ABSTRACT

How and why do crowds form in North Africa? The answer to this question involves negotiating pervasive Freudian and Orientalist discourses of the ‘Middle Eastern mob’. In an attempt to counter and work outside such derogatory notions of group formations, I have endeavored to detail differences between types of crowds and look at crowds in their contexts from the vantage point of North African crowd participants. I did this through interviews and on-site investigations within the geographical space of North Africa and the temporal context of 2011-13. However, the story of crowds clearly did not begin in 2011 and did not come to an end in 2013. Crowds continued to be the subject of physical state violence (for instance, the Egyptian army fired into crowds of unarmed protesters in August 2013) and symbolic violence (claims that they are terrorists) that undermine their democratizing intentions. In this chapter, I describe the ideological underpinnings of negative stereotypes about crowds and situate my own approach to them within theoretical discussions about the political meaning of crowds. I begin with one of the pivotal discussion points in crowd theory, a point

which is both historical and psychoanalytic at the same time, and one about which writers differ a great deal: whether crowds are progressive or regressive social forces. Theorists’ positions on this question seem to be more determined by their positions in relation to dominant power than the ‘actual’ nature of crowds as either positive calls for justice or angry and irrational ‘mobs’. There are differences between types of crowds, but not, I suggest, in the ways these differences have usually been described. In his Crowds and Power (1962) Elias Canetti put forward a set of ideas about crowds that did not lock in, or seal off, his reading of them. Crowds, for Canetti, always performed relations of power, sometimes in subversive and sometimes in supportive ways, but they were always spectacular, distilled configurations of a society’s most potent social mechanisms. I think one can come to the same conclusions about crowds in North Africa, where they cannot be said to move forward or backward on a teleological progression toward development, but rather are cyclical and performative manifestations of relations of power that, at times, overflow into total reversal of the status quo. The meanings of a crowd depend on its context, how it came into being and what type of crowd

it is. In certain contexts a crowd can be authoritarian in its political stance. Authoritarian crowds, those masses of people mobilized by Arab dictators, moved away from democratic freedoms. They were propagandistic crowds, where the people expressed or feigned their loyalty out of fear. But clearly there were other types of crowds that defied state control. Leaderless, spontaneous crowds have had great democratizing potential and these have been the types of crowds that have changed the course of recent history in North Africa.