Within the Marginal: Liminality out of the Bubble Society

Abstracts

This article is part of the special issue, “One Thousand and One Defeats: An Anthropology of the Vanquished”. The main theme of the special issue is centred round exploring the lives of marginalised populations after political conflicts, and this article focuses on Egypt after the revolutions of January 2011 and June 2013. During the period between 2011 and 2013, the level of freedom of expression in Egypt was unprecedented. According to some researchers, “Whoever has something to say in Egypt these days can write it on a wall…religious, political, intimate, commercial, and other messages fill the public spaces of Alexandria, Cairo and other towns and villages with continuous commentary” (Schielke and Winegar, 2012, p. 14). However, this freedom was not to last. Today, the public space in both the virtual and real worlds in Egypt is secured by a set of laws that were enacted to fight waves of terrorism during this period. In this vein, the article explores public behaviour as reassembled within the dialectic between what James Scott (1990) terms “public transcript” and “hidden transcript” to reveal “what lies beneath the surface”, and what kind of public behaviour is practised offstage of social life in post-revolution Egypt. This is done, firstly, by investigating the sort of visual culture that is produced within certain public spaces; secondly, by studying the ways in which Egyptian citizens mark their urban settings and their urban spaces using different techniques to regain them; and, thirdly, by studying these different strategies of visibility/invisibility not just as a cultural production by a certain group of people, but as an aesthetic project that makes visible the presence of the producers within their society. Based on this, the article offers a conceptual research study that follows a certain structure, starting with a presentation of empirical evidence to support its argument. This is followed by a theoretical discussion of the academic concepts used in the article. The final section is devoted to a further discussion that draws the relationship chain between the article’s conceptualisations in order to justify the choice of theoretical premises and concepts used here. The methodology draws from an “Actantial Model” following Ryo Terui’s “Actor-Network Map”, which is based on the creation of a visual narrative that identifies the interplay that created a shift within the agency-structure relation in post-revolution Egypt. The actantial model shows the interplay between different actors as represented by the state, citizens and academics within urban settings. Substantially, the article is a theoretical conceptual paper that explores the social dynamics in the urban context in Egypt since 2011 based on different theories and concepts that were tested through empirical evidence. It presents the changes that have taken place in the public space and within the social landscape of modern Egypt. It provides a theorisation, from the field, of the emergence of new modes of social interaction between individuals and their society through the constitution of thirdspaces within urban settings in terms of a “Bubble Society”.

« Au sein de la marginalité : vivre au seuil d’une “société bulle” »

Cet article s’intéresse à l’Égypte dans la période qui a suivi les révolutions de janvier 2011 et de juin 2013. Entre 2011 et 2013, la liberté d’expression a atteint dans ce pays un niveau sans précédent. Certains chercheurs ont alors affirmé : « Quiconque a quelque chose à dire en Égypte ces jours-ci peut l’écrire sur un mur [...]. Les messages religieux, politiques, intimes, commerciaux et autres remplissent les espaces publics d’Alexandrie, du Caire et d’autres villes et villages de commentaires continuels » (Schielke et Winegar, 2012, p. 14). Cependant, cette liberté ne devait pas durer. Aujourd’hui, l’espace public, dans le monde virtuel et réel, est sécurisé par un ensemble de lois promulguées pour lutter contre les vagues de terrorisme que l’Égypte a connues durant cette période. Dans ce contexte, l’article explore le comportement public tel qu’il s’est recomposé dans un mouvement dialectique entre ce que James Scott (1990) appelle le « texte public » et le « texte caché » pour révéler « ce qui se trouve sous la surface » et les coulisses de la vie sociale, en Égypte, après les années de révolution. Pour ce faire, il entend étudier, premièrement, le type de culture visuelle produit dans certains espaces publics ; deuxièmement, la manière dont les citoyens égyptiens marquent leur environnement et leurs espaces urbains en usant de différentes techniques pour se les réapproprier ; enfin, il analyse ces différentes stratégies de visibilité/invisibilité non seulement comme la production culturelle d’un certain groupe social, mais aussi comme un projet esthétique qui rend la présence de ses auteurs manifeste au sein de leur société. Partant de là, ce texte propose une recherche conceptuelle structurée en différentes sections. La première présente des preuves empiriques venant soutenir l’argumentation. Elle est suivie d’une discussion théorique sur les concepts académiques mobilisés. La dernière section revient sur la manière dont s’enchaînent les hypothèses de l’article afin de justifier le choix des prémisses théoriques et les concepts utilisés. La méthodologie s’appuie sur un « modèle actantiel » inspiré de la « carte acteur-réseau » de Ryo Terui, qui se base sur la création d’un récit visuel identifiant les interactions qui ont créé un changement dans la relation entre agentivité et structure dans l’Égypte post-révolution. Ce modèle actantiel montre l’interaction entre les différents acteurs que sont l’État, les citoyens et les universitaires dans les milieux urbains. En somme, cet article, théorique et conceptuel, explore la dynamique sociale à l’œuvre dans le contexte urbain, en Égypte, depuis 2011, en confrontant différentes théories et concepts à des données empiriques. Il présente les changements survenus dans l’espace public et le paysage social de l’Égypte moderne. Il théorise, à partir d’une étude de terrain, l’émergence de nouveaux modes d’interaction entre les individus et leur société à travers la constitution d’espaces tiers dans les milieux urbains, qu’il désigne sous le terme de « société bulle ».

