The Egyptian Revolutionary Communitas at Liberation Square
By Marco Fonseca at Feb 11, 2011
As in typical revolutionary situations, those when the "people" rise up in rebellion against exploitation, oppression and repression, those situations when "all that is solid melts into air", all normally accepted divisions among the people, particularly the subaltern and dominated classes, become ignored or disappear at least for as long as this process lasts. What emerges out of this dissolution of traditional social hierarchies, traditional class divisions or prejudices among "the people" is something else: a community of solidarity, of equals, without the traditional structures of power and money, a true - if momentary and often only fleeting - communitas.
Given its very nature, the communitas can be deceiving, particularly to external observers. On the one hand, it may appear as a manifestation of liberal universalism, the universalism of human rights, the universalism of so-called "democracy" and "freedom". This is the sort of external, super-structural, side of communitas that external observers, like the international corporate media, "see" in the so-called "pro-democracy" movement in Egypt. They conclude, therefore, that what "pro-democracy activists" are seeking is a "transition to democracy". Although this interpretation of the revolutionary process, and the Egyptian commune now alive in Liberation Square, appears to be echoed by some activists themselves, I think it is nevertheless misleading (when articulated by international corporate media outlets including Al-Jazeera), self-limiting (when voiced by local liberal activists), and radically wrong (when articulated by the Egyptian elites, parliament, and the army). It is their way of co-opting the revolutionary liminality that has emerged from long, long years of political repression and socio-economic marginalization.
On the other hand, the communitas that has emerged in the streets and squares of Egypt can also be seen, as in fact I do, as a manifestation of what could be called - just for now - pilgrim solidarity, the solidarity among revolutionary time-travellers, those who don't belong to the world of the power and money status quo, but who cannot as yet articulate a clear alternative (and, thereby lie many of its dangers, ambivalences, and potential limitations). Not being able to articulate a clear alternative, for the moment, is not wrong, "abnormal", or even undesirable. It is, in fact, a function of revolutionary liminality itself, the desire, the wish for liberation, without clear plans as of yet. Although not subject to communitarian particularism, this type of commune, communitas, is nonetheless organic, rooted, and vernacular. This is a community with its own immanent transcendetalism, but one that is also crucially defined by its transcendental immanentism. It can thus not be separated from the concrete experience of concrete people in a concrete place: Egypt.
The essence of the commune, of communitas, however, is what matters for the moment. It is about - as the Muslim Hajj itself is meant to be, as the original Christian communities before the co-optation of Christianity by Empire once were or as the community of Jews in the desert after liberation from Egypt itself are descrived in Jewish scripture as having been - mutual recognition of the excluded, the oppressed, the marginalized and the discriminated; it is about a certain degree of spontaneity of the multitudes; it is about friendship and hospitality; and it is centrally about solidarity amid the cause of liberation. It is, thus, not about the superficial formalities of liberal democracy and its empty models of representation. Like the very pilgrimage of the Hajj, like the expereince of the desert, it is a levelling experience, a time to leave materially unsustainable forms of living, consuming, and producing - which are, quite literally, destroying the planet - behind and a time to embrace simple subsistence, simple life, sustainable life as a rule - however momentarily. Traditional social identity, particularly those imposed by the mechanisms of hegemony and domination, global corporate capitalism and its local comprador allies, are here dissolved into a common identity of mutual revolutionary recognition in the pilgrimage towards what Ernst Bloch once called the "not-yet-conscious".
The present moment in Egypt has been called all things by various interpreters. Thus, Tariq Ali has called it "an Arab 1848". Ifdal Elsaket has declared the current process a new "1919". I think, however, that this is Egypt's own moment, a revolutionary liminal moment without equal, and therefore a revolutionary moment that can either be easily won or lost. But not yet.