Representing Tahrir Square

We will reflect on the location of Tahrir Square in representations of the Egyptian revolution. In discussing “representations”, we are not adopting a mistakenly vague formulation. Our predicament is to grasp reiterated presentations of the Egyptian revolution, shared by different social actors involved or interested in it. We will not discuss, therefore, “Western” representations as distinct from “Egyptian” representations; or “conservative” representations as opposed to “leftist” ones. What we seek to reach are objective intermediaries attributing specifiable, material traits to “Tahrir Square” as a location in the re-presenting of the revolution.

Tahrir radiates a certain aura, a certain sense of revolutionary utopia. Some will disagree, of course, and will prefer to think about it as a space of illegitimate rebellion, a space of chaos, a space of danger for entrenched political interests. We could map such discussions along a divide between “progressive” and “non-progressive” forces, in Egypt and elsewhere, fighting over the semantics of the Square and, most importantly, over the legitimacy of the people it harbors. This semantic analysis would ignore, however, two crucial (material) factors.

The first factor is the ongoing contestation over the physical space of Tahrir Square. The struggle, here, is not between liberal and conservative Western elites; or between civil and military discourses; it is between pro-government and anti-government groups throwing rocks, quite literally, at each other[1]. The Square is still a battlefield where quasi-military tactics are still employed to secure control over its main entries and exits; its supply lanes; and its central plaza. When we try to localize Tahrir Square, then, we need to think about ongoing political fights being fought, physically, inside the Square itself.

The second factor is the ongoing non-contestation over Tahrir’s space. We have, here, a superficial contradiction; for one needs to understand that Tahrir Square is only contested in particular moments of political effervescence, where a series of aberrant events – e.g., the acquittal of former regime members in the deadly “camel attack” of 2011 – triggers a massive reaction – a civil protest – and a massive counter-reaction – a gentle repression. Otherwise, Tahrir Square is ordinarily empty; or serviced by local vendors; or occupied by some marginal tents; or, as during the eighteen days of the revolution, occupied by a large, heterogeneous group joining in common chants, discussions, or other unrelated activities.

It is precisely insofar as Tahrir Square, as a physical space, is ordinarily non-contested, that its contestation becomes politically salient. Occupying the Square, in other words, is relative to its non-occupation; and its salience qua occupation is determined by physical contestation – or possibility of contestation – over its physical space.

Had it not been for Tahrir Square’s televised images, however, most of us would not have seen the revolution – or, perhaps, not seen it in quite the same way. We mean “seeing the revolution” in a literal sense, again, as an actual witnessing of its unfolding. To be sure, this witnessing is not transparent. Quite the contrary, the various screens through which we witnessed the revolution have obstructed Tahrir Square’s physical reality. This obstruction occurs in two fundamental ways: first, in selecting which angles, which images, or which people from Tahrir are presented to viewers; second, in enacting a material distance between a viewer, comfortably installed in his couch[2], and a transmitter, witnessing the events firsthand.

What remains from the selecting and distancing of these images anchors, materially speaking, the very location of Tahrir Square in representations of the revolution. During the eighteen days of the revolution, the most common representation of Tahrir Square was a large overview, where the screen would be inundated with people seen inside the plaza; or in adjunct streets (e.g., in “Muhammad Mahmud”, the site of a tragically well-known massacre); or in neighboring areas. These large overviews were interspersed, to different extents in different media outlets, with images shot “inside” the Square, so to speak, where the audience would be shown endless masses of people chanting, dancing, or raising shoes in discontent[3].

As seen on TV, then, Tahrir Square remains a place where millions of people have joined in a common struggle against oppression. Whether this struggle is viewed as legitimate or illegitimate is not the issue here. We can still confidently locate Tahrir Square within the very material image of masses joined in a common fight; an image which was shot using broad long shots, allied with on-the-ground views and interviews. This same material image traces the strongest association between Tahrir and revolutionary utopia (for some) or dystopia (for others). Indeed, we do not associate “Tahrir” and “Revolution” as a consequence of some abstract, metonymic association between the spatial core of Egypt’s revolution and its totality; but, precisely, we associate “Tahrir” with “Revolution” insofar as its image effectuates, in its very material re-presentation, a metonymic relation between space and revolution.

We have defined, so far, two locations for Tahrir Square. It is located, first, in its physical space, which is defined in a dialectics between political contestation and ordinary non-contestation. It is located, second, in a virtual space, mediated through screened images, whose selection and, most importantly, whose distance from viewers fixates a material suggestion of revolutionary solidarity.

