Eliot Benman
Last updated: 29 March, 2012

Spaces of Expression Redefine Arab Exceptionalism

On several occasions, Cairo taxi drivers, feeling secure in the privacy of their cabs and speaking with an outsider, admitted to me they would prefer to see Mubarak back in power. He is the father of Egypt, they told me, and even if a father makes mistakes, a faithful son does not turn against him.  

It’s always disheartening to learn there is a kernel of truth to sweeping generalizations. The notion of “Arab exceptionalism” was once conventional wisdom. Arabs, so it was said, are the exception to the world’s race towards modernized economies and democracy. Their clannish attitudes and religious conservatism produce stale decrepit societies and cultural backwardness; their tribal mentalities allow patriarchal tyrants to rule over them.

This has been the narrative of politicians and academics to justify disastrous foreign military adventures and support for autocratic regimes and apartheid in the Middle East.

And then, in just a few weeks’ time, Egypt’s dictator was overthrown along with this conventional wisdom. Following the January 25th Egyptian revolution, a vibrant culture burst forth in the streets of Cairo giving new meaning to the term “Arab exceptionalism”.

Just off Tahrir Square, at the beginning of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a high wall runs along the back of the old American University in Cairo campus. This previously blank space is now filled with graffiti expressing the suffering, outrage and hopes of Egyptian revolutionaries.

For weeks, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, running from Tahrir Square toward the Interior Ministry building, was the scene of fierce clashes between protesters and a cordon of security forces. Charging through tear gas and buckshot was not the only act of defiance. Take a walk down Mohamed Mahmoud Street and you will see a creative energy that has been liberated from the cage it had been manically pacing for decades. Even under the unmerciful censorship of the Mubarak regime, the cultural ingenuity of Egyptians was never extinguished. It’s a culture inspired by millennia of history and the need to express the daily frustrations, absurdities and injustices of modern Egyptian society.  

And now, here it is, spread out in all its glory on a concrete slab, embracing heritage while defying all notions of a Middle East frozen in time. The murals resurrect victims of the revolution as winged martyrs, still defiant. Ghostly pharaonic figures stand in rows as if marching alongside protesters towards the security forces; others climb up ladders or tumble through a starry sky. The mystical atmosphere is interspersed with revolutionary slogans, jarring images of soldiers lying in pools of blood, and Field Marshal Tantawi depicted as a clawed monster with a psychotic grin. The street art is a meshing of the pharaonic, the Abrahamic, the contemporary and the revolutionary. 

Unlike the calligraphy decorating the walls of Egypt’s mosques, the icons in churches or the hieroglyphs in a pharaoh’s tomb, this is a space of constant transformation and evolution. After the authorities painted over the original graffiti, the artist-activists came back, rendering new images more beautiful and more defiant than before.

Only a photograph can record what has been rendered before the wall is repainted and once again becomes a beckoning white space. Those photos are uploaded to Facebook, shared, tweeted; hardly a culture stuck in time, this is a culture moving at the speed of a broadband signal.

The father figure tyrants were a symptom of the Arab mentality, said the conventional wisdom. But with every step along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, it seems more and more apparent that these autocrats were the source of the social malady.

“Dictators make people stupid,” an activist once told me.

Arab dictators crushed the creative power of entire generations. They were and are ancient men sitting on gilded thrones and ruling like the ancient pharaohs even as a new generation arises yearning to make their contribution to modernity.

In Egypt, these ancient men are still sitting on their thrones, activists will tell you, still struggling to rule like the ancients. The Egyptian cinema, television, and news media still suffer under the yoke of censorship. But amid the ongoing repression, Egyptians are finding and creating spaces of self-expression and social activity that reflect the true dynamism of their culture.

Despite the political turmoil and ongoing protests, life in Cairo carries on much as it always has. But the daily routine of traffic jams, dusty cafes and shouting street vendors is disturbed every so often by outbursts of self-expression and self-realization.

On the metro, political debates break out, often inspired by an article in a commuter’s newspaper, while in neighborhoods far from Tahrir, small protest are sometimes seen making specific demands for a local community. Zamalek, an upscale district of Cairo, is hardly revolution territory. But one quiet evening while sitting in a Zamalek café, I was surprised to see a boisterous protest coming round the corner, scandalizing my fellow patrons.  

Just down the street, at the Culture Wheel, a well-known cultural center perched on the bank of the Nile, crowds attending public events often explode into enthusiastic political chants, particularly in the energized atmosphere of concerts. “Fall, fall, military council!” they cry. Since the days of the revolution, music has served as an important tool of dissent, mocking authorities and calling for change. “Bow your head, bow, bow, you’re in a democratic nation!” sings Ramy Essam sarcastically. Essam has emerged as an icon of the revolution and one of many musicians who made a name for themselves by singing in solidarity with protesters.

Revolutionaries have also managed to carve out niches in theater. “Tahrir Monologues” for example, present the experiences of individual Egyptians during the 18 day uprising. Art exhibitions have sprung up around the city, displaying works by young artists that chronicle and analyze the events of the revolution and its aftermath.

Despite the arrest of several bloggers for alleged sedition, online social media continues to be a platform for self-expression, serving as a forum for raucous political debates, the organization of political, social and intellectual movements, and taking jibes at the military council and members of Parliament.  

One of the most memorable online outbursts came early on in the post-revolution era, when in November of last year, feminist activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy posted nude pictures of herself on her blog, describing them as “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”

Such moments, from the mundane to the scandalous, have been accompanied by numerous and diverse social movements organized in the wake of the revolution to help inspire and liberate the creativity of Egyptians. From groups organizing street cleaning campaigns, to open mic events, to the Kazeboon movement, which screens videos in public spaces displaying military and police brutality, an awakened generation’s creative energy and sense of social responsibility is keeping the dream of the revolution alive – despite the many challenges ahead.  

After a year of doing battle to conquer spaces of self-expression, some revolutionaries and artists fear a new threat to their liberties arising from the Islamist majority in Parliament. For decades, conservative Islam has served as a symbol of cultural resistance to the invasive political and cultural influence of the West. This subordinate relationship with foreign powers has left Arab peoples with what can only be described as an unrivaled cultural inferiority complex, an awkward mix of contempt for and fawning adoration of everything Western.

Unable to develop a strong contemporary culture under state censorship, Egyptians have failed to produce a viable alternative to Islamism as a defense of the Egyptian way of life until – perhaps – now. Rather than simply preserving a narrowly defined culture, they are building an inclusive and living culture that responds to the needs, aspirations and passion of the Egyptian street.

As the revolutionary youth struggle to make their vision a reality and to legitimatize their political parties in the eyes of the masses, the culture of the revolution is their prime frame of reference. It allows the best elements of Egypt’s past, present and future to mingle together freely without spite or competition. It preserves a moment in time when Egyptians from all walks of life found common ground. It contains the power of national memory and pride.

The revolutionary culture is Islamic, but more substantial than the seemingly self-parodying fatwas of Salafi clerics. It’s Christian; one of the most important accomplishments of the revolution, a Christian political activist told me, is that it drew the Christians out of their churches and into Tahrir to mingle with their fellow Egyptians. 

The revolution culture is a jealous guarding of rights and liberties. It speaks sincerely, boldly, and loudly. It’s the graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud Street; it’s paint on a canvas; it’s an actor on a stage; all set to the soundtrack of courageous musicians. It’s truly exceptional.

Eliot Benman is a Cairo based Associate Editor of Your Middle East.