There are no absolute ruptures in history, only events that emerge as the mark of configurations of radical new possibilities, and these set latent processes of change in motion. The year 2011 was indeed the year of “dreaming dangerously,” as Slavoj Žižek (2012) dubbed it in the title of his book. This year included, among other momentous events, the incipient Tunisian popular uprising that soon resonated in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria and led to the overthrow of long-ruling tyrannical dictators and the dismantling of elite, semipresidential state structures in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Still, the events of the Arab uprisings have since proved themselves more than mere dreaming. Or rather, what made such dreaming possible, as we are still in the wake of it, is the daring, the shedding of fear, the restored faith in the legitimacy, and the efficacy and power of collective and solidaristic action. This is precisely what Alain Badiou (2012) has recognized: the radical possibilities unleashed by what he could only for now define as a “rebirth of history,” also in the title of his book, and “a movement communism.” Žižek refers not only to the recent Arab uprisings but also to Occupy Wall Street in the United States and other radical resurgences in Europe, even the daring to dream openly of the extreme Far Right movements rising in Europe. Badiou refers specifically to the events in Tunisia and Egypt. My reflections on the events in Egypt as I pursue them here are conceived of in response precisely to the question of the radical possibilities that have been unleashed during and in the wake of the recent collective movements. They are not meant to pronounce on the consequences of the Egyptian revolution, nor do they seek to glorify the first eighteen days in Tahrir Square, 25 January to 11 February 2011. Rather, what I seek here is a way, and a language, with which to understand the profound fact unmistakably perceived by all: the awakened claim to political agency by the masses through verbal, visual, performative, and spatial configurations of the everyday, amounting to a new aesthetic of connective agency aided by collective and cultural memory.1
The bursting of the masses onto the streets in January 2011 and again in June and July 2013 has signaled a rhythm of popular speaking and of collective willing, an imaginary of “We the Egyptians” that sustained a newly found revolutionary energy even when social fractures had later set in. My aim here is not to stress the ideality of this event but to probe into the possibilities of its happening. Such possibilities have a longer rhythm in the Egyptian historical imaginary, a more immediate rhythm since the 1950s and more recently since 2005 when the workers’ movements gained new momentum in Mahalla, Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities. The general sense of oppression on the part of the state and its structures, confounded by its failings in most social and economic sectors; the rise of a new rich elite surrounding Gamal Mubarak and the grooming of the son to succeed the father, President Hosni Mubarak (which was openly opposed even by some members of the new elite); this same elite controlling all major sectors of industry and the economy and then the senior positions in the National Democratic Party (in particular its Policy Committee, where all strategic policies for the country are drawn); the increasing sense of loss of dignity on the international scene (hence the omnipresence of the Arabic word karāma, or dignity, in the revolutionary slogans) and the loss of credibility and legitimacy as a leading power in the region, most keenly felt in the context of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing siege of Gaza; the worsening conditions of life and the gradual disappearance of the middle classes; the cynicism on the part of the opposition and the intellectual elite; the rise of new youth cultures (including football ultras) and cultures of resistance (including new forms of popular song and circles of young poets in ‘āmmiyya or Egyptian Arabic performing in popular coffee houses and in culture houses in the provinces) and other radical forms of expression (through social media and new artistic forms)—all of these immediate factors, and many others, have precipitated the rhythm of a popular revolutionary spirit. But it is the actual happening—the daring of some to speak and act in the name of all (and it is these very youth who up until then had been dismissed as apolitical and lost to the cultures of self-gratification), as well as the fact that they spoke in popular and socially intimate registers (beginning with the very first calls on the webpage “We Are All Khalid Said” in the days leading up to 25 January 2011)—of this complex linguistic and impassioned event (in all its vistas) that provided the context of resonant possibilities of collective thought and action that were subsequently negotiated in Egyptian households and on the streets.
As Gilbert Achcar has put it in reference to Egypt, while we are not yet certain of the consequences of the Arab uprisings, “the immense uprising that began on 25 January 2011 constitutes a bursting of the masses onto the political stage that had no precedent in the very long history of the land of the Pyramids. Hence it has, beyond the shadow of a doubt, set a revolutionary dynamic in motion” (2013: 15; emphasis in original). Achcar takes his position here against the recent debates over the referencing of the uprisings as revolutions, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where at least certain clear gains have been achieved: ousting dictators, dismantling rule of the elite, and establishing certain steps toward democratizing a semipresidential regime long in power. Whatever the consequences—and we are far from pronouncing them, especially since the events of 30 June 2013—Achcar notes as beyond dispute “the fact that the emergence of the people freed from the shackles of servitude (voluntary or involuntary), the assertion of collective will in public squares, and success in overthrowing tyrannical oppressors are the unmistakable marks of a political revolution” (2013: uprisings, 16). This political revolution, he acknowledges, has not yet amounted to a total social revolution in the sense of a radical transformation in social structures. However, the revolutionary dynamic has indeed set in.
While the eruption of the masses on the scene holds the most profound significance in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, changes in the social structures can begin in earnest in the long haul and after long-awaited socioeconomic transformations. The revolutionary process has in any case begun, and as my arguments ultimately imply here, the possibility for radical transformation in the structures of immediate social realities, beyond the specific demands that define this or that social group, could be better understood if we were to achieve a more precise insight into the nature of the resonant revolutionary acts, at once creative and political, that reverberated across the social groups and factions in the face of long entrenched historical disparities and that led to the awakening of a strong claim on the collective in the name of “We the Egyptians.” And this notwithstanding the reemergence of old barriers—ideological, class, and religious polarizations, not to mention Mubarak’s fallen regime apparatuses, largely thanks to the vested interests and power practices of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government under Mohammed Morsi, which led to the events of 30 June 2013 (see al-Aswany 2011; Hassan 2012) and the subsequent ascension to power of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
What happened on 30 June 2013—with millions of Egyptians going out on the streets, in Tahrir and in many more provinces in Egypt, and then again on 3 July and 26 July (in support of the army), which led to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi—is of grave significance. These events confirmed once and for all the new culture of no fear—of the desire for liberty, equality, and civil society—but above all of the necessity of collective political participation and of solidaristic action. This is perhaps the ultimate gain of the events of 2011, beyond the pitfalls of the following transitional phases. The collective call for social justice, social cohesion, and inclusion had the upper hand over a perceived democracy of the electoral ballot, exclusionary practices, and religiously driven agendas. This article focuses mainly on the eighteen days of the Tahrir occupation in 2011 and was finished before the events of June and July 2013, but it will be significant to pursue further how the newly gained sense of collective agency may have manifested itself in the more systematic and strategically conceived modes of mobilization (beginning with the response to the call by the Rebel youth movement).
