Uprising in Egypt:

Power, normality, revolution

posted by Samuli Schielke

As I write this, the Egyptian revolution of January 25 continues in the streets of Egypt, and anything that is written these days will bear the characteristic traits of that moment, and will be proven wrong in one way or another by the further course of events. This is one lesson academics can take from this and other revolutions: realities change in a way that forces us to change our way of thinking much faster than we are used to, and to recognize how historically specific our theories are. In this essay, I try to offer some preliminary conclusions about how the revolutionary momentum has already changed the way Egyptians view their possibilities of action. To put it in more romantic words, I try to make some preliminary sense of the revolutionary spirit, but also of some of its limits.

Condition: normal?

I flew to Egypt on January 31, 2011, instead of going for holiday in Finland, where I had hoped to work on an article that was to be named in reference to the experience of a friend working as health inspector in northern Egypt. The inspector’s team’s work consisted of going to a state-subsidised bakery once a day, passing in front of the queue, collecting a pile of bread, and signing in the inspection book: “Condition: normal.” My friend pointed out that this doesn’t say whether the condition is good or not, only that it is the way it is. In the article, I wanted to write about this demoralizing experience: finding lofty promises of development and progress surrounded by a mash of nepotism and corruption, and high aspirations of personal advancement countered by repeated frustration.  In the past couple of years, I have become rather critical of the Foucauldian approach of looking at religion, morality, government, secularity, etc. from the point of view of governmentality and subjectivation, because I have sensed that these approaches do not explain how it is to live under the conditions they describe. In the article I was going to write, I wanted to develop a more phenomenological approach to great expectations and grand schemes, looking at everyday tactics of evasion that people undertake to find a minimal degree of human dignity in a world that denies them that. This was a tragic undertaking, I wanted to argue, because it was those very tactics of evasion that, at the same time, constituted the system of corruption, nepotism, and shady businesses they tried to evade.

I was wrong. Suddenly and surprisingly—not only to foreign observers but also to Egyptians themselves—a vast part of the population has gone out to the streets and claimed their human dignity by demanding that the entire “system” (nizam) be replaced. What I had not taken into account was that the demoralzing experience of being forced to become a part of the corrupt system of relationships in order to survive its pressure, had become the breeding ground of a growing sense of anger and an urgent desire to live in a different world—a sense that only needed the successful revolution of Tunisia as an example to find that, rather than coping with the condition of normality, it is, after all, possible to change that condition.

That said, I continue to think that the Foucauldian fashion of studying power is inadequate to understand the revolutionary spirit. Revolution is certainly a matter of affect, but it cannot be understood by means of subjectivation, cultivation, governmentality, or any other approach that highlights the discursive and the strategic. As I have experienced it in Egypt, and as it has been told to me by people who participated in it, revolution is an emotional state, a sensibility of being that is marked by a peculiar shift in the relationship of imagination and action, and by a transient state of exception that stands in an open relationship with the persistence of political and social transformation. In the limited space of this essay, I will try to make some sense of these two points before I attempt a preliminary conclusion about the relationship of power, normality, and revolution.

“This is more than I could have ever dreamed of.”

People I spoke with in Egypt kept highlighting to me the way they themselves had been surprised by the events. Some told me that they had gone to demonstrate on January 25 but did not expect anybody else to show up. Several times, people have expected that the revolution would lose its momentum and that people would become tired and give up, only to be happily surprised by huge new crowds of demonstrators filling the cities’ streets. With growing trust in the possibility of changing things, the demands of the demonstrators have rapidly increased in scope: from asking Mubarak (and his son) not to run in the next elections, they have moved on to demanding his resignation, and now they want to put him on trial. The success of doing something they themselves had been utterly sceptical about just the previous day has given them an immense sense of pride, dignity, and trust in their capacity to change the world. This is the original revolutionary moment: the birth of a sense that something to date unimaginable is in the process of being realized. This stands in a striking contrast to the experience of normality, in which great expectations and promises—be they political, religious, economical, or moral—are always far ahead of a frustrating and demoralizing reality. If, in the condition of normality, reality systematically falls short of imagination, in the condition of revolution, action exceeds the imagined and creates unexpected new grounds of expectation. The revolutionary condition changes the world, not because it would change the logic of governmentality, the relationships of power, or the technologies of subject-making (although that will be necessary in the further course of the revolution), but because it in itself is a change of the subjective life-world of the people involved: an emotional reassessment of the situation, a new way of being in the world.

