PRINT December 2011


Demonstrators deface a poster of Hosni Mubarak, Alexandria, Egypt, January 25, 2011. Photo: AP.

ON AUGUST 3 OF THIS YEAR, Hosni Mubarak, the recently deposed and disgraced president of Egypt, was rolled out on a hospital gurney into an overcrowded courtroom and placed into the steel-mesh cage that is de rigueur for defendants awaiting criminal trial in Egypt. Dressed in a white tracksuit and with conspicuously newly dyed hair, he lay covered by a white sheet like a mummy while a prosecutor read the charges against him: corruption along with the premeditated murder of peaceful protesters during the January revolution that would eventually topple him. For several hours (with his sons in their matching tracksuits hovering defiantly over him, probably trying to shield him from the cameras) he continued to lie there, ashen-faced, looking drugged or distracted, occasionally picking his nose—all of which was broadcast live on the very state television network that was once his mouthpiece. At one climactic point amid hours of procedural tedium, a prosecuting lawyer announced that the real Mubarak had been dead since 2004, and that the man before us was a body double (he called for a DNA test). Soon after, presiding judge Ahmed Refaat warned that the trial should not be mistaken for theater. But of course, it was difficult not to think of it as just that.

The revolution that shook Egypt this past winter was an uncommonly mediatized event—inspiring near-constant live coverage on Al Jazeera and other satellite channels, not to mention via videos taken by citizens themselves and uploaded to YouTube. (Indeed, this mediatization has itself been the topic of countless hours of media coverage.) While Egyptian state television offered up facile, fearmongering agitprop accusing foreigners, Islamists, and even Kentucky Fried Chicken of sowing unrest in the country, Al Jazeera’s live stream revealed an entirely other narrative arc, one whose more persistent theme was the powerful pitted against the powerless. The sight, for example, of demonstrators praying on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge in spite of the tanks and water cannons threatening to knock them over was as unforgettable as any image from Tiananmen Square. And as Al Jazeera beamed images of protesters both heroic and helpless in the face of state security (and its American-made tear gas, batons, guns, and distinctive Darth Vader–esque headgear), state television cut to bafflingly static shots of dark, empty streets.

It is no accident that one of the primary events galvanizing Egyptian protesters was the circulation of an image—that of twenty-eight-year-old Alexandrian businessman Khaled Said, who had been beaten to death outside an Internet café by two policemen the previous summer. The garish image of Said, head and teeth bashed in, circulated swiftly on the Internet, on commemorative posters, and even as stenciled graffiti. A “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page eventually became a focal point for organizing the demonstrations of January 25. Equally pivotal was the intensely telegenic footage of a boyish marketing executive at Google weeping on television at the height of the protests. Having been held for twelve days, in part for his role as administrator of the Said Facebook page, Wael Ghonim emerged as the Western-friendly face of the protesters. “I am not a hero,” he opined to popular talk-show host Mona el-Shazly; “this is the revolution of the youth of the Internet,” he said, then burst into tears. Ghonim’s melodramatic yet extremely affecting public mourning pushed many middle-class Egyptians, previously on the fence, into Tahrir Square to join the demonstrations. Later, he would be hailed by Barack Obama as “the Google Guy.” A $2.5 million book deal would follow, and there was even talk of a Nobel Prize.

In short, the screens of the world circumscribed Egyptians—the US-Backed Dictator, the Young Martyr, the Google Guy—into a passion play starring the aging Pharaoh and his defiant subjects. Media treatment of the events reduced the complexities of Egypt—Islamist, secular, Christian, rich, poor—into a neat storybook narrative. And Tahrir Square itself became a kind of utopian fable, a ground zero that was portrayed as miraculously clean, orderly, syncretic, and devoid of the violence, sexual harassment, or sectarianism one could vividly imagine taking place. The fact that the Egyptian revolution had been rendered an easily consumable one-liner was confirmed in the weeks following Mubarak’s fall, as chief protagonists of global brand culture, from Pepsi and Coca-Cola to Egypt’s two big telephone companies, cashed in on the radical chic of the demonstrations. Mobinil, for its part, festooned the city with billboards featuring quotes from the likes of Barack Obama praising the Egyptian people. Its competitor Vodafone produced a cinematic if not histrionic ad about “ordinary people” that implied Vodafone had played a role in the protests (even if phone companies had complied with state orders to shut off telecommunication in the early days of the revolution). Coca-Cola encouraged people to “Make Tomorrow Better” in an ad that featured purposeful twenty-somethings throwing hooks into the sky to pull back ominous clouds, allowing sunlight to radiate over the gray city. And Pepsi boasted a similar spot that involved colorful paint being inexplicably splashed across the urban expanse, with the slogan express yourself. This is to say nothing of the lo-fi revolutionary knickknackery that continues to dot the country’s streets.

