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Understanding the Egyptian Revolution As Process

December 22, 2013

Over in the world of media anthropology, were having some energetic discussions about media and social change, all of which will be grist for a planned book on that subject.

I’m thinking about these issues simultaneously through two projects (that’s why my brain has two hemispheres, right?), one in India and the other being the Egyptian ongoing revolution. I have three forthcoming book chapters on this topic.

One of these, based on my Oxford paper, examines the revolution through the lens of Victor Turner’s processual analysis, and considers the problems of contingency and agency is thinking about the revolution as a (series of) social drama(s).

Here’s the introduction:

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 in 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.[i]

This chapteris about the iterative and contingent relationship between the Egyptian revolution as a social process and the revolution as a constellation 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.

You can read a draft at

[i] Heterotopia  refers to a liminal space that is many spaces at once—in this sense, the capacity of Tahrir Square to symbolically encompass into itself all places of protest in Egypt, so that public demonstrations in Alexandria, Ismailia, Luxur and elsewhere all become part of the “spirit of Tahrir.” The term chronotope refers to the way a particular time or series of events such as the eighteen days of revolutionary protest can become intimately fused with a place, such as Tahrir Square, such that “time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation; likewise space has become charged and responsive to the movements of time and history” (Bakhtin 1981: 84).

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