Index

Mots-clés

espaces tiers, espaces urbains, politiques d’(in)visibilité, mémoire, Égypte

Keywords

thirdspaces, urban spaces, politics of (in)visibility, memory, Egypt

Outline

Text

Introduction — The Creation of Heterotopic Spaces

This article is part of the special issue, “One Thousand and One Defeats: An Anthropology of the Vanquished”. The main theme of the special issue is centred round exploring the lives of marginalised populations after political conflicts, and this article focuses on Egypt in 2011 and beyond. During the period between 2011 and 2013, the level of freedom of expression in Egypt was unprecedented. According to some researchers, “Whoever has something to say in Egypt these days can write it on a wall…religious, political, intimate, commercial, and other messages fill the public spaces of Alexandria, Cairo and other towns and villages with continuous commentary” (Schielke and Winegar, 2012, p. 14). However, this freedom was not to last. Today, the public space in both the virtual and real worlds in Egypt is secured by a set of laws that were enacted to fight waves of terrorism during this period. For instance, within the cyber space, different laws were issued to limit people’s use of social media—the cyber security law, known as the cyber crimes law, which was approved in March 20191, is an example. In the physical world, public access was denied to some of the coined-revolution spaces to avert any possible terrorist attacks. Citizens wishing to hold rallies and demonstrations were not allowed access to Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Corniche in Alexandria, where revolutionary protests had taken place in 2011 and 2013, respectively. In this vein, the main goal of the article is to provoke a constellation of different theoretical and conceptual premises of urban sociology along with cultural and political anthropology to explore the emergence of new avenues and modes of self-representation within a new legislatively-controlled context that is constantly undergoing transformation.

David Harvey, in his 2012 book, Rebel Cities, highlights the theoretical development of ideas from “the right to the city” to “urban revolution” by juxtaposing Henri Lefebvre’s concept of heterotopias with his idea of people’s utilisation of public spaces in their cities. He argues that Lefebvre’s heterotopic space “delineates liminal social spaces of possibility where ‘something different’ is not only possible, but foundational for the defining of revolutionary trajectories” (Harvey, 2012, p. xvii). The idea of creating these heterotopic spaces comes from people’s everyday ordinary practices, feelings, hopes and aspirations about the possibility of collective action achieving political effect for their good. To articulate this idea of creation and possibility, Harvey gives different examples of collective efforts and actual historical events from all over the world, among which is the symbolic Tahrir Square in the heart of the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

On one hand, people in Egypt’s mega cities, especially Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Ismailia, asserted their right to their own cities by occupying the street and any available public space. Their “street politics” during the revolution era signified their collective control over the political arena in Egypt. Asef Bayat’s description of “street politics” highlights collective control over the “physical and social space of the ‘street’”, where the everyday practices of ordinary people “creates a big crack in the domination of the modern state” (Bayat, 1997, p. 63). Indeed, the state’s physical and actual absence from Egyptian streets during the demonstrations against the Mubarak regime on 25 January 2011, and again against the role of the Muslim Brotherhood on 30 June 2013, were marked by the occupation of streets, social media platforms, media coverage, and even television. Citizens were able to employ their right to change the face of their cities by imposing different political effects on social media, on the streets, in newspaper articles and books, and during their daily interactions within the public sphere in general.

On the other hand, “[w]e do not have to wait upon the grand revolution to constitute such [heterotopic] spaces” (Harvey, 2012, p. xvii). Today, Egyptian citizens do not depend any longer on rallies and demonstrations to voice their concerns. The questions here would be: How do the people make their voices heard now? Do they still participate actively or just in their bubbles? The article explores the social dynamics in the aftermath of the January 2011 events and till the present day, and how the social landscape and the public space have changed dramatically from being totally occupied by the people to being occupied by the state using visual techniques of analysis and theoretical premises extracted from political anthropology and urban sociology.

