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Thinking About Liminality in Tahrir Square

July 7, 2015

I have a chapter on the Egyptian revolution in this new book.

I have a chapter on the Egyptian revolution in this new book.

As I struggled to make sense of the dramatic changes in Egypt from January 2011 forward, I was surprised to find that the set of concepts that worked best for me came from the work of Victor Turner: process, field, social drama, antistructure, and, of course, liminality.

Liminality is the state of being “betwixt and between” two states or categories. It can refer to a person between two stages in a rite of passage; it can refer to states of virtual experience, including film viewing; and it can refer to a society in a state of revolution as one normal ends but a new, stable normal has not yet emerged.

In my position as a professor of international studies, especially going to interdisciplinary conferences with geographers, historians, economists and political scientists, where I bring an anthropologist’s perspective to various “global issues”, I find liminality increasingly to be a concept that is “good to think” with.

Turns out I’m not the only one thinking about liminality in such contexts. A special issue of International Political Anthropology on “liminality and cultures of change” in 2009 led to a series of discussions and, through them, the publication of a new edited volume, Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality edited by Agnes Horvath, Bjorn Thomassen and Harald Wydra.

I have a chapter (Chapter Nine, in fact) in this book, entitled “In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama.”

(I’ve mentioned this before, but now the book is actually out, so it deserves a second posting, if only for purposes of shameless self-promotion)

According to the book jacket:

Liminality has the potential to be a leading paradigm for understanding transformation in a globalizing world. As a fundamental human experience, liminality transmits cultural practices, codes, rituals, and meanings in situations that fall between defined structures and have uncertain outcomes.

You can read the book’s introduction here.

Interestingly my chapter comes right after a chapter on liminality in the French Revolution, and just before a chapter on liminality and democracy–a fitting placement!

In the chapter, I argue:

that although the eighteen days in Tahrir Square neatly fit Victor Turner’s notion of a social drama, in which liminality, communitas, and antistructure steer 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 evaluating 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.

In the chapter, I particularly pose two problems for those of us trying to use this concept in contemporary work:

  1. First, the problem of closure. If every event is simultaneously a product of prior events and part of the events to come, how does one know when and where to demarcate the beginnings and ends of the process? How do we know what function each protest, clash, election, judicial decision, serves in the larger whole when that larger whole currently has no clear endpoint? Rather than speaking of a revolution, perhaps it is analytically more helpful to see this process as involving as many (proto)revolutions as there are protest movements. So the problem of contingency or indeterminacy, that is, of how to describe and analyze a process as it is unfolding, is an enormous problem.
  2. Second, the problem of agency. What control do any of the various participants, from President Al-Sisi to opposition bloggers, have over the final narrative of events? How is closure collectively determined? How are the meanings of various events and actions created or constrained? This question is further complicated by the media through which people seek to assert the meaning of the revolution. Media are vehicles through which struggles to appropriate the revolution proceed, actors present themselves and their visions publicly, and coherent narratives of events are offered, contested, and transformed. At the same time, the media are also active agents that create, sustain, and reject various narratives based on their own positioning within Egypt’s media ecology

In the ritual processes from which Victor Turner drew his original analyses, there were always “ritual specialists” to end the period of liminality and usher in the new state of normality. I conclude by suggesting that

Egypt’s quest is to find a “ritual specialist” to end this period of liminality by initiating the “decline and fall into structure and law”—the new order that will replace the old. Al-Sisi’s capacity to fulfill this role depends on his ability to present an authoritative narrative of order for the new Egypt—one appropriate to the spirit of Tahrir.


Peterson, Mark Allen. 2015. In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama. In Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality. Agnes Horvath, Bjorn Thomassen and Harald Wydra, eds. Pp. 164-182. Berhahn Books.

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