The Sans-culottes of the Mediterranean: paradoxes of present-day cultural politics

What parallels may emerge between the exciting developments that of the “Arab Spring” and the French model of 1789-92? Robyn Creswell’s article in the February 10, 2011 New York Times laid out some early parameters, describing the Egyptian popular culture that has come to life since January 25 events on Tahrir Square as “profane, bawdy, and politically sophisticated.”

Beyond the street culture, poetry and graffiti, what about the potential of new technologies? Much has been written about the crucial role played by technologies such as Twitter and Facebook in subverting the traditional mechanisms of state censorship and ushering in the “Internet Revolution.” It is too soon to tell if the messages communicated among student protesters will effect any lasting reforms, or how the excitement begun in Cairo in January 2011 might leave an indelible imprint upon Middle Eastern cultures. But one parallel runs through the diction of anti-government turmoil, that is, the opposition between an all-powerful Them and an angry, long-oppressed Us. In his 1789 pamphet “Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état? (“What Is the Third Estate?”), Abbé Sieyès offers this answer: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something.” A recent song inspired by Egyptian poet Ahmen Fouad Negm (Arabic: احمد فؤاد نجم‎); popularly known as el-Fagoumi, sounds a similar refrain: “Who are they, and who are we? / They are the authority, the sultans. / They are the rich and the government is on their side./ We are the poor, the governed./ Think about it, use your head. / See which one of us rules the other.”

Are we now in the “utopian” phase of revolutionary process? Will the reforms take place peacefully and usher out the old regime with a minimum of bloodshed? How will the Muslim Brotherhood assist in these changes?

It is interesting to note the disparity between French attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in France, and the local attitudes in Egypt. A French reporter, Nicolas Truong, published a provocative editorial in the Saturday 23 avril Le Monde, ‘Quel rôle peut jouer l’islam dans l’avenir des révolutions arabes?’. He put his finger on this disparity in a gentle way, but which should give pause to those right-wing Islamophobes living in the Hexagon, by noting the indifference toward religion which marks events in Egypt to date: “Paradoxe: à l’heure où une partie du gouvernement français devise sur la compatibilité de la religion islamique avec les valeurs de la République, les sans-culottes et les Dantons de la Méditerranée n’en font pas le centre de leur révolution politique.”

This political and cultural work-in-progress illuminates the truth of Jean Rousset’s aphorism, “On ne raconte pas de la même manière un présent tâtonnant et un présent qui a déjà choisi sa voie.” [An uncertain present does not lend itself to the same narratives as a present that has already charted its future.] Forme et signification, 1963.

We stand by with interest and sympathy to see what will transpire as Egyptians gain greater access to democratic political processes. The videoconference that students of my course, “A Revolution in Fiction” will enjoy with students of Political Science at the American University of Cairo (October 2011) will address this very subject. Should be interesting!


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