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*The Language of Revolution – Tidings from the East Ariella Azoulay

From the moment they flowed through Egypt’s streets, the masses were already being

through Egypt’s streets, the masses were already being photographed [See photos “from above”, “as a mass”,

photographed [See photos “from above”, “as a mass”, “taking photos” or “being

photographed”]. Photographs from such events first reveal all of the day’s happenings

and do so with clear, denotative captions saying, for example, that here we see crowds

captions saying, for example, that here we see crowds demonstrating at Liberation Square [See photo], here

demonstrating at Liberation Square [See photo], here a woman yells at a soldier,

Square [See photo], here a woman yells at a soldier, demanding he move out of her

demanding he move out of her way [See photo], and there teargas canisters fly at

of her way [See photo], and there teargas canisters fly at demonstrators [See photo] or policemen
of her way [See photo], and there teargas canisters fly at demonstrators [See photo] or policemen

demonstrators [See photo] or policemen shoot civilians [See photo]. Many of these

photographs express both the photographers’ and the photographed people’s knowledge of the history of what has long since become a “revolutionary image”. The photographer knows how to capture the twist of the boyish body hurling stones at soldiers and portray

of the boyish body hurling stones at soldiers and portray its contrast to the soldiers who,

its contrast to the soldiers who, in comparison, resemble a blunt, fortified wall [See

photo]. The girl walking in the street knows how to wave the two flags in her hands sowho, in comparison, resemble a blunt, fortified wall [See that the crowd alongside the road, like

that the crowd alongside the road, like the photographer, will follow her with their gaze

road, like the photographer, will follow her with their gaze [See photo]. The soldier knows how

[See photo]. The soldier knows how to show restraint when a civilian woman approaches

knows how to show restraint when a civilian woman approaches him, yelling and cursing [See photo].

him, yelling and cursing [See photo]. In these familiar gestures repeated by the

demonstrators I propose to see components of a language rather than planned actions carried out to achieve a given goal. Like any language it is learned in the environment of its speakers as well as from its written traces. It consists of a set of signs, some bearing their own meaning, while that of others is derived from the syntax or sequence of phrases in which they are articulated. The language of revolution, then, is comprised of a vocabulary of gestures and a grammar, rigid rules and possibilities of improvisation. Every such gesture resembles a statement that may be used, repeated, combined with others, uttered in a slightly different tone, depending on one’s measure of familiarity with the language, the fluency of the conversation, the attentiveness of the addressees, their active participation (as soldiers, policemen, photographers or spectators) in a developing dialogue, being well-versed in its subtleties, able to understand not only explicit content but also read between the lines, implicitly, with a nod, a flick of the hand. Since it is a language of gestures, photographs are its writing paper. Here, for example, are several


statements which, used repeatedly, make a difference each time, sometimes even creating


metal planks placed diagonally to create shelter [See photo], hands raised in the victory

new local idiom: dumpsters lying upside down in the street [See photo], wooden or

lying upside down in the street [See photo], wooden or sign [See photo], singing with strangers

sign [See photo], singing with strangers [See photo

or sign [See photo], singing with strangers [See photo on flags [See photo], ], throwing stones

on flags [See photo],

singing with strangers [See photo on flags [See photo], ], throwing stones [See photo], graffiti uprooting
singing with strangers [See photo on flags [See photo], ], throwing stones [See photo], graffiti uprooting

], throwing stones [See photo], graffiti

uprooting of existing power symbols, overtaking thoroughfares,

of existing power symbols, overtaking thoroughfares, climbing on top of tall buildings to make a show

climbing on top of tall buildings to make a show of presence there [See photo], spreading

to make a show of presence there [See photo], spreading out in forbidden or designated spaces

out in forbidden or designated spaces [See photo],

taking over power accessories and

neutralizing them, the civilian use of military means,

setting fire, damaging portraits of

use of military means, setting fire, damaging portraits of rulers [See photo], giving testimony about the
use of military means, setting fire, damaging portraits of rulers [See photo], giving testimony about the

rulers [See photo], giving testimony about the acts of the governing power [See

photo]etc. Alongside the statements produced out of an existent repertoire, some grow at

a specific time and place, regarding given events, elsewhere unprecedented. Such, for

example, are the personal “barricades” which demonstrators improvised when the public

which demonstrators improvised when the public space filled with supporters of the governing power who

space filled with supporters of the governing power who began to hurl stones at them [see

photo no. 1]. 1 These gestures, combined with others, are articulated in a civil syntax. We

combined with others, are articulated in a civil syntax. We don't destroy the public space, we

don't destroy the public space, we guard property confiscated from looting [see photo A],

we care for the world we create – we recycle our garbage [see photo B], we take care of

