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Revisiting the “Blue Bra” Incident: Towards a New Agenda for Researching Politics and Popular Culture in Egypt
December 2016 marked the fifth anniversary of an iconic moment in the Egyptian revolution, when soldiers were filmed and photographed brutally beating a female protester in Tahrir Square, dragging her by her abaya to reveal her torso and her blue bra. The photograph became iconic because it was emblematic of the ongoing military violence against Egyptian protesters. Yet much of the shock value inherent in this photograph is because of the way in which the soldiers pulled away a woman’s clothes to reveal her body, violating dominant codes of female modesty and male gallantry. The image of what came to be referred to as the “blue bra girl” incident was widely circulated and discussed on social media and in mass media, creating a national and international outcry. Although there were attempts by SCAF and its supporters to justify the soldiers’ actions, these were fiercely challenged by revolutionary activists in the form of large protests as well as through popular culture.
The images of soldiers beating and stripping a female protester are remarkable for the ways in which it galvanized opposition to military rule and placed the issue of violence against female protesters on the agenda of revolutionary activists. Representations of this incident and contestations over its meaning within Egyptian popular culture as well as international media illustrate how particular images of gendered violence became tied to competing understandings of the 25 January revolution, sociopolitical struggles within Egypt as well as geopolitical struggles between Egypt and the West, via performances of sovereignty, identity, resistance to orientalism and reassertions of masculinist hierarchies over women’s bodies.
A new project explores key events in the aftermath of 25 January 2011, such as the “blue bra” incident, together with revolutionary and counterrevolutionary dynamics through the prism of popular culture. The Egyptian revolution led to an explosion of creativity, including street art, slogans, songs and comedy, which have predominantly been viewed as an authentic voice of resistance against dictatorship (for example, El Hamamsy and Soliman 2013, Abaza 2012 and 2013, amongst others). Our project builds further on this literature by identifying the ways in which popular culture has served as a sphere in which competing meanings of the Egyptian revolution have been formulated and debated and how, in turn, these meanings have operated to underpin rival sociopolitical projects in the liminal moment following the fall of Hosni Mubarak. If the streets and squares were the spaces where revolutionaries directly confronted the violence and repression of the ruling authorities, popular culture has been the space of ideological battles between emerging and existing sociopolitical forces.
Popular culture and hegemony
Marxist activist and theoretician Antonio Gramsci proposed that popular culture is one of the ways in which the ruling/dominant class attempts to win consent for its rule; that is, to construct hegemony. In order to be successful, hegemony must appear to be in the interests of the majority of society and not only in those of the dominant class (Gramsci 1971: 161). Popular culture is an important site for the production of hegemony because culture in general is concerned with the construction and exchange of meanings that enable us to make sense of the world (Hall 1997: 2). Towards that end, the dominant class presents its particular interests as universal “common sense.” Yet, hegemony is not static or a one-time event: “It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own,” (Williams 1977: 112). This opens opportunities for subaltern forces to challenge or subvert the hegemony of the dominant class through the construction of alternative meanings.
The 25 January protests represented a clear rupture in the hegemony of the Mubarak regime (Pratt 2015) and opened up a liminal moment in which anti-hegemonic and counter-hegemonic narratives emerged in the realm of popular culture. It was characterized by an energetic competition to win the hearts and minds of Egyptians in order to rule with consent. Toward this end, previously hegemonic notions of Egyptian culture, including the definition of Egyptian identity and the nation, the role of religion in public life, gender norms and identities, the relationship between minorities and the nation and the relationship between the nation and the West, all came to be contested in the post-Mubarak public sphere as part of reimagining the Egyptian polity and citizenship (Pratt 2015). Yet, there was no single force or group waiting in the wings to legitimately replace the old regime. The army took power and whilst it initially garnered widespread support, this soon evaporated as people became increasingly frustrated with the army’s authoritarian practices and violence. The Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have won consent for its rule through its success at the ballot box, however, political and popular opposition quickly emerged, culminating in the massive June 30 demonstrations and the army’s ousting of Mohammed Morsi on 3 July 2013. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s failure to create hegemony rests on its decision to ally itself with the military against revolutionary forces, in addition to its inability to create a strong ideological consensus in its favor. After July 2013, the army appeared to have won widespread support, as embodied in the cult of General Fatah El-Sisi. Nevertheless, the fragility of its legitimacy is illustrated by the ongoing Islamist insurgency against the regime and the growing frustration of Egyptians with the deteriorating economic conditions and ever-increasing authoritarianism.
