Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fighting Words: The Voice of the Protest

Over the past month, we’ve watched a more-or-less peaceful revolution in Tunisia spread into neighboring countries along the Mediterranean in the same way a grass fire bolts through southern California. The current situation in the Middle East has garnered our media’s attention, much like a summer brush fire outbreak, and the popular revolt in Egypt has captured the same feelings of panic and voyeurism. We’ve watched the situation play out as Anderson Cooper was assaulted on the streets of Cairo by pro-Mubarak thugs. Then, the cable TV pundits organized themselves along party lines, with the right delivering ominous warnings of impending Caliphates and socialist uprisings worldwide, and the left taking the opportunity to criticize the diplomacy of administrations current and past. Amid all the spectacle and speculation, however, some very important people were left largely voiceless, and they were the ones down in Tahrir Square.

When the Mubarak administration took harsh measures to silence the protesters, like shutting down public internet service across Egypt, few options existed for a demonstrator on the streets to deliver his or her message to audiences across the globe. Deprived of Facebook, Twitter, and blog access, the Egyptian protesters returned to the timeless traditions of rally chants, protest songs, and shouted slogans to make their voices heard. While they may be low-tech, they are certainly not ineffective.

Primarily, and most obviously, slogans are an effective form of spreading their message. While this is easily taken for granted, consider for a moment that reporters and other agents of the press were being systematically targeted and removed from the Tahrir square area. Anyone with a video camera, voice recorder, or notepad might have been singled out for a round of b
eatings before being asked to leave the area. For a reporter this sort of situation is problematic, since it makes verbatim interviews nearly impossible. However, a catchy chant is memorable. A simple rhymed couplet like “Ahrba ahrba Gamal! Ant wabawk walandal!” (“Escape, escape Gamal! You and your father are scoundrels!”) can inform anyone listening that the protesters are not only angry with Hosni Mubarak, but also his son Gamal. Chants, such as this one, might let an astute reporter enter the protest area, memorize a few meaningful lines, then return to the safety of a field office or a hotel room in order to write a story based on the day’s events.

Secondly, though no less importantly, the chants serve as a way for protesters to engage in social bonding, and strengthen their resolve in the face of very dire circumstances. Make no mistake: the people gathered in Cairo to protest are in real physical danger of assault. To date, over three hundred of them have been killed by the local police and pro-Mubarak forces while demonstrating. Given that the odds are stacked against them, a chant or a song goes a long way in terms of boosting morale, and giving meaning to the risk each person assumes when going out to protest. It is one thing to shout a slogan, but it’s another thing entirely to hear hundreds if not thousands of your countrymen and women shout in unison with you. Two messages are sent: one of dissent against the government, and one of solidarity among the activists.

So what were they saying?

Since the coverage of the protests was superficial at best among media firms in the US, the responsibility to report on the events fell largely to bloggers and other internet sources. Professor As’ad AbuKhalil, of the University of California, Stanislaus, has been keeping a blog for a number of years regarding Middle Eastern issues, named aptly enough, angryarab.net. While Professor AbuKhalil intends for the name of his website to be taken in a tongue-in-cheek manner, he has made it a clearinghouse for news stories that the large media houses in the US would otherwise ignore, such as human rights issues among Southeast Asian immigrants in the Middle East. Since the revolts in Tunisia last month, followed by the Egyptian protests, he posted extensively on both the ongoing events as well as keeping logs of the various chants and slogans that the protesters are shouting, both in Arabic and English.

What these chants told us about the people gathered in Cairo is quite often at odds with the picture painted by the talking heads of cable news networks. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, among others, have expressed concern that the revolt in Egypt is part of a creeping Islamist movement to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate.

While this is certainly alarming, and therefore good for ratings, the actual protesters voiced no such desire. To the contrary, one of the many slogans shouted in Tahrir Square was “Alhlal wya alslyba, dhd alqtl waltathyba” or literally “The Crescent and the Cross against murder and torture!” Egypt has a significantly large Coptic Christian population that is equally as disenfranchised and abused by the government of Hosni Mubarak, and through this chant, we know that they have mobilized with their Muslim neighbors.

This chant also serves as a reminder of solidarity among the protesters, that they should set sectarian differences aside to work toward a common cause. Among the few photos and stories coming out of Tahrir Square over the past two weeks are accounts of Coptics locking arms to form a barricade around their Muslim neighbors while they are in prayer, and likewise, Egyptian Muslims shielding the Coptics while they have held religious services of their own.

The religious slogans were predominantly centered upon messages of cross-religion unity, but most of the chants that came out of the protests have been overwhelmingly secular in nature. “Alkramh walhryh m’tlba k’l almsrawyh!” (“Dignity and freedom is the demand of all Egyptians!”) proclaimed one slogan, while another demanded “Hosni Mubarak ya jbalh atla atla atla barh!” (Hosni Mubarak, here’s the clarification: get out, get out, get out, outside!”) Ultimately, nearly every single slogan boiled down to a rejection of the current ruling party, and a demand for their swift departure from Egypt. There were no calls to install a caliphate or a supreme soviet; only a unified cry for each voice to be heard.

Their voice, however, was not limited to the volume of their shouts. Throughout the course of the protests in Egypt, posters and banners have served as a written counterpoint to the chants of the crowd. While posters displayed in a crowd send clear messages, they can also confound attempts by state owned television to broadcast propaganda featuring shots of the crowd. In this case, it was difficult for Egyptian state television to claim that the majority of protesters in Tahrir Square were pro-Mubarak when the signs they held aloft clearly indicated otherwise. Some of the signs carried a simple “Mubarak Must Leave” message, while others carried the chanted slogans written out longhand. Some of the most creative signs appeared to pay homage to the social networks that allowed the revolution to reach critical mass. References to Twitter, Facebook, and other allusions to the internet displayed that revolution is a brilliant example of traditional methods of protest combined with modern tech savvy.

Signs also serve another purpose beyond simple message dissemination. While they often carried ultra-modern references, the use of signs in large crowds as spatial reference points is an ancient method of organizing and maintaining order. It can often be difficult for a protester to see beyond the heads and shoulders of his or her fellow demonstrators. In the chaos that surrounds an attack on an assembled group of demonstrators
by counter-revolutionary forces, a sign held high above the turmoil can serve as a beacon to mo
ve toward and rally around. When the pro-Mubarak forces assaulted the crowd on horseback, they were largely able to move out of harm’s way, and then quickly identify where friendly and hostile assemblies were located before moving to re-establish their picket lines. Their ability to resist dispersal let them maintain the momentum they needed more-or-less peacefully overcome the hostile forces stacked against them.

While it remains to be seen whether or not the protesters will be successful in restoring democracy to Egypt, one thing is for certain: their voices have been heard. Even with the internet shut off, and journalists barred from entering the Square, and the punditry of major media sources, the news of Egypt’s struggle and eventual triumph has escaped and is being sent across the planet for the world to watch and listen.

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