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Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

Since the beginning of the Egyptian uprising in January 25th a new grand-narrative about this so-called “revolution” and more broadly the Arab world is being constructed by the media (international and local), academics, politicians, and the local elite.[1] This narrative appears to be replacing the long held “Arab Exceptionalism” narrative, which held sway for decades and argued that Arabs because of sociological and cultural reasons are ‘immune’ to democracy and democratization. While many have criticized this earlier discourse as Orientalist and lacking in analytical rigor, its seamless replacement dubbed the “Arab Awakening,” is being constructed on the very same bases of representation. The fundamental pillars of these Orientalist understandings of Arab societies and individuals are based on: 1) “othering”- ‘they’ (Arabs or Muslims) are different from ‘us’ (Western, specifically European) who are the normative standard; and, 2) romanticization and exotization - this oriental “other” is mystical and mythical. As Edward Said explained years ago, Orientalism is not only confined to “Western” depictions of the Middle East –and particularly Arabs and Muslims- but it is also internalized and propagated by “local” elites. As such in the new grand narrative of “Arab Awakening” both academics and the media (international and local) are appropriating, interpreting, and representing the recent events along the same pillars of othering and, romanticization, while casting universalist-Eurocentic judgments.

In the case of Egypt, the recent uprising is constructed as a youth, non-violent revolution in which social media (especially facebook and twitter) are champions. The underlying message here is that it these “middle-class” educated youth (read: modern) are not “terrorists,” they hold the same values as “us” (the democratic West), and finally use the same tools (facebook and twitter) that “we” invented and use in our daily-lives. They are just like “us” and hence they deserve celebration. These constructions are clear from a quick look the CNN, Time, Vanity Fair and others representations of the so-called leaders or icons of this revolution. They are all middle (upper) class Egyptians under the age of thirty. Most of them have one or more connection to the West, either by virtue of education (Time’s cover feature of seven “youth,” included three students from the American University in Cairo), work (e.g. Wael Ghoneim, sales manager at Google), or training. According to the BBC, Dr Gene Sharp –the author of “Non-Violent Revolution Rulebook” is “the man now credited with the strategy behind the toppling of the Egyptian government” through activists “trained in Sharp’s work.” This same profile of young people similarly monopolized television talk-shows in Egypt. And while many of these individuals did take part in the uprising –in different capacities – their status icons of the “revolution” in when the majority of the Egyptian population and those who participated in the uprising are of the subaltern classes is both disturbing and telling. This majority of people who have never heard of Dr. Sharp or Freedom House, never studied at AUC, or worked for Google. More profoundly, they are antagonistic about “Western” influence and presence in Egypt. Thus the class composition of dissent has been cloaked by a new imaginary homogenous construct called “youth.” In this construct, the media and academic analysts lump together the contradictory and often conflictual interests of ‘yuppies’ (young, urban, professionals of the aforementioned connections and backgrounds) with those of the unemployed, who live under the poverty line in rural areas and slum-areas. Under this banner of “youth” the “yuppies” and upper middle-class young people are portrayed as the quintessential representative of this uprising.

Alongside the icon of the homogenous and palatable for Western consumption youth, is the tailoring and reduction of the values, tools, and tactics of the uprising to fit a ‘Western ‘and ‘local’ upper-middle class audience. In this regard, two features of the uprising are getting paramount emphasis: non-violence and the use of social media. Obama’s speech following Mubarak’s ousting emphasized the non-violence of the uprising quoting the word silmiya (peaceful). The media cameras also focused on the placards bearing the same word. This selective focus on one form of tactic is in-factual. Moreover, it functions as the reverse mirror image of the “terrorist” stereotype hinting of a pernicious fetishization and exotization. There is no doubt that the anti-regime demonstrations were non-violent compared to the state-security use of ammunition. However, by the 28th of January all NDP (National Democratic Party) headquarters and most police stations were set on fire. This was a clear reaction to the state’s systematic violence against subaltern classes, those who bore the brunt of the regime’s daily torture and humiliation precisely because of their position within the neoliberal class matrix in Egypt.  Unlike, the middle-class “facebook” youth, they were not immune to state violence outside the realm of political activism. The exclusion of this part of the story further benefits the narrations of this uprising as a “facebook” middle-class “revolution.”