When looking at the chants and slogans during the first crucial days, especially the decisive 28 January 2011, it is most remarkable how the chants begin to index open narratives of an inclusive collective imaginary, even if what is revealed constitutes discontinuous temporalities. That is, no rigid, single master narrative or ideological construct is put forth other than the will to claim agency, social justice, and freedom, as well as to address all social groups and types as equal actants, which is reflected in the strategic varying of verbal and visual signs. While creativity was manifesting itself simultaneously in different spaces and situations, all Egyptians (and others following the scenes outside of Egypt) were reconstructing a kaleidoscopic vista of a suggested wholeness by following news of the separate occurrences taking place in different spaces, streets, and squares in Cairo, Suez, Ismailia, Alexandria, and so on, adding up to an Egyptian imaginary rising out of collective realities. The verbal artistry of the demands and their semantic force are most striking in how they performatively reproduce and mirror the lexical and syntactic structures of common forms of speech and proverbial linguistic forms associated with the spheres of cultural production constitutive of “Egyptianness,” or experienced culturally as such. The visual and performative aspects—how the sign is written, on what material and held by whom, in what position among the demonstrators who become at this very instant engaged spectators, doubly representative of others watching at home through various media—are no less significant in delivering the force of the message.
The effect is one of immediate resonance with deeper levels of social realities perceivable by all, even if by no means all factions of Egyptian society responded equally or at all to the resonance of what symbolically had converged on Tahrir and other claimed spaces. I say symbolically here because Tahrir did not stand for a new political collective into which all factions of society had to assimilate. Social, economic, political, religious, and ideological differences remained, while the performed dimensions of the social were deciphered by all, for or against, which might explain the persistence of the revolutionary dynamic post- 2011 as a socially cementing agency. One strong example of this gradual work of resonance is the bursting of the so-called Party of the Couch (Hizb al-kanaba, a brilliant coinage of Egyptian wit), the majority who had not joined earlier, onto the streets of Egyptian cities on 30 June 2013. In a special issue of the nonperiodical review Alkitaba Alokhra (The other writing) entitled “Kitāb al-Thawra” (The book of the revolution), we have most of the slogans and chants listed by the day (Qishta 2011). The issue also features numerous testimonials, diaries, short creative pieces, and photo and cartoon collections. The casting of the social or political demand in “the language of the people” at once revealed the urgency of the present moment while embedding it in the wider and socially cementing spheres of cultural memory. Each chant thus becomes an indexing semantic economy (a configuration of word, image, and non-artist producer/agent) refracting collective narratives of identity-producing resonances. The content of the chant, which constituted the singularity of the demand—for example, the departure of Mubarak—exceeded its immediate context through the force of this popular verbal artistry. By recasting the figure of Mubarak into the proverbial guest who outstayed his welcome, or by performatively reenacting the scene of waiting for his departure as the everyday situation of being late for a date with one’s newly betrothed (Khalil 2011: 98, 101; see also 84, 85, 99), a socially cementing dynamic has entered the political sphere irreversibly.
This social dimension to the revolutionary dynamic should not be confused with the unfortunate personalizing acts in political engagement and participation, equally in official media and in the private spheres, that have been confusing the scene in the past couple of years. In the spontaneous revolutionary slogans, the verbal “forms” as they articulate the demand in the intimate language of the everyday become themselves verbal “content,” a metaphorical elaboration of shared social conditions and everyday realities. This is a crucial way in which Tahrir Square has become, in Rita Sakr’s words, “a symbolic political geography that extends to the entire Egyptian nation” and “a language and practice of ‘Tahrir’ (‘liberation’) that spans a century of resistance against different forms of imperial hegemony and social and spatial injustice in Cairo, Egypt, and beyond” (2013: 21). The communicative force of the chant becomes a linguistic “event,” standing metonymically for the image of voice of the people (as collective and collectivizing speech) and revealing a mode of knowledge production that is markedly collective and has the force of cultural memory as the image of the voice of the people on the other side of “discourse,” that is, on the other side of the modes of expressivity of the competing nationalizing, modernizing discourses of historians, intellectuals, and politicians.
The creative practices during and after the Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011 have had their precedents, of course, in various forms of popular culture and verbal and visual political satire, but in their event-concentrated spheres (what Badiou has called the “Idea,” as I shall explain), they evince a most striking common trait: the force with which they have thrown into strong relief the differentials in collective expressive powers, their chosen media, and the participatory impulse. The collective and resonating powers of this latter impulse, with its political and politicizing premises, have further served to highlight the crucial and promising differential between the older practices of a politics of aesthetics and the promise of what might be termed a “radical aesthetics of the political”—an aesthetics of social resonance, as it comes to bear on questions of equality and the social collective, that reveals a fundamentally connective agency. The social realism of the 1950s, for example, sanctioned by the state and speaking the language of commitment as the language of “the people,” now suddenly stood for traditional leftist intellectual and artistic practices and for a generational and a gendered divide. Significantly, out of those listed by the demonstrators in the early days as their chosen representatives and arbitrators, only one intellectual is listed: the writer Bahaa Taher, who is known for his unwavering political stances since the 1960s and for his generous and open support of the younger generations. The distinction between politics and the political is to be preserved here (Mouffe 2005; see also Butler et al. 2011), as we examine the differentials between a politics of aesthetics and a radical aesthetics of the political. While “politics” refers to concrete and binding regulations in social transactions, “the political” stands for the symbolic order underpinning social and communal relations. This abstract notion of the political should be further qualified in light of the temporal dimensions of a specific cultural memory that turns the symbol or event into a shared remembered history in the fraught and receptive present moment.
A new aesthetic, one might argue, has begun to reveal itself in the verbal and visual artistry of the unleashed revolutionary energy. The social, as the extra dimension of social reality that reveals itself in a cementing language (verbal, visual, and performative) of the everyday, has, through the work of cultural memory, become the political outside of discourse—or on the other side of the hegemonic discourses of representation—and of the ready slogans and agendas of functionary and party politics. It even, as witnessed in the early crucial days of the revolution, has become the political outside of the social articulations of religious creeds. The social is therefore conceived of here in reference to the spheres of the communally cementing everyday practices, language, and action, but particularly to that which is experienced beyond their immediate realities, as Alfred Schutz (1972) has long since argued. This sphere is where social memory, collective and cultural, comes to bear on present actions, assigning value and the depth of historical dimensions of identity. It is also the sphere of cultural memory in the sense of a popular imaginary that surrounds the institutions of official memory—of the state and of the historical discourses of the intelligentsia—and where popular modes of expression—verbal, visual, and otherwise—constitute, as I shall explain later building on Jan Assmann’s (2006, 2011) insights, a kind of subconscious to officially sanctioned traditions. The social demands (workers’ rights, state subsidies, or the improvement of state services) and the political demands (the ousting of Mubarak and the fall of the regime) were cast equally in the verbal and visual iconographies of this popular imaginary.