Mass media, ideology, and political economy
The late cultural theorist Stuart Hall drew attention to the meanings constructed by the mass media in relation to particular events and, in particular, the importance of understanding “which kinds of meaning get systematically and regularly constructed around particular events” at the expense of “alternative constructions” (1982: 63). In the case of the “blue bra” incident, Egyptian commentators on TV talk shows and in newspaper editorials often posed the question, “why did she go there?” The mere posing of this question reproduced already existing hegemonic gender norms of female respectability that delegitimized women’s participation in political protests and blamed the victim for her assault (Abouelnaga 2015, Al-Najjar and Abusalim 2015). These gender norms operated to construct the meaning of the “blue bra” incident in terms that legitimized the soldiers’ violence. These attitudes were not only expressed on state-owned media, which historically has played a central role in shaped media narratives of events as an important element of re/producing state power (Matar 2012: 133). In addition, they could also be found in private media. Indeed, since 2011, private media in Egypt have often been equally as invested in promoting counterrevolutionary narratives as state media, belying the notion that media liberalization and pluralism is necessarily “democratizing.” For this reason, we argue that it is important to break away from the tendency to see the Arab state as the main or even only source of censorship and authoritarianism and state-owned media as the only form of popular culture promoting counterrevolution after 2011.
Examining the construction of meanings and narratives by private media in relation to the Egyptian revolution can shed light on the (re)composition of Egypt’s ruling class and the formation of alliances between different segments of elites in the aftermath of 25 January 2011. Towards this end, we also deploy a political economy approach to understanding popular cultural production. Put simply, a political economy approach asks: where is the money? It asks where the funding comes from; who owns the different media production institutions; and what are the political-cultural stakes for different segments of Egypt’s elites? The focus of most critical political economy approaches to media has been on the role of profit in media production, with the assumption being that media production is driven by advertising (Murdock and Golding 1977). Yet, examining the Arab context in general, Naomi Sakr argues, “Most evidence suggests that the alliances and priorities of Arab ruling elites influence the shape and orientation of the Arab media, so that the editorial content is ultimately attributable not to people outside the elite but to political agendas that reflect patterns of elite ownership and control,” (2015: 6). Therefore, we argue that it is necessary to decenter advertising and commercial interests by also asking questions about politics. How do political interests also play a part in driving the different agendas of media production? A mapping of media ownership and editorial content would allow for a clearer picture of the ideological and political stakes of different media narratives. As Naomi Sakr writes, such an approach shows how “different ways of financing and organizing cultural production have traceable consequences for the range of discourses, representations and communicative resources in the public domain,” (2012: 220). However, these narratives are neither simple nor straightforward. Moving beyond the assumption that ownership defines agenda, it is necessary to probe deeper to connect these individuals to broader social forces, such as the old regime and the military, and, by extension, broader ideologies operating in society.
Popular culture, counter-narratives, and gendered resistance to SCAF
The “blue bra” incident also illustrated the significance of popular culture in challenging SCAF and the pro-SCAF narratives of the mass media, in particular, through the explosion of graffiti on the streets of Cairo celebrating the bravery of the unknown woman, who came to be known as sitt al-binat, (“the best of girls”). The graffiti images of an empowered woman, fist raised, wearing a gas mask (in reference to the tear gas used by the army against protesters) as well as graffiti stencils of a blue bra on the walls of Cairo, functioned to “reinscrib[e] [women’s] victimization as resistance against dictatorship.” Moreover, these graffiti images went beyond resistance to SCAF and also aimed at “smashing the paradigm of shame and guilt” about the female body (Abouelnaga 2015: 47), subverting hegemonic norms of gendered respectability. In the words of Charles Tripp, these images opened up “a space for the possibility of debate and critical engagement with power” (2013: 308).