– we recycle our garbage [see photo B], we take care of necessary services for all
– we recycle our garbage [see photo B], we take care of necessary services for all

necessary services for all [see photo C], we supply water [see photo D], we do not touch

photo C], we supply water [see photo D], we do not touch historical property [see photo

historical property [see photo E], we damage only government buildings [see photo F].

In the revolution archive which I have been constructing for some years now, I have many samples of the language now spoken in Egypt. They were drawn and photographed at different places and moments in the last two hundred and fifty years. Repeating the same gestures over such a long period of time and under various regimes – monarchy, communism, democracy, fascism, dictatorship, and those who have escaped appellation and continue to darken the lives of the governed population – begs the question what is

commonly shared by those regimes that arouse in their governed the same desire to speak

a language usually not available for use, whose inspiring traces fill the archive.

1 For another variation on protection from hurled stones, see a series of photographs in The Guardian. I thank Yoram Meital who called my attention to this series.


Or for example the “stamping” gesture over the portrait of the leader by means of a hand holding a



The same kind of passion has driven masses of people into the streets at different places and times to declare, through their mere presence, that this is their place, their language, their own for, of being together, of sharing a world, and anything else in their lives now can wait. This passion exposes, albeit all differences, a similar heritage shared by various; political regimes all around the globe. Even if big empires did withdraw their physical rule of different countries, the nation-states they bred throughout and their control of the main routes in the global world they created, set the conditions for differential rule and regime-made disasters with similar modus operandi that injure part of the populations they govern. This heritage did not enable the development of the language of revolution as a civil language but for a limited time, as a language of transition, and only when used to resist a regime headed by a tyrant, and as long as it does not develop into a language that designates the democratic regimes themselves as a target for replacement.

Conceiving as language what is now happening in the public space, a civil language that for the past two centuries has occasionally risen to life in various places in the world, what it utters is not reducible to a series of mere external “events” that take place “out there”, whose significance is given and clear and one can either take part in them or only report them. The logic of a sovereign democratic regime cannot bear civil language being spoken by citizens and hence requires such reduction of the language of revolution to a local event that depends on specific historical context, an event that has a beginning and an end, as well as identifiable causes and effects after which order – sovereign, of course – may reign once again. The political, hegemonic language spoken by those western democratic regimes that emerged as part of a world that colonialism and imperialism made global – was born as a universal language. At the same time this was also a differential language that allowed and naturalized differential models of ruling different populations distinguished on a changing basis of race, gender or wealth. These sovereign democratic regimes have nearly always preferred their commitments to a narrow elite of wealth and power in a global network of sovereign states over commitment to its own governed population. The universal language of power and the universal language of citizenship and revolution are in fact two contradictory languages whose rivalry and


competition is discernible only in moments of revolution. Most of the time, the sovereign language manages to subdue the inner syntax of the civil language so that it is interpreted mainly as a series of actions that have a recognized goal, such that possess meaning within the hegemonic political language – like the ousting of Mubarak and replacing him with a democratic regime. Obama’s standing “with the demonstrators” or Hillary Clinton’s calling out to Mubarak to prepare the transfer of power express that same systematic effort exerted since the eighteenth-century – to remove civil language from the scene and replace it with a bundle of demands leaving no room to negotiate the conditions of global possibility for those democracies. Since the eighteenth-century such conditions include sovereign national governing power, differential management of governed populations, preserving differential allocation models of resources and property along the outlines shaped by colonial logic, both imperialist and capitalist, and the promise that the movement of oil, weapons, wealth and labor will be managed along this outline. In the second week of this revolution, Tony Blair, representing the international “Quartet” of Mideast peacemakers between the Israelis and Palestinians expressed this quite clearly: “the watchword is change with care, because at the same time we have to make sure any change occurs with stability and order." 2 Although one million demonstrators at Liberation Square sang– “We all stand together asking just one thing – leave, leave, leave!” 3, the revolution cannot be reduced to being a means to that end. The sovereign regimes in the surrounding countries recognizing only this goal as legitimate, hinder the conditions needed for a revolution to continue growing as a complex civil language. A civil language should be able to thoroughly change the hegemonic political discourse and undermine the opposition that organizes it – either a democratic regime or tyranny. Only when this opposition is defied, can the black flag raised over democratic regimes be perceived, signifying the crimes they committed against parts of their own populations since constitution. By means of political categories which they produced, they have turned them into “alien workers”, “refugees”, “stateless persons”, “displaced persons” etc, making them politically invisible and ready to be

