Egypt’s Arab Spring “revolutionary period is over,” lamented Georgetown University Arabic literature professor Elliott Colla on June 25 at the anti-Israel Washington, DC, Jerusalem Fund before about twenty listeners. With stereotypical academic bias, his presentation, “The Poetry of Dissent,” ignored the political dangers of an “Egyptian revolution” celebrated, in his leftist view, for “many, many accomplishments” of popular culture.
Seemingly unconcerned by the possibility of Egypt becoming a sharia state after dictator Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, Colla focused on literary “documents of a social movement that tried to change a regime but stumbled.” His slides were reminiscent of a college English seminar, examining genres such as “Literary Journalism,” “Literary Memoirs,” and “Graphic Novels” among the “expressive cultures of revolutionary Egypt.” He described the “speed of publication” as “remarkable” for the various forms of literature that appeared between Mubarak’s February 2011 fall and the July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-dominated government. “Everything tends to become melodrama” in soap opera-like novels from this period, he observed, while the “Collective Memoirs” presented in a slide were “open-ended and polyphonic.” Such minor details somehow interested him more than, say, a MB revocation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
In Colla’s telling, the Egyptian proletariat sans Islam was no different from that of revolutionary France or Russia in rising against oppression for “bread, freedom, [and] social justice,” as demanded by a popular slogan. Slides on “Anti-Police Invective Chants: 25 January 2011” and “Hija’—Invective” slogans, or, as he described it, “hate speech we like,” led Colla to ponder “when might hate be appropriate.” Stating that, “invective discourse” against Mubarak’s authorities “was at times the dominant mode” of protest speech during his overthrow, Colla displayed a slide with “ACAB” graffiti, or “All Coppers are Bastards,” a phrase drawn from zealous “ultra” soccer fans.
Colla claimed that during the “Arab Spring” the “rules of language have been overturned by the revolution,” despite rising post-Mubarak blasphemy prosecutions. The word “aha,” he noted, means in Egyptian Arabic dialect roughly “F— this” and enjoyed new popularity during Mubarak’s fall. Another slide displayed graphic graffiti of a man fornicating with a woman under the English obscenity “F—SCAF,” a condemnation of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Employing a sociological analysis, Colla mused that Egyptian protesters had a “feeling of being part of something that is bigger and losing yourself,” without any allusion to whether this larger entity was threatening. As examined in one slide, a “song leader/lead chanter” would lead crowds with words from a “slogan composer” (often “failed poets,” he explained) that belonged to all Egyptian political groupings. Along with invective, these chant leaders would also use the “Hamasa—Encouragement” poetry, with demonstrators chanting in a circle to “charge themselves up.”
For Colla, the “art” of Egypt’s “well-crafted” choreographed protests spelled fun, not foreboding. “Maybe you could study them as dances,” he suggested, praising the “wonderful machine of innovation” involved in Egyptian protesters’ creation of effective slogans. By comparison, “American protests are lame,” with repetitive chants involving “two, four, six, eight!” He had a point, as anyone who’s been to an American “anti-war” protest can attest.
Colla’s admiration for such protests and the “revolutionary socialists” among his Egyptian friends ignored the ideological threats and sectarianism that have so vexed the region. For instance, the chant, “Speak to [Mubarak] in Hebrew/He doesn’t understand Arabic,” clearly indicated the influence of Islamic anti-Semitism upon the Egyptian masses. In her audience comments, Jerusalem Fund Program & Communications Manager Samirah AlKassim referred to an Arabic chant she heard in 2003 in Egypt involving the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, another reminder of a not-so-socialist Middle East. Colla’s passing reference to his studies of art as a form of “humans making and unmaking things” unintentionally invoked his recent apologia for the Islamic State’s ravaging of non-Islamic cultural artifacts.
The audience received little explanation for why Egyptians such as labor leader Kamal Abu Eita, pictured in one of his slides, celebrated the MB’s 2013 downfall and joined General Abdul al-Sisi’s regime as a minister. Colla noted that various anti-Mubarak Egyptians approved the torture and killing of MB members after the 2013 “counterrevolution,” without noting the reason. Instead, he mourned that Egypt’s revolutionary “moment is over, at least for the present.”
Colla made no reference to the jihadist terror, persecution of Christians, sharia human rights abuses, Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict, and other such issues plaguing Egypt and the wider Middle East. He observed that the Sisi regime had reinstituted censorship controls to suppress anti-regime literature and slogans that emerged after Mubarak’s fall, but failed to mention the MB’s repression—such as their certain action against anyone using F-bombs against Islamic pieties.
Colla’s adulation for “Arab Spring” Egypt resembled the equally naïve past praise by Edward Said and other leftists for the 1979 overthrow of Iran’s shah, which gave rise to the even more brutal and dangerous Islamic Republic. As indicated by the “Prayer of Fear” poem (which concerns Egyptian state repression) Colla included in his presentation, he still has a hagiographic view of the “Arab Spring.” His conviction that non-Western peoples such as Arabs are perpetual victims is dominant among intellectual elites and dangerously oversimplifies a Middle East where freedom has many foes, but few friends.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.