The significance of these images and other forms of popular culture in the wake of the 25 January uprising was not only to express popular opposition to SCAF but also to disrupt and subvert a whole web of meaning normalizing the violence and power of SCAF and its allies. Yet, to reduce revolutionary opposition to SCAF violence to instances of “resistance” may mask the complex ways in which counter-narratives and alternative representations may contest power but still function within broader hegemonic notions of femininity, masculinity, and gender relations as a whole. The circulation of images of military violence against the woman protester and the outrage expressed against this reappropriated a politics of gendered respectability in order to indicate that the military had crossed a “red line” in relation to “the people.” One wonders, for example, why photographs of military violence against male protesters did not garner the same response. Rather than viewing popular culture in terms of a domination/resistance binary, it is necessary to pay attention to the ways in which hegemonic norms are reproduced, challenged, resignified, and reappropriated across different forms of popular culture.
In this respect, the question of power is central. On which terrain do these contestations take place? What language is used and what framing employed? Stuart Hall quotes Levi-Strauss, arguing, “Speakers produce meaning, but only on the basis of conditions which are not of the speaker’s making,” (Hall 1982: 68). Here the example of activists who engaged in debates on Egyptian talk shows is illustrative: the terms of the debate were set; the activist(s) in question were obliged to argue in relation to them. These terms are often taken for granted and form part of what Gramsci has called “common sense” (1971: 326): that is, in most instances, we are not aware of them. Ideas, such as the proper behavior for men and women, are historically contingent rather than natural, and exposing this is part of the process of destabilizing common sense. In this regard, we believe that in post-2011 Egypt, various activists were actually successful in changing the terms of the debate at certain moments in time. This is apparent in the case of the “blue bra” incident and the counter-narrative of sitt al-binat.
The Political Power of Representation
From the discussion above, it is clear that various state and private media companies have been well aware of the power of influencing events through representations. What is equally clear is that, in the process of challenging and resisting their rulers, many Egyptians demonstrated their understanding of the importance of producing alternative representations and meanings as a means of bringing about political, social, and economic change. The “blue bra” incident, among many others to be explored in the project, thus obliges us to examine more carefully the production of popular culture in Egypt after 25 January 2011. Rather than treating popular culture as a set of artifacts, it is more useful to view it as a terrain of struggle and negotiation, in which even the definitions of popular culture, the popular, as well as the meaning of the 25 January 2011 Revolution are intrinsic to battles for sociopolitical power. These contested narratives cannot be easily separated into “elite” and “non-elite.” Nor can they automatically be reduced to instances of resistance because of the complex ways in which gender, sexuality, national identity, religion, and class are mobilized in both revolutionary and reactionary ways as well as the way in which previously hegemonic notions, for example, of female respectability, have been appropriated and resignified in revolutionary ways. Not only should we be attendant to the complex configurations of power articulated within popular culture but also to the liminal context after 2011, which opened up new opportunities to challenge existing boundaries and categories and resist previously hegemonic culture, thereby amplifying the political and material significance of popular culture.
Popular culture, as an important site of struggle over meanings, can reveal efforts by both ruling and subaltern classes to create new hegemonic projects in the post-25 January moment. This, we believe, opens up a wider picture of sociopolitical struggle than provided by conventional comparative political science narratives of authoritarianism/democratization, which center formal political processes at the expense of popular ones (Salem and Malak 2015). Competing cultural representations of the people, popular agency, Egypt, Egyptian identity, and the revolution itself have been inextricably bound up with struggles over the nature of the emerging political order. Identifying the nature of these struggles and exploring the content and aesthetics of popular culture during this period potentially provides new insights into why some sociopolitical forces failed and others succeeded in ruling Egypt.
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 This is not to say that advertising is not political, but rather to acknowledge that attempts to propagate certain media narratives often have more overt political benefits.
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