In discussing these questions, the article, as a conceptual theoretical work of research, will follow a certain structure that starts with collecting empirical evidence and then analysing the theoretical premises that uphold the argument. Elina Jaakkola argues that a conceptual theoretical paper has to have three methodological aspects. First, it has to empirically justify its choice of a certain set of theories and concepts that support its argument. Second, it has to identify each theory or concept’s role within the analysis. Third, it has to draw a networked model of chain of evidence which explains the interrelationships between the theoretical concepts it employs (Jaakkola, 2020, p. 20). Based on that, the article will follow a certain structure within its sections that starts with a presentation of empirical evidence to support its argument. This will be followed by a theoretical discussion of academic concepts within the literature review section. The final section will be devoted to a further discussion that draws the chain of relationship between the article’s conceptualisations to justify the choice of its theoretical premises and concepts. The methodology is based on an “Actantial Model” drawn along the lines of Ryo Terui’s “Actor-Network Map” (2019), which itself is based on the creation of a visual narrative that identifies the interplay that created a shift within the agency-structure relation in post-revolution Egypt (Appendix, Figure 1). The actantial model shows the interplay between different actors as represented by the state, citizens and academics within urban settings. On the one hand, the state apparatuses have followed different “street evacuation policies” to control riots within the urban spaces, while, on the other, different forms of “street politics” were witnessed and practised within Egyptian cities by citizens asserting freedom of expression. These practices of street politics have turned into different forms of “reviving a collective memory” which were documented by academics and researchers. Despite the state’s endeavours to restrict everyday life practices, the urban surroundings, and the political and public sphere in general, people managed somehow to stay within the public gaze. They forced themselves to be visible within the everyday life of post-revolution Egypt.

Section I — Enforcing Visibility and the Politics of (In)Visibility in Post-Revolution Egypt

Here, I will examine the question of what forms of representations are being used in Egypt today and why, using a methodology of visual analysis to explore “what lies beneath the surfaces” when people create new heterotopic spaces through different media of memorisation, such as graffiti art, public writings, songs, textbooks and photographs. These heterotopic spaces are created using different methods of reviving collective memories and different moods of memorisation as in the form of written memory; visual photographic memory, whether printed or published virtually; musical and vocal memory; virtual memory; street memory in the form of graffiti and public writings; and, finally, intellectual memory in which the academic work of documentation addresses all these ideas in a disciplinary form of theorising. The classification of these memories is merely academic and serves an epistemological need to help us grasp the series of events that have led to the creation of a “Bubble Society” by the “Grey Generation”.

I have coined the term “Grey Generation” to refer to the citizens who demonstrated in the streets of Cairo in 2011 asking for bread, freedom and social justice, and then in Alexandria in 2013 to demand the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The Grey Generation does not identify a certain age, class, gender, religion or political affiliation—it defines those who dared to dream of a better Egypt and who now live on the margins of society as will be explained in the coming sections of the article. The term “Bubble Society” is also coined by me to indicate the intentionally-involuntarily created space of participation by ordinary citizens as they navigate within the margins of their own society. It indicates the space many people have been forced to create within post-revolution Egypt because of the suffocating public sphere in which they live. Being unable to express their opinions as they were used to doing formerly, they became society observers watching everything from their bubble.

Written Memory

Ilana Feldman (2008) argued for the importance of documented narration. She said that people all through the course of history who lived opposing the dominant discourse in their societies must tell their own story and document their own history. However, here, the question is: How could documentation and books turn into speaking narratives of certain historical events? In response, Rose Marie Beck introduces the term, “speaking objects”, as an entity that holds the capacity to express proverbial art as a way of communication: she talks specifically of the women who wear the kanga in the Muslim-Swahili society of East Africa. Beck explains that “the wrap cloth kanga from the East African coast (Swahili)…has proverbial texts printed on it, whose topics are subject to speech prohibitions: love, conflict and exhortative sayings. The cloths are used to ‘say’ something while ‘saying’ nothing” (Beck, 2005, p. 131). She describes the messages written on the kanga as a sort of “equivocal communication” that combines verbal and visual art (Beck, 2000, p. 105). Applying the same principle, we may consider the literary documentation of the events in Egypt from 2011 onwards as “speaking linguistic objects” that determine the public discourse through which people convey their opinions within the public sphere, such as different kinds of books. Some of these books were textbooks focusing on the actual narration of the revolution events using different forms of generic literature, while some offered a visual literary representation.

The following list of books and novels that were inspired by the events of the revolutions and after are a sort of documentation and memorisation by youth writers2. The titles and cover images of these books depict popular narratives of how the people felt during and after the revolution era:

Wounded Laughter by Belal Fadil (2010)
A Seventh Cigarette by Dina Kamal (2012)
The Red Monkey Republic by Yasser Ahmed (2014)
Mercury by Mohamed Rabea (2014)
After the Party by Yahya El-Gamal (2016)
All This Nonsense by Izz El-Din Shukri Fisher (2017)
Close to Joy by Ahmed Samir (2017)
The Shadow of the Apple by Muhammad Ibrahim Qandil (2018)

Visual and Photographic Memory

In his photo essay of Alexandria, Samuli Schielke describes photography as being “the carrier of the narrative because it is a medium of communication that is inherently linked with surface” (Schielke, 2012, p. 31). In that sense, photography could be used as a visual anthropological tool documenting different language uses and public writings within the urban settings of modern Egypt. The element of visuality here demonstrates that this way of documenting memory has to be seen in the form of a photo that is taken and then published either virtually or in print, or a street graffiti as was seen on Mohamed Mahmoud street, which was later wiped off. Most, if not all, of the revolution street memory vanished from Egyptian streets after its graffiti was removed. However, some of the Grey Generation members have managed to preserve these graffiti in the form of photographic memory. The photographs thus preserved were then published and disseminated as hardback books or published virtually. Two such picture books are Wall Talk and Walls of Freedom, and both contain carry a large collection of photographs of the street graffiti of Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Corniche in Alexandria.

Street Memory

Street memory was also depicted in different on-ground initiatives to protect the spatial areas. In Alexandria, for example, a street memory movement called “Save Alex” was founded in 2012 by various Alexandrian architects to save what remains of the city’s architectural heritage, much of which has been demolished to build new hotels since the January 2011 revolution. Being present in the street, being visible and being seen by other citizens all signified street markers of a generation that had enjoyed freedom of expression and that now refused to be silenced. Another example is “Walls of an Exhausted City”, which represents a virtual-on-ground memory. The two initiatives, “Save Alex” and “Walls of an Exhausted City”, support each other not just virtually but in reality with real stands and demonstrations as well3.

Some of these movements started coming out of their bubbles taking a legislative detour through the creation of a new centre called The Human and the City Center for Social Research (HCSR), thus creating a legislative memory of the revolution. The HCSR managed to move from the virtual space to reality and began to gather academics, architects and political activists together; to arrange public lectures for raising awareness; and to move the court raising a case against the state representatives who demolished public spaces and gardens in Alexandria and fenced the famous Alexandria Corniche so that it could no longer be used as a public space for demonstrations. Other pages on Facebook started to follow the news of the case4.

Musical and Vocal Memory

During the January 2011 revolution, many songs were composed in glorification of the revolution and in commemoration of the martyrs by both new and old bands and singers, creating what Sujatha Fernandes (2006) has called “the artistic public sphere”. During the two revolutionary waves, the Grey Generation managed to create an artistic public sphere inside the heart of Tahrir Square and preserve it as a musical-vocal memory of that revolutionary moment for the future. Most of the revolution’s songs were recorded and posted online via different social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some bands were born of the revolution in Tahrir Square, some were already in existence but gained fame and fans during the first days of the 25 January 2011 revolution and continued in the square during the days of the 30 June 2013 revolution.

The musical and vocal memory of the revolutions emerged through these different forms of vocal art. They used art as a weapon and this involved the creation of not only subcultures, but counter-cultures as well, as it created a sense of shared experience and solidarity among the revolution generation (LeVine, 2015, p. 1281), a generation of people who would sing the patriotic folk songs of Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm, along with Tamboura music and the pop songs of Muhammad Mounir and bands like Iskinderilla. The Egyptian revolutionists’ steadfastness in Tahrir Square in 2011 was marked by Ramy Essam’s song Irhal (Leave) in Arabic, which was intended to be a direct message to the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to listen to the revolutionists’ demands and leave the country.

The Ultras, a youth group which formed a voluntary association of devoted football fans, also made a significant contribution to creating a vocal memory of the revolution era in Egypt through their chanting. The Ultras were always in a leading position during the demonstrations—in fact, they were usually the revolution’s first line of defence. The number “74” was marked on the walls of different Egyptian cities as a marker of the 74 martyrs who died during the Port Said Stadium riot in 2012. “[M]usic is central to the identity of the Ultras, and the members of the Ultras have used songs and chants to strengthen their position as an acoustic community, as well as using their sound to transform themselves from a passive audience to active performers” (Eprile, 2017, p. 25). Their vocal chanting unaccompanied by music was mimicked by the official songs on national and private TV channels after 2013 to glorify the martyrs from the Egyptian Army and Interior Forces who fought against terrorism in several Egyptian cities after the second revolution in 2013.

In 2014, a song titled Esmaani (Listen to Me) in Arabic was released by the Egyptian singer and songwriter Hamza Namira. The song came as a direct message and a vocal musical reaction to some of the official initiatives of the time to encourage Egyptian youth to speak their minds and express their hopes and dreams for a better Egypt. The song’s lyrics are mainly about broken promises and lost dreams due to the state’s stigmatisation of the revolution generation as minors who need state guidance all the time. All in all, the vocal music created since the January 2011 revolution, especially in the heart of Tahrir Square, was another form of collective documentation by the people and lived through the people, as “musicians on the square for the most part performed a repertoire that the crowds could sing along with, a body of songs that connected the artists and their audience to a history of struggle” (Swedenburg, 2012, p. 2). For that reason, the revolution songs are a vital part of the fight of the Grey Generation against attempts to obliterate their struggle.

Virtual Memory

Due to the current enforced silence on social media platforms, especially as compared to 2011 and 2013, one started to think that the revolution generation had vanished or given up on their fight and was now focusing on how to live their lives on a day-to-day basis. However, that assumption was proven wrong as while surfing Facebook, I came across a one-of-a-kind Facebook post from someone outside my circle of known people, which was posted online on 17 March 2019. The creator of the post talked about how to survive in post-revolution Egypt with a minimum level of freedom of expression. The creator offered advice in all fields of life, including creating a “bubble” around oneself, which portrayed the importance of getting inside a safety zone of acquaintances. It was a long post, but the main argument was that to survive, one must create “his/her own bubble” inside which one can be safe. The post creator used the word “bubble” once in English and once in describing how to surround oneself with a secure circle of acquaintances.

The Facebook post mainly encouraged people to stay and live in Egypt using different survival techniques. This would give us an insight into Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy’s Carnegie paper titled “Egypt’s Political Exiles: Going Anywhere But Home”, in which the authors examine the exodus of political opposition in Egypt after the revolutionary wave in 2011 and especially the one in 2013. They identify the Egyptian politically exiled community as a mixed population of members of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements along with Egyptian Coptic Christians. The Coptic Christians fled the country out of fear of radical Islamic political rule before 2013, while the former fled out of fear of the military rule after 2013 (Dunne and Hamzawy, 2019, p. 2). Dunne and Hamzawy’s paper presents qualitative and anecdotal evidence based on word of mouth from various European Union ambassadors based in Egypt from 2011 and onwards, who witnessed the increasing number of asylum seekers and migration applications from Egypt. The paper also offers fresh statistical evidence from international migration reports.

All this indicates the socio-political status of the love-hate relationship that was created between certain segments of Egyptian society and their country post-January 2011 for various political reasons. According to the 2020 report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2019, for the first time, Egypt topped the list of North African countries with the highest number of migrants/refugees. The migration flow from Egypt to the Gulf countries has generally increased through the migration channel between Egypt and Kuwait, which created one of the first 20th international migration-channels in 2019. In general, around 12 million people migrated from North Africa in 2019, of which around 3.3 million went to the Gulf countries, while some six million live in Europe now. The IOM report also indicates that on the human development scale, Egypt shows a 5.5 percent chance for natural risks and a 7 percent chance for human risk exposure, which has led to the number of international migrants from Egypt in 2019 reaching the figure of 504,053 million (IOM, 2019, p. 57, 58, 66, 282). Moreover, the 2019 ESCWA report on international migration during 2019 indicates that the number of asylum seekers registered with the organisation from Egypt has increased from 9,456 in 2013 to 13,050 in 2013, 16,105 in 2015, 18,672 in 2016, 21,088 in 2017, and, finally, 23,488 in 2018 (ESCWA, 2019, p. 31).

Intellectual Memory

The earlier discussion highlights the different forms of memorisation and documentation that have been used by the Grey Generation in Egypt as they live on the margins of their society. On the one hand, they might have seen themselves as a renegade generation which had had the freedom of speech they cherished so dearly stripped away from them after the January 2011 revolution. They might also have felt their inability to express their opinions freely for fear of being stigmatised as enemies of the state. On the other hand, they might have also “refused to exit the political theatre” despite their “quiet encroachment” (Bayat, 2010, p. 14, 43). They tended to use different “visible markers of existence” (Feldman, 2008, p. 498) to document their uprising in 2011 and later. They might have been forced to live on the margins of society inside their safe cocoons so as to maintain safety, but we as academics and scholars must carry on the duty of documenting this within our different disciplines.

Edward Said (1984) argued that within epistemological accounts of understanding the circumstances in which certain events evolved and created counter-narratives, or what he called “peoples’ narratives” as opposed to the official story narrated by the state apparatuses, a “theory of perception” and intellectual activity has to be approached to explain the dynamics between these different narratives. He also argued for an “epistemological account of ideological structure” to achieve the academic documentation of historical milestone events that sometimes, deliberately, pass into oblivion if not documented by their eyewitnesses. Building such an ideological structure has no validity and can never gain the legitimacy of surviving over the years or become a vital part of the different forms of human knowledge production without valid historical and geographical accounts to uphold these theoretical-intellectual claims (Said, 1984, p. 47). In this vein, theorising about the Bubble Society and the Grey Generation comes as a sort of intellectual memorisation to be added to the five forms of memory documenting the events of the January 2011 Revolution and thereafter (Appendix, Figures 2–3).

Section II — Conceptualising the Bubble Society and the Grey Generation

Searching through the canonical library of social sciences for descriptors for “the bubble-like feeling”, one finds terms such as marginality, liminality and vulnerability. Forasmuch as the bubble-like state is a deliberate survival technique used by the revolution generation, most of the canonical terms do not depict its true meaning. However, the task of coining the terms, Bubble Society and Grey Generation, cannot be carried out without depending on this canonical academic literature. On the one hand, Karl Mannheim’s theory of generations perceives a “generation division” based on “shared experience”, not on “age”, which means that what really counts is the formative years of shared experience. In that sense, a “generation” can be defined as “a group of population who have experienced similar noteworthy events in their youth, during a distinct period of time and through which their identities were shaped” (Mannheim, 1952, p. 276–322).

