chapter  3
Re- envisioning Tahrir: The changing meanings of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s ongoing revolution
Pages 19

Introduction On 8 May 2012 the Salafi leader Abbud al-Zumur published in al-Masryun newspaper a ten-point plan to restore the unity of the Egyptian revolution as expressed by Tahrir Square. While the first point, ‘Realize that God alone is behind this revolution’, was clearly a nod to his Islamist credentials, most of his other points (such as ‘remember the blood of the martyrs that was shed on the squares for the freedom of this country’, ‘excuse the other factions instead of condemning them’, and ‘unify around a common purpose’) offered advice to Egypt’s myriad factions on how to return to a unity of purpose in spite of the many divisions between political entities, so that the revolution would not fail to create a new Egypt better than the old. According to al-Zumur, the revolution could not fail if Egyptians of all political stripes adhered to the spirit exhibited during those eighteen days in Tahrir Square. What was remarkable about al-Zumur’s editorial was not the specifics of his call but the fact that he invoked Tahrir Square as a key signifier in his call for political unity. Al-Zumur was a founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and organizer of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. He did not participate in the protests at Tahrir Square during the eighteen days: he was not even released from prison until almost five weeks after Mubarak’s resignation. At the time of his writing, he was serving as a political adviser for Salafi political parties that did not exist at the time of the uprisings, and whose leaders had advised followers against participating in the first eighteen days of Tahrir protests. How, then, could he credibly speak of the unity of Tahrir Square? How could he use the plural personal pronoun to speak of ‘our’ Tahrir, of what ‘we’ have done, and must do, to keep the spirit of Tahrir alive? This chapter is about the ways different political actors have laid claim to Tahrir Square, how they interpreted and articulated its meanings, and how they discursively positioned it within their own visions of the continuing Egyptian revolution.1 I assume that ‘revolution’ is a political, economic and, above all, symbolic process. Central to this process is an iterative, contingent and interdependent relationship between the Egyptian revolution as a series of actions and events, and the revolution as a constellation of contested narratives through which people assign

meaning to these events. To understand this process, I turn to Victor Turner’s model of social drama. Drawing on his own detailed studies of the ritual process, Turner saw revolutions as processes in which events had symbolic significance and symbols were put into action. As ‘social dramas’, revolutions exhibited a structure: there was an initial breach of the social and political order, followed by a period of liminality when the old order had ended but no new order had emerged, accompanied by intense sociality (communitas) and political creativity (antistructure). Eventually, redressive mechanisms come into operation to reintegrate rival factions into a new coherent order. I argue that while the eighteen days in Tahrir Square neatly fit Victor Turner’s concepts of liminality, communitas and antistructure, the revolution failed to exhibit the inexorable ‘decline and fall into structure and law’ that Turner’s model predicts (Turner 1969: 132). On the contrary, the Egyptian public sphere turned into what Turner calls an arena, in which the many political and social visions of a new, post-Mubarak Egypt are contested and struggled over, and various political institutions – from the remnants of the old regime to the narrowly elected president and his Muslim Brotherhood associates to the revolutionary youth to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF ) – struggle to create a new hegemonic narrative to define Egypt. Central to the actions of these political agents and the contested discourses that seek to explain them are multiple versions of what the ‘real’ uprising in Tahrir was about. Long after the uprisings that ousted President Mubarak, Tahrir Square remains a significant symbol in efforts to construct moments of meaning in the contingent, unfolding experience of the ongoing revolution.