Such narration is also based on the Orientalist binary of “traditional” versus “modern,” and “East” versus “West,” with the latter categories seen as supreme. Hence, it cannot include the use of molotov hand-bombs, which is “violent-traditional” (read: Oriental) alongside with facebook, which is “peaceful-modern” (read Western). The “educated,” “Western,” and “exposed” cosmopolitan Egyptians who are portrayed as the sole agents of this “revolution” cannot torch police-stations, and those who did –the subaltern- should be and are excluded from the picture.

The active agents of this narration are not only the media and politicians, but academics and international donors’ funding agencies. Over the past weeks, there is hardly a day that passes without a visit to Cairo by a state-official, a donor representative, or an international academic –from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to political scientist Alfred Stepan and the whole range in between. After paying a pilgrimage to Tahrir Square and scheduling a couple of meetings with the cosmopolitan activists of Cairo, they feel re-assured and entitled to propagate the same story about this so-called “revolution” and its agents. On the other hand, the so-called right steps up to propagate “democratic transition” in Egypt. Unfortunately, these different parties have the financial, moral, and political power for such narration to prevail. Once again we are witnessing the “empire” painting the picture of the “fringe” and within this fringe the subaltern- “the fringe of the fringe”- are being outcast.


[1] For an excellent analysis on why the 25th of January does not mark a revolution, see Assef Bayat 

 

 

12 comments for "Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising"

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What about Bouazizi? He was a young, poor khodargi (grocery man)! working and living on small day-to-day credit in order to buy and sell fresh produce for his sisters' education. His self-immolation was spontaneous and became the face of the movement in Tunisia, and Egypt to an extent. How can you account for this young man's ultimate sacrifice? There is nothing orientalist about his portrayal or story. What do you think?

zina wrote on April 11, 2011 at 07:20 PM
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have you seen a picture of bouazizi.. how many articles have you read about him..compare the air time his story got, with that of ghoneim... i think the point the writer is making is that there is another face - like bouazizi that is being marginalized by the media. we keep ignoring the mainstream and align with the fringe, just because the fringe seems more identifiable to the "west"

nisreen wrote on April 11, 2011 at 09:27 PM
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This is like a new lecturer trying to teach about Orientalism, but fails to give a relevant example or case study. She neither succeeded in outlining the theory nor showing its applicability. I wouldn’t advice my students to read it.

Salma wrote on April 12, 2011 at 06:12 AM
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Excellent piece, thanks! Fighting (or, more mildly perhaps, opposing or arguing against) Orientalism with Orientalism is no less Orientalist, indeed. A lucid illustration of the infinite perspective of reflected images bounced by (multiple) couples of mirrors facing each other. Opportunities for mediation and transformation: nil.

giuseppe wrote on April 12, 2011 at 06:21 AM
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I think it's hilarious how you decry Western bias being applied to the Arab awakening, and yet sprinkled throughout your piece are the many Western-invented terms of postmodern jibberjabber: subaltern, fetishization, etc. Would you be able to make your case in plain English without such jargon?

The reason that the Western media pays attention to the Egyptian middle class, more than the lower class, is because the yuppies and educated types are the ones with the communication devices. They are also the organizers. So they take the lead in the public eye, while some rank and file actions (like burning stations, which I saw many times on TV, so I don't know what you're talking about re marginalization) get less play. So what? That doesn't reduce the visual importance of a half million people crowding into a public square, does it?

Your argument is like saying the press should have given more quotes to some individual farmer in the Russian Revolution, rather than just slogans from Lenin and Trotsky. Does every little slum kid and rural peasant farmer have to get their photo op for a revolution to be valid? That seems rather Warholian.

MT wrote on April 12, 2011 at 02:53 PM
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Thank you for this insightful article. I am a Black Caribbean woman who's been in conversation with a friend of mine who is a white Canadian male on representation. We are super clear that what we are seeing is not the whole picture... something palatable for the westerners who have not one clue about the history of each of these countries nor the interrelated issues.... Thanks for just a brief but thoughtful piece on what could be a 1000 page book that I am sure Salma is about to get right on publishing.... As for MT: your reductionist POV is so classist and urban-centric....I'll leave it there...

femmeflame wrote on April 12, 2011 at 10:58 PM
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This article started out strong, but lost its focus. Why is peaceful considered modern and Western? While the media showed the images of the millions of peaceful Egyptian protestors and their signs, the focus was much more on violence. The burning prisons certainly were discussed in the press. Simply, I don't understand your argument here. On the one hand you're saying the depictions of peacefulness play into the orientalist binary, and then on the other hand you're saying so-called traditional societies are deemed violent. Wouldn't therefore depictions of violence more appropriately fits the stereotype? I get some of your points, but the "youth" are not an imaginary construction. They make up half the population, were on the front lines of the revolution and still are.

