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Roundtable on the Language of Revolution in Egypt

UPDATED 12 August 2012

[The following series of articles is part of a Jadaliyya roundtable on “The Language of Revolution in Egypt.” It features contributions by Paul Sedra, Robert Springborg, Joshua Stacher, Adam Sabra, and Elliott Colla. The roundtable was first published on 23 July 2012, and contributions by Sabra and Colla were published on 12 August 2012.]

 

23 July 2012

Paul Sedra, “Why the Language of Revolution Matters”

Robert Springborg, “Why the Language of Truth Matters”

Joshua Stacher, “Transnational Discourses of Power, Revolutions, and Uprisings”

Paul Sedra, “The Language of Revolution in Egypt: A Response to Stacher and Springborg”

12 August 2012

Adam Sabra, "The Revolution Continues..."

Elliott Colla, "The Revolution Continues (present continuous)"

 

Why the Language of Revolution Matters

By Paul Sedra 

On 29 June, Mohamed Morsi presented himself to Tahrir Square as Egypt’s new president. The moment was hardly lacking for drama: “You are all my family, my friends,” he told the thousands assembled in the square and the millions watching on television. “We are here today to tell the whole world: these are the Egyptians, these are the revolutionaries, who made this epic, this revolution.” Morsi pointed to the crowd and identified the people as the source of his legitimacy: “There is no person, party, institution or authority over or above the will of the people.” Indeed, so great was the confidence of the new president that he opened his jacket, pointed to his chest and declared that he had forsaken a bullet-proof vest “as I trust God and I trust you, and I fear only God. And I will always be fully accountable to you.”

The next day, the New York Times published an op-ed by Professor Joshua Stacher of Kent State University under the title “How the Army Won Egypt’s Election.” In the piece, Stacher explains how the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had, in fact, used the presidential elections to strengthen their rule of Egypt. What had effectively emerged from the supposed process of “democratic transition” that had begun back in February 2011 with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was a coup rather than a revolution. Indeed, despite the trappings of democracy, with no fewer than five ballots held between March 2011 and June 2012, the state apparatus as it had existed under Mubarak was still intact. SCAF had skillfully maneuvered itself into a position of lasting dominance over Egypt’s political landscape by negotiating with particular political actors—the Muslim Brotherhood foremost among them—and marginalizing the revolutionaries of the street protests.

Of course, Stacher is not alone in this assessment of Egypt’s post-Mubarak politics as a boon to the military and a bust for revolution. As early as 2 February 2011, well before Mubarak’s ouster, Professor Robert Springborg of the Naval Postgraduate School had argued in Foreign Policy (in an eerily prescient fashion): “The military will now enter into negotiations with opposition elements that it chooses.” Arguably, Professor Zeinab Abul-Magd of the American University in Cairo and Oberlin College has led the way in detailing, notably through a series of articles for Al-Masry al-Youm and Egypt Independent, the massive interests that the military has at stake, as well as the mechanisms SCAF has developed to protect them. So great are the doubts now about what actually has transpired in Egypt that most serious analysts of the country’s politics eschew the language of revolution in favor of uprisings, revolts, or simply protests.

Here I must confess that I have always insisted upon the language of revolution—despite the fact that I wholeheartedly agree with the arguments of Stacher and Abul-Magd. I insist on the language of revolution in large part because Egyptians still use this language of revolution themselves. And frankly, I think it is vital that they continue to use this language—not from an analytical standpoint, but from a political one. I fear that to abandon the language of revolution would be tantamount to abandoning the hopes, the ideals, and the expectations that accompanied the ouster of Mubarak.

We ignore at our peril the enormously productive character of language. After recounting how the machinations of SCAF and the deals of the Muslim Brotherhood have foreclosed certain paths ahead, we would be wise to recall what the language of revolution has in fact enabled, has made possible, in post-Mubarak Egypt. I marvel, for my own part, at the inspiration that Coptic Christian activists have taken from the revolution—an inspiration that has propelled them to challenge not only the Egyptian state, but their own Church leadership, in unprecedented ways. Indeed, the language of revolution has created new expectations about what is just and unjust, what is acceptable and unacceptable in public life. And while politicians may fail to live up to these expectations, the expectations themselves remain vitally important nonetheless. To the extent that the language of revolution can enable a new political imagination in Egypt, we should embrace it. 

I might stand accused here of indulging in, even promoting, a delusion. Why speak of a revolution where none has occurred? Why embrace a language that is at odds with the situation on the ground? Lest I be indicted for distributing rose-colored spectacles, I should emphasize that a wide-eyed appraisal of the balance of power is indispensable—and for this, we are indebted to Stacher and Abul-Magd.

Perhaps the best example of what I am driving at can be drawn from history. In a matter of days, the sixtieth anniversary of the 1952 Revolution will be upon us. All the arguments disputing Egypt’s current “transition” as revolutionary would hold—perhaps doubly so—for the 1952 Revolution. Indeed, at the time, the 1952 Revolution was as traditional a coup as coups get, and arguably only became a revolution after the fact, or in retrospect.

Nevertheless, as Joel Gordon has illustrated through his prodigious scholarship on Nasser’s Egypt and, above all, its popular culture, the language of revolution enabled a political imagination in 1950s and 1960s Egypt that paved the way for an unprecedented expansion in social mobility. This was a social mobility that Egyptians came to expect and demand, due in no small measure to the culture of social revolution developed and nurtured by writers, artists, musicians, playwrights, and filmmakers. So compelling was this culture of social revolution that Egyptians look back upon that time as a “golden age” in the country’s cultural life, and artifacts of that time are taken up and reinscribed into the current revolutionary moment. 

I expect, as the anniversary approaches, that there will be no shortage of repudiations of the 1952 Revolution, and properly so. But in this regard, the 1952 Revolution may offer us a lesson—not about democratic transitions or civil-military relations, but about broadening the political imagination. 

 

 

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Why the Language of Truth Matters

By Robert Springborg

Paul Sedra’s insistence that the term revolution be used to describe political change in Egypt since 25 January 2011 reflects the triumph of hope over experience, as he halfway admits. According to him, the language of revolution helped convert the 1952 coup into Gamal Abdel Nasser’s cultural and social “golden age,” just as it has emboldened Copts now to challenge both church and state. The term revolution, in other words, is not analytically but is politically correct. Although untrue, its use may help realize what is politically desired.

This proposition is flawed and dangerous. Using language not to describe reality but to inspire action is precisely the problem George Orwell addressed in 1984. If words are not meant to be truthful but to instill commitment, demagogy and worse is justifiable and likely. Indeed, that was precisely the problem with Nasser, who used inflammatory rhetoric to mobilize the populace behind his regime and to conceal the truth.

Sedra lauds Nasserism as having delivered social mobility and a cultural “golden age,” ignoring the regime’s underpinnings in the military and security services, its destruction of the quasi-democratic order, its systematic abuses of human and political rights, its military adventurism abroad and its ruination of the economy. The fundamental political problem that Egypt confronts today, which is persisting rule by the military, can be traced directly to Nasser’s 1952 coup. But even if Nasserism had really delivered substantial and lasting social mobility combined with sustained cultural effervescence, which it did not, such justifications are on the order of justifying Mussolini’s fascism because the trains ran on time, which they did not. No alleged accomplishments, even if given the label “golden age,” can be used to justify dictatorship.  

As for the Coptic liberation that Sedra claims as reason to label the 2011-12 events as revolutionary, he would be well advised to consult with various Coptic activists and analysts, including Mariz Tadros, for a much more balanced and accurate view. Copts are more fearful and fleeing than liberated.

So let us call a spade a spade. What has happened in Egypt was rightly termed a “coup-volution” by Nathan W. Toronto back in February 2011. By that he meant the military intervened to abort a popular uprising that could have become truly revolutionary. Subsequent events have confirmed this assessment, for the coup makers have clearly taken firm control of the governing institutions that really matter. Revolutionary spirit has died away in the absence of its institutionalization or success.

That is not to say, however, that all remains the same. The masses have had the unforgettable experience of flexing their political muscles, even if they failed to lift the weight of the military off their backs. By manipulating the country’s governing institutions to serve their own ends, General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his officer colleagues have contributed profoundly to undermining the institutional coherence, effectiveness and legitimacy of the courts, parliament, the constitutional committee, the media, etc. The military itself, the very backbone of the state Nasser bequeathed to his successors, has been compromised and probably divided. The already fragile economy has been further weakened. Egypt, in other words, is far from being stable and secure.

