Skip to content

Two New Papers on Liminality in the Egyptian Revolution In The Works

May 28, 2013


What happens when liminality–that state of uncertainty and transformation–doesn’t settle into a new normalcy but goes on and on? That’s the topic of two chapters I’ve written for new forthcoming books.

My participation in the Tahrir Square: One Year On conference led to a number of interesting outcomes, including not one but two papers.

The first is entitled “Re-Envisioning Tahrir: The Changing Meanings of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution.” It follows the original paper I gave at the conference closely but expands it and “thickens” the analysis. I also add a brief assessment of my methodology (such as it is) in deference to Dr. Mustapha Kamel As-Sayyid’s question at the conference. The paper is included as a chapter in a volume based on the conference currently under review by Routledge.

The second is entitled “In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama.” While the title is closer to the original paper, the content departs considerably. This is a much more theoretical consideration of the role of liminality as a frame for understanding revolutionary transformation. And that’s as it should be, as it is headed for a book entitled Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality to be published by my old friends at Berghahn.  In other words, this is not a book about the Egyptian Revolution, it’s a book about liminality as a tool for understanding political action, and the Egyptian Revolution is the story I use to analyze it.

Here’s the introduction to “Re-Envisioning Tahrir: The Changing Meanings of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution”

On 8 May 2012 the salafi leader Abbud al-Zumur published in al-Masryun newspaper a ten-point plan to restore the unity of the Egyptian revolution as expressed by Tahrir Square. While the first point, ‘Realize that God alone is behind this revolution,’ was clearly a nod to his Islamist credentials, most of his other points (such as ‘remember the blood of the martyrs that was shed on the squares for the freedom of this country’, ‘excuse the other factions instead of condemning them’, and ‘unify around a common purpose’) offered advice to Egypt’s myriad factions on how to return to a unity of purpose in spite of the many divisions between political entities, so that the revolution would not fail to create a new Egypt better than the old. According to al-Zumur, the revolution could not fail if Egyptians of all political stripes adhered to the spirit exhibited during those eighteen days in Tahrir Square.

What was remarkable about al-Zumur’s editorial was not the specifics of his call but the fact that he invoked Tahrir Square as a key signifier in his call for political unity. Al-Zumur was a founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and organizer of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. He did not participate in the protests at Tahrir Square during the eighteen days: he was not even released from prison until almost five weeks after Mubarak’s resignation. At the time of his writing, he was serving as a political adviser for salafi political parties that did not exist at the time of the uprisings, and whose leaders advised followers against participating in the first eighteen days of Tahrir protests. How, then, could he credibly speak of the unity of Tahrir Square? How could he use the plural personal pronoun to speak of ‘our’ Tahrir, of what ‘we’ have done, and must do, to keep the spirit of Tahrir alive?

This chapter is about the ways different political actors laid claim to Tahrir Square, how they interpreted and articulated its meanings, and how they discursively positioned it within their own visions of the continuing Egyptian revolution. I assume that ‘revolution’ is a political, economic and, above all, symbolic process. Central to this process is an iterative, contingent and interdependent relationship between the Egyptian revolution as a series of actions and events, and the revolution as a constellation of contested narratives through which people assign meaning to these events. To understand this process, I turn to Victor Turner’s model of social drama. Drawing on his own detailed studies of the ritual process, Turner saw revolutions as processes in which events had symbolic significance and symbols were put into action. As ‘social dramas,’ revolutions exhibited a structure: there was an initial breach of the social and political order, followed by a period of liminality when the old order had ended but no new order had emerged, accompanied by intense sociality (communitas) and political creativity (antistructure). Eventually, redressive mechanisms come into operation to reintegrate rival factions into a new coherent order.

I argue that while the eighteen days in Tahrir Square neatly fit Victor Turner’s concepts of liminality, communitas and antistructure, the revolution failed to exhibit the inexorable ‘decline and fall into structure and law’ that Turner’s model predicts (Turner 1969:132). On the contrary, the Egyptian public sphere turned into what Turner calls an arena, in which the many political and social visions of a new, post-Mubarak Egypt are contested and struggled over, and various political institutions – from the remnants of the old regime to the newly elected president and his Muslim Brotherhood associates to the revolutionary youth – struggle to create a new hegemonic narrative to define Egypt. Central to the actions of these political agents and the contested discourses that seek to explain them are multiple versions of what the ‘real’ uprising in Tahrir was about. Long after the uprisings that ousted President Mubarak, Tahrir Square remains a significant symbol in efforts to construct moments of meaning in the contingent, unfolding experience of the ongoing revolution.

And here’s the introduction to “In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama.”

Revolutions are usually sprawling, unpredictable, inchoate things whose structures become apparent only from a distance as they unfold over time. Certainly this is true of the Egyptian revolution. Beginning as a carefully orchestrated protest by experienced agitators against the police as agents of state oppression, held on the national Police Day holiday, it was seemingly dispersed in an almost routine fashion late at night by police cannons, only to re-emerged as a heroic, disorganized march against the regime, which in turn morphed into a long-term, well-documented seizure of public space. It endured attacks that created martyrs to the cause, spread into other cities from Alexandria to Ismailia to Luxor, and ultimately achieved its most basic goal: the resignation of 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak. It was, in other words, an improvised, even accidental revolution. Yet within days of the president’s resignation a coherent narrative of the 18-day revolution began to emerge, one in which “the Egyptian people” of all classes, sexes, sects, ages and types, united by “the spirit of Tahrir,” and organized by “the Facebook generation,” expressed their just demands for change and, through their bravery, persistence, and the blood of their martyrs, ultimately received it.

Subsequent events similarly unfolded in a series of unexpected twists and turns as disorganized remnants of the Mubarak regime, military leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood, various secular democratic movements with visions ranging from revolutionary socialism to Nasserism to American-style libertarianism, the judiciary, newly emerged salafi politicians, and labor unions old and new, all sought to forward their agendas through both legal and extralegal means, even as the very understanding of what might or might not be legal, and who had the authority to declare it, was part of what was at stake. In this struggle, the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square from Jan. 25 through Feb. 11 came to be a significant symbol for all parties involved. Variously construed as “the 18 days” (yom tamantasher), the “spirit of Tahrir” or simply “the Revolution” (understood by some as completed, by others as unfinished), Tahrir Square stood tin post-Mubarak Egypt as a heterotopic and chronotopic sign into which multiple meanings were poured and which could be repositioned, narratively, to multiple political ends and effects.

This paper is about the iterative and contingent relationship between the Egyptian revolution as a social process and the revolution as a congeries of contested narratives through which people assigned meaning to social events. I focus on one approach that takes seriously the relationship between the structure of unfolding events and the narrative structures through which people give them coherence: the processual analysis of Victor Turner.  I argue that while the 18 days in Tahrir Square neatly fit Victor Turner’s notion of a social drama, in which liminality, communitas and antistructure are central to the unfolding of events, the revolution failed to exhibit the inexorable “decline and fall into structure and law” that Turner’s model predicts (Turner 1969:132). On the contrary, the following year saw dozens of attempts to reconstitute that experience of antistructure, the experience of possibility that exists when the old system ceases to operate but no new system has yet emerged to take its place. Moreover, each public iteration of “the revolution” was accompanied by contested metacommentaries that evaluated the success or failure of each new gathering in Tahrir. These discourses constitute multiple versions of what the “real” uprising in Tahrir was about, and thus construct moments of meaning in the contingent, unfolding experience of the ongoing revolution.

I’ll add links once I get the penultimate versions of them up on But for the final versions, you’ll have to read the books!

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: