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Performing Revolution in Egypt

April 17, 2013

Alexander chart

Binary oppositions serve as part of the cultural repertoire through which revolutionary struggles are performed, says Jeffrey Alexander..

What allowed the Egyptian revolution to succeed? Why didn’t the Egyptian army fire on the protestors and end the whole thing in the first three days?

In Performative Revolution in Egypt (2011), Jeffrey Alexander analyzes the fall of President Hosni Mubarak using a “performance” approach, arguing that successful social performances allowed the anti-Mubarak movement to enact—and so become–the country’s collective representation.

Symbolic Versus Materialist

Most political scientists offer the usual sets of material factors as explanations for the revolution. Egypt had

  • high unemployment, especially among young, prime-age working men
  • rising literacy rates
  • increased Internet usage, supposedly enabling the wider spread of democratic ideals
  • lower cost coordination among those committed to democratic ideals

All in all, they say (in retrospect), a perfect storm for the revolution.

Alexander challenges the idea that revolutions depend primarily on such things as

  • the economic conditions of the people,
  • demographic changes, and
  • the capacity of opposition groups to mobilize support for their revolution.

Instead, he argues, economic conditions have to be interpreted and made meaningful.

“Without being mediated by cultural representations material causes would not have effect” (Alexander 2011: ix).

In a political struggle, the agents who can frame the material conditions in charged symbolic terms within civil discourse will be the likely victors, he claims.

This will come as no surprise to most anthropologists, who understand that the symbolic and material are always deeply entangled in mutually influential ways, but Alexander seems to be writing for an audience he expects to have to persuade of the truth of his claims. Apparently, many political scientists take performance for granted in the struggle for power, and reduce rhetoric, symbolic patterns and grand narratives itself to epiphenomena, rather than recognizing that it is in the play of symbols that people articulate their identities, order their social relations and even decide what kinds of things are worth fighting for.

Alexander’s method is far from anthropological—he essentially reads moment-to-moment political reportage by Western media pundits through a critical language of stages, and scripts and performances. It’s not very theoretically sophisticated compared to Abeles (2007), Handelman (1990) or Kertzer (1996); it reads like  a little like early Goffman (1959, 1969).

On the other hand, a political scientist colleague of mine (a well-regarded Middle Easternist)  recently told me, “All the anthropology I’ve read is either too theoretical to be useful or so personal and subjective it’s useless.” A favorite word in praising theoretically sophisticated ethnographies these days is “nuanced”; maybe we can be too nuanced for our political science colleagues?

Maybe a guy like Alexander is who they need to read to be able to take the power of symbols for real.

Symbolic Performances

Alexander emphasizes the power of the public and communal in political culture over the agency of political entrepreneurs engaged in strategic, short-term appeals to shifting group interests and identities. He does not treat culture as static, however. The metaphor of performance emphasizes the activity of symbolic action, of putting symbols to use.

For Alexander, there are pre-existing cultural configurations (often expressed as Levi-Straussian binary oppositions) that form the boundaries of the cultural fields within political actors perform social dramas in order to convince audiences that they embody the society’s most cherished representations of political good.

In this view, national politics is a not a social and cultural outcome of underlying economic and social tensions; rather, national politics is comprised of performances by competing sets of actors who must try to bring those tensions into their performances and make them part of a meaningful (and hence persuasive) show.

“For participants and observers alike, revolutionary conflicts are experienced as a life and death struggle between not just social groups but social representations, one representing the sacred, the other profane” (2011: 14).

Performing Revolution in Egypt

In The Performative Revolution in Egypt Alexander describes both Hosni Mubarak and the protestors seeking to depose him as performers crafting texts from a binary moral classification of security versus chaos, modern versus primitive. (A Levi-Straussian style chart of Alexander’s notion of Egypt’s binary code is printed above)

Alexander is not a structuralist, however, because he recognizes the fact that these codes are only made meaningful in performance:

 Binary moral classification may seem static, but it is not. Its social anchoring is restless and undecided, its interpretation dynamic and potentially explosive. Binary structures pollute those who think of themselves as sacred, and purify those who[m] others passionately judge to be profane (p.23).

As performers, they seek to persuade audiences that their actions are legitimate by linking themselves to the sacred side of the national political paradigm. One of the key audiences each seeks to persuade is the military–each demands deference from the military by virtue of their classification as legitimately expressing the political-social-moral good.

