Andrea Khalil, Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. London: Routledge, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Andrea Khalil (AK): In the fall of 2010, I was researching a book on the 5 October 1988 riots in Algeria. I was in France and Algeria from July-December 2010 looking for documents, archives, photos, testimonies, and literature about the riots. The events in Tunisia in the middle of December 2010 made it clear that there would be a contemporary context in which to study riots, and in Tunisia in particular. I then changed the topic and became focused on crowds, as crowds began forming in Tunisia, then later in Algeria and Libya. I decided to work on crowds in the contemporary context with a historical perspective.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AK: The book draws on crowd theory that has been written since the late nineteenth century. Most of this theory was written about the European crowds of that period and the early twentieth century. I also use some contemporary Middle East scholarship on crowds in the Middle East and North Africa, which is more concerned with the specificities of the region. The bulk of the chapters, however, draw on field research that I did in Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria. I address testimonies from people who were in crowds in the 2011-12 period, and documented many crowd events from first-hand testimony.
The main thrust of the argument was to debunk notions of crowds as inimical to progress and as articulations of social needs and coherent political projects. Although the theoretical concept that I develop in the book is about crowds, the notion of subjectivity, how subjects perceive themselves as constitutionally in a crowded theoretical field, comes out through “close ups”: the interviews provide close analysis of individuals’ articulations of their self-conception as crowded subjects. Some of the photos that I use in the book reflect this crowd/close up alternation.
["Qurdafi": placard ridiculing Qaddafi held up during a women’s march. Source: Photo by Maher Alawami.
Image taken from Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya.]
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
AK: I had never written a book that did not centrally use literary and film texts as the primary material of analysis. The first book I wrote was about the Arab avant-garde in North African narratives of the late twentieth century, and then I edited a book on North African cinema. Here, I was reading a literature from the social sciences, and doing field research and interviews, while not operating within the discipline of political science. It was a new way of writing for me, where I stitched together a series of individual testimonies that formed a partial picture of how collective social action was experienced at that time in and around Tunisia.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AK: I very much hope a general reading public will be interested in reading this book. Although it deploys and takes on certain anti-democratic crowd theories, I hope the personal testimonies and my framing of them will appeal to the reader who is curious about North Africa and the multiple and fascinating voices in the population. Although I registered testimonies of intellectuals and some journalists, my main focus was on crowd participants who do not have a conduit for public expression of their political sentiments.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AK: I want to continue to work on crowds, adding more of a visual element and shifting the theoretical focus. A wonderful edited volume on women just came out, and will appear as a book in November, but as soon as I finish that, I will begin the new crowd project. The field will be in North Africa, but I want to focus more on visual culture and cultural production.
Excerpts from Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya
How and why do crowds form in North Africa? The answer to this question involves negotiating pervasive Freudian and Orientalist discourses of the “Middle Eastern mob.” In an attempt to counter and work outside such derogatory notions of group formations, I have endeavored to detail differences between types of crowds and look at crowds in their contexts from the vantage point of North African crowd participants. I did this through interviews and on-site investigations within the geographical space of North Africa and the temporal context of 2011-13. However, the story of crowds clearly did not begin in 2011 and did not come to an end in 2013. Crowds continued to be the subject of physical state violence (for instance, the Egyptian army fired into crowds of unarmed protesters in August 2013) and symbolic violence (claims that they are terrorists) that undermine their democratizing intentions. In this chapter, I describe the ideological underpinnings of negative stereotypes about crowds and situate my own approach to them within theoretical discussions about the political meaning of crowds.
I begin with one of the pivotal discussion points in crowd theory, a point which is both historical and psychoanalytic at the same time, and one about which writers differ a great deal: whether crowds are progressive or regressive social forces. Theorists’ positions on this question seem to be more determined by their positions in relation to dominant power than the “actual” nature of crowds as either positive calls for justice or angry and irrational “mobs.” There are differences between types of crowds, but not, I suggest, in the ways these differences have usually been described. In his Crowds and Power (1962) Elias Canetti put forward a set of ideas about crowds that did not lock in, or seal off, his reading of them. Crowds, for Canetti, always performed relations of power, sometimes in subversive and sometimes in supportive ways, but they were always spectacular, distilled configurations of a society’s most potent social mechanisms. I think one can come to the same conclusions about crowds in North Africa, where they cannot be said to move forward or backward on a teleological progression toward development, but rather are cyclical and performative manifestations of relations of power that, at times, overflow into total reversal of the status quo. The meanings of a crowd depend on its context, how it came into being and what type of crowd it is. In certain contexts a crowd can be authoritarian in its political stance.
