A “Time out of Time”: Tahrir, the Political and the Imaginary in the context of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt

Abridged version from the AAA panel, “Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Anthropological Perspectives”

Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictibilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods…. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? If much of reality is ephemeral and elusive, then we cannot expect single answers. If the world is complex and messy, then at least some of the time we’re going to have to give up on some of the simplicities. But one thing is sure: if we want to think about the messes of reality at all then we’re going to have to teach ourselves to think, to practice, to relate and to know in new ways.   (John Law, 2004: 3)

I start with this quote from Law’s After Method, because I want to engage and reflect on the January 25th Revolution in Egypt, or what I propose to refer to as a “time out of time,” from the vantage point of the ordinary and the extraordinary. A “time out of time” is about excising a slice of time out of the rhythm of the familiar (the ordinary and the known) and, through that rupture (and an assumption of reconstitution), making it possible to imagine other modalities of being – in this case of the political and the social. However, such forms and modalities of being are in need of a language through which they can be articulated.  How do we know and speak about that which has yet to announce itself? 

If Law is correct that the everyday and the social world is ephemeral, elusive and messy, unpredictable, slippery, and constantly changing shape, then what would this mean in the context of a revolutionary process that is premised on defying shape, form and pattern – or in the language of the Revolution iskat el-nizam – overthrow of a system and not only the “beheading of the king”?  How to apprehend, make sense of, and write in the midst of a revolution, with its contingency, the uncertainty of its processes and, equally important, the intensity of affect that marks a slicing out from the ordinary and the normal?

It is a particular space/site – Tahrir –that captured the imagination of so many from Wisconsin, to Athens, to Madrid, to London, Damascus and Oakland.  So why my focus on time? “Tahrir” is certainly, and iconically, spatially grounded in the experiences of multitudes on/of squares—Tahrir in particular but not exclusively. But Tahrir is also a time out of time – signified in the 18 days. It is this aspect of Tahrir that is repeatedly invoked by many of its participants and by many of those who participated in protests and take-overs of other public squares as a reference point and a standard of measure. From this perspective, Tahrir becomes, for example, a string of Fridays, from Friday of Rage on January 28th to the Friday of the One Demand on Nov 18th and the Friday of Regaining Honor on December 23rd.

Time also frames the making of moments of signification which, varying in meaning, delineate a framework for interpreting what has happened, what is happening, and what might potentially happen. These temporal markers of a revolutionary process delineate the limits of sets of relationships between different groups and actors, between the possible and the impossible, and between the excesses of the past and potentials of the future. 

To enumerate only a few of those temporal markers: the 45 days Mahala Uprising, April 6 National Strike, Khaled Said murder, Jan 1st bombing of the Alexandria church and the murder of Bilal, Tuesday Jan 25th, Friday of Rage, Friday of Departure, Feb 2nd the Battle of Camels, Feb 11th the ousting of Mubarak, March 9th the violent removal of protestors from Tahrir and the performance of virginity tests on detained women, March 19th the Referendum, May 1st the Independent Syndicates, July 8th the second sit-in, July 24th Abbasiya, Oct 19th Maspero Massacre, the Imbaba and Atfih church torchings, June 29th  Friday of Identity (also known as Qandahar Friday), Nov 18th Day of One Demand, Friday Dec 23rd Regaining Honor of Free Women, and in-between a succession of Fridays each with a name (and eventually a struggle over naming) marking yet another moment in a long process.

Tahrir’s Extraordinary Ordinariness: the Making of Life of the Midan 

So what were the 18 days about and how did they become, in the language of many, a time out of time, excised from the everyday, yet simultaneously constituting an-other world – an ordinariness that is imagined as possible?  Indeed, it was the ordinariness of Tahrir time (its rhythms and routines, its forms of aesthetics and sociality, and its possibilities and potentials) that became the very basis for the “extraordinariness” (or time out of time) of Tahrir.

This ordinariness/extraordinariness constitutes as well the potential for rethinking and re-configuring the political.  Here, we must consider the openness, fluidity and contingency of temporal boundaries of Tahrir. When did it start? What were its beginnings? When should we locate them? When does it end? This temporal ambiguity relates to the disruption of the political and social familiar, which was crucial in enabling the emergence of a critical imaginary that continues to envelop “Tahrir.” “Tahrir ordinariness” was equally important; we need to keep in mind the details of what that ordinariness entailed.  This was manifest in what Badiou has referred to as “the summoning of ALL” whose presence and pronouncements, the refusal to be contained by the politics of the familiar (e.g. in naming a leader of the collective or negotiating along terms set by the Council of the Wise) signified the reconstitution of the public (the street and the square) and the notion of “the people.”