Andrew wrote on April 13, 2011 at 06:55 AM
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BBC doing it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13017564 ( or the audio version htt://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00fvlfq#p00g5t1y )

okyrhoe wrote on April 13, 2011 at 06:56 AM
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You make some interesting, but arbitrary observations, yet the summary points are convoluted or counter-factual which makes the overall narration convoluted.

in-factual is not a word.

Had there not been so many tuned into actual experiences of the people on the ground through twitter and bloggers, youtube, western media (CNN, FOX) would have succeeded at painting this an uprising of the scary muslim brotherhood, and given license for violence to put it down.

We have to dumb things down to sound bites for the TV media. That is the nature of winning the narrative against the right wing's messaging: "the terrorists are going to take over egypt and install a caliphate that will spread to the west".

The emphasis to paint egyptians as "just like us" was a triumph of solidarity. unification in Humanity, to destroy the idea that egyptians were the "other", it was not an "orientalization."

The "west" didn't ignore the fires, but you are also making the assumption that the buildings weren't torched to remove evidence. The poor don't have access to cell phones, computers or the internet in the numbers that the educated /affluent do, so they will naturally get more attention.

It is always the Young that lead the changes. There is nothing wrong with this. "According to the BBC, Dr Gene Sharp –the author of “Non-Violent Revolution Rulebook” is “the man now credited with the strategy behind the toppling of the Egyptian government” through activists “trained in Sharp’s work."

In my opinion, this is a concerted attempt of the US gov/west to take credit for the uprising, and to co-opt it. Also by giving much attention to Wael Ghonim, the west tried to make him the interface with the protestors. He admittedly was not aware of the methods of dirty politics and basically invited the west in to give advice and help. He was a potential useful tool of empire if there ever was one. It's good that he was pushed aside.

Methods of co-option of non-violent movements: "[Gene Sharp] Reflection Warranted Nonviolence in the Service of Imperialism" http://bit.ly/eRhO8E

There were many different lenses on this revolution, (and in my opinion, it is a revolution but its ongoing), and what you heard and saw is not definitive of what others saw/heard/read in the west.

Kmansfield wrote on April 15, 2011 at 08:06 PM
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Transition to democracy in Mexico in the 1980s? I recall the transition to economic catastrophe in the 80s, the democratic transition escapes my memory.

Bill Riordan wrote on April 16, 2011 at 03:11 PM
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Here here, Kmansfield!

I also noted many attempts to "Orientalize" the Egyptian uprising, but those were undertaken by the likes of Sean Hannity on Fox News who concentrated on the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control in a democratic system. The tactics he used included constant references to the elections in Gaza that favored Hamas, elections in Lebanon that favored Hizbullah, and 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt in which the MB won some seats.

Kmansfield is correct in pointing out that the narrative which ultimately succeeded in mainstream culture, the narrative of the revolution as civil-social democratic uprising, is a much less "otherizing" discourse--although it remains to be seen as to whether it was "romanticizing."

As for your writing style, I think it would be useful to abandon the theoretical references and focus on communicating your argument to your readers

Kyleja wrote on April 27, 2011 at 12:46 PM
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Here here, Kmansfield!

I also noted many attempts to "Orientalize" the Egyptian uprising, but those were undertaken by the likes of Sean Hannity on Fox News who concentrated on the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control in a democratic system. The tactics he used included constant references to the elections in Gaza that favored Hamas, elections in Lebanon that favored Hizbullah, and 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt in which the MB won some seats.

Kmansfield is correct in pointing out that the narrative which ultimately succeeded in mainstream culture, the narrative of the revolution as civil-social democratic uprising, is a much less "otherizing" discourse--although it remains to be seen as to whether it was "romanticizing."

As for your writing style, I think it would be useful to abandon the theoretical references and focus on communicating your argument to your readers

Kyleja wrote on April 27, 2011 at 07:38 PM

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