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Reading the Revolution
This is an incredibly interesting time to be alive. Revolutionaries, like me, have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. People, in many locales all around the world, have mustered their courage and are now challenging corrupt elites and the various power structures that serve them. First, there were the anti-austerity protests in Europe and beyond, and then came “the Arab Spring.” Even America, land long thought to be the epicenter of political apathy, has gotten involved. The Occupy Movement has renewed my faith in the American masses.
I happen to be an American who lives in Egypt and teaches at The American University in Cairo (AUC). Thus, I have had the chance to observe, firsthand, revolutionary history in the making. I was in the capital city of this North African country when the uprising began, during the period leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, and in the tumultuous months that followed that momentous event. The fact that I teach rhetoric and critical thinking in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition makes me qualified to look at revolution as a kind of “text” that can be “read.”
Revolutions are made up of lots of little (and big) acts of civil disobedience. Each one of these actions is intended to send a message to the powers that be. At its very foundation, then, revolution is a form of communication and can therefore be analyzed as such.
I study discourse and look at its artfulness—at whether or not it takes certain conditions into account and therefore achieves its communicative goals. One of these conditions is “audience.” If audience is not accounted for, the message may turn out to be the wrong one delivered in the wrong way, and thus it may literally fall on deaf ears. It is never enough to simply protest—action, in and of itself, is not what matters. Acts of defiance must be enlightened if they are to be effective. Bottom line: Not all protests are worth doing.
I’ll give you an example of an unenlightened form of protest, one that is sure to be unnoticed and unheard. The students at AUC are planning to begin a general, open-ended strike on Saturday, February 11, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Mubarak’s departure. The goal is to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the caretaker government—to immediately step down and call for presidential elections, thus ushering in a new era in Egyptian politics.
Now, let’s step back for a moment and do a bit of rhetorical analysis of the situation.
Those who are critical of SCAF believe the ruling body to be an unresponsive one. It’s thought, at the very least, to be out of touch with the wants and needs of the masses. At the very most, it’s seen to be conspiring with dark forces in Egypt to perpetuate tyranny, perhaps under a new guise. Now, that’s the audience. The speaker, in this case, is the AUC student body. If I understand their logic correctly, they hope to prick the conscience of SCAF. The ruling council will see classes being disrupted and will be prompted to feel guilty and then to respond in a way that serves the needs of the nation at large.
I hope I have demonstrated the illogic here. An audience that has been deemed to be callous and mostly motivated by self-interest is very unlikely to be moved by appeals to pity. In other words, a conscience can only be pricked if it exists. My feeling is that SCAF will not even be aware that a student strike is happening. If those in the Supreme Council do become aware of this protest action, I’m betting there will be virtually no persuasive impact. A governing body that has not been moved by riots and mass marches and emotional outpourings of all sorts is not likely to be influenced by a bunch of students refusing to attend classes.
There is value in the strike, though. The value is a cathartic one. When people are suffering, they can find real comfort in togetherness. It’s true that misery loves company.
There is an important lesson in this for all protest movements: Heartfelt actions are, by themselves, not enough to bring down heartless regimes. For revolution to work, it has to be enlightened and artful. Thus, revolutionaries have to be readers too, and good ones.