The refrain “al-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/al-ni-zâm” has proven resiliently mobile: it rang out in Tunisia, echoed in Tahrir, traveled west to Libya and Algeria, and east to Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. A central part of this poetic and exhilarating refrain is al-sha’b: the people. How do we understand the people today when the term has come to be at best a glorified, naïve idea and at worst a stale concept? As we witness popular mass mobilization overthrow some of the most entrenched and ostensibly stable regimes in the region, the time has come to revisit the political meaning of al-sha’b.
Giorgio Agamben reminds us: “Any interpretation of the political meaning of the people ought to start from the peculiar fact that…this term always indicates also the poor, the underprivileged, and the excluded. The same term names the…political subject as well as the class that is excluded from politics.”
Fadi Bardawil has pointed out in these pages that Arab thinkers and journalists have since the 1960s “moved from an idealization of the revolutionary potential of the masses…to locating the inherent ‘problems’ plaguing the region in the culture of these same masses.” The sha’b has gone from being a subject of idealization to an object of derision. The Arab people, in European and North American as well as Arab intellectual discourse, are passive, dormant, apathetic, and dependent on a strong leader. They are childlike.
This infantilization has a colonial genealogy. Take for example, the words of Lord Cromer as he contemptuously rejected Egyptian claims to self-government:
"Can any sane man believe that a country which has for centuries past been exposed to the worst forms of misgovernment at the hands of its rulers, from Pharaohs to Pashas, and in which, but ten years ago, only 9.5 percent of the men and 0.3 percent of the women could read and write, is capable of suddenly springing into a position which will enable it to exercise full rights of autonomy with advantage to itself and to others interested in its welfare? The idea is absurd."
The regimes that seized power through their opposition to colonialism inherited, used and developed this obstinate conviction: the people are ignorant and incapable of governing themselves.
This is why it should come as no surprise that Mubarak would address Egyptians as their benevolent (grand)father. It is through a critique of infantilization that we must read Omar Soliman’s assertion that Egyptians are not ready for democracy, that parents should lock their youth in their rooms, and that loyal Egyptians should turn off the satellite stations and listen instead to their conscience. Soliman’s reference to damirakum (your conscience) was a flailing appeal to Egyptians to return to one of the vehicles through which his regime had created loyal subjects: Egyptian state TV.
North American and European regimes also continue to invest a great deal of capital in this trope of infantile, passive populations. This is why British officials responded to questions on the sale of crowd control artillery to Libya with the answer: “We didn’t think they would use them.” There was no expectation of a crowd, much less a mass gathering of people loudly and clearly demanding basic political rights. This adherence to the childlike and easily manipulated character of the Arab people was particularly stark when on February 21 the Middle East’s biggest arms fair, the Idex 2011 in Abu Dhabi, brimmed with weapons and contractors just as Libyan military planes rained death on demonstrating Libyans.
It is not simply colonial overlords, authoritarian regimes, and Western arms dealers that attempt to produce the Arab people as children to be herded. Arab elitist discourse has played one of the most crucial and sustaining roles in producing the people as passive, easily manipulated children. Arab intellectuals reproduce a pervasive and ongoing divide between the “educated” and the “uneducated.” After the Tunisian Revolution, an overwhelming proliferation of analyses declared that Egypt was not Tunisia because, the social scientists explained, the majority of Egyptians are “uneducated.”
Elites in Egypt have embraced this system of knowledge and analysis. Since January 25th, the “educated” have, at times desperately, clung to their cultural capital. As the protests in Tahrir continued, complaints began to surface. The revolution, elites fretted, was falling out of the hands of that “educated” vanguard that had supposedly spearheaded it. The “uneducated” were hijacking the movement; they were just waking up to the fact that a revolution had occurred and would undoubtedly seize this opportunity to loot and burn.
Although it is the security forces and the army that have monopolized violence in Egypt over the past month, the theme of the mob, whether angry or not, has continued to surface with increasing persistence since Mubarak stepped down. Discussions of a possible interim president reference the candidate’s ability to speak to “Abduh al-fallah.” Commentators remind each other: “If educated people like us don’t help the government, who will?”
Many people in Egypt – journalists, academics, technocrats – did not see this revolution coming. After the fact, identifying those who organized the initial demonstrations as “educated, like us” became a way of declaring one’s support for change. Yet the desire to declare an organic, definitional affiliation with the revolutionaries gave way to uncertainty. As events continue to unfold, seemingly beyond the control of any single social or political group, referencing one’s education has become a way to lay claim to a definitive interpretation, to speak authoritatively for the country and its future.
Elites are reproducing the very infantilization of the people that has buttressed colonial, authoritarian, and neo-colonial domination. Democratic participation, in these stubborn lexicons, is not a right but something earned and learned. Certainly, workshops on constitutional amendments would be of use to many of us. But making democratic participation contingent on an ambiguous and shifting social marker is pernicious. It is through this logic that elites dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood and its broad base: these supporters are lulled by the Brotherhood’s provision of services. Material benefits are the only motive of the “ignorant,” of course. And the patronizing Marxist concept of false consciousness flourishes.
In Egypt and Tunisia, the work of the revolutions continues as Libyans fight for freedom with their lives and Bahrainis, Yemenis, Saudis, and Algerians courageously forge their struggle in the streets. But there is another struggle that is central to the success of these revolutions, in the moment and in the future: the rethinking of education and culture. In Arabic these terms are almost interchangeable: the educated (“mut‘allim”) is cultured (“muthaqqaf”). But if we have learned anything since December 2010, it is that these categories are exclusionary and hide more than they reveal. If we are indeed to sink those culturalist mythologies that have plagued the Arab world, the understanding of the sha‘b as a passive political subject or an infant to be trained, disciplined, and protected from itself must be overcome.