By Osama Diab
Wednesday 25 January 2012
Recognising the importance of producing a grassroots, street-level media by the people and for the people, a group called Kazeboon (Liars) was founded following the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution to record the human rights violations committed by the security forces. They use simple citizen journalism tools, such as camera phones, and equipped with a projector, they roam the streets of the nation to screen the films they make in order to, in their own words, “keep the balance of truth”.
As a counter move, a group called Sadiqoon (Honest) was founded to project a positive image of the military police and try to prove by film that violence was carried out by protesters.
These two rival projects reflect divisive sentiments and narratives that are common in Egypt and are splitting the population. But which of these narratives, and many more, will actually make it into the history books remains the interesting question.
Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and sociologist, argues that the winners in any social or political struggle use their newly acquired political power to suppress the defeated’s alternative account of events. But do governments still have the luxury to suppress opposing narratives in the age of social media?
The historiographical approach to documenting major social and political transformations and the introduction of a new order differ quite considerably from one time to another, and from place to place. Pierre Nora, the French historian, explains that one approach is constructing a unified standard version of “what happened” in order to promote a unified national identity and social cohesion where the nation usually end up having a standard language, national holidays, etc. This approach was mainly predominant in the UK and France. However, in the United States, a large country with various traditions, the approach to writing history allows for more diversity and a wide range of narratives to emerge.
The construction of a unified national identity which Nora refers to requires the existence of a centralised media apparatus, usually government-owned, which sends a standard message to all the citizens of a nation. However, this is a fading phenomenon all over the world due to globalisation and the emergence of decentralised media. This means that it is getting increasingly hard for any government to have total control over the means of producing media and culture.
In the United States, some of the history and even the visual culture that emerged from the Civil War, was written by the defeated (the Southerners). Popular Hollywood box office hits, such as Cold Mountain and Gone with the Wind all tell the story of the civil war from a Southern perspective. In addition, even though the USA didn’t ‘win’ the Vietnam war, most films about Vietnam are American.
The openness and freedom of the American media, along with its diverse tradition, is probably what allows it more than other nations to present different and sometimes conflicting narratives and accounts without awakening the fear that this might affect national identity or social cohesion.
The Egyptian revolution is one of the first major political and historical transformations to be driven by online activism, but most importantly, this online activism still cast its shadow on how people want their revolution to be remembered, and there seems to be no consensus on the matter.
The so-called Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular are perfect examples of when diverse interpretations become inevitable in the age of digital media and open access to information. Arab countries are a good example because they have always been under authoritarian rule, with the media, culture and history traditionally under tight government control. Even though the new media and the information era have been covered quite intensively as the driving force behind the Arab revolutions, little has been said about the way it might affect how these revolutions, important historical events in their own right, might be remembered by future generations.
Even governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution are very wary of the sensitivity surrounding official accounts of what happened. The National Archive of Egypt appointed the head of the history department at the American Univeristy in Cairo, Khaled Fahmy, to take charge of its project to document and archive the revolution.
Fahmy is well aware of the challenge he faces. He pointed out in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events. “When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time,” said Fahmy.
Fahmy, therefore, is attempting to only collect as much primary data as possible without trying to impose a certain narrative and leave it to the people, especially future generations, to construct their own narratives about the revolution and its period. Fahmy also makes it clear that, since the revolution was leaderless and decentralised, this should also be our approach to writing its history and accessing it. There are also a few other organised non-governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution by the Bibliotheca Alexandria, American University in Cairo students and alumni, and others.
The fact that the revolution was leaderless makes it a politically sensitive topic. Many factions seem to be fighting to claim ownership of the revolution and attempt to emphasise and stretch their role in it.
A power struggle has emerged in post-revolutionary Egypt to try and fill this power vacuum. Claiming ownership of the revolution and fighting the old regime is central to this power struggle. This dispute is expected to cast its shadow over the writing of the revolution’s history and help further diversify the narratives and interpretations of the events which are taking place.
The media play an important role in constructing national identity to the extent that some argue that nationalism as we know it did not exist before the invention of the printing press, which enabled the emergence of the first mass media. Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities argues that the emergence of print led to the emergence of nationalism because it helped members of a nation ‘imagine’ and identify with a wider community with which they shared no direct contact.
Referred to sometimes as history’s first Facebook revolution, tthe role of social media continues even after the revolution and is causing fragmentation in society, as well as difficulties for the new political leadership to construct a new and unified national identity. More importantly, it is causing a diversity of historical narratives to emerge, not just about the recent revolution but also abut older historical events in which certain narratives were suppressed and swept under the carpet.
However, over time, it might be proven that nationalism and social cohesion are not necessarily linked to having only one version of the ‘truth’ while suppressing all the other versions. Future generations are likely to grow up surrounded by a whole range of historical and political narratives thanks to the decentralisation of media production. On the bright side, this phenomenon might promote tolerance and enhance people’s ability to coexist and accept difference.
This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.