2 He was quoted in an item by AP news agency of January 31 st , 2010, under the headline “Israel agrees to some Egyptian troops in Sinai”.



exploited or deported. We who view the revolution are invited to take one of two positions whose opposition is constructed as inclusive and exclusive: one may either support the old tyrant or celebrate the new democratic regime. Either way the demonstrators themselves should evacuate the public space as soon as possible and may be supported as means for changing or reforming the regime. To escape this seemingly inevitable opposition, I propose reading the goings-on in Egypt both diachronically and synchronically. Diachronically, it can be read as a language that occasionally bursts forth into public space at unexpected places but doomed to remain silenced under the political regimes inherited from the eighteenth-century 4 . Its synchronic reading is attuned to the civil language spreading through the Middle East in recent months, not only in Tunisia and in the pre-revolutionary rumblings in Jordan, Syria and Algeria, but also in continuum with the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli regime. This continuum arouses fear in Israel, as expressed by Israel’s president Shimon Peres when he appealed to world leaders: “The dramatic events of the recent period make it necessary for us to take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the regional agenda,”. 5 Thus understood, perhaps for the first time in two centuries we shall witness an uprising that might cross sovereign borders, those borders imposed first by the Anglo-French colonial enterprise in the Middle East and later by founding of the State of Israel. Perhaps it will shred to bits the “hostility among nations” which political and military leaders have ignited, fuelled and imposed upon the region. Perhaps then the Middle East will open to a new horizon where citizens write their own future and past out of the new partnership that revolution enables them to revive, and invent a new form of regime that adopts several institutions and principles of the democratic systems, but rejects the whole in order to be able to imagine new possibilities of civil governance, of the citizens for the citizens, and by the citizens, as a general appellation for all of the governed in a given territory.

4 More on the analysis of the (civil) revolution not in keeping with the French Revolution, see my


“The Absent Philosopher-Prince: Thinking Political Philosophy with Olympe de Gouges.” Radical Philosophy, 158, pp. 36-47, 2009.

5 quoted in Barak, Ravid, "Peres: Israeli-Palestinian peace urgent in light of Egypt crisis", Haaretz 6.2.2011


Most of the time, revolution as a civil language is a dead language. What has been said with it in previous times and other places resides in photographs, among other places. Photography takes an active part in reviving this language. Reading photographs not merely to seek their news content is a part of learning this language, of interiorizing and honing it, writing its inner grammar, collecting, preserving and expanding its vocabulary and creating new possibilities of thinking the future through it.

I shall begin with a photograph by Peter Macdiarmid from January 28 th , taken at the Qasr

Macdiarmid from January 28 t h , taken at the Qasr Al-Nil bridge [see photo no.

Al-Nil bridge [see photo no. 2]. 6 In spite of the fact that this still photograph contains

sufficient signs of violence exerted by policemen against the demonstrators some hours earlier in an attempt to disperse them, it resembles photographs of festive occasions, albeit festivity of a new kind. This is not an event in which the architectural elements combining the national and the colonial – bridge, pillars, square, public building, sculpture base – serve the impressive presence of world figures, diplomats and other representatives of wealth and power as in the Suez photo. It is rather an occasion for the gathering of citizens in masses to discuss their future in civil language. The festivity is derived from the fact that masses of Egyptian demonstrators managed to take hold of the bridge where they had previously only been allowed to walk as individuals, and whenever they wished to speak in public, create a civil assembly, the security forces regarded it as a “strategic spot” – another military term in the language of sovereign regimes – and closed it to traffic. The citizens’ triumph in controlling the bridge is important and symbolic. The bridge is no longer one of those delineated places where demonstrations may be held for a given, limited time while control of traffic arteries from which citizens are removed is ongoing and strictly maintained by state apparatuses, usually in cooperation with international powers on which it depends in order to preserve itself. In the case of Egypt these cooperation and dependency are obvious. The determination with which masses of citizens stand on the bridge and the brilliant choreography by which they turned the armored vehicles into their dance stage set, is a

6 Video segments from this event posted on Youtube allow the viewer to reconstruct further moments in the struggle between demonstrators and police on the bridge. However, it is the still photo that enabled me to see beyond the photographed news item. I first saw the photograph on Nicholas Mirzoeff’s blog:


reaction to the regime’s canceling train traffic and closing off central thoroughfares in Egypt in order to prevent the citizens from becoming a power. This reaction expresses the development of the language of demonstration from one of static public squares into a dynamic one of bridges and thoroughfares. This moment, inscribed in the still photo, was preceded that day on the bridge by various forms of confrontation of demonstrators and police, in most of which they stood facing each other as “two sides”. In this still photo, the demonstrators weave themselves into a human carpet and inhabit the entire bridge (except for some spots seen in the photo – green armored cars and orange fire fighter vehicles), while the water cannons and the bright smoke billowing over the demonstrators, look more like sophisticated use of light and smoke to create atmosphere and less like sights of the violent suppression inscribed in photographs of the parallel

violent suppression inscribed in photographs of the parallel demonstrations that took place in the same day

demonstrations that took place in the same day in Suez [See photos from Suez].

The festive sight emerging from the photograph evoked my own photographic memory of another, earlier festive occasion – the inauguration of the Suez Canal. This was a constituting event in the region, significantly reducing the distance between Asia and Europe and laying the infrastructure for the exploitative nature – actual ever since – of transporting wealth, goods and people. 7 That photograph, taken in 1869 at the official opening ceremony of the canal, was the foundation for color drawings that were produced

was the foundation for color drawings that were produced from the event, such as the one

from the event, such as the one printed here [see picture no. 3]. The gala opening in the

presence of various world leaders and some local nobility makes one forget, as it did then, the local aspect of the global project – forced local labor that was used to dig the canal. In those years, forced labor was already prohibited by law in France, but was perceived by the European entrepreneurs as totally acceptable when it came to a country like Egypt, and when the objective it served – “expansion of the West” – raised no qualms. Even today one can hardly avoid observing the fact that the suppression of demonstrations in Suez is more violent than that exercised in other Egyptian towns, a part of a world struggle to ensure the free traffic of oil tankers through the canal that is located in Egypt but actually supervised by various world powers who fear for the stability of oil prices, as has indeed been impacted since the masses took to the streets.

7 On both occasions when Qasr Al Nil was erected, it was bound to imperialism: its first inauguration in 1872 related to French imperialism, under the name Kobri el Gezira Bridge, and the second – to British imperialism, under the name Khedive Ismail Bridge.


Compared to sovereign rule inside the State, the control and subjugation of nation- states to global regulations show a relatively minor visual presence, especially since some of the models of control and the practices they entail are exercised away from camera lenses. Thus, for example, in the last days of January, as the revolution peaked, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu permitted President Husni Mubarak to assign two battalions (about 800 soldiers) to the Sinai Peninsula – which Egypt controls, but according to its peace treaty with Israel must not deploy military forces to the area. The agreement to move forces was reached by the two leaders during the civil uprising in Egypt, without consulting their governments, with hardly any media coverage and without even a single photograph in the public space. The absence of such photographs creates holes in the citizens’ field of vision and action. Relating to these absent photos is a part of honing the grammar of civil language, a language that refuses to view only what is framed and defined as objects of denotation but chooses to use photography as a complex civil regime. Civil spectators take part in creating the objects that will be seen – including what I call “untaken photographs” 8 , such that are temporarily or intentionally absent - and not only in interpreting what was framed to their gaze but crossing its boundaries whenever these threaten to be closed. Even if this deployment was meant, as publicized, to help Mubarak preserve his power at home, it was meant no less to help Mubarak help Israel preserve its own control of Gaza and ensure that the severe siege it has laid upon Gaza in the past few years would not be broken by smuggling from Egypt. In any case, military forces are already there, to ensure that civil interests would not disrupt “world order”, which in its turn would ensure that we do not notice that the language of street uprising now spoken in Egypt through

the language of street uprising now spoken in Egypt through improvised barricades [see photo no. 4],

improvised barricades [see photo no. 4], has already been in use for some years several

kilometers away, in Gaza, with barricades that Gazans build to hide the tunnels they dig to ensure a minimal flow of goods from Egypt, goods that Israel forbids them to receive in other ways under the siege. And why should we notice a continuum? After all, they differ: these – Egyptians, are citizens subjugated to Mubarak whom they wish to replace, and those – Gazas, are non-

8 More on “untaken photographs” and their civil use see Ariella Azoulay, 2011. Civil Imagination – Political Ontology of Photography, Verso.


citizens and not under any sovereign regime – after all Israel does not recognize its own domination of them and therefore according to the Israeli official perspective there is no leader whom they could wish to oust, and therefore their uprising should win the sympathy and support of the world. Thus, instead of being urgently extinguished as are other revolutions by the “solution” of democratic sovereign regime, Gaza is placed on the margins of world order and there seem to be nothing urgent about it. Instead of recognizing in the rebellion in Gaza elements of civil revolution against the very same regime that subjugates them and that nevertheless they trust, instead of joining the Gazans by taking to the streets with broken furniture to build barricades in front of the Ministry of Defense - the citizens of the State of Israel take part in oppressing the Gazans, making them transparent, stateless. In order to stop the oppression of Gazans, Israelis should now adopt the civil dialect that has burst forth in use in the Middle East and insist on the abolition of the Israeli regime as part of a new Middle East. When citizens take to the street and use the language of revolution, they express a civil passion that is aroused in public, amongst strangers, a passion that enthusiastically

sweeps even a greater mass than has already been seen on the streets. Its echoes arouse in

a mass that is attuned to the possibilities it revives by reminding us that the governing power is provisional, that the governed are those who condition the governing power

through the recognition they either grant or deny it. This is a passion to see the governing power act for the sake of the governed and with them, limit the erosion of their quality of life, create positive contents to generate a different tomorrow, invest resources in improving the services provided them, and not use them in order to justify world- embracing moves that are not connected to the concrete reality of their lives or that injures it in various ways. When civil language is spoken passionately in the public space,

it sows confusion. Those in power, close to power and identifying with power, those who

usually tend to forget that the governed are the source of governing power, can no longer so easily deny the change that has taken place in the game they are now playing.

that has taken place in the game they are now playing. Look at the soldiers in

Look at the soldiers in the photos coming in from Egypt [See more photos

soldiers in the photos coming in from Egypt [See more photos soldiers/policemen]. They look as though

soldiers/policemen]. They look as though an ancient secret has just been revealed to them

– the governed, not the ruler, are the source of their power and ability to maintain order and enforce the law. The source of their power – the governed masses – now demands its


share, and even non-violently. In order to continue attributing the source of their power to the sovereign ruler, they now need to exert violence. Not all of them are willing to do so:

“I was asked to kill protestors, so I decided to resign from my post” said one of the policemen, taking off his uniform. 9 But here another secret is revealed to them – one that has managed to create an imagined structural barricade between governing and governed, and made them both forget the fact that they are all governed who can act to change the regime while it moves against them. In the two photos in which an officer is seen carried on the shoulders of demonstrators, the public expression of this awakening is plainly

the public expression of this awakening is plainly visible [see photos nos. 6 and 7]. In

visible [see photos nos. 6 and 7]. In one of them the photographed and photographer look

