications (2010, Brill) has written a fabulous article looking at stance in the media wars over the protests in Tahrir Square between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11, focusing on how the Egyptian media tried to discredit the protesters by constructing them as non-Egyptian, or at least inauthentic Egyptians–and how at least one poet fought back.

Bassiouney looks at three specific cases.

  1. A Feb. 3 sequence on a current affairs call-in program on TV in which a guy calling himself Tamer gives a supposedly first-hand account of the identity and motivations of the
    people in Tahrir Square.
  2. A Feb. 5 diatribe about the identity of the protesters by actress Afaf Shuweeb on the talk show, Life Today, on Al-Hayat channel.
  3. A poem read aloud 8 Feb. by the Egyptian poet Jugh Abu on an episode of the Abu Dhabi poetry competition show, The Prince of Poets, which was subsequently uploaded on YouTube, shared on Facebook links, and eventually became a symbol of the revolutionary discourse.

In the first two cases, the protesters in Tahrir are constructed as non-Egyptians through the speakers’ use of language, and accounts of their uses of language. In the third, the poet turns the tables by employing the same devices to contradict the notion that the protesters aren’t” real” Egyptians.

The pseudonymous Tamer claims that he was in Tahrir Square, where he discovered that most of the protesters, and all of their leaders, are not really Egyptian; he can tell because they speak perfect English. Both Tamer and the announcer code-switch back and forth, employing Egyptian colloquial Arabic when they want to establish their identities as patriotic Egyptians, and using Modern Standard Arabic when they want to emphasize the dangers the protesters represent.

Afaf Shuweeb (often transliterated as “Shoiab”), wearing a head scarf and drawing on the “motherliness” she established in her last television role, asserted that the protesters were obvious fakes, people of color flow in from London, hastily taught colloquial Arabic, and sent to protest as a way to destroy Egypt. Here, too, Bassiouney carefully parses the ways the actress code switches to establish both her sincerity and her omniscient knowledge of the situation.

Finally, she looks at the poem by Jugh and shows how carefully it is constructed to use Standard Arabic to show that the protesters–including himself–are indeed “authentic Egyptians” as demonstrated by their language. She writes:

While Jugh is a poet who uses both ECA [Egyptian Colloquial Arabic] and SA [Standard Arabic] in his poetry, sometimes code-switching between both in the same poem, he chose to authenticate the identity of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square in SA. By using SA, he re-claims possession of ‘the real Egyptian’. Through his code choice and language content, he presents himself as the real Egyptian, declaring forcefully: ‘I have now spoken. My language is not English, and it is not even ECA. It is the authoritative SA, with all its powerful indexes.’

I can’t do justice to all the ways this brief little article touches interestingly on the contestation of the uprising, the role of television, the power of social media as an alternative, Arabic diglossia as a tool for identity assertion and performative effect, and the deep, abiding mistrust of foreign meddling in Egyptian affairs that has continued to organize meaning in Egyptian political discourse since Nasser’s regime.

Here’s the abstract:

This study aims to offer a fresh look at the relationship between identity, stance-taking and code choice. The study provides three examples of different forms of Egyptian public discourse related directly to identity that took place during the 2011 revolution of Egypt, a time when state TV media stations cast doubt on the identity of the protestors by utilizing linguistic resources. This article argues that during the process of stance-taking speakers employ linguistic resources, discourse resources and structural resources. These linguistic resources include the associations and indexes of different languages and varieties, in this case Standard Arabic (SA), Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA) and English. This stance-taking process depends on code-switching as a mechanism that lays claims to different indexes and thus appeals to different ideologies and different facets of identity. Second, this study also shows how speakers use public discourse in order to construe language as a classification category and an identity builder.


Bassiouney, Reem. 2012. Politicizing identity: Code choice and stance-taking during the Egyptian revolution. Discourse & Society 23(2): 107-126.

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