But let us honor those protesters who have made such prodigious personal sacrifices, including their lives, not by referring to the outcome as a revolution. That demeans their efforts, implying that a continuation of military rule, which many of them have openly fought, is a profound change. Let us reserve the term revolution for the real thing, which necessarily includes the termination of the principal component of Nasser’s legacy, which is military supremacy over the state, the economy and the country as a whole. 

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Transnational Discourses of Power, Revolutions, and Uprisings

By Joshua Stacher

My friend and colleague Paul Sedra raises important points about the language we use as well as the implications that emerge from what’s in a name. His critique is nuanced and I agree it is vital to reflexively engage with the words we use.

During and since the initial eighteen-day uprising that resulted in the forced resignation of long-time president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, many colleagues have called my assessment of the evolving situation in Egypt pessimistic. Some have told me that I have been too quick to “call” the battle for the future of Egypt, and that I am ignoring the larger historical process that is yet to unfold. Another colleague remarked I was examining the “new” Egypt through an outdated lens. After all, I was told, “The country has experienced a revolution.”

I do not see the role of my work to predict or sugarcoat my interpretation of events since Mubarak was overthrown. My current research is trying to capture the power dynamics evolving in an incredibly fluid political situation at the moment. Like many colleagues who study Egypt with a great deal of care and deep concern, I seek to look beyond the stirring spectacles and dramatic political theater that has taken place since the fall of Mubarak, and to shine light on the more dimly lit areas of where politics is also taking place. These encompass ways in which the “post-Mubarak” Mubarak regime has tried to reconstitute itself, and where state’s legitimacy and authority to act reside. If one defines change in terms of where power resides, how it operates, and who has the most ability to effect the direction of Egypt’s political trajectory, then the story does not produce such transformative ends.

Other perspectives interpret sights of protesters riding on tanks, Mubarak’s trial, and newly elected President Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration, as symbolic tipping points that signify meaningful change. Yet, such analysis tends to underestimate the continuities that persist as inconvenient remnants of a by-gone era. But what if the remnants are not yet peripheral?

The language we use to talk about politics informs our activism. I believe that if we mischaracterize the political realities on the ground, it could contribute to the distortion of resistance to those domestic and international actors that aspire to assert their dominance over Egyptian society and reestablish hegemonic authority. Thus, while I am sympathetic to those who label the events since January 25 a revolution, I believe such well-meaning perspectives can inadvertently undermine the efforts of those leading the struggle on the ground against counterrevolutionary powers such as the SCAF, regional states, and the United States. 

Egyptians succeeded in forcing an end to Mubarak’s rule after achieving a level and degree of popular mobilization that made it impossible for political elites to engineer an outcome that kept their usual pattern of authority intact. This event must be celebrated and those who sacrificed their lives and physical well being to make it happen must be honored. Yet, as the dust continues to settle, the fundamental workings of the regime governing Egypt remain unchanged. Authoritarian institutions, including Mubarak’s coercive apparatus inside the Ministry of Interior, were rebranded, not reformed. Social class hierarchies and the grievances they engender persist.

In a recent conference in Beirut, one colleague told me that my analysis of Egypt is dangerous because it invites despair among Egyptian activists when all they need is hope. While I am sympathetic to this concern, I beg to differ. Besides the fact that there is no room for diplomacy when it comes to speaking truth to power, Egyptians, more than anyone, do not need to read my analysis, or any analysis for that matter, to realize that Egypt’s military rulers have subverted the winds of change. They have seen, if not experienced firsthand, the wrath of Egypt’s military rulers, even at times when Egyptian State TV was still singing the praises of the “January 25 Revolution.” 

My individual framing of Egyptian politics is directed at public debates in the United States and the country’s political leadership. In the aftermath of the eighteen days, President Barack Obama graciously lauded the protesters and went to great pains to praise the popular mobilization that dislodged his former colleague Mubarak. Yet, beyond the words, the White House has been keen to keep the aid flowing and dispatch its officials to frequently visit Egypt’s generals. Even after a president was democratically elected, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made sure to visit not only President Morsi but also Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantanwi.