as though they just got together for a photo opportunity to express this awakening. The officer framed in the center of the image - with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the background, gathered in the street and on the bridge – was photographed ripping Mubarak’s portrait in half. The act of ripping itself is not some furious shredding. It is a calculated, stylized move that ensures the two halves of the portrait to remain identifiable for what they are even as they fly off in the air. In the second photograph, showing the same officer in a more isolated spot, the scene appears more complex. Behind the officer carried on people’s shoulders, a line of uniformed soldiers is seen marching. None of their gestures bespeak their crossing the lines, unlike him. The body gesture of one of the demonstrators, trying to block the advancing soldiers and to distance them from the officer who has defected, allows us to assume that they do not quite accept this move on his part. Still, even without explicitly crossing the lines, as done by some soldiers and policemen – their numbers as yet unknown – and without showing any sympathy for such a move, most of the soldiers and a substantial number of policemen do not behave as the representatives of the power against which the demonstrators have taken to the streets. These photographs and many others show that the language of revolution never consists solely of the conduct of citizens demonstrating throughout the city. It necessarily includes evident presence soldiers refraining from crushing the movement of demonstrators – without which one could not speak of revolution. Without massive cooperation on the

9 Spoken by Amar Yousef, quoted by Ynet on February 3 rd , 2011, in an item by Hassan Shaalan, “Egyptian policeman: People’s demands just”.


part of soldiers, the language of revolution could not be spoken on the streets. In order for the language of revolution to resound in the street, certain conditions are required to ensure that the demonstrators’ move would not turn into just another riot which the police

move would not turn into just another riot which the police are committed to crush on

are committed to crush on the spot [See Photographic examples].

From this I propose to conclude the most important characteristic of a revolution under western sovereign regimes – a revolution taking place when masses unidentified along the existing political map, most of them strangers to each other, take to the streets and their demands are not crushed on the spot but manage to create a counter-weight to the

on the spot but manage to create a counter-weight to the governing power’s ability to crush

governing power’s ability to crush them immediately. [See photo of the civil organization

crush them immediately. [See photo of the civil organization of the square] In other words, when

of the square] In other words, when two modes of power face each other in the public

space and the power that has established itself as the law cannot win and is not able to restore recognition of its exclusive hold of violence and authority in the shared space – we face a revolution. Revolution, then, is not the description of “results”, “political achievements” or a “bundle of reforms” but rather a description of new power relations, not fixed in space, that contest the existing structure of sovereignty and interrupt its performative reiterations.

Revolution is the demand for a change of language, namely changing the regime which is sometimes symbolized by the demand to oust the leader who has managed to tyrannize and make the citizens forget their citizenship. The demonstrators’ demand to oust Mubarak – and a similar demand under other regimes – is a local name given to revolutionary fervor. But the local goal identified by this name does not quite exhaust the burning need to turn shared political space into a space where talk is bound to deed and deed to result, today makes way for tomorrow and the future seems an accessible material that the governed want and can work towards shaping, intervene in its proceedings and imagine its horizons. No wonder, then, that a leader who stays in power for three decades, even if for a very long time now his deeds have made him unworthy of ruling them, is marked by them as the first objective that, having been reached, will renew the connection between deeds and results. His ousting – so they say in the city square – is the obvious result of his deeds. Through this demand, the demonstrators wish to vest meaning in their own deeds and view their immediate results. Unlike the language they


speak in public, Mubarak’s first promise to step down in September, like the request of senior army officers to stop the demonstrations since their demands have now been met, sound like that empty language that does not tell of deeds and does not bear their stamp, and is therefore rejected by the demonstrators face on. After Mubarak stepped down, protestors insisted on not clearing away the language of revolution but rather to see it continue further. “At the square!” they cried. “We demand our rights at the townsquare!”

Revolution is the demand of citizens to speak civil language, to exercise civil skills and, so doing, remind themselves and the governing power that the regime that has long been set is neither a law of nature nor an act of fate, and the regime must let them act towards living a worthy life shared with others, including those in power with whom they share the space.

Without underestimating the achievements of this revolution in terms of possible relief for Egyptian society after ousting Mubarak, and democratic and liberal reforms that may accompany them – all of this will not really make the need for ongoing civil revolution superfluous. Once we understand that this need was not made superfluous in any of the democratic regimes the world over, the revolution can become a living civil language of everyday life. Creating a liberal democratic regime in Egypt will quench revolutionary fervor and re-presence the “either-or” rationale as inevitable – either sovereign rule or revolution, thereby putting an end to the possible creation of a civil space where citizens act for their own lives and do not play a secondary role in politics unfolding over their heads and in an international scene that it serves. The politics of liberal democratic regimes continues to be set in motion by the imperial structure by which sovereign states who wish to put an end to wars in their own domain export weapons and encourage wars in faraway lands, run these wars by remote control, seal borders, erect checkpoints, transport cheap labor and get rid of it after use, turning large parts of the world’s population into persons devoid of civil status, with no environment in which to shelter and live, and detached from any reality in which they can play a role beyond their labor potential.


