Monday, February 14, 2011

The unreality of reality: emotion as performer and experience in the Egyptian revolution

Un-du-lating, penetr-at-ing, re-leas-ing. How does one go about writing of emotions? It doesn’t seem suitable to write about emotions in a matter-of-fact, logical way. They are not logical. They do not follow a known path, except to arise and fall yet again.

How we experience them though shapes our reality and how they come to us is shaped by images of reality, perceptions of reality, expectations.

How may we describe emotions at an intense moment like a revolution? Palpable, earth shaking, surfacing at the finger tips, culminating, shared.

On Friday the 11th, after Vice President announced Mubarak’s resignation joy, elation, intense pride are felt at the sites of protest – in Tahrir, in Alexandria, in Suez, in Port Said. In neighborhoods in Cairo cheer rings out, honking cars, drummers in the street, flags waving from the windows of passing cars. Tears stream, collective tears of elation, of relief. Tears that keep coming, shedding hurt and pain.

The next morning the door is still locked. The door that used to be left unlocked at all times and that the doormen locked after curfew is kept locked during the day. Mixed faces of consternation, fatigue, disbelief, pride. Giddiness, groups gathering and chatting. Groups meeting to go downtown.

More celebrations on the streets of downtown. Joy, contentment, recollecting how it came to be. Um Kaltoum’s nationalist tunes ring out. Mounir’s “song of the revolution” playing over and over, people singing as loudly as they can. A march here, a march there. “We are cleaning up Egypt!,” as a march of ‘cleaners’ with brooms held high circles Tahrir. Mourners gather with long faces, tears. People ‘at work’, painting the wall to sketch on “Revolution Jan 25”. People are cleaning the streets with signs “Don’t mind the inconvenience. We build Egypt.”

The next day, the first day of the work week, the state attempts to create an aura of normalcy, the military makes way for traffic through Tahrir Square, the curfew continues but at reduced hours (12-6). But it doesn’t feel ‘normal’. The door is still locked. The usual streets of the busy workdays are relatively empty. So quiet.

Not at work, not shopping, not yet at school. Many stay home, drenched in feelings of uneasiness about the future. Thirty years of what appeared to be the ‘same’ system, masked by the face of Mubarak, aging but still Mubarak, ended. That face is gone, fear re-surfaces or circulates or dips.

On the day of the street wars, January 28th, the “Day of Anger,” some who joined the struggle prepared for war. The rush, adrenaline, and more adrenaline, facing police with guns and tear gas. Taking their sticks and glass and rocks. Hiding in back alleys and making Molotov cocktails. Positioning, coordinating, attacking, retreating.

From that day onward many others in Cairo and in cities throughout Egypt were in their homes, in front of the tube. Starting with no internet, then no cell phones. But satellite television remained. When the military took over the streets and instituted a curfew, television and state radio were the only sources of news media.

And just in time: The police were removed from the streets, prisoners were released, gangs looting and vandalizing were unleashed. In front of the tube, flashing all day, images via video footage and the imagination of ragged prisoners, looted store fronts and government buildings, the vandalized Egyptian Museum and its ‘national treasures’, food ‘shortages’ as people rushed to the bread oven and supermarket in fear of the worst.

Chaos! The state and international media report chaos in Egypt, a standstill. And people, Egyptian and foreign, believe it – after all, the state protects us from ourselves. There is no safety without the police! There are prisoners roaming free and heading toward Cairo! There are desperate people who want to take advantage of this lawless situation!

Many swallowed the state-fed idea of lawlessness, a situation that was actually “chaos” for the regime. The ground shook beneath the feet of ‘the people’ but fell for the regime. As Žižek analogizes, it is like in Ben and Jerry cartoons when the cat is running off a precipice, and he keeps running as he doesn’t realize that there is no ground to stand on. But once he looks down and sees there is nothing beneath him, he falls. And so with the regime.

And (again) just in time, Mubarak surfaces. He addresses the nation as his people, his children, and announces that he has come to save them from the tyranny of chaos…? He is the one who provides safety and security in these lawless times. He is the general who kept Egypt out of wars, he is the one who has the military behind him and rejects the police who are reviled by the people.

Sounds good. And it did for many. That was until the next day when thugs were unleashed onto Tahrir Square, terrorizing, injuring and killing demonstrators. And that may still have sounded like a decent plan until Wael Ghonim, a lead online protest organizer, was released from jail and gave a passionate defense of the demonstrators.

On state television and radio, all day, day after day, intense demonization of the protestors: Foreigners who want to destabilize Egypt have infiltrated the opposition. They are damaging our economy. They are scaring away the tourists and the investors. They, the foreign, the, the…

Lies, betrayal. Gasp. More tears, tears of sadness and anguish. Dignity lost and now the struggle for many to restore it.

All day, day after day, in international media – Tahrir, Tahrir, Tahrir. And stories of foreigners being attacked. Another gasp. And the banks not yet opened – will there be a run on the banks? Breath stops. Reports of journalists and demonstrators and human rights workers being detained by the military. Tahrir, Tahrir, Tahrir.

Then we step out, feeling the unusually clean air, hearing the silence, walking the same streets and shopping at the same stores. This is not Tahrir. This is my neighborhood. There have been no reports of looters and vandals here ever, or at least not after the first two days that thugs were unleashed, causing neighborhood vigilance, uneasiness, tremor throughout Cairo.

The continuing unknown. The replay of worse-case scenarios. Not as scenario but as expectation, as the future. The ground continues to shake. And the regime is not quite at the precipice, let alone falsely perceiving itself to walk on air.

One lesson from the Revolution: Recognizing fear as fear! The main struggle of the revolution: The struggle against fear. A main source of inspiration: Confronting the layer upon layer of fear within us and enveloping – and now unraveling within – our societies.

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