Conferences and symposia on the Arab Spring have been a defining feature of the past year in the Arab world and beyond. In February, Cairo University, The Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, and the Women and Memory Forum, organized an international conference entitled: “Narrating the Arab Spring: New Questions, New Modes of Resistance and Activism, New Politics” in Cairo.
Both the logistics and the content reflected the challenges - and the opportunities - of holding a conference about a radical historical transformation in the making: a conference in medias res.
On the logistics side, the conference, initially planned to take place in September 2011, was rescheduled to accommodate the realities of the political upheavals in Egypt in the aftermath of the 25th of January revolution. But, with the escalation of violence against protesters, there was never a moment of certainty about the schedule or about participation. Only a week before the start of the conference, organizers frantically debated whether to cancel, postpone or devise a plan B in the light of strike action announced by student unions across the country, and subsequent calls for a build up in strike action in state institutions. The organizing committee discussed the importance of supporting the students, of making sure that our conference did not contribute in any way to the official media campaign to undermine the students’ strike and the revolutionary momentum of an emerging student movement, alongside the need to continue with our work and our lives as a necessity for survival and the success of the revolutionary project.
The content and participants also reflected great diversity and vitality, with presentations ranging from academic analysis and theorising, to personal testimonies, documentation of events, oral stories of activists, chants, songs, videos, graffiti and films. Participants with first hand experience of the events and issues analysed and dialogued with others observing from a distance, be it geographical or academic. Many were too immersed in the daily struggles to tolerate criticism or contradictory points of view. Many others welcomed observations and comments coming from participants who were able to make connections with other historical moments, and to discern patterns or conjunctions that helped to shed light on current events. Enthusiasm, rigorous analysis, heightened emotions, tears, serious reflections, and “a feel of the revolutionary spirit,” in the words of one participant, permeated the proceedings.
After a moment of silence in memory of the martyrs of Arab revolutions, the keynote address delivered by prominent novelist and literary critic Radwa Ashour set the tone. She highlighted the powerful impact of iconic moments and images in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions: the burning of Bouazizi’s body that triggered the Tunisian revolt; the image of Khaled Said’s innocent face in contrast to the horrific image of his smashed face after the assault by policemen which went viral on the internet and led to the mobilization of thousands of young men and women to organize and challenge police brutality: the seller of bileela (wheat with sugared milk) in Tahrir square who adapted revolutionary chants and cheers to sell his merchandise and position himself as pro-revolution; Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s blog entitled “The poor come first you sons of bitches” which fore grounded the marginalisation of the poor and their demands in the discourses of official elites. Ashour’s address captured the euphoria of the revolutionary moment, the pain of sacrifices and repeated setbacks, the struggle to hold on to optimism against all odds. Her reference to a blog by Malek Adly, a protester who described his experience at the morgue after the Maspero massacre of mainly Coptic protesters, brought tears to many in the audience. She ended her address with a chant that encapsulated the overwhelming dissatisfaction with the course of justice and rule of law in the past year as regards the trials of the officers accused of killing protesters/martyrs of the revolution: ya nigib haquhum yanimut zayuhum: we either bring them (the martyrs) to justice and retribution, or we die like them.
What are the narratives of the Arab Spring? Several participants questioned the use of the term “Arab spring” to describe revolutions in the Arab world. Amongst the objections voiced was that it was Euro-centric because it framed the protests with reference to a European precedent, the Prague spring; it implied Arab stasis preceding the coming of spring; it predicted imminent decline as spring is bound to be followed by autumn. Debates over the phrase “Arab spring” encapsulate the overriding theme of the conference: the conflicting narratives of and about the Arab revolutions and the geopolitics of these narratives were put at the centre of debates and analysis.
Rabab al-Mahdy highlighted the binarism of dominant narratives of the Egyptian revolution; on the one hand, the peacefulness of ‘real’ and ‘pure’ young protesters of the 25th of January, the shabab al-thawra (the youth of revolution) and the violence of the baltagiyya (thugs) who attacked the police and burnt police stations, on the other, used as a tool of containment and a weapon against protesters. “Peacefulness” is fetishised reinforcing the premise that the state is the sole legitimate entity entitled to the use of violence, a premise challenged by the revolutionary project. This binary constitutes an attempt to conceal a widespread class prejudice, and to undermine the key agents of the revolt: the poor and the dispossessed presented as unruly. But, just as dominant/official narratives are part and parcel of the war against the very idea of a revolution, or as Nahawand al-KaderiIssa pointed out, against “the meaning of thawra (revolution)”, counter-narratives exist and are engaged in a struggle over discursive and material space. Pro-revolution writers and public figures challenge on a daily basis the demonization of the revolution and the assault on the symbolism of Tahrir square. Young men and women cover the walls and buildings in downtown Tahrir with graffiti that ridicules official media campaigns against protesters. Mariz Tadros examined some of the conflicting sectarian narratives that arose in 2011 –namely, that the Copts did not contribute to the revolution because the Pope ordered them not to, or that the sectarian problem did not exist and was all the doing of the old regime, versus the notion that the Copts are an integral part of the revolution and that the unity of Copts and Muslims is a defining feature of the new Egypt. Many of these narratives were transformed into public spectacles in Tahrir Square when Muslims and Copts prayed together. Mona Abaza discussed the urban reshaping of Cairo since January 2011, where we witnessed a deliberate division of the city into a war zone in the downtown area, and a ‘normal’ city in the rest of Cairo. But then, revolutionary graffiti painted across the walls of “conflict” zones forced itself on these areas in the city centre, reclaimed the spaces and transformed their meaning into a spectacle of the revolution.