Thus, my goal is to put truth to the lie that many of the DC pundits and political leaders repeat. They want Americans to believe that epic change and revolution has come to the banks of the Nile, autocracy was defeated, and that Obama stood with the right side of history. The actions of US government officials, however, shamefully indicate a preference for the Pakistani model of military autocracy combined with elected Islamist civilians, rather than the empowerment of a population that clearly articulated its demands for bread, freedom and social justice. These important debates demand analysis that studies power on its own terms—even if it raises disappointing conclusions. 

While using the word “Revolution” may inspire and lead to unimaginable pathways of resistance, my own interest as a researcher is in getting the story right at this moment as it unfolds. In time we will hopefully be able to pass more definitive judgment on the questions we are currently pondering. But, for now, the stakes of discussions about Egypt inside and outside of the country are too high. They shape expectations about how our elected and unelected officials should behave. The goal, therefore, should be to accurately detail as meticulously as possible what we witness. In this vein, the words we use matter if greater social justice and political change is to prevail.

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The Language of Revolution in Egypt: A Response to Stacher and Springborg

By Paul Sedra

I am indebted to Professors Stacher and Springborg for their trenchant and persuasive critiques of my piece. Indeed, it seems the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the 1952 Revolution was a suitable time to interrogate our use of the language of revolution.

Nevertheless, there are several misapprehensions in Professor Springborg’s response that warrant correction. The piece argues that I have ignored “the [Nasser] regime’s underpinnings in the military and security services, its destruction of the quasi democratic order, its systematic abuses of human and political rights, its military adventurism abroad and its ruination of the economy.” I would scarcely dispute these lamentable legacies of Nasser’s leadership – nor would I deny the link between the 1952 Revolution and what Springborg describes as the “fundamental political problem that Egypt confronts today, which is persisting rule by the military.” Indeed, readers of Jadaliyya might recall that, only two days after the resignation of Mubarak, I published a piece in these pages explaining that, “to allow the military to continue to govern the Egyptian people, as it has since the 1952 Revolution against British rule, would be to commit the unpardonable sin of repeating a cardinal error of the past.” There I described Nasser’s decision to prioritize development over democracy as “a historic mistake, for which at least three generations of Egyptians have paid an enormous price.”

Further, Professor Springborg latches on to the phraseology of a “golden age” as if I had myself used that term to describe the years between 1952 and 1970. I indicated in my piece that there are Egyptians who regard the Nasser years as a “golden age,” and used this fact to speak to how compelling that period was and remains in the political imagination. Nowhere have I suggested that one should view the Nasser years as such a “golden age.”

Finally, I would agree with Professor Springborg that one cannot speak of a “Coptic liberation” having followed the ouster of Mubarak. Having consulted with a goodly number of Coptic activists and analysts in the past eighteen months—indeed, having conducted research among them on this topic myself—I feel well-supported in the assertion that I actually made in my piece: that Copts have taken inspiration from last year’s events “to challenge not only the Egyptian state, but their own Church leadership in unprecedented ways.” Unfortunately, Professor Springborg falls back on a time-worn depiction of Copts as “fearful and fleeing” where, in fact, large sections of the community are mounting a vigorous defense of their rights of citizenship. Those with an interest in this question might refer, again, to writings I have published in these pages and elsewhere.

Setting aside these mischaracterizations of my argument, though, one comes up against the principal, and indeed trenchant, point launched by both Professors Springborg and Stacher—that scholars bear a responsibility to “call a spade a spade” as Springborg puts it. I should make it clear, again, that I have benefited enormously from Springborg and Stacher having done just this—having called a spade a spade—in their published work since Mubarak’s ouster, and there is no question that my understanding of Egypt’s current politics would have been much poorer had it not been for their wide-eyed exposition of SCAF’s machinations.

But I am still left to wonder: What are the implications of scholars refusing the language of revolution while countless Egyptians take up this language with alacrity? What is behind the ubiquity of the language of revolution in Egypt, and what is our responsibility as scholars to the words Egyptians themselves use to describe their political action? The principal point I sought to make with my piece is that understanding the spectacle of Morsi taking a symbolic oath at Tahrir—and, specifically, how that spectacle is received by Egyptians—is as important as understanding the machinations of political forces behind the scenes.

Spectacles matter and the language of revolution matters, regardless of the disjuncture between them and action behind the scenes. These spectacles and this language are important insofar as they establish expectations among Egyptians—expectations about, as I explained in my piece, “what is just and unjust, what is acceptable and unacceptable in public life.” In this sense, my personal decision to insist upon the language of revolution is not so much about wishful thinking—though, admittedly, there is an element of that here—but about paying heed to the ways in which Egyptians themselves apprehend this moment in their history.

