This text is a reflection on the 2016 “Mada Encounters” seminar on history and cultural memory, which focused on the works of Walter Benjamin and in which several of his works were read as a backdrop to analyze the Egyptian revolution. Benjamin’s postdoctoral research, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925) was on Baroque German drama and how it can be understood as an imaginary plane to understand the modern evolving political landscape of Europe. These reflections are not solely premised on this particular work, but appeal to the idea that many of Benjamin’s insights mirror psychological ideas contained in drama, and that the 2011 revolution presented a specific dramaturgy of action in many instances, bearing heroic/tragic consequences.
“What characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.”
– Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History
By all possible permutations of leftist-marxist analysis, the 2011 mass mobilizations should not have happened. The absence of the material structures that could produce the cognitive and spiritual “tendencies” necessary to generate political movement, in addition to the neoliberal grind that left little possibilities for such tendencies to take shape, made the partly orchestrated, partly spontaneous waves of dissent that ultimately took place highly unlikely. Meanwhile, the undifferentiated patterns of a neoliberal economy, so deeply entrenched in the post-mortem of the independence state, coupled with the securitization of the state (an estimated two million police and law enforcement personnel were working in the Ministry of Interior at the time Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down) made the transition, or rather the devolvement, into a kleptocracy headed by Gamal Mubarak inevitable. The final phase of the neoliberal kleptocracy would lead to incessant waves of urban sprawl, manifested in the emptying of the centralized megatropolis of Cairo and moving outward into the desert, and signalling the beginning of a capitalist utopia where the stains of the city and the citizen are left behind, and the resident and the compound are embraced instead.
“People of Egypt: You will be told by our enemies, that I am come to destroy your religion. Believe them not. Tell them that I am come to restore your rights, punish your usurpers, and raise the true worship of Mahomet. Tell them that I venerate, more than I do the Mamelukes, God, His prophet, and constitute the difference between them.”
– Proclamation to the Egyptians, July 1798.
It is rumored that the city of Rosetta showed the least resistance to Napoleon’s campaign, when it finally arrived to the harbor and distributed Napoleon’s proclamation, the first printed document that the people of Egypt ever saw. There were even rumors that Napoleon himself is a convert affectionately called, “Abdallah Bonaparte.” A hundred or so years later, Egyptians would embrace another act of military propaganda, believing that Hitler is a secret convert to Islam, whose Muslim name is “Hajj Muhammad Hitler.” Religion as medicine and poison: The Napoleonic promise of reform, resurrected through a new Islam; the German hero, colluding with God’s representatives to liberate the millions under British colonial rule; the Muslim Brotherhood, who will finally get a chance to rule over Egypt according to the rule of God and His Shari’a. Poison masked as propaganda. Propaganda masked as redemption.
“It is concerned less with filling the public with feelings, even seditious ones, than with alienating it in an enduring way, through thinking, from the conditions in which it lives. It may be noted, incidentally, that there is no better trigger for thinking than laughter. In particular, convulsion of the diaphragm usually provides better opportunities for thought than convulsion of the soul. Epic Theater is lavish only in occasions for laughter.”
– Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer
He was wearing a galabeya, holding a wooden frame, on top of which he had installed a sculpture made of courgettes, awkwardly forming the word “kusa” . He held the frame up above his head and walked around Tahrir Square during the fateful 18 days. Everyone laughed at the conceptual maverick that had created a sculptural piece of contemporary art that could be displayed at a gallery to the “ohs” and “ahs” of audience and curators. But the man meant precisely the reaction he elicited: for people to laugh, and, in laughing, realize the bitter irony of physically creating a state of facile accomplishment — the same way “kusa” designates every accomplishment secured but undeserved.
This Umfunktionierung  disrupted the spectacularization of political protest, forcing everyone to pause and stop halfway through shouting slogans or shaking fists in anger, and laugh. Not enough research has been done to investigate why more than three million Egyptians found a group on sarcasm the ideal venue for them to critique power structures and their banal machinations but also to socialize, and in the process produce cultural terms and references that overtook all traditional cultural platforms at the speed of light. Irony being the reversal of the tragic? The hero falls, stumbles and, instead of dying, falls on a cart full of courgettes. But there are no great heroes in comedies, only low-mimetic protagonists. Our everyman: the fool; the peddler — the protester.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.”