Thus, the Grey Generation can be defined as those citizens who demonstrated in the streets in 2011 asking for bread, freedom and social justice, and then again in 2013 asking for the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The Grey Generation does not denote a certain age, class, gender, religion or political affiliation, it merely defines those who took the liberty to dream of a better Egypt. They are “grey” because they have been forced to live on the margins within a grey zone of Egyptian society. While they are not accepted but termed a renegade generation from some perspectives, they seek new forms of participation from within their created “bubble” society.

On the other hand, in his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin argued that “[to maintain safety], they have woven a dense fabric about oneself, to have secluded oneself within a spider’s web… [through] the process of fashioning a shell around the self [within] ‘indwelt spaces’” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 216, 221). In other contexts, the term “bubble” refers to “a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last” (emphasis added) (Oxford English Dictionary Online)5. Conversely, the term bubble also indicates “the condition of being at risk of exclusion or replacement as an enclosed or isolated sphere of experience or activity in which the like-minded members of [a] homogeneous community support and reinforce their shared opinions” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online6).

In the post-2011 era, we started to witness a shift within the agency-structure relation in the form of different attempts to push the Grey Generation into secure bubbles of their own creation. The word “bubble” is used to describe how a person can cocoon themselves in a secure circle of acquaintances among whom they can participate actively and safely. As the Grey Generation is the subject of this study, the paper explores how their lives changed after the two revolutionary waves of 2011 and 2013. Using visual anthropology techniques, it focuses on different aesthetic forms of representations and memorisation wherein the Grey Generation navigates and creates new participatory spaces. The paper is also about grasping the dynamics of the Grey Generation’s Infrapolitics, a term James Scott (1990) explicated as the strategies of resistance employed by subordinate groups, which goes unnoticed by the superordinate groups.

Henrik Erdman Vigh’s concept of “social navigation” offers more clarification: he argues that it is “used when referring to how people act in difficult or uncertain circumstances and in describing how they disentangle themselves from confining structures, plot their escape and move towards better positions” (Vigh, 2009, p. 419). That seems much like the case with our current study involving the people who produced different forms of memorisation of the revolution era in the form of graffiti, textbooks, songs, street stands and public writings on different surfaces around the urban spaces of post-January 2011 Egypt. By way of explanation, they are not just navigating within the social context of their lives externally, they are also navigating their own identities internally within the constant process of becoming within an external-internal process of identity navigation and creation (Christiansen, Vigh and Utas, 2006, p. 11).

From these perspectives, my conceptualisation of the state of “living inside the bubble” is used to indicate a long-term situation for some Egyptians and to indicate a situation of being separated from society. It also indicates the intentionally-involuntarily created space of participation by ordinary citizens while navigating within the margins of their own society. It signals the space which many people have found themselves forced to create within post-revolution Egypt because of the suffocating public sphere. Being unable to express their opinions as they used to, they become society observers, watching the world around them from their bubble. Being aware of what is going on in society, they choose not to participate and seek personal safety by creating barriers that allow them to shelter within their own space of trusted acquaintances with whom they can speak, hear and be seen safely. Instead of voicing their opinions in the state-controlled public spaces and on the state-monitored social media, they try to navigate their way away from these controlled spheres into new spaces and ways of participation.

Section III — The Dynamics of the Spirituality of the Two Revolutionary Waves in Egypt

Living on the margins of society, the Grey Generation sought new forms of participation from their bubbles to memorise the spirituality of the past revolutionary events. Graeber and Sahlins’ On Kings highlights the importance of “memory” and the creation of timeless monuments in the lives of people and societies. They argue that memory constitutes a powerful tool that signals power relationships within any given society. They offer various examples comparing how a powerful totemic or witchcraft person could pass into oblivion while a simple ordinary person is more likely to be remembered by their descendants and grandchildren who glorify their memory, a process that is very much dependent on the descendants’ self-realisation and powerful memorisation techniques (Graeber and Sahlins, 2017, p. 10–11).

Applying the same perspective to the two revolutionary waves in Egypt, it seems that the competition between the two waves to create some sort of eternal glory and a timeless momentum was steered by the state’s inclination to attach all the glory to one segment of Egyptian society as represented in the military and Interior Forces, while ignoring any civil attempts by ordinary citizens to achieve a better society. One might justify the state’s attempts to ignore the people’s revolt against Mubarak’s regime in 2011 as it took, during its occurrence, a glorified-unbalanced figuration amongst some members of the revolution generation.