Wael Ghonim during interview with Mona el-Shazly on Egypt’s Dreams TV, February 7, 2011.

EGYPT HAS LONG HAD a vexed relationship to the camera. In a country where images of donkeys wading in the Nile or of rubbish on the street have consistently inspired the ire of the censors, the state has fiercely controlled its public image throughout its modern history. (The warning MAMNOUA AL TASWIR [forbidden to photograph] is ubiquitous.) Public walls, museums, and monuments are characterized by anodyne postcard images of the Pyramids, of the October War victory over Israel, of broad-shouldered and steroidal nationalist hero Gamal Abdel Nasser. So the image of millions in the streets where previous demonstrations had been marginal, sullying the name of the president and calling for an end to his regime, destabilized any happy liberal, pro-Western consensus (“Egypt is not Afghanistan”). What was easily co-opted into media narrative or commercial cliché, then, was also undeniably effective—a logic of the image that had a direct and perhaps even causal relationship to the manner in which this revolution unfolded.

Thomas Keenan has written at length about the problem of images as they relate to the discourses of conflict and human rights—the trouble with claims about the ability of images to induce empathy or to demonize, to reveal or to mislead, to condemn or to exonerate; the trouble with our Enlightenment-rooted assumptions concerning visual knowledge and individual agency. In other words, as Keenan wrote in 2004, “What would it mean to come to terms with the fact that there are things which happen in front of cameras that are not simply true or false, not simply representations and references, but rather opportunities, events, performances, things that are done and done for the camera, which come into being in a space beyond truth and falsity that is created in view of mediation and transmission?” He continues, “It is now an unstated but I think pervasive axiom of the human rights movement that those agents whose behavior it wishes to affect—governments, armies, businesses, and militias—are exposed in some significant way to the force of public opinion, and that they are (psychically or emotionally) structured like individuals in a strong social or cultural context that renders them vulnerable to feelings of dishonor, embarrassment, disgrace, or ignominy.” In contrast to this paradigm, Keenan has demonstrated that, as in the case of Bosnia, media exposure and accompanying attempts to “shame” do not necessarily lead to behavior change by rights-abusing regimes (for here was genocide in the heart of Europe that, as Susan Sontag famously put it, took place on television). But with Egypt so vigilant and even paranoid about its public image, it is difficult not to wonder how many more protesters would have been sacrificed without the cameras faithfully tracking them. Had the eyes of Al Jazeera not lingered on Tahrir Square as they did, how much longer would it have taken Mubarak, in his catatonic state, to step down?

Indeed, media narrative may have played the powerful role it did in Egypt in part because the country has long been the center of the Arabic film industry—an old hand at intertwining the production of information and the manufacture of myth. From the cinematic heyday of the 1950s and ’60s up until today, most feature films, documentaries, and, later, music videos in the Arab world have been made in Egypt. And so, on January 31, when the characteristically diffident screen icon Omar Sharif called for Mubarak to step down, it seemed that cinema (or at least Lawrence of Arabia) had merged with real life more than ever. Days later, Sherihan, the Egyptian equivalent of Michael Jackson (for she is also a cosmetically enhanced, tragically fallen child star), famously visited the protesters. Before long, the production of dozens of revolutionary music videos began—shot in the same lovingly hagiographic manner with which the international news media had captured the protesters weeks before.

Cinema merged with real life once again on August 3, in the opening moments of what was hailed by many as the “trial of the century.” In offering up their own form of justice, the interim ruling military council that took over for Mubarak once again borrowed from Hollywood—a strategy that had served them well in the days leading up to the revolution. The image logic that had galvanized protesters via Facebook, signs, and television was here marshaled as obfuscating stagecraft. Close-ups of evidence placed in manila envelopes and cardboard boxes, along with an almost comically wry judge, recalled at once the strange moral weather of Twelve Angry Men and the wooden glamour of Perry Mason.