Alexander’s example of the symbolic significance of Khaled Said offers a good articulation of his method. He describes the way Said’s ugly death led to public protests and inspired Google marketing manager, Wael Ghonim, to create Kullina Khaled Said (“We are all Khaled Said”), turning the man’s murder by the state into a collective representation. Khaled Said came to stand for the moral collapse of the state, and the struggle over the true spirit of Egypt.

In Alexander’s account, Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei came to Egypt to organize against the regime because of the significance  taken on by the Khaled Said murder. Alexander then shifts his attention to the rhetoric of ElBaradei, according to which

  1. Said’s death provides the wake-up call for a nation that has “lost its place”
  2. “Egypt, the land of the Library of Alexandria, of a culture that contributed groundbreaking advances in mathematics, medicine, and science, has fallen far behind.”
  3.  Only a people “taught not to think or act” would tolerate such blatant injustice.
  4. Apathy would have to rule for the opposition to fail.

While both sides struggle to present themselves as embodying the values on the side of the sacred, Mubarak is unsuccessful. Alexander argues that the president had analyzes Mubarak’s 1981 inaugural address as an example of a successful performance, in which he looked forward to the great work that he and his people had embarked on, “building and not destroying, protecting and not threatening, preserving and not squandering” (2011b: 14).

Thirty years later, efforts to reclaim such rhetoric ring hollow against the fresh performances of the protesters, because the ability to claim the values of building, protecting, and preserving are not inherent in the president’s structural position as ruler; they must be continually renewed in credible performances that make Egyptian audiences recognize him as a collective symbol.

Performance shape experience by giving meaning to it. Egyptians experienced a transformation in moral classification during the uprisings. Positioning themselves as “the Egyptian people” they undermined the most fundamental claim of the regime–its ability to provide security against chaos–by framing the regime as an oppressive force.  Now it is “the people” who must counter the “dogs [and] thugs” (p. 18) of the regime. It is “freedom” (hurriya) that is now the opposite of the regime’s “stability,” not chaos.

And freedom is both an indigenous, Islamic ideal, and one that resonates as “modern” with international audiences.

Critique and Analysis

While there is a lot to like in this book, there are also a lot of weaknesses.

  • It is contextually thin. Alexander doesn’t appear to have much, if any, direct field experience in/of Egypt, or to know Arabic, or to have worked closely and dialogically with Egyptian interlocutors. The religious, ethnic, class, gendered and nationailstic contexts that performers draw on in creating political meaning–and which affect how audiences respond–are very poorly attended to.
  • It is semiotically thin. Lacking the kind of thick contextualization discussed above, it fails to do justice to the complexities of representations. Calling Mubarak “Pharoah” links him simultaneously to paganism and backwardness and oppression, yes, but ancient Egyptian symbolism has also been employed by Egyptians as signs of secular nationalism apart from the regime. The speeches Alexander quotes (in English) are filled with references and indexes to Egyptian contexts that remain unpacked and uninterpreted.
  • It fails to attend to media ecologies. There needs to be more description of the “stages” on which performances are enacted, and the ways various  serve as  distribution channels through which performances are circulated to various audiences. Different media offer different kinds of stages for different kinds of audiences. I desperately wanted a more nuanced description of which media various political actors are performing for, and through, and the extent to which these various performances are accordingly mediated, as well as how the various media affect circulation of representations of these performances.
  • It undertheorizes failure. Not all regime performances failed with all audiences, and not all performances succeeded with all audiences. In addition to describing how the protesters repositioned themselves as sacred and Mubarak as polluted, it would be useful to attend to ways the performers themselves contributed to failed performances, to their own positioning as polluted.
  • It treats journalism as data. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Alexander’s method. Journalism is a mode of writing. Western media representations are themselves constructed in semiotically complex ways that make it difficult to use them as transparent sources of data of this kind. Even assuming journalists have complete access,  and no agendas of their own (a fraught assumption), Western journalists approach events in the Middle East through a fairly limited range of narrative tropes, all of which carry ideological baggage.


Abeles, Marc. 2007.  Le Spectacle du Pouvoir. Paris: l’Herne.

Alexander, J.C. 2011 Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor.

—–. 1969. Strategic Interaction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Handelman, Don. 1990. Models and Mirrors: Toward an Anthropology of Public Events.

Kertzer, David. 1996. Politics and Symbols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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