Rebuilding Egyptian Media for a Democratic Future
Issue 14, Summer 2011
An Egyptian TV commercial with a folkloric portrayal of a rural woman
Mediating ‘the Nation’: from State to Public Service Broadcasting, critically engaging Egypt as a complex society.
The protests around Tahrir Square and other urban areas in Egypt represented a revolutionary moment in which the class, sectarian, gender and regional fractures and dynamics of Egyptian society were temporarily suspended. The protests, which were driven by a number of political and socio-economic factors, were significantly a rejection of the social and cultural consequences of life in the shadow of authoritarianism. Most Egyptians have been alienated from political participation and from an iterative relationship with the state and its institutions through an inclusive public sphere. The atmosphere of common purpose, free expression, tolerance and inclusion experienced by protesters between January 25 and February 11 has already led to significant changes in attitudes and practices around the ownership of public space, freedom of expression and the right to mobilize. For many, one of the most promising potentials of the revolution lies in the prospect that it might lead to a fundamental cultural re-imagining of the nation, of difference, inclusion and citizenship. However, the manner in which the revolutionary moment is now subject to cultural narrativization and canonization suggests the persistence of particular representation practices which should be met with caution.
Egypt’s media environment (both state and privately owned) offers a good vantage point from which to consider some of the discourses and practices which have led to the alienation, invisibility and misrepresentation of large swathes of Egyptian society within the public sphere. Egypt has inbuilt limits on media participation and representation that are hugely consequential with reference to the inclusions, exclusions and forms of representation that constitute public spheres. In spite of the ostensible media liberalization which Egypt has undergone in the last decade, television broadcasting in Egypt remains subject to the stranglehold of the state on the one hand and co-opted religious and commercial elites on the other. A logonomic system prescribing legitimate discourse and representation has calcified around these nodes of production which in turn have come to control the behavior of the producers of these discourses and the expectations of potential consumers who consequently participate in sustaining and reconstituting these genres (Hodge and Kress 1988).
While there is significant activity and cultural production within counter-publics, the extent to which attempts to break established genres, modes of representation and expression are deemed illegitimate by an elitist, centralized and securitized approach to “culture” has meant that counter-publics have been kept at arm’s length and considered not as legitimate ground-up modes of expression, but as ignominious and menacing. This is well demonstrated by Sabry Hafez, who charts the way in which new Egyptian novelists who have sought to capture the complex linguistic, social and political landscape have been subjected to sustained campaigns of condemnation by the literary and cultural establishment (2010). Such a reading goes well with the idea of language as the site of social and class struggle, as advocated by Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that centripetal authoritative discourses ‘which represent the forces of political centralization, a unified cultural canon and a dominant national discourse are in constant tension and intersection with centrifugal marginalized and ‘inwardly persuasive discourses’ and genres associated with subordinated groups in society marked by class, age, religion, gender and race’ (Maybin 2001: 65-66).
The way in which these tensions are played out is not only in textual confrontations but also in cultural practices. This can be seen in the way that the practice of saint veneration at Moulids (annual celebrations of the saint's day) has come under various pressures from a state and a conservative religious current with an abrasive understanding of modernism and reformism. There have been attempts to constrict these events through the deployment of politico-religious authority that conceives Moulids in aesthetic terms as representing ‘civic’ oppositions such as ‘cleanliness and filth, order and chaos, and calm and noise’ (Scheilke 2008: 550) or in relation to conservative religious readings which frame these practices in terms of bid’a (heretical innovation) and shirq (polytheism). Within a political and legal framework which acts as the arbitrator of public morality and decency, this configuration is far more ominous than being simply a matter of the politics of taste or the aristocracy of culture. Instead it represents class struggle, a fundamental intolerance towards difference and strong evidence of the corporeal power of discourse.
The freedom to interrogate and challenge established genres and modes of representing gender, age, geography, piety, class, respectability and nationalism have been vigorously policed and regulated in Egypt, resulting in a discursive terrain of subjection whose reiterations produce ‘that which they name’ (Butler 1990, 1993). Through the stylized repetition of speech and bodily acts, social intelligibility and legitimacy in Egypt are inscribed and prescribed. In the process the complexity of subjectivity and society is flattened and made to fit into simplistic yet authoritative linguistic representations, metaphors and tropes, the most violent of which I argue is the notion of al-shakhsiyya al-masriyya or the (quintessential) Egyptian Character, which has been used as the fuel of jingoism and ethno-nationalism on the one hand and to prescribe social intelligibility on the other.
Al-shakhsiyya al-masriyya has become one of the technologies of power and governmentality, representing a kind of biologically deterministic approach to Egyptian society, whereby certain types of women and men are produced through fixed notions of citizenship, belonging, gender, class, religion and social stratification. Lila Abu Lughod (2005) lucidly demonstrates the central role of mass media, the culture industries and in particular soap operas as (national) pedagogic mechanisms for the reproduction of an authentic Egyptian subject. Tartoussieh points to the way in which this ‘pedagogical approach to art and culture blurs the national with the cultural, spoon-feeding the image of the ‘real’ Egyptian as a good citizen and a pious Muslim’ (2010: 9). A self-referential discourse has fueled this style of production in both the state and private sectors, where simplistic and simplifying scripts, sets and acting are seen as the best way to engage a simple and simplistic audience that is only interested in a particular genre of rhetorical pseudo-realism.
These production and representational styles not only make for poor quality drama but have led to large swathes of Egyptian society either remaining invisible or being misrepresented within the national public sphere. Egypt’s 47.5 million rural inhabitants are a case in point. While constituting over half of Egypt’s population, it is rare to see the Egyptian countryside or its people depicted on national or private television beyond stereotypical depictions in the hyper-unreality of soap operas, or as the happy and colorful people of liquid soap and home-care advertisements. Rural people are typically never played by rural actors, as such a constituency is thought not to exist. They are routinely depicted as honor-driven, violent, patriarchal simpletons by urbanite scriptwriters and actors whose attempts to represent Sai’dis rarely do more than add to the freeze-framing of rural people and rural life as quintessentially and predictably parochial and authentically backward. Even after the revolution it remains almost unthinkable to imagine a weekly program on rural life broadcast on channel one (Al-Oula), with a rural presenter, speaking in his or her accent without apology or la mu’akhatha (pardon me) - the standard reminder that all things rural are to be considered uncouth and subordinate.