This return of the political from below—that is, the claiming of public space through the force of a socially cementing language that is inclusive and beyond the socialist and nationalist discourses of the state and its apparatuses—also signaled the return of “the people” not as the reclaimed category of political, socialist, and philosophical discourses but as the manifesting imaginary of “We the Egyptians.” This self-designation has the force of the collective’s dignity, beyond social fractures and in the face of perceived externalized threats, whether coming from the inside or from the confused and opportunist responses on the part of the international community (particularly the Americans, which was to be rehearsed again in the wake of the events of June and July 2013 and the ousting of Morsi). The dignity of the collective emerged forcefully in forms of speech and action beyond the referents of “populism,” “the masses,” or “the people” as political categories and desubjectivized social formations. Almost overnight, the state discourses of “the Revolution” and surrounding conceptions and ideologies of the revolutionary (as agency as well as ideology), all of which point back to the nationalist rhetorics of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime and to the discourses of anticolonial and liberation movements of the 1960s, have given way to entirely new and radical resonances. The word thawra (revolution) felt and promised something very different, something inextricable from a newly regained sense of collective agency. “The people” themselves have spoken, and in doing so they have transcended the category of “the people” and revealed themselves as a socially cementing collective imaginary with a fresh claim on national identity as the projection of localized dimensions of social realities that are given historical depth through the work of collective and cultural memory.
The transition from social demands to political demands by 28 January still carried with it the same impulse to express the political demands in the same intimate forms of speech that resonate everyday experience and social conditions. For example, and in stark contrast to the elevated forms of revolutionary speech from the 1950s and 1960s still alive in people’s memories, slogans such as the following were shouted: “Dābit shurta ya gārī wa akhūya, lēh tidrabī wi till bis abūya?” (Police officer, you neighbor and brother, why hit me and arrest my father?). And of course the most famous slogan of the day, “Al-gaish wi-sh-sha’b eīd wahdah!” (The army and the people are one hand!). Expressions such as “eīd wahdah” (connoting solidarity but, literally, the regular army personnel encountered first were from among the ranks of the people) and “gārī wa akhūya” (connoting familiarity and long-lived acquaintance but also again reminding security forces that they are indeed from among the people) come straight from common, everyday forms of speech and idiomatic expressions associated with certain social conditions and communal relations. Translations of these phrases clearly do not carry the force and rhythmic resonance of the original, and indeed it is from within translation studies and studies of popular literature that we have some of the first attempts at theorizing the aesthetics of the revolutionary creative energy of January 2011 (El Hamamsy and Soliman 2013; Mehrez 2012).2
In her contribution to Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir (Mehrez 2012), Menna Khalil offers a good account of the problems of translation when it comes to the transfer of not just meaning but the people’s relations to both language and the army as a “discursive unit,” retrieved from collective memory—not to mention the task of imparting the fluidity of the encounter in the present historical moment. In order to achieve the implied relational complexities, both “the people” and “the army” are discussed as discursive units in the history of the nation, a crucial shift in the translational ideal, as the act of translation here is anchored in a specific moment of encounter viewed in light of historically articulated relations. It is this encounter, with its complexity, that is worthy of translation, not simply the terms of the language of the encounter (signs, phrases, images, songs, and so on).3 What is being translated here is indeed the resonant force of the modes of expression originating in collective and cultural memory, which are then themselves translated into the fluidity and urgency of the encounter in the present moment. That is, the acts of retrieval during the encounter, while tapping into collective memory, instinctively reshaped in socially coded but resonant language the urgency in the present, thereby at once the “demonstrators” became “the people” and the “security and army personnel” became “the army” of the people’s instinctual, self-preserving, but willful acts of translation.
This dynamic was to achieve its heights of articulation in the events of June and July 2013, between the public speeches of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the response of all Egyptians to his calls for support (particularly in view of the perceived threats of violence on the part of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and their followers). Though extremely wary of the military, and with the plunders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the wake of the January 2011 revolution, most Egyptians at the time responded angrily to foreign media descriptions of what happened as a military coup. The coverage glossed over the highly localized modes of response to the perceived threat to a lifestyle and values increasingly coming under siege by the Brotherhood’s religious rhetoric and open action. Whatever leftist position is taken on this issue—and the arguments and debates were rather intense and impassioned—the singular focus on the possibility (or the reality) of a military coup simply meant the denial of agency on the part of the millions who took to the street and did so in far many more towns and provinces this time around as opposed to 2011.4
Such collective and spontaneous responses from the demonstrators claiming the collective are most crucial not only in displaying the creative forms of popular language’s expressive force but also in revealing these responses to be an exercise of “connective agency”—a term inspired by the recent work of German culture theorists on the questions of cultural memory and connective remembering (Assmann 2006: 9–11), but for which we already have the Egyptian term amāra, naming a specifically Egyptian cultural practice. Writers such as Yusuf Idris and Marxist critics such as Mahmoud Amin al-Alim have recognized the term to name what is at stake in the modes of communication between the intellectual and the people on the one hand and the relations between art and life, aesthetics and politics on the other. “The search for amāra,” in al-Alim’s words, “is a search for some law capable of bringing forth a deeper awareness and a better future for our Egyptian people, especially for its exploited working forces, and this is the essence of the noble and deep message in the art of Yusuf Idris” (al-Alim 1994: 106).5 These remarks refer to the 1950s and 1960s, and though al-Alim says this law will enable the Egyptian people finally to “claim the historical chair” (in reference to Idris’s short story that I discuss below), the question here is not so much the imparting of knowledge to the people, for the people already know (and herein lies the crucial test to the old leftist politics of aesthetics). Rather, it is the efficacy of creative and artistic modes of communication and, indeed, of recognizing and engaging with the people’s languages of urgency, their own articulations of what is at stake.
Revolutionary Aesthetics and the Collective Imaginary
The central thought in Jacques Rancière’s work on the relations between aesthetics and politics is illuminating now. What does it mean to redefine the aesthetic as a mode of reading history, social realities, and the political literarily? This thought originate in Rancière’s earlier critiques of the discourses and modes of representation in political and historical writing, and eventually led to critiques of the representations of workers in the name of some “historical real” with which to counter the discursively dominant “metaphysics of history.” As he puts it: “Specifically, I began by searching in the archives for examples from the writings of workers so as to respond to the Marxist discourse on history, on the workers’ movement, etc.” (Rancière and Panagia 2000: 121, cited in Robson 2005: 5). But then the question inevitably arose as to where to take these voices beyond their realms of “the real.” Rancière explains how he “quickly realized that such a return to the ‘real’ did not, in and of itself, change the theoretical terms of the game” (Rancière and Panagia 2000: 121). It was not enough to discover a “mode of speaking proper to the worker” (une parole ouvrière): this mode had to be rescued from the discursive powers of historicism, which appropriates by assigning places in the discourse, just as politics does with the social and historical real.