– Ophelia, Scene V, Act IV, Hamlet
2010 was the year the anxiety of succession reached its acme. A global order on the brink of crisis was uneasy with Mubarak’s progeny and the idea of his authoritarian corporatism taking over Egypt. Nothing like a senile “king” and his mercenaries to stir greed and inspire frustration. It wouldn’t be the first time that Western powers played all parties to their own benefit with no thought of the future. In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude speaks of the ‘natural’ cycle of life, but in doing so reaffirms what is most unnatural: regicide. The 2011 revolution presents itself as nothing more than a spectacular (failed) attempt at regicide. Shakespeare refers to poison extensively throughout Hamlet — to kill kings, to kill heroes and to punish mothers — but in a subtle act of redemption, right before her death, Ophelia gives the bewildered Laertes, her brother, “rosemary for remembrance.” It is not just the hypnotic alliteration linking “rosemary” and “remembrance” that reaffirms the life of Ophelia, but the invocation of the creative essence of nature, with its own cycles of destruction and rebirth. Can we think of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s flowers as remedies for remembrance? Right at the point when the regime shoots her, she dies and rises again.
“In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance — provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem [Aufgabe].”
– Walter Benjamin, Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”
There were structural differences between the notorious 1977 Bread Riots, the result of Sadat’s rabid, sloppy open-door policy, on the one hand, and Mubarak’s unceremonious end on the other. Not just the obvious technological breakthroughs driven by slipshod capitalism (introduction of privately owned television and radio networks, massive privatization of state assets and services, etc.), but also the rise of immaterial labor, the so-called “service economy” and the global movement of capital, the three or so million Egyptians who left to work in the Gulf and initiated the cult of indiscriminate consumption fueled by the Oil God. The generation born in the1980s is one of the largest generations ever since Egypt started taking census. Never again would Egypt have a population spike that extreme. A generation of crisis that generated a revolution.
“He taught Adam the names of all things and then set them before the angels, saying: ‘Tell Me the names of these, if you be true.’”
– Verse 31, “The Cow,” The Quran, NJ Dawood translation (revised)
With what prophetic visions did al-Maari, during his literary ascension, forgive his pre-Islamic poets for attempting to capture the creative word of God? And when, a century later, Ibn Arabi embarked on his ascension of the spirit through the realms of heaven and said that “man is the mercy by which God gazes upon His creation” and “the seal of all the names of the images of God” over everything else, does that bring us close to the kinship Benjamin talks about in On Language as Such and the Language of Man? If God placed all the names of His images in Adam, as Ibn Arabi says, and if He forgave the transgressions of the poets, as al-Maari fantasized, can we believe in Benjamin’s mystical notion of “a greater language”? We are forever entrenched within this multiplicity — because all meaning falls short when faced by the word of God, yet all meaning strives to it.
“We, however, know something different, which experience can neither give to us nor take away: that truth exists, even if all previous thought has been an error. Or: that fidelity shall be maintained, even if no one has done so yet. Such will cannot be taken from us by experience.”
– Walter Benjamin, Experience, 1913
In 1992, the Egyptian government created the legal mandate to establish private universities. Technically not-for-profit entities, the universities, however, came to be dominated by Mubarak’s businessmen cronies. By 1996, the first private university had opened its doors, and, by 2014, there were over 20 private universities in Egypt. Intentionally or not, most of the university campuses were located on the peripheries of Cairo, cutting off students from confronting the city, not just physically, but mentally as well. In four of the major universities, large scale protests broke out over a period of three years (2011-2013), resulting in massive crackdowns and the actual disbanding and banning of student unions and other student representative bodies. None of these universities had witnessed any student mobilization before 2011. Experience never really mattered. For, the truth is, the students simply realized that the moment of reckoning had come, and that it shall manifest itself with or without prior politicization.
“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
– Fool, Scene V, Act I, King Lear
Historical materialism always wins, regardless of who the opponent is. The revolution was not just up against a decaying, post-independence failure; it was up against a spectral, pernicious capitalism. The regime managed to resurrect itself only in the moral void and bankruptcy of an apathetic political global order. Six years of a war of annihilation in Syria did not shake it, seven years of revolutionary repercussions in Egypt and negotiations in Tunisia did not shake it. It has placed its bets on authoritarian agents who know very well that desire does not go with interest, that consciousness dictates misery and that time does not make us wise.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
– Macbeth, Scene V. Act V, Macbeth
We are plagued by how transient that moment of messianism was/is. Macbeth, as a prophetic historian, looks deep into the past, to tell exactly what our future looks like. The moment of performing an “improvised” political action within a highly adaptive dramaturgy was already self-conscious of its “poor playing.” People were literally scrubbing the square clean two weeks after the protests, frantically trying to erase any vestige of the “idiot” who performed heroically, only to destroy the stage and say nothing.
Note: Header image courtesy of Broadside Parishes.