This is the starting point. But the question, of course, is how permanent this change will be. Right now it looks like the Egyptian revolution is going to be a long one, but one day, it will be over, for better or worse. The question, then, is what the revolutionary condition does to the condition of normality.

Transience and persistence

As an anthropologist who has long worked on festive culture, I have noticed a strikingly festive aspect to the revolutionary space of Tahrir Square. What is taking place there is not just a protest against an oppressive regime and the expression of a demand for freedom. In itself, it is freedom. It is a real, actual, lived moment of the freedom and dignity that the pro-democracy movement demands. As such, this is an ambiguous moment, because its stark sense of unity (there is a consensus as to having absolutely no party slogans on the square) and power is bound to be transient, for, even in the most successful scenario, it will be followed by a long period of political transition, tactics, negotiations, party politics—all kinds of business that will not be anything like that moment of standing together and finally daring to say “no!” But thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realized, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It is an experience that, with different colorings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.

A revolution is not a quick business; it requires persistence. And there are different kinds of persistent effects that this moment can have. Those regarding the political system and its entrenchment with the economic system are critical, and they have not yet been realized. They will be the subject of an ongoing struggle. Others, more psychological and affective ones, are already becoming part of a new normality. A particularly interesting one, because it is currently so intensively debated among Egyptian intellectuals, has to do with the figure of the father-president. On February 4, the vice president Omar Suleiman declared that Egyptians had to show respect to the president, because “Mubarak is our father.” In other words, Suleiman took recourse to a social ideology of patriarchal rule, where the father is to be respected even in disagreement. It is a shrewd attempt to employ some deeply rooted sentiments among the people, but meanwhile the sentiments of many Egyptians have changed in a strikingly Oedipal manner. Characteristically, one of the democracy activists replied in a media interview: “My father is dead.” Many intellectuals now argue that this revolution is really a Freudian father-murder par excellence. By symbolically killing the authoritarian father of the nation, they argue, Egyptians are gaining their independence as full persons.

Preliminary conclusions

The degree of success of the Egyptian revolution is still undecided as I write these lines. The situation is critical, and Egyptians are probably facing a long struggle ahead. Whatever the shape of the new normality that will emerge from the revolution, one thing is already certain: The generation of Egyptians who participate in this revolution can never again be governed the way they once were. Their experience of acting and changing their condition, the success of going out to the streets at all on January 25, of throwing back the police on January 28, of establishing law and order in the absence of the police after the lootings of January 29, of organizing mass peaceful demonstrations and putting the entire political system under pressure, has changed the way they understand their scope of possible action. Any attempt to govern them, be it by a democratic government or by the authoritarian system consolidating itself again, has to take this into account.

This leads me to a preliminary theoretical conclusion. Michel Foucault famously argued that his way of thinking about power by no means excludes resistance, but that every form of power produces its own particular form of resistance. Both the normality of the past years and the revolution that began on January 25 compel me to turn this idea around. Before the revolution, the “system” actually consisted largely of the people’s attempts to endure it, which gave it its particularly wicked and demoralising form. As the revolution continues, the “system,” which Egyptians now want to overthrow, is being hastily adjusted by the regime in reaction to a spontaneous mass movement that keeps surprising the ruling elite. After the revolution, new ways to govern the country will emerge, for better or worse. In reversal of Foucault’s thesis, the Egyptian revolution shows that every form of resistance produces its own particular form of power.

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