At one point, the January 2011 revolution revolved round what Graeber and Sahlins call “Platonic ideals”, as it has come to resemble a fascinating divine political figure to the revolution generation. In criticising the January 2011 revolution, an imaginary condition was created in which the revolution generation thought they were able to live the revolution spirit eternally; however, “such states of transcendent perfection can perhaps be attained in moments of ritual performance, but no one can live in such a moment for their entire life, or even any substantial part of it” (Graeber and Sahlins, 2017, p. 11). Eventually, the January 2011 revolution has become like “the strange prince” who is hijacked by different actors for the goal of creating a new cultural order that would benefit each of them variously. The rituals of sovereignty transfer were performed by the state, the revolutionists, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups through which “the stranger-prince is appropriated by the native owners” (Graeber and Sahlins, 2017, p. 175). That is why the January revolution’s strange princes had to seek different avenues of documenting their search for the “literal truth” (Graeber and Sahlins, 2017, p. 178). The spirit of the revolution in all its previous or future waves must be preserved. It should be a laborious task continuously performed by all actors—the state, citizens, media, the older generation, youth, educational institutions, religious bodies and civil society. In order to integrate the spirit of the revolution in the memory of the nation, it should be a spirit that keeps its flame alive and is not consigned to oblivion.

Concluding Remarks

This article represents a conceptual paper that theorises two newly-coined concepts, “Bubble Society” and “Grey Generation”, to scrutinise the level of freedom of expression in Egypt after the two revolutionary waves of January 2011 and June 2013. Based on Elina Jaakkola’s 2020 work, the paper’s argument is derived from the assimilation and combination of already developed concepts and theories which were tested empirically. Thus, this article gathers a constellation of different theoretical and conceptual premises within the field of urban sociology and visual anthropology in order to answer a vital question: How can Egyptians claim a space within their own cities where they can participate actively and express their opinions without having to negotiate different forms of “rituals of surveillance and control”, as termed by James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta (2002)? Some of the final findings of the research highlight the different forms of memorisation and documentation that are used by the Grey Generation as they live in the shadow of the two revolutions. It draws on the theoretical premises of Asef Bayat, Ilana Feldman and Edward Said and finds that they might have “refused to exit” the political theatre despite their “quiet encroachment”. They might have been forced to live on the margins of society inside their safe cocoons, described in the article as “the Bubble Society”.

This article, as part of the special issue, “One Thousand and One Defeats: An Anthropology of the Vanquished”, explored the emergence of new modes of existence in an authoritative context, especially “the bubble society”. By exploring the different living spaces of individuals in the urban Egyptian context, I examine the different reasons that lead some individuals to create a safety “bubble” as well as the dynamic effect of the entire notion of the “Bubble Society” on socio-cultural productions and self-representation. Interestingly, despite the fact that the totalitarian state is the winner, despite the revolutions, the overpowered have found different aesthetic representations as modes of expression to tell their story, their aspirations for social change, their forms of belonging that go beyond the state and national formation, and their attachments to urban spaces in perpetual transformation.

The findings revealed that even though living on the margins of society and termed a renegade generation, the Grey Generation sought new forms of participation from inside their bubble society. They tended to use different “visible markers of existence” to document their uprisings in 2011 and onwards. The Grey Generation used these forms of memorisation as tools to get out of their bubble society and have their hidden narratives told. These include their graffiti, public writings on walls, bumper stickers on vehicles, novels about the revolution, songs posted on YouTube documenting the 2011/2013 Tahrir Square, the printed and virtual photos of the revolution graffiti, and, of course, the nostalgic memorial posts on all social media in commemoration of the events of the revolutions—all of these have created new forms of resistance against oblivion. It also seems that they do so through different forms of aesthetic expression which include initiatives such as architectural heritage preservation and new forms of visual arts.

Future Research Avenues

This article’s aim was not to answer the questions that were posed, but merely an attempt to highlight them and open the door for further academic discussions. It highlights the existing interplay between the state and the people by asking how different forms of inscripted memories of the two revolutionary waves in Egypt can be read beyond their representational meanings to map a bigger picture of the politics of (in)visibility in the new Egypt. More research is needed to observe and document the ways in which the people express their opinions today in Egypt. They have abandoned street demonstrations and sit-ins as dissent techniques, and now use new forms of participation within the numerous spaces in Egyptian society as depicted in the six forms of memory: written memory, visual-photographic memory, musical memory, street memory, virtual memory and intellectual memory. Thus, more detailed scrutiny of these new techniques is needed. Finally, the contextualisation of these ideas has led to the point of departure for this paper in recognising that regardless of the peoples’ extraordinary ways of navigation, they are still within the margins of society, creating just a liminal space of participation. Eventually, we have to consider conducting more research to investigate what comes out of this process of navigation within such socio-political terrains which only gets them from one margin to another. Is it more about shifting margins by different actors who are trying to contest the dominant centres? How do people play and replay these positions to overcome their marginality?

Appendix

Figure 1

Image 10000201000006AF000002AB049E6776.png

Actantial model of the interplay between the state’s street-evacuation policies, citizens’ street politics and academics’ documentation.

▪ Credits: Amal Adel Abdrabo. All rights reserved.


Figures 2–3

Image 10000201000006AF000002AD2D98B58E.png

New/old terminologies as an example of theorising from the field of “The Intellectual Memory”. Navigating in and out of self-created bubbles while living within the margins of society. Never making it to the centre of the focus of society. Expressing their opinions within these self-created bubbles for safety. The Bubble Society Visualisation.