By narrowing down revolution to a national context, associating it directly with well defined goals and results and designating the democratic regime as the people’s ideal history and political discourse have prevented revolutions since the eighteenth-century to appear as acts in a single interrupted struggle of civil discourse rising up against another discourse – the sovereign discourse of the nation-state. Instead of appearing as a struggle to replace the sovereign language by a civil one, a struggle of two languages, two modes of power, the different revolutions were caught in the language of sovereignty except that now it was the sovereignty of the people. In our global world today, shaped by the heritage of imperialism and the political language it has passed on to us 10 , we must reject the separations that turn us into spectators viewing the revolutions of others, and begin to tell history anew, the history whose traces are found in the archives, and history unfolding in front of our very eyes, as a civil history of which we are necessarily a part. We must begin to reconstruct the revolutions which we passed by without recognizing them as such, without recognizing them as “our” revolutions, and to weave them into the larger narrative of civil awakening of the eighteenth-century. This awakening must be told in such a way as not to let us forget that although blacks and women, too, took part in the civil struggle of the eighteenth-century, they were dispossessed of its achievements which were mostly kept by and for white men who mouthed the universal discourse inherited by our democracies, each time dispossessing a different population group.

In all modern revolutions, women have taken an active and significant part. In several of these revolutions, as a part of their conclusion, one or two figures ended up as the revolution’s icon. The French Revolution and later revolt are a familiar, typical example of this – from the Goddesses of Wisdom and Justice through Courbet’s Marianne, these were women-goddesses represented acting in a more elevated sphere than that of the polis. In the political imaginary developing at the time, these women-heroes took the place of concrete women who had participated in the revolution. Thus, both their part in the revolution and the fact that the revolution did not necessarily better their lot but rather

10 More about this heritage in Ann Stoler’s discussion Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Ed. Ann L. Stoler), Duke University Press, 2011.


worsen it in many realms were erased for years. Like other gestures, that of a woman charging ahead bearing a flag or carried aloft on the shoulders of the crowd and signaling the victory sign with her fingers have now been seen both in Tunisia and in Egypt. 11 But the iconicity of the gesture is not given, and is certainly not merely a result of the photographer’s or painter’s action. Reading these gestures as icons means creating them as icons while stripping them of their concrete characteristics and relating only to a single one that has been iconicized. On the level of viewing, iconization makes the concrete abstract, filters details that would disrupt the iconic model, fixing the model, sanctifying

it and using it to harness the viewers to see the familiar and forget the difference that

comes about with performative repetition. Thus when we unproblematically place a

photograph such as this one – taken in Egypt by Amr Abdallah Dalsh - somewhere along

a continuum that stretches from the French Revolution through May 1968, and give up

reading the concrete gesture in the photograph, we turn the female figure once again into


emerging from between the shoulders of two armed soldiers, brings out the outstanding gesture of a shout – “Out of my way, out of our way!” or, perhaps, “Take off your uniform and join us!” She is not baring her breast nor is she carried aloft by demonstrators, half-nude. Rather, she resembles the demonstrator whom François Mori photographed in France last year 12 , a woman in public space shouting her political

1 2 , a woman in public space shouting her political silent symbol [see photo no.

silent symbol [see photo no. 8]. A look at the Egyptian woman wearing an orange shirt,

8]. A look at the Egyptian woman wearing an orange shirt, demands out loud as she

demands out loud as she is born on others’ shoulders, like her predecessor [See photo].

The creation of an icon out of a civil revolution, placing it as its symbol, is part of the effort to neutralize revolution as a living language, and no less than that, to neutralize women’s concrete contribution to the revival of the language of revolution and blurring the fact that, again, their names do not appear on the lists of candidates for senior posts, and first and foremost, for replacing the ousted president.

