Tamim al-Barghouti on the Triumph of Narrative and Who’s Ruling Egypt

Panelists Tamim al-Barghouti, Rabab El-Mahdy, Mona Abaza, and Jean Makdisi, with moderator Hoda Elsadda at center. Photo courtesy Yasmine Perni.

“This is a revolution and not an uprising.”

Poet and political scientist Tamim al-Barghouti, like others at the “Narrating the Arab Spring” conference held these last few days, was concerned about the words we use to describe the political landscape. These words matter, particularly if, as al-Barghouti said, “narrative affects political behavior just like an organization.“

Al-Barghouti, who spoke Monday at Cairo University, applied his thoughts on umma and dawla – laid out in his book, The Umma and the Dawla (2008) — to the current political landscape. He said that, before colonial powers brought nation-state mechanisms to Egypt and elsewhere, Islamic leaders and subjects had a more fluid relationship with one another. A leader would not address his project to a specific territory, but to all Muslims, al-Barghouti said. “This is part of the political culture.”

The talk was packed with scholars, students, and people from the community. Photo Yasmine Perni.

Since Napoleon’s time, al-Barghouti said, the rigid artifact of the colonial state has risen and taken a certain sort of root in the region. But it has been opposed by more fluid, narrative-driven (largely Islamic) organizations. These non-state, narrative-driven groups – al-Barghouti mentioned aspects of the Taliban and Hizb Allah; one could also mention the Ikhwan – have, in certain ways, been more effective than states in doing “state” work.

These groups have been moved and shaped by narrative, al-Barghouti said. Al-Barghouti didn’t discuss how this has worked in an Egyptian context, but we can perhaps see it in novelist Khaled al-Berry’s memoir, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise. Here, al-Berry shows the centrality of pan-Islamic stories to the Gama3 Islamiyya’s appeal and project, even though al-Berry himself was ultimately not persuaded.

What does this mean for the “Arab Spring”?

Spaces like Tahrir, al-Barghouti said, have operated outside of state control, and have become places of self-organization. Lines of action are taken up, not because of a leadership structure, but because of the strength of a particular narrative. The protests of the 18 days used a non-violent “military strategy,” al-Barghouti said, because this non-violent strategy was taken up organically.

This self-organization has launched a real revolution, al-Barghouti said. “Since the 18 days, there has been a dawla,” he said, and it “is ruling Egypt almost as much as the formal state.”

The conference took place in the midst of creative works, film screenings, and a small book fair. Photo Yasmine Perni.

After all, al-Barghouti said, “If you disobey power, power ceases to exist.” And “then you are ruling.”

Although al-Barghouti mentioned Palestinians as the archetypal stateless people, Egyptians also have had long experience outside state structures, with much of Cairo existing in an “informal” sector. For better and worse, those in Cairo’s informal neighborhoods have had to self-organize. And many of these self-organizers have appealed to religious narratives for their rules and laws.

An anthropologist in the audience, while giving a nod to the explanatory power of al-Barghouti’s model, noted that “self-organization has not worked out so well in Iraq.” Al-Barghouti agreed that “there is a dark side to” the dawla, although he seemed somewhat casual about the possibilities of sectarian violence.

The presentation certainly struck a chord with the audience packed into the Cairo University lecture hall. A number in the audience stood and applauded when al-Barghouti finished by saying that the revolution would not be complete until “the people in this room enter Jerusalem.” Although al-Barghouti spoke on a panel of distinguished writers and scholars – including the AUC’s Rabab El-Mahdy and Lebanese author Jean Makdisi – most of the audience’s comments, criticisms, and questions were directed at him.

Al-Barghouti’s placement of narrative at the center of political development could prioritize those creative works that are indifferent to borders: blogs, poems, YouTube videos. He didn’t discuss his own role as a poet, although one imagines that, optimistically, al-Barghouti sees a dawla that is a poet-led empire.

Barghouti’s poem “Ya Sh3b Masr”:

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