- Dreaming of Counterrevolution:Rami al-I'tisami and the Pre-Negation of Protest
In 2008, a little more than two years before the January 25, 2011, revolution in Egypt, Khalid Galal's mainstream comedy Rami al-I'tisami (Rami the Protestor) predicted certain important elements of the form that the revolution would take. With even greater prescience, Rami anticipated the discursive battle that would be waged against it, both during the mythical eighteen days leading up to Mubarak's fall and in the months afterward.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Rami the Protestor depicts a "Facebook revolution" inspired by the April 6 Youth Movement's failed attempt in 2008 to organize a national general strike in support of a wildcat strike planned by textile workers in the delta industrial town of Mahalla al-Kubra. Rami's "protestors" are feckless rich kids led by Rami Sultan, son of the politically connected chief executive officer of the Egyptian-American Company. In an effort to impress a girl, Rami organizes a sit-in. He has no cause. The goal of his protest is merely to change the national anthem, a notion that comes to Rami while he and his friends idly invent Facebook groups during a hashish-smoking session (Figure 1). To his surprise, the idea attracts some two hundred thousand Facebook followers. The media take notice, and a popular talk-show host invites [End Page 143] Rami to appear on his program. Rami arrives just as the host finishes interviewing a passionate labor leader, who pledges to further the workers' cause by engaging in an unauthorized strike and a sit-in at the corporation's headquarters. Rami then finds himself in the national television spotlight, totally out of his depth. With no genuine political cause to champion, he desperately parrots the union leader from the previous show, thereby inadvertently raising the stakes of his own fake protest by promising to turn it into a sit-in at the headquarters of the prime minister.
The next day, a protest actually begins outside the office of Ra'fat Hamid, the prime minister. Ra'fat, wary of media attention and scrutiny by foreigners, allows the sit-in to continue. As the protest grows, Rami's would-be girlfriend actually does become impressed with his "movement." She joins him and turns it into a "five-star sit-in," with catered food, a membership fee of five hundred Egyptian pounds (more than many salaried workers make in a month), tents for the protestors to sleep in, and a nightly i'tisam barty (sit-in party). Everyone wants a piece of the action. Foreigners—specifically the American embassy—do indeed take notice, and they like what they see. The Americans pressure Rami's wealthy father into providing lavish financial backing for the sit-in, and he complies, assuming that his cooperation will bring him lucrative American contracts. Rami's "cause" also attracts local attention. A group of poor people evicted from their illegal occupation of land by a rapacious developer join the protest. Their leader is Kaka, a thief and a baltagi (thug) who knows Rami because he stole his mobile phone and held it for ransom. Islamists also join the protest—the last group to do so, but the one that the government fears the most. They are led by Abu al-Mawahib, a bearded fanatic in a stereotypical white galabiyya (gown).
Although fear of negative media attention ties the hands of the beleaguered prime minister at first, he ultimately emerges as a man of conscience stuck between the rock of frivolous and inarticulate "demands" by the youthful, rich-kid protestors, and the hard place of his responsibility to keep the machinery of government moving. Ra'fat holds a sword of Damocles over the protestors' heads, in the guise of a detachment of Central Security Forces soldiers. But he orders them to contain the demonstration, not to break it up. As Rami's national-anthem stunt evolves into a lavish five-star...