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Roundtable on Language of Revolution: The Revolution Continues (present continuous) (Colla)

[ ["Be with the Revolution." Tahrir Square, 2 June 2012. Photo by Elliott Colla]

[The following article is part of a Jadaliyya roundtable on “The Language of Revolution in Egypt.” It features contributions by Paul SedraRobert SpringborgJoshua Stacher, Adam Sabra, and Elliott CollaClick here to access the full series.]


The recent Jadaliyya roundtable on "The Language of Revolution" was not only long overdue, but also just the tip of the iceberg. Our manner of speaking about the Egyptian uprising of 2011—and subsequent transformation away from street-level to elite politics—impacts directly on our ability to understand those historical events, just as it influences our capacity to act in solidarity with those making revolution. This is true whether we are demanding that analysis be accurate, or insisting also that those who make revolution are not merely objects for analysis, but subjects whose language and expression are some of the central facts of the events themselves.

Reference, Stance and the Production of Knowledge

Despite the fact that the roundtable did not attempt to define the term “revolution,”[1] most of the discussion was colored by a referentialist language ideology, which is to say, a concern about the proper use of words.[2] In different ways, Joshua Stacher and Robert Springborg agreed that the central question is one of definition: does “revolution” adequately describe what has happened in Egypt? Their skepticism was about whether “revolution”—as a word with a particular denotation—accurately reflects the January 25 uprising and its aftermath.

They are on solid ground when they doubt whether the word (as they understand it) is adequate to the situation (as they understand it). For both Stacher and Springborg, the facts of the Egyptian uprising suggest that something other than a revolution happened. And this, as they point out, is because state power firmly remains within the grasp of Mubarak’s top generals just as it was before 25 January 2011. Both authors acknowledge that the experience of participating in the uprising was real, significant, and perhaps one of the most lasting accomplishments of the event. Yet, when we compare Springborg and Stacher, we notice real differences. And these differences are due more to general questions of knowledge production than questions specific to the word “revolution” and its meanings. In fact, reading those two pieces together we see real divergence in their treatment of facts and their moral meanings, and also in their conception of the role of scholars in the construction of political facts, narratives and meanings.

The critical category of stance, borrowed from sociolinguistics, is useful for reading these two pieces in light of each other.[3] To talk about stance in this sense is not just to repeat the truism that all knowledge is partial and positioned. Rather, it is also to observe how speech signals and expresses this fact.

Stacher’s contribution is an example of self-conscious stance. He takes great pains to acknowledge that analysis is something produced for a particular audience by someone who is locatable somewhere within the story she tells. Indeed, for Stacher, the facts of the Egyptian uprising and its aftermath are not non-interpretative, but rather constructed by situated analysts for audiences who might act on the information presented. Hence his admission that in addition to getting the facts on the ground right, his goal is to disrupt the complacent policy consensus of his US audience. That consensus is based on a narrative that goes something like this: now that the Egyptians have had their “Arab Spring” revolution, the current status quo, despite its ambiguities, represents a new and improved chapter in Egyptian political history. Framed in this way, the perseverance of despotic structures and dynamics appears as democratic transition and political change. Stacher situates his discussion within this frame—the Washington context in which his analysis is going to be read—in order to problematize it. For him, the idea that the uprising might be called a revolution is a problem not just because of facts located in Egypt, but also because of how these facts have been narrated this way in Washington.

Crucial to Stacher’s articulation of stance is his assertion (with which I very much agree) that military rule in Cairo is deeply connected to Washington—a fact that implicates the very audience he is addressing, and himself as an American. And it is here that Stacher positions himself not just as a scholar of Egypt, but as an internal critic of the US government who is interested in challenging the naturalness and desirability of the US-Egyptian axis of elite military power.

In stark contrast, Springborg’s stance is composed in the register of the detached observer. Despite references to honoring the sacrifices of those who died while making revolution, Springborg depicts the uprising mostly as an incident that needs to be accounted for. If it appears as something less than serious in his description it is not because of the value of the revolt’s desired goals, or a lack of will and commitment on the part of those rebelling. Rather, it is because the revolt was contained by the military before it posed a serious threat to the actual foundations of state power.[4] This astute observation is offered up in a neutral tone that turns all protagonists into moral equals. The unprecedented popular uprisings in Egypt are described in a language of stability and security, which is to say from point of view of the military citadel instead of the public square.

More crucially perhaps is the fact that unlike Stacher and Sedra, Springborg does not problematize his role as knowledge producer involved in the conflict. Springborg writes as if the Egyptian status quo was a purely Egyptian event. The facts of elite Egyptian politics are presented as if they were only what they were, and that what analysts say “here” has no bearing on what happens “over there.” The rhetorical flourish is subtle in appearance—findings and assessments appear in the flattest of terms, as if they were an aspect of nature rather than the product of policies, investments and entanglements that demand constant maintenance and expensive subsidy. Policies, investments and entanglements, we might add, that rely entirely on the assessment and predictions of the kind of knowledge produced by area studies experts.