The ordinariness of Tahrir was also constituted in the making of an everydayness of Tahrir.  This everydayness was spatially marked by the carving out of the space of the “midan” (the square) and the regulation of entry at its multiple check-points. It was configured in the organization of space and time in the midan, the routes of circulation of news and views, the evening circles of debate, the morning collective readings of the papers and blogs, the layout of tents, and the allocation of spaces for art, music, clinics, food, radio broadcast, and the mechanisms for removal of refuse, delivery and distribution of food and medicine.

Waiting and anticipation structured the rhythm and flow of time in Tahrir. At times there was an unbearable weight to waiting. At other times, waiting was marked by sensibility of the need for “more time” to enable an embryonic process to unfold and take its course.  Simultaneously, there was always the eagerness for it to “end now,” and the sense that everything remained contingent and precarious.

Tahrir was the different moments that made it possible: from the battles of entry and capture of the square, to the battle of camels on February 2nd.  Days of violence left blood trails behind. More names were added to the list of the martyrs and the injured; with the rage and sorrow came an unwavering determination to overcome and continue.  Discursive violence in the state media’s backlash against Tahrir and the protestors produced yet other moments of violence, laughter, jokes, and anticipation of what else was to come.  Tahrir’s everyday can also be captured in the oscillation between its appearance as a space of revolution and a space of carnival, which attracted many “to come and see,” to consume and be consumed by the moment and the place.  Eclectic as these descriptions are, how can we know and make sense of “Tahrir”?

Knowing, Making-Sense, and Writing

Some of the problems of writing and making sense of “Tahrir” relate to ethnography itself.  First, we have the entire notion of ethnographic distance, and the contrast between “immersion in the field” versus the “distance necessary for writing.” How, then, to write ethnographically about Tahrir? How to write ethnographically with this intensity of affect? How to write in a series of moments of thinking/acting, when the two cannot be separated? The speed of events and endless changes are such that you can barely catch your breath. How can we create a pretense of “normalcy” in “abnormal” times, when the prospects of a new kind of normalcy recede ever more into the future?  How to write when there is a fundamental and pervasive sense of confusion, and an inability to fathom what is taking place? How to conduct “social analysis” when the contingent is what so strongly asserts itself? How to cope with the unbearable weight of “waiting” for that which is not yet announced, to find a language which is not yet uttered? How to cope with the problems of coherence, and ideas that refuse to be contained in a narrative that makes no sense?  Any story seems flat, and in danger of falling into simplicity. How to face the politics of writing and authorship in revolutionary, dangerous, times?

The limits of language, writing and analysis, however, do not limit the possibility for a critical imaginary to travel, both spatially and temporally. The critical imaginary that emerges with “Tahrir,” as we have seen in Greece, Spain, and Wisconsin, among other places, has the potential of effecting and consolidating cracks in neo-liberal governance and capitalist structures, which comprise the condition against which Tahrir (like many of the other sites that followed in the Arab World, Europe, and North America) was rendered possible.  This critical imaginary of Tahrir re-emerges also in Egypt to mitigate “an-other waiting” for the revolution to effect much of what was pronounced in 18-short days.

A year has passed since January 25th and with it more dramatic events of loss, death, violence, exhaustion, incomprehension, yet also of hope, creativity, resilience and determination. Rituals of so-called democratization (i.e. parliamentary elections) have been preceded by the formation of a plethora of organizational forms ranging from parties, to coalitions, leagues, councils, and syndicates, many of which deployed age-old tactics to campaign and “own” a seat in parliament, and in the process fueled many a social paradox, division and contradiction that has shaped socio-economic and political life in Egypt for years (region, gender, ethnicity, class, religion).  The spectacles of the parliamentary campaigns and elections unfolded at the same moment that the violence against Tahrir and the revolution reached unimaginable heights.  From the Maspero Massacres on October 9th, to the Mohamed Mahmoud tear-gassing and eye snipping on November 19th, to the Cabinet December 16th beatings and murders, the bodies of protesters, women, and Copts became subject to visceral corporeal annihilation.  Like the bodies of the protesters, women and Copts, Tahrir Square itself was not spared an equally visceral transformation through the walling off of its space – indeed four large cement walls circle off four of its entry points.  Arrests, detentions, confiscations, military trials of civilians continued unabated along with the burning of L’Institut d’Egypte.  Yet at the same time and in spite of (maybe because of) the intensity of the attacks and the banality of the “democratic transition” the potential for disrupting the “normal” and “familiar” has never ceased, most signified in the recent Kaziboun (liars) campaign, the workers’ and students’ movements, and the neighborhood committees.

“Tahrir” as a time out of time, as a critical imaginary has become even more important as January 25th 2012 became reality.  The prospects of achieving that which “Tahrir” stood for may seem precarious and under attack, and yet the cracks, the potentials and the imagination are even more important in Egypt today, much as they are world-wide.