This mode of investigation led Rancière beyond the regimes of discourse and of assigned modes of speaking to the very right to speak and to the question of the people (versus the intellectual) as another major category (see Rancière 2011, 2012). The recognition and exercise of the right to speak on the part of those who have no part in social and political orders lie at the heart of what he calls the “aesthetic revolution” (Rancière 2010: 115–133; see also Rancière 2005: 14). This aesthetic of the right to speak creates a rupture in the political and representational ordering of society, social groups, and social relations, signaling new radical possibilities. The simultaneously revolutionary and artistic modes of communication in Tahrir have turned the square into the iconicity of a place. As we have been witnessing since 2011 in numerous other places and spaces, Tahrir has become synonymous with the right to public spaces in the name of collective unplacing of the historical hold of representational and political regimes. The expansion of symbolic voicing (rather than representation) into dimensions of the collective has signaled the birth of a new language and subsequently new practices. “The site,” as Badiou has expressed it, “is the thing whereby the Idea, still fluid, encounters popular genericity” (2012: 92). The inspiration that Tahrir has had for a new spatial politics, transnationally, had to have been rooted in a new language, reflecting the fresh revolutionary energies. Both this new language and this fresh revolutionary energy derive their force from what might be called a poetics of the collective differentials (always in excess of established discourses of representation, and to be distinguished from the excesses of “the proletarian position” between public and private uses of reason in Žižek’s arguments as discussed below). The impulse was radically to “voice,” not simply “to give voice to” or “to represent,” the collective as the people: to speak from within emplacement in the whole and from within resonance. Here, repartitioning of the political whole can only enter the theoretical game of discourse by collectively unplacing the different sites of representation. The “power” to speak is a question of representational discourse; the “ability” to speak must here be reconceived as the ability to articulate from within the spheres of resonance with the whole.
Examples of the first category are the selective political national songs retrieved from collective memory but made all the more poignant by the strong collective sentiment and, I would add, by the spontaneous creative emulations and adaptations that turned chants and slogans into continuous and mobilizing musical and song performances. In the second category, the revolutionary creativity begins producing its own artistic repertoire of songs, sometimes with the artists blending with the audience and the protesters foregrounded, not the singers or artists. In the third category, art production goes beyond assimilating the street and is aimed at mobilizing the masses and commemorating and celebrating their achievements. Significantly at this stage, the Coalition of Independent Culture, a mixed group of artists, takes the activity beyond Tahrir, and as El Hamamsy and Soliman note, the group’s production El-fan midan (Art is a square/arena) goes beyond the midan or Tahrir and appropriates other spaces all over, signaling and sustaining the spread of the revolutionary spirit (52–57). These different modes and forms of speech and of action are all rooted in the ingenious, cunning, witty, resourceful, and effective articulations of the people’s conditions and popular imaginary.6
Looking closely at the kind of art that was produced in Tahrir, we would like to identify three levels of artistic production, what we categorize as (1) artistic street engagement, (2) artistic street assimilation, and (3) artistic street mobilization. These three levels correspond to three identifiable degrees of consciousness moving along a continuum from the least conscious to the most. That is, in the first category, art is produced by the people and for the people, spontaneously and reflexively, to address a certain need as it arises. In the second category, the street is deployed by an artist-agent in an attempt to engage with the people, empower them, and document the moment … In the third category, art is taken to a higher level of consciousness raising, mobilization, and social criticism, and the goal here is to ensure the continuation of the revolution, constantly reminding the masses that what was achieved is considerable but not yet complete.(252)
The Return of the People as the Collective Imaginary
Extending Ernesto Laclau’s (2007) arguments, the groups of demonstrators were not simply defined by whatever particular social demand they were putting forth. Rather, the social demands exceeded the parameters of defined social groups and, through artistic modes of communication, were claiming the people as a whole. Without explaining it in detail, Alain Badiou, in The Rebirth of History, also insists that those in Tahrir Square were not just fractional representations but did indeed represent the people in ways that other democratic processes had failed through polls and other mechanisms. In Badiou’s words: “The word ‘democracy’ is practically unspoken in Egypt. People there refer to the ‘new Egypt,’ the ‘real Egyptian people,’ a constituent assembly, and absolute change in existence, possibilities that are unprecedented and previously unknown” (2012: 109).7 The Egyptian language of Tahrir (word, sign, image, spontaneous action, chant, song, and creative adaptations) was claiming the rebirth of the people as collective reality, and literally so in the many signs, slogans, images, new modes of expression that proliferated afterward.8 The translatability of the social and political demands of the revolutionaries into common forms of speech, visual metaphors, social behavior, and dramatized common, everyday scenes happened rather spontaneously. There was no central directive or centralizing context as to how these at once revolutionary and aesthetic impulses were to articulate the popular imaginary.
Perhaps the key phrase here is “improvised and immediate, coming from the people and addressing the people.” This new political culture and revolutionary dynamic must be understood beyond the questions of resistance and of opposition to hegemonic structures or to the authoritarianism of state. As Charles Tripp (2013: 3) has put it in his investigations into paths of resistance in the Middle East, “The circumstances that begin to create the possibility of self-consciousness, of offering people a chance to ‘come out of themselves,’ are those that can also cause dramatic shifts in power, creating resistance among those who had until then gone along with their own subordination.” The discourses surrounding power and the resistance to power and their regimes of representation, while rigorously reconceived here, are still locked into an older dialectic and do not yet offer the new language with which to understand on their own terms the people as they come out of themselves. The question remains as to how people coming out of themselves begin to exercise their own power and whether this power collectively exercised adds up to something beyond simply resisting the power of the state.
When one looks back on the eighteen days of protest in Tahrir and the kind of media coverage that the demonstrators received globally, one realizes that the key characteristic of this revolution was how civilized it was. The demonstrators in Tahrir did not only protest and chant; they did so peacefully and artistically. Old and young, male and female, rich and poor, Muslim, Christian, or otherwise, Egyptians suddenly regained their sense of self-worth, of in fact being a nation with a long history of civilization and artistic production to which temple art and murals are witness, a sense that the former regime has constantly suppressed, favoring its own image of a helpless nonproductive people. Thus the mind-numbing commercial art of low aesthetic value that characterized particularly the past ten to fifteen years was replaced by a genuine, original, and meaningful kind of art that surprisingly was not produced by professionals. Rather, it was improvised and immediate, coming from the people and addressing the people.(2013: 250)
In Tahrir, modes of speech and artistic expression in the varieties of the (initially social) demands being made began to shift to the political by taking on “the unforced force” of the public sphere, its foundational common sense, in the absence of state institutions and the institutions of functionary politics and party politics. What is most significant here is the depth of resonance. These demands were not issued only in a struggle to insert back into the power game and its attendant discourses of representation the existence of “the part that has no part.” If this had been the case, the cynical culture of suspicion would have limited the range of reception and efficacy. This is where Jürgen Habermas’s more recent revisions of the conception of politics and the political (as a symbolic order), radically divergent as they are from those of Badiou and Laclau, may offer a better explanation of this particular aspect of the phenomenon. Mainly, the reconception of the political order in terms of a meaning and value giving symbolic order inevitably brings the deeper levels of cultural memory to bear on the socially cementing and solidaristic forms of expression—Habermas himself does not go into issues of cultural memory directly, though. The demands began to reclaim, through popular and resonating forms of creative expression, what Habermas had articulated in a different context as the “willingness to engage in collective action, the awareness that citizens can at all collectively shape the social conditions of their lives through solidaristic action.” The will to engage in solidaristic action, in his reflections on modern European societies, had begun to “fade under the perceived force of systemic imperatives.” These systemic imperatives point to “the erosion of confidence in the power of collective action and the atrophy of normative sensibilities,” which “reinforce an already smoldering skepticism with regard to an enlightened self-understanding of modernity” (Habermas 2011: 16).