Performative Language, Indexing and Association

It is at this point that we can begin to appreciate how Paul Sedra’s contributions to the discussion diverge so radically from those of Springborg and Stacher alike. For Sedra, what is at stake in discussing the term “revolution” is not only the referentialist concern of accuracy, but also the performative aspect of indexing. How we name things in the world produces meanings beyond the semantic content of our speech. Naming situates us with regard to social groups and allows us to associate ourselves with allies and differentiate ourselves from enemies.

This is to state the obvious: the meaning of “revolution” cannot be reduced to pure linguistic reference—especially in revolutionary times, when the word becomes a slogan with resonances both sacred and profane. In this regard, Sedra identifies two axes along which we might trace the resonance of revolution—thawra / sawra—as a term in Egypt: the first, grounded in the experience and vocabulary of those who consider themselves revolutionaries and insist on the word as a label for what they are making; the second grounded in the way in which “revolution” calls to mind earlier moments in Egyptian history.

In his comments, Sedra expands on this latter dimension with particular reference to the social and cultural power of the term “revolution” following the 1952 seizure of the Egyptian state by the Free Officers. The point is a complicated one and demands a degree of unpacking that did not happen in the discussion. If I understand the point, it is this. On the one hand, the coup d’état signified a demobilization and criminalization of Egyptian civil society as it had existed, including the popular forces behind the uprising of January 1952. On the other hand, the junta ushered new forms of populist discourse and state supports which mobilized and re-channeled the political forces of Egyptian society in meaningful ways—including, the demand for new rights for emerging classes. It is not unreasonable to argue as many have that the 1952 coup paved the way for the social movements of the 1960s and beyond—all under the banner of revolution. Sedra’s point here is to insist that speaking in a language of revolution, even in cases (such as 1952) where revolution did not happen, can be valuable in its own right, since the language of revolution foments a cultural and political climate favorable to the articulation of social demands.

To return to language’s constitutive aspect, we should recall an observation made many times over, namely that language does not merely reflect a world outside, it also expresses things. Which is to say, it brings things into being. Part of this sometimes is a matter of ideation or consciousness, which are, of course, social facts in their own right. At other times, however, the act of expression has immediate and tangible real-world effects. For instance, there was a moment during the January 25 uprising when activists moved from local slogans about bread, justice and freedom to totalizing slogans that demanded a whole new order. With this shift, the very nature of the event of changed, protest became rebellion. Slogans about “revolution” did not describe in a reflective way a state of being that already existed. Rather, to talk about “revolution” was part of the process by which various local acts of protest transformed into a mass revolt against the state.[5]

Arguably, the most important social indexical aspect of the language of revolution lies in how it signals an association with those Egyptians who use the term thawra to refer to themselves and their projects.[6] Indeed, one can refer to the uprising as a revolution in order to gesture solidarity with Egyptian activists who also self-consciously employ that word to signal their demands, desires and aspirations. Of course, what is at stake here is not a referential question of whether a given definition of the word applies. Words like revolution implicate us in relationships insofar as they entail us, by way of shared signs and language, in political and cultural communities.

This last issue brings up a vexing problem however. Just as words never belong to a single group within a linguistic community, Egyptian revolutionaries are not the sole owners of the word “revolution.” Indeed, nearly every political force in Egypt has claimed the term “revolution” since January 2011. Counter-revolutionaries—such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, business elites, Salafists, and the Army—understand the power of the word and its ability to create positive associations. During the second round of the presidential campaign this year, Mohamed Morsi invoked revolution as he sought to legitimacy for his candidacy, and so did Ahmed Shafik as he sought to undermine Morsi’s claims. Admittedly, each of these invocations stretches the slogan into monstrous new shapes—and no linguistic orthodoxy has the power to stop this from happening. Given its associative power, we should expect revolution to be invoked and appropriated by political elites of all stripes in the coming months and years.

Noun, Verb, Tense, Aspect

To the extent that the roundtable discussed the status of “revolution” as a noun, it largely limited itself to a referentialist consideration of the relation between language and things. Reminding ourselves of this helps us to recall that the word “revolution” is nothing more and nothing less than the nominalization of a complicated set of social relations, actions and experiences. Of course, how to represent living, breathing and evolving processes without rendering them inert and static is a troublesome challenge. Unless handled with care, the act of representing open-ended and ongoing processes as a noun—a discrete event, a period of time—entails that we conceptually break them off from the moment in which are speaking, and also from other earlier moments. In other words, to talk about incomplete history as a discrete event entails some form of reification. To say so is not to argue against the use of nouns or nominalizations, as if that were an option. Instead, it is to appreciate how nominalization works.

