- Spectators to Revolution:Western Audiences and the Arab Spring's Rhetorical Consistency
The time has come for us to leave our seats in the auditorium and create the next scene ourselves.—Alaa Al Aswany1
When a Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and fatally immolated himself in 2011, his death inaugurated what many now call the Arab Spring. If his was the speech of a subaltern—the figure whose voice is structurally written out of dominant political narratives—then the fact that his self-immolation was heard is remarkable. The fact that his death was both transmitted to global audiences and has translated into concrete political action, with startling rapidity, needs to be understood. Instead of being pathologized or passed over in silence, his death has been read and rewritten as violence, first as a sacrifice and resistance, requiring reverence, and then as violence done to him, requiring reaction. Thousands of marchers at his funeral chanted, "Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep."2 And the world has heard them.
What accounts for the way an event like this one—hardly unusual, in and of itself—came to be so widely seen and heard? How did the routine violence of economic exploitation and political exclusion become subjectively sensible to global audiences?3 How did Bouazizi's death become "grievable" beyond his immediate circles of friends and family?4 Most important, how did his suicide come to be retroactively [End Page 137] perceivable as a violence done to him, by a Tunisian state to whose illegitimacy that redefinition came to testify and bear witness?5
These are not questions that can be answered in strictly political terms or understood only by reference to concrete grievances, privileges, or governance. Narrating the story of the Arab Spring in terms of concrete political events—the protest to repeal Egypt's notorious emergency laws, for example, or the fall of autocrats and the holding of multiparty elections—would leave out the transformation in broader public perception that these events have inaugurated and would not take into account the changing modes by which politics is mediated. As Ebrahim Moosa puts it, the "jubilation, conversations, speeches, greetings, protests, banners, deaths, wounds, and other expressions" that have accompanied the demands and objectives of revolutionaries and protesters collectively represent what he calls "the order of the sensible," which is distinct from the simply political, and which has come to dramatically reframe and reorganize the way in which political events and possibilities in the region can be understood. And as Moosa puts it, although the political end results of the Arab Spring are far from certain, "there is one certainty: the people have changed the order of the sensible."6
Behind the deserved triumphalism of this claim, however, I want to ask whether other kinds of violence still fall outside the realm of the subjectively sensible. As we mourn Bouazizi, for example, do other lives remain ungrievable? How does the change in sensibility that Moosa describes also limit its own extent, defining down and constraining the very historical possibilities that are being opened up? And whose sensibility is it?
To answer this last question, the first thing to note about Bouazizi's inauguration of the Arab Spring is the fact that it has been a fundamentally retrospective reinscription: his suicide could be signified as a sacrifice in mainstream Western media only after the Arab Spring had become manifest, only after the unprecedented mass protests in cities across the region gave it retroactive legitimacy and visibility. If his death "inaugurated" the Arab Spring, in other words, it could be seen to do so only after the Arab Spring had made that redefinition possible.
At the same time, however, an origin story like Bouazizi's gives the Arab Spring its human legibility; by reference to the violence of Bouazizi's death, this disassociated series of events becomes a singular thing, an Arab Spring, which can be named and understood as such. As Hamid Dabashi puts it—through a brilliant reading of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (Yid Ilhiyya; 2002...