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Talal Asad on Egypt’s suspicious revolution

What does it do to people, and to a society, to suddenly become revolutionary?

I recently had the chance to speak with Talal Asad, one of the leading anthropologists alive today, about the experience of being in Cairo earlier this year as the revolution unfolded around him. Our conversation appears this week at The Immanent Frame. What stuck out for him, and which he was still trying to find the words for, was a subtle but utterly pervasive kind of suspicion, one that often ran in direct contradiction to the facts on the ground.

NS: What was it like to be there in the midst of a revolution?

TA: Even before my wife and I went, people kept saying to us, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Our Air France plane was actually cancelled. We were due to go on the 29th of January. We eventually left on the 12th of February, via Paris. We weren’t even able to go directly to Cairo, either. We had to go through Beirut. Then, all sorts of people starting ringing, again asking, “Is it safe? Are you sure you’ll be safe? We’ve heard all sorts of frightening things.” Remember the stories circulating early in the uprising about the prisons that had been opened and the police being withdrawn from the streets? That was what the fear was about. People wouldn’t believe me, but I was there for four months, almost, and I went all over town and never encountered any violence. I didn’t have any friends who could attribute violence to the uprisings—which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Cairo contains eighteen million people, so it has always had its fair share of criminality. But ordinary life, actually, continued. Cafes were open, and shops, restaurants, and so on. You’d often hear that foreigners were in danger, or that ordinary life was impossible, but that is really not true.

NS: Impossible, that is, without the control of the state and the police?

TA: Exactly. There are elements in Egypt that were quite happy to circulate stories of unrest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces talked again and again about the fact that we must have stability, which is then linked ominously to questions about the state of the economy. Since the economy suffers from the political instability in the country, they say, we shouldn’t have more demonstrations or strikes. But one of the things that emerged for me there, and which I’m trying to make sense of, was the constant flow of speculation, of suspicion, about who’s saying and who’s doing what. Why are they doing this? Are they really doing it for good reasons? Is it the army? The Muslim Brothers? Is their presence or absence significant? Do they mean what they say?—You know, that sort of thing. I can’t claim to have made good sense of it yet, but, to me, this seems very important.

We also discussed the transition from violent to nonviolent resistance, blasphemy laws, and even the end of the world. Particularly choice, too, is this passage, where he describes a conversation about colonialism with the great literary theorist Edward Said, whose successor Asad arguably has become:

I remember talking once a long time ago with Edward Said about empire and how it might be defeated. We were just sitting and having coffee, and at one point I responded to some of his suggestions by saying, “No, no, this won’t work. You can’t resist these forces.” So he demanded a little irritably: “What should one do? What would you do?” So I said, “Well, all one can do is to try and make them uncomfortable.” Which was really a very feeble reply, but I couldn’t think of anything else.