When nominalization is combined with efforts to create boundaries in time—such as those that create walls between the present and the past—its ability to reify can be especially pernicious. Take for example some of the commemorative projects that have already begun to emerge in Egypt, evoking the name of revolution in order to frame it as part of a history clearly separated from the present. Someday there will be streets and metro stations named after figures from the January 25 uprising, just as we find in other places—like Mexico City or Paris or Washington—where revolutions and civil wars have been forgotten-remembered through state commemoration. Even before 2011, Cairo’s streets and metro stations were painted with names that, through the distancing mechanism of state commemoration, work to bury the fires of earlier social conflicts. Just as daily use can smoothen the features of a word, it will also soften the sharp teeth of a word like revolution. Like 26th of July, 25th of January might well become just another street name. What allows this sort of reification to take place is not that these events are nominalized but that this is combined with a style of speech that splits the time of the event off from the present.

The narration of present events as past history is one of many themes of Guy Debord’s 1967 manifesto, Society of the Spectacle. In a long jagged line of short theses, Debord describes the impoverishment of human life under the relentless assault of advertising and hypermediation. Under advanced capitalism, he argues, the direct experience of life becomes replaced by its image. Ongoing processes are reframed as events that have already taken place. What is objectionable about this is that it transforms humans-as-agents into humans-as-spectators. Rather than acting in history, the spectator merely watches it as if it were a show. Rather than being something that is made by all humans all the time, history becomes a tableaux produced by some for the entertainment of others. Throughout the theses, Debord enjoins his readers to be mindful that they are first and foremost participants in histories of their own making. He reminds us that history is not something already made. History is not the past. It is not a picture to look at. It is not even an object outside of ourselves or outside our present moment. History, he insists, is something that belongs to us because we make it just as we make ourselves.

Debord’s appeal to an active engagement with the present as history is quite relevant to this discussion, for it suggests something about the limitation of framing our consideration as a question about whether or not the kind of event that took place in Egypt deserves to be called a revolution. This focus shifts the temporal center of gravity to the past simple (or preterite) tense—effectively depicting a still-unresolved set of processes as if they were complete.

It is a truism to observe that language positions us in time—allows us to bind ourselves with certain periods and divorce ourselves from others. It combines times and draws lines between them. Most of all, language allows us to give an appearance of order to the mess of the open-ended present, the only moment we ever inhabit. Yet, it may be that the present—as continuous and as yet unfulfilled—that poses the greatest challenge to conceptualization in language. Consider in this regard an ubiquitous slogan in contemporary Egypt: “al-thawra mustamirra.” The sentiment not only appeals to revolutionaries to go on with their work, but also that we live in an unfolding present named revolution. Slogans like this remind us that it is our job to live and act in our historical time and to be attuned to the state of things as they actually are, which is to say, states in flux and processes of becoming.

Admittedly, the present continuous is a difficult tense to sustain, but it is one of the few ways to register that what we are trying to talk about is ongoing and unfinished. Reasonable people might object to the clunkiness of talking about history in the present continuous. Others might rightly raise the question of whether it makes sense to talk about events from years past in the present continuous tense. To this I say: of course we should use the past tense, but let us do so when we are talking about events of the past. I am not proposing we do away with periodization or thinking of past events in their own terms. Rather, I am insisting that it is too early to speak of the Egyptian revolution in this way. We need to get the verb tense right before we go on arguing about nouns.

[1] Raymond Williams’ discussion of the term’s topsy-turvy history reminds us of the metaphors buried deeply in the word, and of the difficulty of creating normative definitions for its meaning. See: Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 270-274.

[2] Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 39.

[3] Elinor Ochs, “Linguistic Resources for Socializing Humanity,” in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, eds. John Gumperz and Stephen Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 419-425.

[4] This observation has been made by others. See, for instance: Asaf Bayat, “The Post Islamist Revolutions,” Foreign Affairs (April 26, 2011),, and “Not a Full-Fledged Revolution,” (interview with Rana Khazbak) Egypt Independent (January 22, 2012),; Joel Beinin, “A Revolution is Not a Marketing Campaign,” Middle East Report blog (June 18, 2012),; Jason Brownlee, “Egypt’s Incomplete Revolution: The Challenge of Post-Mubarak Authoritarianism,” jadaliyya (July 5, 2011); and Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers,” Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011),

[5] It needs to be admitted that, despite unprecedented mass participation in the uprising, at no point was revolution—as slogan or action—embraced by the majority of Egyptian citizens. On the lasting implications of this, see Ellis Goldberg, “The Missing Ikhwan and the Electorate Split in Three,” jadaliyya (June 4, 2012),

[6] The differences between the Arabic word thawra and the English word revolution are worth considering, as are the differences within the colloquial Egyptian and Modern Standard Arabic registers of revolution. With regard to this, there are differences of register and orientation with regard to MSA and Egyptian terms for revolutionaries, even among people who identify with revolution (thawra / sawra). To take three examples as pronounced, thawri, sawri, and sawragi: it is not clear that all “refer” to exactly the same kind of actor because the resonances and meanings of each term diverge considerably.

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