11 In his essay, Andre Gunthert criticizes what he calls the simplistic mechanism of illustration that creates the equation “revolution=female figure” and in the absence of “female figure=no revolution”. However, in his essay he threads the female figures unproblematically according to the model that has been iconicized, thus missing the difference between the female figure yelling in the street, in François Mori’s photograph, and the female figure chosen by the Nouvel Observateur to illustrate the revolution in Tunisia – who, unlike the famous Marianne figures from Courbet to May '68 revolution, intervenes in spoken space. See his essay “Rattraper la revolution”, 21.1.2011.

12 Such as this (shown in the same continuum created by Gunthert - see note above).


However, instead of fossilizing the female figure, closing her resounding mouth and turning her into a silent symbol, her photograph – and that of others like her – should be read as yet another civil expression calling on the soldier to wake up, inviting him to recognize the language of revolution as his own, warning him that time is short, that together they can speak revolution, speak it as a language, a civil language that is spoken by many, in public, and that together they can revive it, resist its return to its familiar status as a dead language forbidden for use most of the time, to be used only rarely, under other regimes, where things will become unbearable. If Mubarak’s resignation will have the effect prayed for by the professional actors of political life – politicians, diplomats, media people and others – and will put an end to the revolution in the form of another politician that will take his place, then the language of revolution that the citizens of Cairo revived in the streets of their city will again be a dead language and what we see as an achievement today might turn out in time to be the shattering of a dream. If what looks like a wave of revolutions in the Middle East will indeed bring along a new tomorrow, this will happen only if its formation will not resemble another sovereign regime headed by a man. Only if a popular regime develops whose principles will be learned from the

ways in which the revolution took place – without or with a variation

and while creating a language rich in expression, local organizing with its own character, endless conversation about every dimension of life while making room for creativity,

every dimension of life while making room for creativity, of sovereign rule hope, curiosity, innovation, partnership

of sovereign rule

of life while making room for creativity, of sovereign rule hope, curiosity, innovation, partnership [See photo

hope, curiosity, innovation, partnership [See photo no 9 – organized square].

Through the reading of revolution’s complex expressions, one can see in Egypt’s revolution not only a direct sequel of Tunisia or a preview of forthcoming ones in Syria, Algeria or Jordan, but rather a direct continuation of the demands by refugees the world over to get back to their countries, rewrite vision documents in order to shape ways of life shared with others, new alliances and pacts, to redefine movement in spaces, take new advantage of frontiers, ridding them of the death traps they have constituted for people forced into statelessness, and much more. All of these must and can be parts of a civil language, eager to replace the language of sovereign democratic regimes. Such civil language will grow as the tidings from the East only if all citizens of the region, Muslims, Christians and Jews, will liberate themselves of the spectacles of the sovereign regimes


that recruited them to fight citizens like them on a national, gender, racial and religious basis. Only a revolution across national borders might develop into a real civil revolution that will sweep the entire region and offer an alternative model for western democracy that currently participates in oppressing the citizens of the region. However, in order for the revolution that started in Egypt to develop into a civil revolution and not end as another democracy participating in global crime against millions deprived of citizen status, the citizens who do not see their own regime as a tyranny because it does not injure them directly, need to wake up too. This is certainly true for the citizens of my own country, Israel. A new Middle East will be possible only when the citizens of the Israeli state will wake up, only when they understand that they are not governed alone by the Israeli regime - that democracy they idolize and hail as the only democracy in the Middle East.


[They are governed alongside millions of Palestinians, and more millions of Palestinians who in 1948 became non-governed of this regime and live along the borders of their homeland, waiting for the day when they will be allowed back home. And until the citizens of the entire region wake up, alternative narratives have to be prepared, the revolution in Egypt must be read as a continuum of revolutions which sovereign rule has always interrupted prematurely by dictating to them a goal that was agreed upon and curtailed them as a language. However, civil language, like any language, cannot be reduced to achieve concrete goals. Language is the form of people’s existence together. Language develops according to the needs of those who speak it, creates new idioms and skills, is transmitted from one to another and shapes itself thereby. This is how the civil language, too, should be: not aiming to topple the governing power but rather to create the conditions for suspending the governing power and establishing a civil space that enables citizens to shape their lives together.]