January 30, 2011

Egypt Narrative Promises a Long Unfolding

The story of the Egyptian demonstrations continues to unfold (photograph courtesy of Rami Raoof under Creative Commons license)

Public events nearly always have a recognizable narrative trajectory embedded within them, if not naturally then by our own imposition. Nations and governments rise and fall, as we tell the story, even if the realities are messier and more complex than that simple tale suggests, and the shape of events more variegated and ambiguous than any story will permit.

The current events unfolding in Cairo offer little in the way of narrative comfort.  Instead, news commentators, analysts, even participants—weighing in breathlessly from the street on Twitter or Al Jazeera—seem struck by ambiguous meaning of events.  Is looting spontaneous or sponsored by the Mubarak government to provoke requests for government protection? There are no clear successors to a Mubarak government, and no clear mechanism for a non-military succession.  Why have the police abandoned the protests?

What is left, in the wake of specific meaning, are two broadly recognizable narratives. The first is that universal tale of the human quest to be free. The puzzling part about revolution tales, however, is that they do not seem to contain the seeds of their continuity.  In the same way that revolutionary leaders often make bad leaders, revolutions –a literal overturning of events—do not provide for what happens next.  After the creative destruction, what next?

This is especially an essentially non-revolutionary era.  The context and mood of revolutionary change in today’s Egypt is unlike that of the past.  Egyptian and other Arab rebels in the years following World War II agitated for revolutionary governments, governments that would embody a new independent spirit. Today’s revolutionaries greatest demand is that governments be responsible—that they provide security and jobs.

The second story—if it can be called a story–is the tale of chaos.  Other Arab governments are telling events in that way, so is much of the Western press.  The American administration implicitly tells this tale in its cautioning for restraint, and an end to violence.  But chaos has no trajectory, by definition.

There are other narratives. The American fear of Islamist power is playing out in American commentary.  Arab media commentators in the regional press highlight the historic role of Egypt as umm al-dunya—mother of the world—and the ways in which Egypt’s moment represents the frustrations and aspirations of Arabs across the region.  But there is no honest analysis that can foretell what exactly will happen next, which makes this a very good time to think not only about the amazing events in Egypt, but to reflect on the methodologies and strategies we use to try to make sense of and predict large scale public events.

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