Credits: Amal Adel Abdrabo. All rights reserved.



  • ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This is a developed version of my paper, “The Right to the City: The Visuality of Liminal Spaces of Participation in Urban Africa”, which was presented during the 8th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 2019), “Africa: Connections and Disruptions”, at the University of Edinburgh, Centre of African Studies, 11–14 June 2019, through the panel, “Anth41—Materiality and Spirit: Exploring Visuality, Citizenship and Power in Urban Africa”, with a generous fund from Zentrum für Afrikastudien, Universität Basel, Switzerland (ZASB).

1 Different laws were issued during the last couple of years to place curbs on the use of social media (including Facebook and Twitter) and fight the

2 Ibrahim Adel, 24 January 2019, “January Revolution in Youth Literature: 7 Novels that Tell the Story”, ida2at.com, accessed 6 September 2021, https:

3 “Walls of an Exhausted City” website: http://thewallsofalex.blogspot.com/; “Save Alex” Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/savealexeg/.

4 HCSR Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HCSR19/.

5 Oxford English Dictionary Website: https://www.oed.com/.

6 Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online Website: https://www.merriam-webster.com/.

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Notes

1 Different laws were issued during the last couple of years to place curbs on the use of social media (including Facebook and Twitter) and fight the possibility of terrorist attacks; to block various online sites and censor the internet; and to limit street protests and public mobility on the streets. In addition, the Anti-Terrorism Law was issued in August 2015, and the Cybersecurity Law was approved in March 2019. According to the latter law, any suspension of a terroristic tendency, for any statement on one’s Facebook wall, could lead to its creator being imprisoned and paying a fine if identified as a “threat to the national security”.

2 Ibrahim Adel, 24 January 2019, “January Revolution in Youth Literature: 7 Novels that Tell the Story”, ida2at.com, accessed 6 September 2021, https://www.ida2at.com/january-revolution-youth-literature-7-novels/.

3 “Walls of an Exhausted City” website: http://thewallsofalex.blogspot.com/; “Save Alex” Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/savealexeg/.

4 HCSR Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HCSR19/.

5 Oxford English Dictionary Website: https://www.oed.com/.

6 Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online Website: https://www.merriam-webster.com/.

Illustrations

Figure 1

Figure 1

Actantial model of the interplay between the state’s street-evacuation policies, citizens’ street politics and academics’ documentation.

▪ Credits: Amal Adel Abdrabo. All rights reserved.

Figures 2–3

Figures 2–3

New/old terminologies as an example of theorising from the field of “The Intellectual Memory”. Navigating in and out of self-created bubbles while living within the margins of society. Never making it to the centre of the focus of society. Expressing their opinions within these self-created bubbles for safety. The Bubble Society Visualisation.

Credits: Amal Adel Abdrabo. All rights reserved.

References

Electronic reference

Amal Adel Abdrabo, « Within the Marginal: Liminality out of the Bubble Society  », Condition humaine / Conditions politiques [Online], 4 | 2022, Online since 25 juillet 2022, connection on 27 novembre 2022. URL : http://revues.mshparisnord.fr/chcp/index.php?id=898

Author

Amal Adel Abdrabo

Dr Amal Adel Abdrabo is an urban sociologist and visual anthropologist who works at Alexandria University, Egypt. She is a former BNGS Fellow at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt (2015–17). She was a Visiting Post-Doctorate Scholar at the Center for African Studies at Basel University, Switzerland (2017–19). In 2021, she joined the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) as a post-doctoral researcher for four months. Her research interests cover development studies, migration studies, urban sociology and visual anthropology. She has published and co-authored a number of academic papers and books in both Arabic and English. Her latest publications include the co-authored book, Memory, Conflicts, Disasters, and the Geopolitics of the Displaced (2021); Handbook of Research on Creative Cities and Advanced Models for Knowledge-Based Urban Development (2021); and the co-edited book, Societal Resilience and Response to Contagious Diseases and Pandemics (2022).

Docteure en sociologie, Amal Adel Abdrabo mène des recherches en sociologie urbaine et en anthropologie visuelle à l’Université d’Alexandrie, en Égypte. Ancienne boursière de la BNGS à l’Université américaine du Caire (AUC), en Égypte (2015-2017), elle a été chercheuse post-doctorante invitée au Centre d’études africaines de l’Université de Bâle, en Suisse (2017-2019), puis a rejoint le Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique (CODESRIA) pour une recherche post-doctorale de quatre mois. Ses travaux relèvent des études sur le développement, les migrations, de la sociologie urbaine et de l’anthropologie visuelle. Elle a publié et co-écrit différents articles et ouvrages scientifiques en arabe et en anglais. Ses dernières publications comprennent : Memory, Conflicts, Disasters, and the Geopolitics of the Displaced (2021) ; Handbook of Research on Creative Cities and Advanced Models for Knowledge-Based Urban Development (2021) ; et Societal Resilience and Response to Contagious Diseases and Pandemics (2022).