Outside the police academy in Cairo where the trial was taking place, the military council had installed a giant screen to satisfy those who had traveled to this barren patch of desert to get as close to the proceedings as they could. Al Jazeera, for its part, often split the screen in its live coverage, with the trial on one half and the image of Egyptians watching the trial—and, by extension, themselves watching themselves being watched—on the other. Television viewers around the world searched their faces for signs of anger, joy, satiation.

Stills from Hany Adel, Amir Eid Hawary, and Sherif Mostafa’s Voice of Freedom music video made during the Egyptian demonstrations, 2011.

And many were satiated. The military council had managed, for the moment, to quell the anger of protesters through a gross form of judicial voyeurism. Never mind that, by the second day, the presiding judge announced that filming would cease. Never mind that Mubarak’s defense attorney, the wily Farid El-Deeb, called for 1,631 defense witnesses—indicating that this trial was just beginning and that any form of “justice” would be situated in some distant, opaque future. Never mind that at the end of that first day, cameras captured Gamal Mubarak walking out of the courtroom sanguine and smiling, shaking the hands of the police officers as if he knew very well that things would not end up so badly. Never mind. Egyptians have their pyramids, they have their film industry, and now they had their telegenic revolution along with this hackneyed parody of storybook justice.

IF THE EGYPTIAN PROTESTERS were paradoxically aided both by the ubiquity of images and by the facile narratives attached to them, what of the other Arab intifadas that have sputtered on without such cinematic results? It is useful to look at Syria, where, at the time of writing, more than three thousand people have lost their lives in President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on dissent. Syria, without pyramids, the Nile, or a booming film industry, is not as iconic as Egypt. Nor does the revolt in Syria fit the outlines of the Egyptian revolt. Scattered between multiple cities, this revolution has no Tahrir Square where millions have collected. There are no Al Jazeera cameras documenting the revolution twenty-four hours a day. Intrepid Syrian activists have revealed that cameras provoke as much, if not more, distrust than arms, and precious few journalists have managed to last long. Little comes out of Syria beyond the occasional grainy cell-phone image. There is no Google Guy, no Coca-Cola or Pepsi ad, and we don’t know the names of the Syrian martyrs.

Of course, in Egypt, images alone did not topple the Pharoah, nor did the social media fetishized by State Department staffers and Silicon Valley digerati alike. (This truth is perhaps best evinced by the fact that the most organizing activity occurred around January 28, when both Internet and phone service were cut.) Yet if Egypt’s political relationships to the rest of the world (not to mention Syria’s) will inform to what extent and how images animate that country’s struggles, those images, however partial, can still be uncommonly potent—and are rendered even more effective when they are familiar, cinematic, easily consumed. The Syrians may very well shed the yoke of dictatorship, but it will certainly take more time than it did in Egypt.

The iconic depiction of suffering and crisis is an image regime as old as My Lai, or Walker Evans, or the Ottoman conquest. And yet what confronts us now is the possibility that the image—or, more precisely, its “mediation and transmission”—is all we have to register, diagram, and help us attempt to understand the realities erupting from afar. In late October, the dual spectacularization and efficacy of the image once again became evident as news broke that fugitive Libyan president Muammar al-Qaddafi had been captured. Within hours, images of his blood-soaked, geisha-faced form, dragged out of a drainpipe and held up like a spoil of war, were revealed in a harrowing video taken by rebel fighters. With cues worthy of an action movie, the video depicts al-Qaddafi’s ebullient captors pumping him full of bullets, all the while chanting, “Alla¯hu Akbar,” or “God is great.” It is remarkable how many news outlets defended their decision to show this gruesomeness on the basis of the news cycle in the digital age. “These images are the very definition of news,” Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC News spokesman, remarked blankly. The American-led nato mission that unseated al-Qaddafi, in the meantime, declared “Mission accomplished” against the backdrop of this disturbing, news-manufactured western starring the heroic rebels.

Beyond the old postmodernist update of the empiricist question—Does a dictator die if no one is there to see it?—the al-Qaddafi episode indicated that the image was not only mythic but also performative, an enactment in every sense of the word. A silent pact emerged between those wielding the cameras and the viewing public. In the terrifying and confusing video of al-Qaddafi’s last seconds on earth, the only other spoken words that reveal themselves as clearly as “Allāhu Akbar” are “Soora, soora.” “Photograph, photograph” is the only thing left to say.

Negar Azimi is Senior Editor of Bidoun magazine.