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The Iconography of Revolt

In Egypt, as in many other uprisings, the image became central, the iconography of revolt: the martyrs’ faces, defiant stand-offs, and liberated public spaces. As many noted, this was a televised revolution, but Al-Jazeera is only part of the story. More potent still was the impact of the images to people on the ground, images that spoke of hollow authority and a people seizing control of their destiny.

Certain images linger – or perhaps burn – in the mind longer than others. There is the man telling the camera, as he walks, that he and his family have nothing and that he is ready to give his life. The riot police retreating under a hail of stones, with a young woman and young man at the front, advancing on the disintegrating row of shields and weapons. People at prayer being hosed down by water cannon. The abandoned, burning police truck, rocked on the bridge. Tahrir Square, a sea of people, flags, signs, colours, and defiance. Just some of the images; you may recall others.

But all of them, perhaps, can be traced back to the image I personally cannot forget, when then-Tunisian President Ben Ali visited the dying Mohammad Bouazizi in hospital. The photograph is remarkable. Bouazizi’s bandaged body dominates the right foreground of the shot, while Ben Ali stands at the foot of the bed, hands folded in front of him, staring. I don’t know if the President said anything, but in the photo the dictator seems dumb-founded and speechless. To the right, three doctors stand with their arms folded, their bodies turned towards Ben Ali, looking at him. As if to say, ‘This is your doing. This is what you have done to the country, to the people.’ Four weeks later, Ben Ali fled.

Thinking about Bouazizi, I suddenly remembered Malachi Ritscher, the US jazz musician who killed himself through self-immolation in downtown Chicago on 3 November 2006. Ritscher had written a letter to explain his act, decrying the US invasion of Iraq, and expressing his hope of waking some “from their walking dream state”. He also quoted Abraham Lincoln’s remarks that “any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government”. Ritscher’s death went almost entirely ignored by the US media, and unknown to most.

Of all the many aspects of the Egyptian intifada, I find myself returning to three in particular (while not wishing to downplay or dismiss any of the other, vital swells that created the dam-bursting torrent). First, the way in which it was a people’s revolt that defied ideological or sectarian labelling; it was, to borrow a phrase from Paul Kingsnorth, a revolution of ‘One No, Many Yeses’. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are graphic examples of what John Holloway called the “Scream” – a scream not just of horror, but “a refusal to accept”. A two-dimensional scream, whereby “the scream of rage that arises from present experience” also “carries within itself a hope, a projection of possible otherness”. [John Holloway, ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’, London: Pluto Press, 2005, p.6]

The second dimension has been the liberation of the imagination that was sparked in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East, reaching Egypt with such devastating impact. Of course, dissent against Mubarak in Egypt did not begin in January 2011: over the last ten years there have been flowerings of resistance in the context of solidarity with Palestinians, opposition to the Iraq war, calls for democratisation, and the extraordinary wave of strikes and militant working class action.

But events since December have highlighted the way in which, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, ‘a good example’ can threaten other dictatorial regimes by enabling other oppressed peoples to see the apparatus of state security – and the legitimacy of the regime itself – as brittle and destructible. As journalist Tony Karon put it, referencing a line from the gangster film ‘Miller’s Crossing’: ‘You only run this town because people think you run this town’.

Third, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated how analysts of all different backgrounds and specialisations can share a common ‘blind spot’. The economists, political scientists, ‘intelligence community’ experts, and foreign policy wonks can analyse, and predict, yet miss something profound. Quite simply, in the words of Tunisian activist and writer Sadri Khiari, what is missing is “the people”.

The people who disobey. The people who resist in the obscurity of everyday life. The people who, when forgotten too long, remind the world of their existence and break into history without prior notice…

To the opacity of despotic power corresponds the opacity of resistances; the shameful forms of loyalty and clientelization walk hand in hand with the construction of popular solidarities; the technologies of control and discipline are accompanied by devices for elusion, camouflage, evasion, and transgression that disrupt the established order.

There is no oppression without resistance.  There is only time stretching more or less slowly before unexpected—or out of sight—the collective heroism of a people arises.

May 2011 continue to be a year when hidden insubordination erupts into mass refusal, and hope is realised not as ethereal longing, but as insurrection and remaking.

First published by New Left Project.

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