The fact that Habermas (2011: 17) defines the political as “the symbolic field in which the early civilizations first formed an image of themselves,” including Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt, is also significant here. Egyptologist and culture theorist Jan Assmann (2006, 2011) has interpreted this same symbolic field as the sphere of cultural memory. Beyond the normative communicative functions of memory, cultural memory attaches itself to certain fixed figures of a remembered history (myths, images, rituals, etc.) that then serve to cement collective identity in the present (Assmann 2011: 34–44). The manner in which cultural memory sometimes functions is most significant in that it can turn a particular fact or event or figure (within the remit of mnemonic institutions and recorded traditions, or outside of these as a kind of “subconscious” surrounding them) into remembered history, further turning it into a concerned myth or a resonant and centralizing meaning-giving expression that then serves to perpetuate a sense of identity (much as Northrop Frye has argued for myths of social concern). This transformative function cements social and collective identity across large stretches of time (normative collective memory usually spans a generation).
Among the striking signs in Tahrir, for example, was this particular sign declaring the death of the Mubarak regime, not directly but most forcefully through the morally binding principle of what must be done immediately after the moment of death: “ikram al-nizam dafnuh” (honor the regime by burial; Khalil 2011: 55). Death and rituals of burial have had a most significant history in Egypt, throughout the long stretches of Egyptian history and across the many religions and systems of belief that have alternated among its people. The substitution of “the deceased” with “the regime” in the common and resonant Arabic proverb is an instinctive and most creative expression of the collective will of the people (and death is when Egyptians gather unconditionally and immediately, leaving all difference behind) as it enters the political sphere. One of the most defining expressions of Egyptian life and consciousness is brought to bear on the act of resistance, beyond any specific representations. The proverb powerfully and immediately resonates with all, and we must not forget that this was not the genius of a professional master satirist, of which Egyptian literature abounds. This is the thought and participatory performance of a common Egyptian in a collectively liberated space. It is also a cementing thought of the collective, not the political expression of an oppositional or antagonistic stance between public and private uses of reason in the Marxian sense (Žižek 2012). In order to begin to identify the possibility of a new aesthetic, we must begin to consider the resonant act or speech in the range of revolutionary artistic expressions by non-artists as embedded in the already resonant spheres of expression of cultural memory.
What we must therefore posit as the implicit question in reflecting on aesthetics and the revolution is the question of how the revolution unleashed creative energies, verbal and visual as well as practical and ideational, and how these forms of action and of expression seem to have already transformed the relations between art and life. What most Arab writers, artists, and dramatists have offered up until 2011, whether in their themes or their formal experiments with the established literary genres, are at best spaces for reflection, as opposed to radically resonant and transformative artistic forms. A few writers of the caliber of the Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus have recognized the limits of politically committed literature in general, which he saw as still offering shadows to social and political realities rather than creative forms with a participatory impulse that would break down the illusory walls between the artist and the common man or woman. Wannus had set out in the 1960s and 1970s to offer a theater that is not simply political but politicizing, drawing on the resources of Arabic popular traditions as well as the Brechtian epic theater. What Wannus sought to offer was a participatory space, of reflection as participatory action, or his own theory of tasyīs (dramaturgic politicizing as communal practice). An excellent example is his 1974 play, The King Is the King, a sharp dramatization of political power and the social bases of the institutional structures of authoritarian regimes. It offered in the 1970s, still in the wake of the 1967 Arab defeat, a powerful example of politicizing theater, and it is no wonder that collective memory had brought it back to Tahrir Square during the events, along with the performed songs of the famous singer Mohamed Munir.9
The force and immediate grip of this epiphanic experience is perhaps what silenced most writers, by their own admission, for it is true, from where they stood as the storytellers of Egypt, their world had completely transformed. But so too has the world of the critic and the theorist. The creative energy running through the seemingly disparate and localized actions reflected a larger narrative of the collective, with collective and cultural memory offering the cementing temporality. And this is indeed one of the obvious aesthetic achievements, which later revealed itself in a differing approach to narrative in the prose fiction, diaries, and memoirs that appeared right after the events. One of the first to appear, Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo, My City, Our Revolution (2012), offers a good example of such discontinuous narratives of memory. The narratives of the eighteen days are divided into two parts (25 January to 1 February and 1 February to 11 February), with an interruption in the middle to reflect on the present or the aftermath of the events. “This story,” she tells us in the preface, “is told in my own chosen order, but it is very much the story of our revolution” (xiii). And in a statement to be echoed by most writers and intellectuals:
I understood it! I finally understood it and I returned to the Square day after day just to make sure that what I was witnessing was not a dream. What I have seen to be the people really were the people, alive and well, and it wasn’t just an afternoon uprising that would vanish with the onset of evening.
I realized all of a sudden, then and there, that I never really gave the people their right space in my imagination. The people, the collective, are absent in my novels: there are characters, individuals … but none of the novels has the people in it…. Until that day, I saw the people only as a handful of stragglers seeking their own individual interests. When Egyptians became themselves the people, our world, the world of the narrators and storytellers of Egypt, completely transformed.(2011: 228)
Testimonials, diaries, and written accounts, too numerous to list here, would also follow the same discontinuous temporality, most pointedly noted in the title of a short piece by Basim Abdel Halim (2011), “Mashahid min Dhakira ghayr murattaba” (Vistas/scenes from a disorderly memory). Indeed, all contemporaneous as well as later oral and written accounts take on the form of narratives of memory, yet with a narrative thrust relying on shared knowledge (al-Zubaidi and Cassel 2013). That is, the question here is not one of elliptical plots or necessarily ideologically driven plots. It is more a question of trust in a larger narrative of cultural memory and of a confirmed national or communal identity. Individuals first called on the collective, and individual voices remain, but the modes of expression seem to aim at the collective yet far from the ready ideological constructs or slogans of recent collective memory. Cultural memory reveals the social practice of memory as always narrated and of course translated, that is, always as a form of textuality grounding certain collective actions and assigning value to certain dimensions of social realities in the present. The act of remembering here radicalizes conventional textuality; it involves interpretive horizons of experience surrounding what constitutes the text in its pastness as well as the transmission and reception of this text, at once beyond tradition or “systemic imperatives” and the communicative spheres of collective memory.
I tried to “revolute” and write at the same time and I soon realized two things: one, that I could not write what was fast becoming the past without writing the present. Two, that for this book to be as I wanted it to be and as I believed it should be, an intervention, rather than just a record, it needed to take in—and on—as much of this present as possible. A revolution is a process, not an event.(xiii-xiv)
In their articulated thoughts and impassioned debates, the main characters come across more like existential codes for the range of social types and classes and sentiments than personalities, reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s method of characterization (in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other works) whereby characters emerge as embodiments of existential codes rather than as full personalities. Al-Khishin’s novel is significant as a first impassioned response to the resonances of Tahrir, for in the narrative segments we have a representative range of social positionalities ciphered in individual lives.10 The aesthetic impulse behind this form of discontinuous narrative temporalities that project the larger narrative of the revolution is also significant in that the characters are individualized in the process of affirming their right to the square. The vision of social movement that emerges goes in the direction of a collectivizing movement, beyond our ready vision of urban social movements, as in Lefebvre’s “right to the city” model (Harvey 2012: 115–154). The city is not being claimed, but every public space by metonymic expansion is claimed in the name of the collective.