A counter narrative is born out of and in opposition to the dominant anti-revolution narrative.
Finally, the issue of ‘stealing narratives’ was raised by Jean Said Makdisi as a common concern for revolutionary projects and rights movements across the world. She referred to attempts to steal the Palestinian story by the likes of Newt Gingrich who claimed that the Palestinians are an invented people, and also to the deliberate western media marketing of Gene Sharpe as the theorist who taught Egyptians the art and techniques of non-violent resistance to dictatorships. She nonetheless problematised the notion that only those involved in the event are the sole owners of the story, as stories are universal and can travel and carry broader meaning and poignancy. The issue of who tells the story, who has ownership of the narrative of revolution was at the centre of many debates. Anna Bernard, speaking about ‘The Traveling Arab Spring” suggested that once an idea migrates it inevitably becomes degraded. She warned against narratives being hijacked and manipulated to serve counter revolutionary agendas. However, how can we recognize the inspirational effect of Tahrir Square on the Occupy Wall Street movement for example, and still acknowledge the differences in the demands and contexts, without suggesting that one protest movement is more genuine or more original than the other?
The treatment of gender issues pointed to the numerous challenges women face in the aftermath of revolutions. Speaking of Iraq after 2003, Nadje al-Ali drew attention to the calls that emerged for replacing the existing Personal Status Laws with more traditional laws under the pretext of cleansing the country from the evil machinations of a dictatorship that trampled upon traditional norms. The Iraq story of a backlash against women’s rights dressed up in the robes of traditional culture was all too familiar to Egyptian and Tunisian feminist activists and researchers. Gender issues continue to demarcate national boundaries and identities, and remain subject to political and ideological manipulation Many participants, nonetheless, focused on the new spaces that were now available to women and other marginalized groups, and the sense of empowerment that was in the air. Moreover, Nicola Pratt warned against the discourse on how the revolution marginalised women’s participation in the political process is reminiscent of Orientalist representations of Arab societies as intrinsically oppressive of women. Riham Sheble paid tribute to the role played by women protesters – Azza Ibrahim, Ghada Kamal, Samira Ibrahim, to name only three, who “stared patriarchy in the eye” by breaking taboos and speaking truth to power. She cited Emma Goldman’s famous quote: “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”
The visual and the poetic featured prominently in narrations of the revolution. In a panel introducing the mosireen group, members of the group, Lobna Darwish, Omar Robert Hamilton, Yasmine Metwally and Philip Rizq, showed video clips which documented violence perpetrated by the military against civilians. The group met in Tahrir square and organized to expose the stories untold in the official media: “We think of ourselves as a propaganda machine for the revolution… we are not neutral… we give space to people without a voice.” The group organises workshops to train citizens to document events with a view to creating alternative media channels. According to Nariman Youssef, the function of mosireen is to bear witness as a means of resistance against official media campaigns aiming to discredit protesters and protest movements. The media mantra about objective and distanced reporting is replaced by emphasis on the personal, the immediate, the fragment as an antidote to official dominant narratives, or counter-revolutionary narratives.
In “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today", Gyanendra Pandey argued for the importance of fragments in writing the history of sectarian violence in India to counter the nationalist drive to homogenize and normalize by excluding the voices of minorities and marginalized communities. The fragments excluded from official histories are the personal accounts in diaries, oral narratives, poems and songs. Alia Mossallam added to this list the chants sung by protesters in demonstrations. These chants, she argued, articulated the revolution and were a means for negotiating power and arriving at consensus. Poetry figured prominently in the conference, especially the poems delivered by poet Amin Haddad, and sung by the Eskenderella group
On the first day of the conference, Alia Mossallam commented that, while she was uncomfortable about “the idea of “narrating” that which we still struggle in,” she realised that this was a chance to reflect, to heal and to think. For some of us, it was.