Some will ask us to indicate which location is most salient in what possible representation of the Egyptian revolution. We will be expected, here, to say that its physical location is associated with those who have been in Tahrir, and its virtual location with those who have not. This would be a gross misapprehension, however, since Tahrir’s occupants have access to – and participate in – its virtual location through their phones, televisions, computers, etc.; while those who have never been in Tahrir have a possibility, given accurate information about ongoing protests in the Square, to imagine struggles and non-struggles over its physical space. The physical and the virtual location of Tahrir Square are thus, in a sense, mutually constitutive.

We will then be asked, if Tahrir is fixated in physical struggles and in screened images, why are its discursive interpretations so diverse? Egypt’s high military council (SCAF), for example, sees “Tahrir Square” and its chaotic voices as being antagonistic to the orderly progress of the “revolution” and its protectors. For the Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast, “Tahrir Square” is an unnecessary nuisance insofar as Mursi’s government embodies the real voice of the revolution. For revolutionaries still accruing to Tahrir, the Square is an ongoing struggle against government oppression or inaction. Divergent voices frame “Tahrir Square” in different terms depending on their ongoing political agendas.

So does it matter whether Tahrir’s location lies in its physical space and its material images, when these images are liable to be equally reinterpreted for counter-revolutionary purposes? In other words, how can we pin down Tahrir’s image in revolutionary terms when its interpretations are so diverse? In an obvious sense, one cannot fixate definitive meanings for re-presentations, since different contexts will give rise to different interpretations depending on a group’s political affiliation – be it the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Western media, or the Egyptian revolutionaries. However, there is an equally obvious sense in which images of Tahrir Square, which are still circulated as they were during the revolution, retain a material association with their revolutionary context, around which counter-revolutionary forces need to navigate. Otherwise, what need would there be to minimize or to discredit revolutionaries if their revolutionary image, if not their revolutionary strength, was not (still) obviously present(ed)?

And what about historical perspective? We seem to conflate Tahrir Square’s location during the eighteen days of the revolution with its location several months into Mursi’s government. On one hand, we seem to insist on ongoing physical protests in the Square; on the other, we seem to portray an ahistorical fixity in its virtual location. This seeming lack in historical depth is fallacious, however, since we need to stress, first and foremost, ongoing struggles against the oppressive Egyptian State – struggles which occur inside and outside Tahrir Square. Any appearance of ahistoricity, here, is due to the very fixity of Tahrir Square’s re-presentations, whose mechanical reproduction has managed to fixate it as an intemporal image of revolution.

While ongoing historical processes are certainly operative in giving a semblance of fixation to Tahrir Square’s current image, there is a real danger in fetishizing this image as being, well, an actual intemporal re-presentation of “revolution”. This fetishism is visible, in part, in the commoditization of “Tahrir Square” in memorabilia sold in Egyptian souvenir shops. Tahrir’s location, in its physical and its imaginal sense, is a site of revolutionary struggle. Such struggle is not, however, confined to Tahrir. And one must guard oneself against fetishizing its location, lest we forget about what struggles run through its streets[4], and beyond.

[1] One cannot ignore, in good conscience, the array of other objects thrown towards protesters, in most part: glass shards, tear gas canisters, Molotov cocktails, rubber bullets, live ammunition…

[2] Hizb kanaba, or the “Party of the Couch”, is in fact an expression in the revolutionary vernacular. It designates those conservative citizens who have been too “lazy” to directly participate in the anti-government protests in 2011.

[3] These images remain frequent in representing ongoing anti-government protests in Egypt. However, they slowly faded away from Western media, where emphasis is put on the officialdom of Egyptian rulers, vs. the ragtag violence of protesters and counter-protesters.

[4] The gender issue merits an important footnote, since physical contestation over the Square is also, fundamentally, physical contestation over who should be in the Square. No problem for men, so far as one can see. Yet for women, especially young ones, there are constant interrogations, in the Square and out, about whether they can be physically present or not; whether it is “too dangerous” or not; whether it is “their proper place” or not. Women’s presence in the Square, while central to the success of the Revolution, is sometimes met with approval, sometimes with indifference, sometimes with doubt, and sometimes with violence.

This article was initially published in 2012 by the Oxford Left Review, vol. 8, pp. 11-13