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Explaining Social Change through the Lenses of Culture, Memory and Symbols

Chair: Dr. Alia Brahimi (the London School of Economics and Political Science)

·         Mohammad Magout (University of Leipzig)

Cultural dynamics in the Syrian uprising

Studies of Syrian politics have traditionally focused on the sectarian, military, and – to a lesser extent – the economic foundations of al-Assad’s regime. Few studies, however, have paid attention to the cultural basis of this regime and to cultural forms of resistance against it. Indeed, I would argue in my proposed paper, it was cultural factors that triggered the current uprising and helped sustain it. The shockwave caused by the fall of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt reached Syria in February and March 2011 transforming profoundly the way Syrians responded to very familiar and usual events, such as being humiliated by a police officer, from submissiveness to outright refusal. Building on Lisa Wedeen’s examination of the cult of Hafiz Assad, I extend her analysis to his son’s era including the recent uprising in Syria. I will try to show that her suggested “tipping model”, which states that Syrian people could be “tipped” from obedience to rebellion through little acts of transgression, may shed important light on the course of events in the beginning of the uprising.         

·         Julio Moreno Cirujano (Leiden University)

The Syrian “independence flag”: Reinterpreting the past and legitimising the present

In the conflict in Syria many symbols are been displayed, among which the most prominent is the green, white and black flag. This was the official flag prior to the arrival to power of the Ba’th Party, including the latter stages of the French mandate and the fragile democracy that followed.

The fact of using a distinctive symbol, especially a flag, projects an image of unity and homogeneity that the opposition does not enjoy; however, its widespread use in the demonstrations has been successfully managed to represent a coherent identity. In addition, the connotations of this particular symbol are reinforcing the legitimacy of the demonstrators since they implicitly allude to democracy and freedom.

Was this flag only chosen as a rejection of Ba’thi rule? How is it connected with the ruling elite during late colonialism? Considering the colours of the flag, how is this symbol related to the religious heterogeneity of the region? Which changes and continuities is this flag representing?

I will argue that the opposition is reinterpreting the past of Syria and its symbols. On the one hand it is manipulating the connotations of the symbol, namely, erasing its colonial heritage; on the other, it is powerfully constructing a political identity.

·         Mustafa Menshawy (University of Westminster)

Memories in the January 25 Revolution: Reconstructing and recontextualizing

Michel Foucault (1996: 92) writes that ‘[i]f one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism’ (1996: 92). This argument is based on earlier psycho-analytical literature defining memory as presentist, that is to say, the concern with the present, as well as being a malleable and fallible entity. These features of memory, as analysed by Bergson, among others such as Herbert Wilton Carr, suggest that memory itself is changeable, and thus prone to be restructured and recontextualised. For this process of reconstruction and re-contextualisation to occur there is a need for cultural symbols, or ‘clues’ such as museums, smells or parades (Loveday, 2011). Paul Grainge (2003) recognises that these symbols or clues have long been used as a political tool, citing the example of the Vietnam War. Feelings of dismay and guilt were predominant during the 1970s memories of this war, yet these feelings radically changed into a sense of pride and honour in the 1980s. This example of a memory-shift further validates conceptualizing memory as just “a term in search of meaning” (Wertsch: 2002:30) 

This paper will focus on the 18 days leading up to the downfall of the Egyptian regime: I will analyse the attempts by both anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak protestors to shift memories from a Foucaudian perspective, i.e. power to control popular feelings and to secure a political lead. This investigation will be divided into two sections: I will firstly consider the pro-Mubarak memory while analysing the former president’s speeches before resignation: what common mnemonic clues Mubarak repeatedly used to retrieve the past to his own advantage? How far he depended on the 1973 War to underpin legitimizing these memories as he was always doing during a 30-year rule (Heikal: 2011)? As these mnemonic evocations are cognitively understood in emotive terms, Mubarak and his supporters were striving to mention ‘death’ and ‘sacrifice’ as the accompanying themes in their thoughts. The second section will consider the oppositional memories while asking how these Tahrir Square-memories successfully resisted the ruling memories of Mubarak. Which symbols and clues were employed? I will analyse anti-Mubarak yet patriotic songs, and consider the witness accounts of war veterans who failed to get any of the social or political advantages that Mubarak as a war veteran himself enjoyed.

Rather than an attempt to link cause and effect in a revolution in the making, my main concern in this paper is to attempt to show concrete connections between a highly suspect concept such as ‘memory’ on the one hand and the evolving concepts of culture and politics on the other. I do not mean to analyse each concept in detail but rather reflect on their interactions in a certain episodic moment of Egypt’s history where there was a memory war.

·         Rebecca Dodd  (University of Glasgow)

Change and continuity in Libyan currency

The imagery contained on money is something that is often taken for granted, and yet is innately political. One of the earliest policies put in place by the new Libyan government was to recall coins and banknotes of the Gaddafi era and to replace outdated imagery where necessary. This paper will consider the changes and continuity in the political imagery on Libyan money before and after the revolution.

I will begin with a brief summary of monetary imagery prior to Gaddafi, continue to a more detailed survey of the monetary policies of Gaddafi, and will finish with an in-depth analysis of the new banknotes and coins. 

Portraiture is perhaps the most significant manifestation of political propaganda on money; there are two basic models; historical and contemporary. The contemporary model shows the current leader, the favoured method of Gaddafi. The historical model shows a past leader, which seems to be the model favoured by the current Libyan government with its depiction of Omar Mukhtar. Whether the historical model is a more democratic one is the paper's topic of interest. 

Not all imagery on Libyan currency during the Gaddafi regime was as political as his portraiture; coins and banknotes also presented an array of representations of other national imagery such as historical monuments, palm trees, and even camels. Whether these are retained due to political neutrality or out of a desire to create continuity will a topic of consideration.   

·         Henda Ghribi  (Université de Tunis)

Post-revolutionary Tunisia: the emergence of Islamic dress and the question of identity

The 14th of January 2011 was the end of the Ben Ali regime, characterized by dictatorship, intolerance and tyranny. While the Tunisian constitution stipulates that Islam is the official religion of the state and that the president must be Muslim, the Tunisian authorities have pursued an intolerant policy vis-à-vis Muslims in an Islamic land; the ban on wearing the hijâb veil for women, the ban on the long tunic qamis and the beard for men, and the control and closing of mosques except at prayer times. Following the revolution, Tunisian society has seen the revival of Islamic dress in different forms. Thereby, we are witnessing the emergence of new dress practices (niqab and ‘abaya for women, qamis and Afghan uniforms for men), which coexist with the mode of clothing that was adopted before the revolution (the hijab for women and the qamis that was adopted by a minority of men in order to go to the mosque for Friday prayer).

The presence of women wearing the niqab in the public Tunisian arena was the subject of criticism. This image was a source of joy for some, shocking and even frightening to others; Tunisian society is divided between denial and acceptance of this new dress practice.

The spread of the niqab in a country considered as one of the most modernized Arab-Muslim countries, where women enjoy substantial rights and liberties, evoke questions of identity, individual liberty and women’s status in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

How can women's clothing trends be perceived as a symbol affirming their sense of identity? Does the wearing of the niqab in the public arena suggest a Tunisian Salafist movement that seeks to change the lifestyle and the values of the Tunisians? In this period, do we witness the birth of a new society and a new Tunisian public space? 

BRISMES Graduate Section,
2 Jun 2012 02:43
BRISMES Graduate Section,
2 Jun 2012 02:40
BRISMES Graduate Section,
6 Jun 2012 02:38