In writing this book I was following the dictates of my heart, while mind urged me to write it as fast as I could, while my chest was still ablaze with passions … In Tahrir, I met and chatted with people amongst whom I had lived for years though we never talked. They [the regime and its apparatuses] had tied us all to wheels of endless motion; they never allowed us to raise our heads up so we could enjoy what is around us and whoever is around us. I was so surprised to see youths with such erudition, reasoning powers and strong convictions. I do not refer here to the leaders or organizers of the revolution, I mean to mention those youths who came in their support and remained steadfast in their positions.(al-Khishin 2011: 7)
Amāra as Connective Agency
In her recent study on the politics of aesthetics in contemporary Scottish and Irish literature, read as offering counterhistories, Stefanie Lehner (2011) outlines the politics of this aesthetic production as “subaltern ethics,” in an attempt to restore responsibility to the type of engaged or committed fiction that explores social inequalities resulting from the restructuring of global capitalist systems. In Egypt, formidable Egyptian critics such as Mahmoud Amin al-Alim, Abdul Azim Anis, Ghali Shukri, and Lewis Awad have all been engaged since the 1960s in offering anatomies of the failure of the forms of expression of such subaltern ethics to speak to and move the people. Ghali Shukri (1992) in particular produced a remarkable study of the work of intellectuals in relation to subaltern ethics and social realities under a historical dialectic of rise and decline. But it is in literary treatments where we have some of the best illustrations of this failure of the intellectual, since the 1920s (particularly in the work of Mahmoud Taher Lashin) and more strongly between the 1950s and 1970s.
In a remarkably prescient short story, significantly written in the wake of the 1967 war and the military and moral atmosphere of defeat, Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris (1983) addresses precisely the question of the failure to produce the amāra for the people on the part of the intellectual—and of the state by extension, as intellectuals were aligned to the nationalizing and modernizing projects of Nasser’s regime and socialist agendas. The story is significantly titled “Hammāl el-karāsī;,” or “The Chair Carrier,” but the title translates more literally as “the bearer of chairs,” with the syntactic form of the word hāmmal reflecting further emphasis through intensification (a derivation following the form fa” al). The title phrase is a play on the common Egyptian idiom hammal elasiyya (the bearer of burdens/sorrows). The title itself—and Idris often insisted on using the syntactic and lexical orders of colloquial Egyptian as opposed to standard Arabic—would have resonated or was clearly intended to resonate with popular and collective sensibilities in the same way we were to witness in the Tahrir slogans and signs. The story opens with the unnamed narrator walking down Jumhuriyya Street (Republic Street) when he suddenly glimpses something astonishing: a huge, stately chair seemingly moving on its own accord but with five legs. The chair turns out to be the throne of Egypt and the fifth leg the emaciated figure of an ancient-looking Egyptian, who looks as if he just jumped out of an ancient tomb’s murals and is described in dense metaphoric and metonymic phrases suggestive of the land of Egypt and of the traditional common figure of the Egyptian: peasantlike, emaciated, yet sturdy (interestingly, mural-style art and Ancient Egyptian themes began to be visibly thermalized on the walls in Tahrir Square in 2011). The Chair Carrier stops the narrator and asks if he knows where Ptah Ra was, as he had long since been carrying the throne by order of the Pharaoh-God, and now he feels tired and wishes to put his burden down.
The narrator then spots an ancient-looking parchment attached to the back of the throne/chair and shouts after the man:
“Until when, for God’s sake?”
“Till the order comes from Ptah-Ra.”
“He couldn’t be more dead.”
“Then from his successor, his deputy, from one of his descendants, from anyone with a token of authorization [amāra] from him.”
“All right then, I’m ordering you right now to put it down.”
“Your order will be obeyed—and thank you for your kindness—but are you related to him?”
“Do you have a token of authorization [amāra] from him?”
“No I don’t.”
“Then allow me to be on my way.”
In utter desperation, the narrator concludes:
“This, Mr. Chair Carrier, is the order of Ptah Ra,” an order that is precise and was issued at the same moment in which he ordered you to carry the chair. It is sealed with his signature and cartouche.” …
“The order’s written right there above your head—written ages ago.”
“But I don’t know how to read.”
“But I’ve just read it out to you.”
“I’ll believe it only if there’s a token of authorization [amāra]. Have you such a token?”
The story is a remarkably dense allegory of the Egyptian people and their historical relations with power, but it is also a condemnation of intellectuals (we see the array of their positions in the narrator’s concluding questions) and their failure to communicate with the people in resonant modes of speech, originating in the expression and recognition of a common fate and a shared destiny. The narrator’s amazement at the sight of the Chair Carrier is doubled in the beginning by his even more acute astonishment at the fact that no one else is noticing this unusual spectacle walking down a bustling street in the heart of Cairo. The intellectual speaks truth to power, presumably the people’s truth, and as Edward Said (1994) has added, the intellectual does so always embarrassingly and occasionally effectively. But it seems that when the intellectual turns to the people to speak their own truth to them, to perform the mediatory function of the organic intellectual, the speech that seeks to articulate shared knowledge and modes of production of the people seems to falter, and communication seems to fail (El-Desouky 2011).
I stood watching him. The chair had started to move at its slow, steady pace, making one think that it moved by itself. Once again the man had become its thin fifth leg, capable on its own of setting it in motion.
I stood watching him as he moved away, panting and groaning and with the sweat pouring off him.
I stood there at a loss, asking myself whether I shouldn’t catch him up and kill him and thus give vent to my exasperation.
Should I rush forward and topple the chair forcibly from his shoulders and make him take a rest?
Or should I content myself with the sensation of enraged irritation I had for him?
Or should I calm down and feel sorry for him?
Or should I blame myself for not knowing what the token of authorization [amāra] was?(Idris 1983: 4)
The question is clearly not one of power or who can wield authority, and amāra is incorrectly translated in the excerpts above as a “token of authorization,” which raises the question of translation as previously discussed. Amāra as a cultural practice is specifically Egyptian, both in the use of the term and in how it is deployed in particular social situations. The terms amāra and amār have their roots in Classical Arabic, originally denoting a pile of stones set up in a waterless desert to signal the right direction to those who may have lost their way (according to al-Fayrūfizābādī’s lexicon, al-Qāmus al-muḥīṭ, and Edward Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon). Amāra has also evolved into denoting signs, marks, or signposts or elevated ground and has come to indicate an appointed time—lexical metaphors rather appropriate for the resonant acts in Tahrir. The specific usages current in Egyptian Arabic have also been noted by El-Said Badawi and Martin Hinds in their Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, defining it as sign or indication or as evidence of good faith, an example of which is given from everyday mundane practice: “Give me an amāra so that your home helper will let me into your flat” (2009) This example of a social amāra captures the potential range of the forms of amāra as either particular signs or details and information only the participants are privy to, or a narrative of an incident known only to them. The visual forms of recognition are encapsulated in the stock phrase “on his face are the amārāt of …” (‘ala wishshu amàrāt …). The narrative in the exchanges emphasizing a shared identity or a common bond usually begins with the stock phrase “by the amāra of,” which traverses social boundaries. Transmuted into the lexical and syntactic patterns of the slogans and the visual iconicity of the signs, street art, and performances on Tahrir Square and beyond, this unspoken phrase articulates, invisibly as in the suggested extension of a gesture, the verbal as well as visual resonances that such individual acts have struck with the collective Egyptian imaginary.