 

 

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The Revolution Continues…

By Adam Sabra

The Jadaliyya roundtable on “The Language of Revolution in Egypt” raises an important, perennial question: what is a revolution? Without reviewing the copious historical and social science literature on the question, I would answer as follows: a process that radically changes the political and/or social structure of a society. As such, a revolution is not an event, although it often requires dramatic events for the larger process to proceed.

By this definition, the 1952 coup both prevented and resulted in a revolution. The coup brought an end to seven years of increasing volatile protests led by groups ranging from communists to Muslim Brothers. The constitutional monarchy and the multi-party system were abolished with the assistance of the Brothers, before the new dictatorship turned on them as well. In exchange for silence over its methods, the military regime offered substantial social advancement to many ordinary Egyptians, although many others were left out. Nasserism represented a top-down revolution that resembled the Shah’s White Revolution, albeit on a more limited budget. Were it not for the added complication of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Western support for Israel, Nasser would probably be remembered as a pro-American dictator who stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Arab world.

Today, Egypt is undergoing another revolution, albeit a highly attenuated one. It was never the goal of the revolutionaries to repeat the experience of the French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions. Those revolutions entailed enormous social upheaval, mass violence against counter-revolutionaries, and war with external powers. The result, uniformly, was dictatorship. Perhaps these dictatorships were necessary to prevent the victory of the counter-revolution, but the majority of Egypt’s revolutionaries preferred to put their faith in the ballot box. Whether they were right to do so remains to be seen, but the means they have chosen correspond to the ends they seek.

Egypt’s revolutionaries also preferred to avoid exporting their revolution. When revolution broke out in Libya, many waited in vain for an Egypt’s revolutionaries to intervene. For the most part, they were disappointed. Egypt’s revolutionaries have repeatedly expressed solidarity with their counterparts in other Arab countries, but no one has seriously suggested that Egypt attempt to intervene militarily or launch a campaign of subversion against neighboring regimes. Again, the Egyptians have understood their limitations and acted accordingly.

In my opinion, Robert Springborg and Joshua Stracher exaggerate the influence of the military and of the United States. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has relatively few options compared with those available to Nasser in 1952. Stracher is right to call into question the Obama administration narrative that it saved Egypt – the Egyptian people did that – but the real lesson here is that the US has limited leverage over a political system where ordinary people have recovered their voices. The SCAF may fear Washington, but it fears the revival of revolutionary activism even more. The military leadership cannot keep up its shell game forever.

It is noteworthy that none of the participants in the debate so far addresses the possibility that the Muslim Brothers are an important agent of democratization in Egypt. It is as if the Brothers were not a significant part of the revolutionary coalition. Admittedly, the jury is still out on the Brothers as a ruling party, and one can understand the concerns of secularists and Christians about the future. Nonetheless, elections are elections, and they have consequences. To date, there is little evidence that we are headed back to the muzzled political life of the past half century.

The past eighteen months have revealed much about Egypt as a society, and not a little of what we have learned has been deeply disturbing. Nonetheless, this process of revolutionary self-recognition has been a necessary step in initiating democratic change. It may yet be that the revolution will be defeated, but that day is not today.

 

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The Revolution Continues (present continuous)

By Elliott Colla 

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.

 

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[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), http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67812/asef-bayat/the-post-islamist-revolutions, and “Not a Full-Fledged Revolution,” (interview with Rana Khazbak) Egypt Independent (January 22, 2012), http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/qa-asef-bayat-not-yet-full-fledged-revolution; Joel Beinin, “A Revolution is Not a Marketing Campaign,” Middle East Report blog (June 18, 2012), http://www.merip.org/revolution-not-marketing-campaign; Jason Brownlee, “Egypt’s Incomplete Revolution: The Challenge of Post-Mubarak Authoritarianism,” jadaliyya (July 5, 2011)http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2059/egypts-incomplete-revolution_the-challenge-of-post; and Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers,” Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011),http://www.merip.org/mer/mer259/striking-back-egyptian-workers.

[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),http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/5835/the-missing-ikhwan-and-an-electorate-split-in-thre.

[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, thawrisawri, 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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