Authoritarian crowds, those masses of people mobilized by Arab dictators, moved away from democratic freedoms. They were propagandistic crowds, where the people expressed or feigned their loyalty out of fear. But clearly there were other types of crowds that defied state control. Leaderless, spontaneous crowds have had great democratizing potential and these have been the types of crowds that have changed the course of recent history in North Africa.
The Crowd and History
In what ways are crowds emancipatory? The spontaneous, leaderless crowd is at once deeply anchored in its particular historical context and, at the same time, momentarily frees the people from the shackles of the historical narrative that has defined and repressed them. Michel Foucault’s comments about the Iranian revolution are relevant to this double situation of the crowd in history: “Revolts belong to history,” he writes,
But in a certain way, they escape from it. The impulse by which a single individual, a group, a minority, or an entire people says, “I will no longer obey,” and throws the risk of their life in the face of an authority they consider unjust seems to me something irreducible…because the man who rebels is finally inexplicable; it takes a wrenching-away that interrupts the flow of history, and its long chains of reason, for a man to be able, “really,” to prefer the risk of death to the certainty of having to obey. (Foucault 1979)
In North Africa anti-authoritarian crowds formed in direct response to their historical situation, in response to the particular form of repression to which individuals were subjected, and stood against this narrative of history imposed upon them by the state. The significance of the political crowd is located in its opening of history, of puncturing the fabric of history for the benefit of the people’s intercession into historical narrative. In the wake of the Tunisian revolution a multitude of histories (personal and collective) appeared in the Tunisian public sphere. Because other countries in the region were subject to similarly repressive historical narratives, and because of a relatively common linguistic, ethnic, and religious culture, the moment of collective rejection spread. The protest movement moved within regions (Sidi Bouzid to Kasserine) within the nation (to Tunis and throughout Tunisia) and internationally (throughout the Arab world). For this reason I chose to examine two neighboring countries as well: Algeria and Libya. The history of the Arab people is in part a shared history, despite the efforts of autocrats to separate and divide people. But it was not possible for me to include all of the Arab countries in this book. Tunisia and its neighbors therefore became the geographical scope of the study of testimonies about crowds and politics.
One specificity of the Libyan situation was that the political crowds of the 2011 revolution rose up against a political system that was already doctrinally based on the premise of “mass rule”—or Qaddafi’s notion of “the state of the masses,” the Jamahiriya. Crowds, in the case of Libya, were already at the heart of Qaddafi’s political project of direct democracy and perpetual revolution. His ideas about individual sovereignty, as propounded in the Green Book (1975), revolved around the abolition of central power and the primacy of popular assemblies and committees. This populist notion of mass rule and direct participation was overturned, but paradoxically also reinvented with renewed vigor when Qaddafi was overthrown by the thuwwar (revolutionaries) of 2011. In an attempt to counter the crowds of the revolution leading up to the “Day of Rage” on 17 February 2011, Qaddafi choreographed mass demonstrations on 15 February. But this attempt failed and his security forces’ killing of protesters in Benghazi and Tripoli had the effect of multiplying the crowds of his opponents (Pargeter 2012: 221). Thus, while there was something radically new about the crowds of the Libyan revolution, there is also an uncannily restorative quality to the uprising. The study of Libyan crowds in the revolutionary period falls within the ideological context of Libya’ s so-called “mass rule” while totally rejecting the leader who propounded that idea.
In this chapter I look at crowds in Benghazi and focus on their distinctive gendered characteristics. The crowds of the Libyan revolution were male and female segregated, forming gendered or “doubled crowds.” For the study I looked at three types of gendered crowds: the female-dominated crowds of the families of the martyrs of Abu Saleem; the female-dominated civil society associative life of post revolution Benghazi; and the male-gendered, patriarchal culture of tribal affiliations. The leadership of the latter comprises males, and their collective vocabulary is dominated by male-gendered terms, like “our sons,” indicating the profoundly patriarchal culture at work in Libya. Although gendered crowds overturned the Libyan leader, the patriarchal culture that underpinned them has persisted in the post-revolutionary period and continues to structure politics and the formation of civil society groups. For the most part these crowds have worked in tandem in the context of both gendered crowds during the revolution and female-gendered civil society/male-gendered tribal organizations in the post-revolutionary period. Contrary to segmentary theory which “assumes the existence of a tribal society comprised of homogeneous tribal segments…isolated from the larger social and economic structures of the region” (Ahmida 2005: 69), tribalism is very much integrated into social, economic, and even political dynamics of Libya. Tribal organizations act in concert with the civil society’ s broader social and political demands, namely in their shared, direct calls for a stronger political state and an institutionalized, viable army.
[Excerpted from Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya (p. 19-20 and 95-96), by Andrea Khalil, by permission of the author. © 2014 Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]