This essay was originally published in Jadaliyya
In 1987 Egyptian public television aired the soap opera Sonbol Ba‘d al-Milyon (Sonbol After the Million), a burlesque soap opera of sorts starring the comedian Mohamed Sobhy. It came as a sequel to a popular first part titled The Million Pound Journey, in which Sonbol, the series’ main character, rises up the social ladder, despite his humble origins. Sonbol, played by Sobhy, is an ambitious self-made young man from the Nile Delta who decides to invest his savings by reclaiming desert land in the Sinai Peninsula. Sonbol buys a piece of land from the government and sets out to build a farm. Back in his village Sonbol tries to recruit farmers to work in the land. Anticipating the villagers’ reluctance to move to the desolate Sinai, Sonbol concocts a lie: he tells them that they will be working overseas, in another country called Zarzura. Zarzura is still obviously a desert country, but at least its location abroad intimates a fantasy of an oil-rich Gulf state, which makes it more alluring to the villagers—this was the heyday of Egyptian migration to the Gulf where workers would be expecting to earn multiples of their income back in Egypt. Sonbol succeeds in recruiting the gullible villagers, but he warns them not to speak to any of the locals, since they do not posses “work permits.” In the next scene the plane lands in a small airport in the middle of the desert and as the men walk down the airplane steps, they start chanting hajj incantations, labbayk allahumma labbayk!, believing that they have landed in the precincts of Mecca. Read More
This article was originally published in The Atlantic Council
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has witnessed a wave of militant attacks against army and government posts since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The rate and intensity of attacks, together with the fatalities, however, have increased since the military coup that ousted the country’s first elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3. The military-led government responded with an extensive operation against what it claimed were terrorist groups with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite an increase in military activity (the most extensive in the peninsula since the end of the 1973 war) the situation in Sinai remains opaque; the identities of the attackers, their demands, the exact extent of the operations and causalities are shrouded in mystery. Army restrictions compounded by the tribal formation of the area renders reporting by outsiders impossible at times. Notwithstanding the opacity of the situation, a few patterns in the conflict stand out.
The following essay was published in the “Troubled Landscapes” issue of Photographies Journal.
In 1936 William Faulkner wrote his tenth novel Absalom, Absalom! The novel marked the pinnacle of Faulkner’s career and secured him the Nobel Prize a decade later. The first pages of the book included a hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. At the center of the map was Jefferson, the county seat. The territory extended from Tallahatchie River in the north to Yoknapatawpha River in the south. The map came with a key of corresponding information, detailing surface area and population. It also included the statement:
William Faulkner, sole owner & proprietor.
But proprietor of what? The map? The land? Or the place? The map was atypical, not only due to the appropriative gesture by its author. The map did not feature places but events and characters in Faulkner’s previous novels and short stories, most of which took place in Yoknapatawpha. The eastern territories marked The Sound and The Fury, at the center was Light in August, and at the northwest was Absalom, Absalom! In fact, one might argue, Faulkner was not just the proprietor of the stories attributed to the place but the place itself. Yoknapatawpha was a fictional creation of Faulkner’s novels; it is not that stories were charted onto places. On the contrary, stories charted their territories. The map does not chart a set of diagrammatic abstractions in relation to spatial information. Instead, the map sets relations among novels where place functions, not as a backdrop to the narrative, but emerges as a textual operation through the narrative….
Read the essay (PDF)
The following essay was published in Fillip issue 18
While Facebook was a crucial tool for the mobilization of the public during the days of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, Facebook after the revolution was even more vibrant, politically and visually. The proliferation in that space of image-posts—that is, images shared as a means of communication, specifically, political communication—was remarkable. This phenomenon was not unique to the Egyptian political context, but given that it arose with the onset of the revolution and then proliferated following it, it calls for some attention. The post-revolutionary period—roughly the year succeeding the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011—was a time of political strife in which the image-post acted less to the effect of mobilizing the populace than of gesturing toward political affiliations and positions. Compared with the early days of the revolution, the political landscape of its latter days is divided among different political factions, different ideologies, and a multiplicity of adversaries. In the post-revolutionary Facebook landscape, the social and political momentum and solidarity amassed against the Mubarak regime has diffused with the loss of a common foe, and as a consequence this momentum and solidarity has weakened. … Read PDF
* Read part 1, “Seen in action: aesthetics and politics on Facebook”.
