chapter  4
The iconic stage: Martyrologies and performance frames in the 25 January Revolution
ByWALTER ARMBRUST
Pages 29

In Egyptian political rhetoric, martyrdom, istishhad, was one of the most important idioms of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. It shaped not just strategies for political mobilization but also the space in which political performance took place.1 One of the first papers I published on the 25 January Revolution examined the fate of Sally Zahran, a young woman who had been briefly prominent in revolutionary mobilization imagery when she appeared in a newspaper feature depicting fourteen ‘socially representative’ martyrs in the early days of the uprising against the Mubarak regime (Armbrust 2012).2 Initially the story was that she died in the Revolution on 28 January, the ‘Friday of Rage’, killed by the Mubarak regime’s thugs on her way to Tahrir Square (Figure 4.1). The story led quickly to her being called ‘the icon of the revolution’, but it just as quickly fell apart. She had actually died in the town of Sohag, where she fell from a balcony trying to escape from her family’s home to go and re-join the protests. Her appearance, intrinsically a component of her iconization, was also challenged. Initially representations of her were drawn from her Facebook page, on which the profile picture was of a young activist woman with wild flowing hair. Some claimed that she was actually a muhaggaba (a woman who wore the Islamic headscarf ). Many removed her un-hijabed image from their Facebook pages, sometimes replacing it with an older photo of her from a period of her life in which she did wear a hijab. These challenges to her original narrative left her individual ‘icon-hood’ diminished, though her image, together with those of the other ‘representative martyrs’ published alongside hers, continued to be reproduced in mobilization imagery for several years. Sally Zahran instantiates a common process of popular iconization that originates in a corporate media site, a newspaper in this case, but becomes, for a brief eye-catching time, something far greater as people outside or on the margins of corporate and state-controlled media appropriate it. Her image was deployed in demonstrations, graffiti and wall art, and re-amplified through decentralized social media (Figure 4.2). Such ‘bio-icons’, as Bishnupriya Ghosh calls them, ‘bear an indexical charge for collectivities that place social demands through them’ (Ghosh 2011: 12). In these circumstances the process of martyrology works by making claims through the idiom of the martyr. Claims are predicated on the fact that the martyr paid the ultimate price for a cause. A martyr is

presented as an irrefutable call for redressive action: ‘You can’t argue with this; something must be done about it’. However, the irresistible force of the martyr may be met with an immovable object of contention. In a revolutionary situation martyrs may be used as unifying symbols, but their mobilizing force can also be used by the state against revolutionaries in a kind of political jujitsu. It has long been obvious that the apparent potential of the 25 January Revolution to inaugurate a less authoritarian social and political system in Egypt would not be quickly realized or may even have been illusory.3 Consequently, in the interest of examining not just the ‘irresistible force’ of the revolution but also the ‘immovable objects’ that opposed it, my goal here is not to focus on the popular iconization of martyrs (the subject of Armbrust 2012, and eventually a chapter in my forthcoming book), but rather on the relation of martyrology to commemoration or, in other words, on the official use of martyrs. Martyrology was already inscribed in Tahrir Square long before the 25 January Revolution. It is part of the materiality of Tahrir Square as a space for political performance.