Sunday, January 30, 2011

How to read an image from Egypt

Cairo, January 28, 2011. Scott Lucas' caption: "A picture's a thousand words - what about a thousand people in a picture? This image shows riot police using a water gun to disperse protesters in Cairo who are merely praying." (Image found here.)

This may be the single-most evocative image from the past week's events in Cairo that I've seen, precisely because the ways in which it can be understood are, as Lucas' caption suggests, about as multitudinous as the crowd on the bridge. Some examples follow. Will we see it as something like Egypt's Birmingham Moment, in which the state's brutality is revealed to all who have eyes to see and can no longer be ignored? If we feel a political empathy for the protesters, do we assume they, if they are successful in making Egypt more democratic, will remain allied with us? Or do we recognize that, despite our own inclination to brand Freedom as Made in the U.S.A., free Egyptians will be, well, free to act in ways not to our liking? Or will we see only Muslims and wonder to what uses radical Islamists will put this image as they seek to undermine the legitimacy of other autocratic, U.S.-aligned rulers in the Arab/Muslim world (and, speaking of Made in the U.S.A. . . .).

And so forth.

In Tunisia, in Egypt, and--how can it not be?--soon, elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds, there is coming a great working-out of . . . something. If we'd been complacent about the general order of things in that part of the world before two weeks ago--nearly $2 billion a year to Egypt can buy a lot of teargas, after all--we can no longer afford to be. But no one knows what is coming. All we can do is watch and know that, for now at least, there's not much we can do about it . . . apart from figuring out how to read these images, right along with everyone else looking at them and, above all, the people in them as they look at themselves.

UPDATE: Via Al Jazeera English-language service, this:

12:48am [Monday the 31st, GMT] New York-based Palestinian-American writer Ismail Khalidi makes an apt social media joke on Twitter: #U.S. and #Israel change relationship status with #Egypt to "It's complicated" on facebook.


R. Sherman said...

I would hope a greater liberal democracy is in the offing in the Middle East, but I'll wait until I say it. I'm afraid they are philosophically trapped in the 7th Century which makes the bottom up development of a liberal polity as we know it extraordinarily difficult to take root.


John B. said...

I am cautiously optimistic about Egypt, at least: as someone said on NPR this morning regarding the protests, "You see very few beards out there"--beards being the sign of devout conservative Muslims. Everyone is saying the right things so far, and that includes the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is very secular, and the populace is well educated. But it's way too early for anyone to know what's going to happen, for good or for ill, and what it all means for Israel, for Europe, for us, etc. So, we watch. And hope.