What's in a name? That which we call Tahrir

Wikipedia search for Egyptian Revolution 2011
By Deena Dajani · 25 February 2011
Wikipedia search for Egyptian Revolution 2011

Media frames are representations of reality. Their resemblance to reality is always partial. They emerge through institutionalised journalism practices that favour certain stories over others and influence the language and images used to describe events. [1]

While the analysis of media frames is not a substitute for understanding political conflicts, it can reveal whose perspective is being reproduced and why certain words and images are being used. As most people have no direct experience of the events represented by the media, frames play a crucial role in communicating a story to wider audiences. Here I will briefly examine what role western news media played in naming, framing and explaining the Egyptian revolution that contributed to the ousting of Mubarak in February 2011. This commentary on the portrayals of the uprising represents my own 'experience' of the revolution – that is, in its mediated form as an Arab living abroad.

It is noteworthy that the 'revolution frame' was not the initial frame used to describe the uprising. This resistance to using the 'revolution frame' coincided with calls by Western governments for “constructive dialogue” and “orderly transitions”. The BBC's coverage described the events under a frame of 'unrest' while CNN International was describing them as a 'crisis' or 'unrest' until Egyptian activist Mona Tahtawy challenged their choice of language on air. A Wikipedia search for “Egyptian revolution 2011” on 4 February, 2011 would re-direct to “2011 Egyptian protests”. Even when the term 'revolution' gained currency frames of 'unrest', 'chaos' and 'crisis' continued to operate (in a banal manner perhaps) in the background. [2]

The '[im]maturing Arab' frame

While recognition of the movement as a revolution mounted, another interpretative frame continued to lurk. Of course there were the likes of Mortimer Zuckerman who, in an episode of HardTalk on 2 February 2011, insisted that Arabs need to be managed by the likes of Mubarak and should not be trusted to be democratic. Yet even amongst the most earnest of journalists, the revolutions were frequently described in terms of an “awakening” and a “coming of age”. For example, writing in the New York Times on 3 February, 2011, Nickolas Kristof argued that “Whatever Mr. Mubarak is planning, it does feel as if something has changed, as if the Egyptian people have awoken”. There certainly is a distinction between the outright offensive views of US lobbyists and accounts by good intentioned journalists, but the underlying frame of reference that transcends intentions is the contested maturity of the Arab people: they are either now becoming mature (awakening), or they are still far off from doing so. The bravery of generations upon generations of Arabs who made these revolutions possible receives miniscule recognition in favour of accounts of “spontaneous” revolutions.

The 'the revolution is NOT Islamic' frame

The '[im]maturity' frame can be explained as resulting from the appropriation of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions to Western histories. The Arabic revolutions do not receive comparative treatment as much as they are measured against an already established normative ideal. To Žižek, the Arabic revolutions are not to be feared precisely because they emulate “best democratic secular tradition”. Žižek discredits the “cynical western liberal” who thought that only the elites among the Arab peoples could be mobilised through genuine democratic sense. Still, what about the revolutionary western liberal who maintains the western tradition of democracy as the only one worth emulating?

The problem with this insistence on the secular nature of the revolutions lies not with its representation at the level of description (for the revolution was indeed not organised by an 'Islamic' party) but rather in its implied 'reassurance' at the level of interpretation. In emphasising that “the revolution is not Islamic” the underlying message appears to be “don't worry, it is not Islamic”. The implication is that even when Arab Muslims (the majority of the protesters) are recognised for their peaceful revolt against repression, their non-violent behaviour is explained through an abandonment of their faith rather than a representation of it. In a report from Tahrir square by Jon Snow on 1 February 2011 he introduces a “woman in a niqab, certain the answer after Mubarak is Egyptian not Islamic”. How uncomfortable it must have been for a woman who practices her faith to have to renounce it in order for the west to recognise the justice of her plight.

The Egyptian Revolution: a case of over- interpretation?

When the revolution in Egypt did not 'live up to' “best democratic secular tradition” it was portrayed as deficient. The clearest example is the often mentioned concern over the “leaderless” structure of the revolution. In a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Marina Ottaway talks about the “problem of unorganised protests” in Tunisia and Egypt and their failure to produce leaders or garner force.

What we emerge with is an image of an Arab populace who have awoken (presumably after a long slumber or extended childhood) and are now seeking to emulate western democratic practice. To the extent they apparently do this they are commended, to the extent they fail to alarm bells are sounded. In keeping with the western normative tradition, the Arab revolutions are secular. In a 'failure' to 'live up to' this normative tradition they are “spontaneous”, “unorganised” and “leaderless”. One is left with the distinct impression that whilst western revolutionaries played chess (having lead calculated and organised revolutions), the Arab peoples are [like] dominos ('awakening' and 'nudging' each other into action); perhaps that is what the media mean when they keep on talking about a “domino effect”?

The appropriation of the Arabic revolutions to western experiences is ultimately driven by an internal logic of having to 'explain' the other to the extent of having to translate them literally. The most poignant resistance to this objectifying narrative can be read in three tweets by commentator Tom Gara posted on 31 January, 2011. Under the hashtag #Jan25 which became the benchmark of twitter conversations on and about the Egyptian revolution, Gara explains,

  • “Not sure about media translating Tahrir and calling it “Liberation Square”. On one side, Liberation! But it's Tahrir, that's its name.”
  • “You wouldn't call the Champs-Élysées “The Avenue of Elysian Fields” would you? Then Tahrir is Tahrir.”
  • “Did we ever call Tiananmen Square “Gate of Heavenly Peace Square?”Its Tahrir!”.

Media frames are produced through institutionalised journalism practices that have been shown to privilege certain actors and perspectives over others. It is inevitable that their representations of reality will construct problematic readings. The commentary outlined here invites us to question the operation of frames not just as partial representations of events, but also as formations of banal orientalism that continue to 'other' even when they appear to 'universalise'.


[1] See Galtung and Ruge on 'newsworthiness' in The Structure of Foreign News (1965), Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (1988), Stuart Hall on 'primary definers' in Policing the Crisis (1978) and Shoemaker's Gatekeeping Theory (1991).

[2] Reference to a possibility of banal orientalist interpretative frames borrows from Michael Billig's concept of banal nationalism.

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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