* Read also “Image-operations”
* View an archive of image-posts here.
* This article was originally published in The New Left Project
Last week, Egypt’s minster of defense and army chief Abdel Fatah El-Sisi called for the nation to rally in support of the army on Friday 26 July, and in doing so grant him the mandate to take all measures necessary to fight terrorism. Three weeks before El-Sisi had deposed president Morsi in what is best described as “coupvolution” and allocated presidential powers to the head of the Supreme Court while retaining jurisdiction in matter of national security. That process went smoothly from the point of view of the military and the anti-Morsi opposition, and indeed turned out to be very popular. The security apparatus started cracking down on Islamists from day one. Why in that case would he seek a further popular mandate for what the military was already doing?
Despite being a key force on the political scene since the ousting of Mubarak this is the first time an army figure has called for mass protests or what is locally known as milioniyat (from millions). In doing so El-Sisi was invoking the people as the ultimate source of political power or what is broadly known as “popular sovereignty.” For someone who has just deposed a democratically elected president the resorting to tropes of popular sovereignty is crucial if one is to sanction his otherwise unconstitutional position. The symbolic weight of protest is appealed to in order to outweigh the representative power of elections.
* This article was originally published in openDemocracy
Since the deposition of the Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by the military on July 3, debate has circled around whether to call this a coup or a popular uprising. History has traditionally placed the two concepts at opposing poles from each other. This time they have become entangled as never before.
Unorthodox positions have been taken up by political players on both sides: revolutionary groups, despite their previous attitudes to the military, have hailed the generals’ decision, while the conservative Muslim Brotherhood decries it a military coup on the basic premise of defending democracy. But the convergence of interest between the revolutionary forces and the military requires an altogether new term.
Coup is an unambiguous notion: when an army intervenes to overthrow a government it is a coup. Revolution on the other hand, is less amenable to such technical definitions. It is identified intuitively: we know it when we see it. We tend to register it as image, an image of the people in congregation against the sovereign, the acute surge that seems to come out of nowhere, reshuffles the scene and soon dissipates. But that is rarely the case. History is ripe with revolutions that lingered on without endpoints and became constant states under the rubric of revolution: revolutionary parties, revolutionary governments and revolutionary policies and even revolutionary countries. It is during this afterlife that revolution assumes its indeterminate and loose character, even to the point that it might subsume a coup under its semiotic cloak.
We can think of revolution according to two analytic schemes. Firstly, it is the event of a quasi-absolute consensus against a common target, namely the sovereign, followed by a mobilization of the populace. Consensus temporarily suspends discordances typically held among factions of the populace for the sake of the single antagonism. This mobilization is typically momentary, and as history has repeatedly demonstrated, unpredictable. The uprising against Mubarak’s regime in January 2011 could be read according to this definition.
This article was published in the journal Philosophy of Photography journal, volume 3 issue 2.
‘Image-posts’ is what I call those images posted and circulated on Facebook as means of communication. I exclude from this category personal photographs. Apart from that, any image can function as an image-post but usually they come in the form of digitally altered media photographs and with superimposed texts. Sometimes it is only a text on a seamless background—a virtual placard of sorts. As a matter of fact all image-operations are placards in the sense that they are enunciations rather than a constative denotations of events; they are modes of the communicative that refer to things beyond their ontic content. Another common feature is that they are usually of unknown origin, or at least their origin does not seem to be as important as their communicative function, hence the epithet ‘operations.’
* Read also “Seen in action: aesthetics and politics on Facebook” and “The Page That I Am: a biology of Facebook”.
* View archive of Facebook image-posts