Merzak Allouache's latest feature, Normal (2011), poses the question, from its very beginning, whether its film-within-a-film should have an alternative ending. As uprisings spark off in nearby Tunisia and Egypt, an Algerian director reassembles the cast of his two-year-old drama-documentary in hopes of persuading them to appear in fresh footage that captures civil unrest in their own country. Not everyone involved agrees with the idea, let alone on how it should be handled. Can such events be shoehorned into work that began under seemingly different premises? What are the numerous implications of capturing such activities anyway, especially in their initial throes? How does one start and how does one stop representing unfinished processes like these? Parallel dilemmas about rewriting and reediting have troubled those of us contributing to this dossier, too. It has not been easy for any of us to wrap up, particularly when we are so evidently addressing an uneven and incomplete struggle, rather than a tidy event, a heterogeneous cluster of dissent that simultaneously seeks inspiration from neighboring countries and beyond (Normal itself asks, as in Tunisia, so in Algeria?). The protracted production practices of academic publishing, like those of feature film, will always fail to achieve what the quick-fire coverage offered by other formats, such as Twitter or online journalism, can. Therefore the urgency of an immediate response to rapidly changing events has not been our primary objective here.
At the same time, these protests have been vitalized by unforeseen and unprecedented media engagement, garnering the media an even more multileveled involvement in politics than is typically the case, and thus positioning media scholars in a dynamic yet thorny position. As has been roundly recognized, citizen journalism has filled certain voids created by censorship, biased state-sponsored coverage, press-permit denials, and the intimidation of both professional and nonprofessional commentators. Furthermore, the media have helped mobilize a people and catapulted its activists into unusual positions of [End Page 132] authority. Few could have predicted blogger Slim Amamou's passage from a Tunisian interrogation cell to the Ministry for Youth and Sports within a few short days (a position he hastily relinquished). Nearly a year later, Egypt's leading Tweeter, Sandmonkey (Mahmoud Salem), along with other social media activists, stood in the parliamentary elections but failed to win popular support. With 67 percent of the vote shared between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour Party, the movers and shakers of the so-called Facebook revolution are not, in the end, the faces assuming orthodox political power, perhaps because that platform does not boast particularly high per capita penetration in Egypt (7.66 percent), with only 1 percent of all Internet content delivered in Arabic anyway.1
Meanwhile, more customary relationships between the state and the media hold strong. There has been widespread terrorization—intimidation, torture, assassination—exacted upon those who risk and lose their lives reporting and whose footage has been routinely captured and wielded as counterinsurgency evidence. The power of the old guard as exacted through the media cannot be underestimated either. This explains why Maspero, the Egyptian state media building, has become a major site of both massacres and demonstrations, with footage of local atrocities regularly projected onto its edifice by protesters.
All the while, production schedules for the region's once-buoyant film industries have stagnated, largely because audiences are timorous about venturing out to theaters.2 The cancellation of last year's Cairo Film Festival on account of Egypt's dire economic straits is testament to the reduced local financing for audiovisual material from the region. Although Arabs are certainly producing a flurry of interpretations of their situation, the revenues largely accrue in the pockets of foreign companies like YouTube. Who, then, is profiting from these revolutions?
While the regional governments have been quick to discredit amateur reportage— setting up bogus online forums (e.g., the Syrian Electronic Army), passing off staged footage as actuality,3 and declaring visual proof of their brutality to have been doctored in Photoshop—they, too, have staked claims on the incidents and aftermath of January 2011. Anniversary celebrations in Egypt were framed...