The Aesthetics of Amāra and the Return of the Political
How then do we begin to understand the collective and spontaneous artistic modes of amāra communication that gestured the people from beyond the referential veils of political philosophies or even artistic imagination, and in doing so confirmed collective modes of expression and of communication as modes of knowing and of exercising power? Popular movements, as Michel Foucault (1977: 219) had noted, are never seen to be the result of a struggle for power but rather are doomed in official histories to be always arising out of “famines, taxes or unemployment.” What transpired in Tahrir quickly proved more than simply a popular movement, which is probably why Badiou (2012) qualified the expression of the same thought and its radical possibility into a “movement communism.” The artistic modes of communication that sharpened the resonance of the demands being made and achieved immediate and widespread reception, beyond the provenance of the creative act itself, as well as a matching creativity, had to have sprung from a deeper connective agency that was manifesting itself in the collective impulse.
In his reflections on the events in Tunisia and Egypt in The Rebirth of History, Badiou quotes Jean-Marie Gleize in an attempt to understand the speed with which the events unfolded after the seemingly singular incidents of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khalid Said: “A revolutionary movement does not spread by contamination, but through resonance. Something constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there” (Badiou 2012: 108–109). Badiou then calls the effect of these shock waves “resonance” and understands it as an “event”: “The event is the abrupt creation not of a new reality, but of a myriad of new possibilities. None of them is the repetition of what is already known” (109). Each act, each sign, is unprecedented yet resonates with the collective, and in these spheres of resonance, we may begin to look simultaneously for the “creation in common of the collective destiny” (111), or the rebirth of the people, and of history, as “each person’s life joins in the History of all” (112). The resonance of these resonating acts, as I have argued here, already has its roots in the Egyptian cultural practice of amāra, or producing signs and tokens of a shared destiny. And it is in the realms of these resonant amāras that we may begin to search for a new aesthetics of connective agency, of how “the part that has no part,” in Jacques Rancière’s (2013) theory, begins to exercise the right to speak and in doing so rejoins a newly constituted collective, beyond that constituted by the powers that be (see also Rancière 2005, 2009, 2010).
The deeper agency as I have referred to it, however, becomes connective in the context of the transformative function of cultural memory as it cements the identity of the collective, and need not be universal as in the debates in political philosophy over bridging the public and private uses of reason. This postulated universality at the heart of the theoretical game of Marxist discourses, Žižek further argues, must now be coupled with an engaged subjective position in order to “offer an adequate ‘cognitive mapping’ of our situation” (4–5); Žižek refers here to the true dimensions of the events in the year 2011. On the grounds of this posited universality, Žižek also critiques Rancière’s theories. The possibility of “repartitioning the sensible,” which reconfigures the whole, runs the risk of universalizing the symbolic order and locking the part that has no part into a repeatable pattern that reifies its identity, as Žižek has noted in his critiques of Rancière’s work.11 This theoretical risk has been mitigated, as I suggest here, by the renewed attention to radical possibilities (gestured in collective modes of expression), following the Arab uprisings, which are rooted in the resonances of cultural memory and confirmed in new modes of knowledge production. These modes of knowledge production, fundamentally aesthetic in nature, offer a conceptual language that may help us probe further into the nature of collective realities.
It is all too easy to point out the obvious difference between the Kantian public use of reason and the Marxist notion of revolutionary class consciousness: the former is neutral and disengaged; the latter is “partial” and fully engaged. But the “proletarian position” can be defined precisely as that point at which the public use of reason becomes in itself practical and efficacious without regressing into the “privacy” of the private use of reason, since the position from which it is exercised is that of the “part of no-part” of the social body, its excess which stands directly for universality.(2012: 4)
On the square and in later artistic and literary production, embodied and participatory acts of remembrance indexed the larger narratives, which assigned meaning and place to the seemingly disjointed or localized revolutionary acts. This was the creative impulse common to the variety of artistic forms that have been reclaimed or reshaped in Tahrir and elsewhere. When the localized revolutionary act, seemingly spontaneous and individualized, suddenly achieves resonance and elicits collective and comparably creative responses, a new mode of expression is at work, born of a connective agency that may offer us a new aesthetic. Theorists of cultural memory, such as Jan Assmann (2006: 37), have defined connective agency as the mode of expression of a larger symbolic universe that is cultural memory: “Cultural memory can be understood as … the totality of the forms in which a comprehensive symbolic world of meaning can be communicated and handed down.” When the people speak their own truth, collectively, they produce the linguistic, gestured, and performed articulations, embodied memories, of the shared knowledge, for these forms are the culturally effective modes of producing common identity and of explaining the world through this common identity. In the face of the powers of resonance inhering in these articulations, the speech of the intellectual seems somehow removed and lacking such force of social identifiers of a common and shared fate. This collectively shared knowledge of the group and the binding character of this knowledge offer the ability to establish connections (through the transformative functions of cultural memory prompted by what is most urgent in the present) and to constitute identity (Assmann 2006: 37).
The question of the amāra is a question of the production of signs, verbal and visual, and of narrative kernels, that originate in a deeply shared social condition, signaling shared destiny, and speaking to that condition with both speaker and addressee fully present. It is not simply a question of the people being made aware or brought to knowledge but first and foremost a recognition that the people already know and that they do indeed speak their knowing, beyond a specified content or demand. They do not always and only speak in demands; they articulate their knowledge of social realities in socially cementing forms, and that is how they exercise their power. The challenge before the engaged intellectual (and indeed the activist working on particular causes) is to learn to speak from within that knowing, which is to say, to learn social positioning in relation both to the content and to the form of collective reasoning. The reception of this mode of speech/positionality is immediate, unspoken, and as much a response to the form of speech as to the urgency of the content. It is also just as crucially a confirmation of “equality” in the social sphere, beyond questions of social class and hierarchization, as it is beyond the thinking and speaking of institutions or the positioning in power relations. The right to speak of the part that has no part, which reconfigures the social and political orders, must be recognized in the forms and modes of speech that cement that order, not simply or only as a speaking that enters into power relations (the danger of reification to which Žižek refers). This is all the more significant to understand when the part that has no part speaks in the name of the whole (not simply in the name of its positionality as part, and perhaps this is the only way it can reconfigure the whole of which it is a part, as in Badiou’s notion of equality and truth or Rancière’s egalitarianism), transcending its own immediate condition and thereby turning this speaking into something foundational and not purely relational.
My reflections here deliberately began from the side of the collective imaginary and its connective agency and moved toward the questions of a possible aesthetic. The revolutionary creative energies in January and February 2011 exceeded the spheres of communication, where social media played the crucial role, but by doing so they also exceeded traditional revolutionary discourses, as well as artistic practices.12 The staggering range of verbal and visual creativity revealed a larger and cementing narrative practice of collective and cultural memory. The social and the cultural have become themselves the political, beyond functionary politics. The recognition of the right to speak at the heart of all politics must be understood through the aesthetic of resonance at work in modes of speaking that while constituting individual positionalities still offer socially cementing speech, or amāra. In her response to some of my earlier propositions on amāra, Caroline Rooney has further noted that amāra constitutes a form of “ethics of solidarity” beyond the ethics of the individual in face of “others” or “the other” in Western philosophical traditions, and “entails a multi-layered understanding pertaining to the moment and place of appointment for potential social change or enlightenment, involving potentially the displacement of ossified hierarchies through egalitarian forms of solidarity. Amāra, in its emphasis on timing, is strikingly pertinent for the events of January-February 2011” (2011: 369–376). In the same context and in similar veins, Rooney ventures the proposition of the South African concept of unhu while Egyptologist Stephen Quirke ventures the Ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at (the all-pervasive concept of justice) as examples of African and Egyptian ethical traditions.13 Resonance, understood aesthetically, is a question not of power but of social cohesion and of cultural identity. In her theoretical reflections on the concept of “interference” in political thought, Emily Apter recognizes amāra (in contradistinction to Badiou’s and Žižek’s postulates of a “movement communism” or a “new political reality”) to be “less aporetic; its contents are substantiated with specific aesthetic practices accessed on the oblique of Arabic philology” (2015: 15). The oblique of Arabic philology here, however, has the force of cultural memory behind it and resurfaces in the connective agency of the forms of collective expression. This brings us finally to the question of trust in political thought.
The question here is not one of measuring social reality, in the way it has been raised in political philosophy as a question of trust, particularly as a means of determining social capital. The question here, rather, is what trust as a social and political practice ultimately rests on. Arguably, one of the lasting achievements of the events of Tahrir in January and February 2011 is the emergence of a politically engaged culture that is deeply social and imaginatively connective in its thrust. The chants and slogans did not express particular party or religious lines during the crucial eighteen days, and when significant and highly organized groups such as the workers and their unions joined in, they raised their banners in the name of the Egyptian people, beyond the traditional set of demands—the particularized demands exploded after. This is what Badiou has described as the “restitution of the existence of the inexistent,” which can only happen through a localized event that gathers what underlies the particularized demands (Badiou 2012: 56). This window of achievement, the localized event, politically speaking, has revealed an ontological dimension of the collective, and this significantly could not have been possible without the force and resonance, that is, the aesthetics, of the collective modes of speech and of communication. As the subsequent unfolding of events has clearly demonstrated, the challenge will ultimately be to develop and sustain these forms of resonance in radically conceived social and political practices in the postrevolution phases.
This article was first drafted early in 2012, augmented in 2013, and later significantly reworked and expanded in light of the unfolding events in Egypt and in response to the critical and theoretical works that subsequently began to appear. The full arguments have appeared in Ayman El-Desouky (2014). The reader is kindly referred to chapters 2, 3, and 4, though the conception of the book as a whole began with the attempt to further reflect on the implications of the central thought behind my arguments here, the pursuit of precisely “how the people know” and of the aesthetics of such knowing. As the arguments here constitute my first attempts at tracing the implications of collective knowing and action, I have opted to keep the text mostly untouched.
See Mehrez (2012: 25–68), in which the popular Egyptian cultural practices surrounding the celebrations of a saint’s birthday are invoked to capture the semiotics of the spontaneous practices in Tahrir Square. Indeed, all the contributions in this volume offer crucially attuned approaches to the challenges of translation as encounter of historical moment with language experience—tackling the range of humor, visual signs, street art, and so on. The volume is the result of an experimental workshop in translation offered in the American University of Cairo and in large part coinciding with the unfolding events; see the account of the impressive and methodologically crucial conception and proceedings of the workshop in Samia Mehrez’s (2012: 1–24) introduction to the volume.
For a more comprehensive and critical study of the army in Egyptian popular imaginary, see Mostafa (2016).
All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
Since the 1990s, experimental work in theater and short films in particular but also in the visual arts and the new urban novel, all of which by young Egyptian writers, directors, and artists, within the intellectual scene shifted significantly to more popular forms. Notably, for example, the work of the Mashru’ Koral Group (the Choir Project, initially also the Cairo Complaints Choir), which not only championed popular forms of speech but also composed whole performances out of common Egyptian proverbs, which most pointedly resonated with collective sentiment.
This particular point was to become crucial at the core of the debates over the legitimacy of Morsi’s rule as the first democratically elected president: Is the legitimacy here purely conferred by the electoral pole, or is it in the hands of the people, who in the absence of a parliament that would oversee the process of impeachment had to go out on the street to reclaim their revolution?
See, e.g., the collection of short stories by Fouad Qindil (2011) significantly titled Milad fi al-Tahrir (Birth in Tahrir) and the memoirs of Tahrir by novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid (2011), Li kull ard mi’ad: Ayyam al-Tahrir (Each land has its birth: The days of Tahrir). These are but two obvious examples; the phrase and the conviction were everywhere felt and variously expressed in the early days of the revolution and its aftermath.
As I have argued elsewhere (El-Desouky 2011), Mahfouz’s controversial novel The Children of the Alley is perhaps one of very few works that have sought to turn the popular imaginary into a mode of historical consciousness with which to understand historical process. Significantly, this novel has also been read as an anatomy of the failure of the 1952 revolution.
It would be a most revealing exercise to compare the characters here to the range of characters offered in the form of short biographical sketches surrounding key moments and events of the revolutionaries of the preceding generation, offered in a recently published volume, Al-Thawragiyya (The revolutionaries) by Hanaa Zaki (2010). Other novels have appeared since then, notably Agendat sayyid al-ahl (The agenda of the master of his people/blacklist) by Ahmad Sabry Abul-Futuh (2012), which offers a more complex account of the revolution and counterrevolution and the relations of the individual to the collective.
See Jeremy Valentine’s (2005) arguments over the questions of the relational and the foundational in Rancière’s theory and Žižek’s critiques of it.
For a comparable argument in relation to the Tunisian and North African events, see Khalil (2014).
In response to some of my initial propositions on the Egyptian concept and practice of amāra, Stephen Quirke offered the Ancient Egyptian principle of ma’at, and Caroline Rooney offered the South African concept and practice of unhu. The three concepts were laid out in a joint special session in Cairo in November of 2008 as part of the “Cairo at the Crossroads” conference organized by English Department at Cairo University (see Rooney 2011: 371–372).
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