Revolution in the time of market

BY SHYAM G. MENON| IN Media Practice | 14/02/2011
If Obama was president born through media and social media, this was revolution cast similarly. It exploded as media event; ended as media event. All at one place, I didn’t even have to shift my chair.
SHYAM G MENON says he will remember Tahrir Square for the way it compressed revolution to small screen.
Thirty years is long enough in any job.
Hosni Mubarak had been President that long. Yet, despite thousands protesting at Tahrir Square, the best he could come up with in early February was a promise to go by September. As it turned out, he exited within days. Egypt was `liberated.’ The media called it `revolution.’ Mubarak had company for vacillation. Colonel Gaddafi has ruled longer while kings and sultans continue to reign in the Arab world. That’s potential revolution stretching from West Africa to Pakistan.
Tahrir Square may be the model for it. Eighteen days there was called Egypt’s revolution. What it did was depose a local ruler of thirty years without any significant contribution to the lexicon of political thought. Its aftertaste is something very new – flavour of crowd, social media and network. If Obama was president born through media and social media, this was revolution cast similarly. It exploded as media event; ended as media event. All at one place, I didn’t even have to shift my chair.
In contrast, the French Revolution birthed ideas; the American Revolution eventually produced a constitution, the Russian Revolution rang in new ideology in the garb of Communism. The Indian freedom struggle had many of these attributes, plus duration. This is not to take any sheen away from Egypt; just that times have changed. We are either liberal in assigning the `revolution’ tag or we want to acknowledge every protest as revolution, give the people their due as revolutionaries and tap an instant market. Indeed you could perversely argue that since it’s the media which brands something `revolution,’ what we have is revolution as product. The caravan of experts moves in; reports, moves out. Egypt becomes market buzz; a revolution in the time of market.
I will remember Tahrir Square for the way it compressed revolution to small screen. Almost reality TV, it seemed revolution in a hurry with unresolved issues even after Mubarak’s exit. Its lose ends betrayed the looming shadow of typical Middle East politics on an uprising everyone had been singing paeans about. From China on the Pacific coast to the Atlantic tip of the Arab world runs a band of nations that believes in qualified political freedom or none at all. With army in control, is Egypt truly liberated? What then made Tahrir Square, revolution in the first place? Our impression was probably shaped by the two attributes – eighteen days; city square.
Every day on planet Earth some six and a half billion people (more than one billion in India) try to survive. The act immediately assigns notion of mainstream and fringe. Mainstream includes business; revolution is fringe. Duration of event and its location can change category. Going on and on since the days of Saddam Husain, George Bush and Peter Arnett, Iraq’s tragedy has faded to backdrop. On since the days of Najibullah, Afghanistan’s condition is similar. They are all now tucked into the inside pages of newspapers. But eighteen days at a city square can change fringe to mainstream. It is brief enough to captivate; small enough canvas to pack a TV screen. For a measure of this – remember Manipur. Last year, the North East Indian state was cut off by blockade more than once. The longest blockade exceeded two months. Very few elsewhere in India, bothered. Would it have been the same if it was two days in a suburb of Mumbai or Delhi?
That’s the power of urbanism in driving contemporary sentiments. It is like going to Las Vegas to gamble. Where else would you go when there is so much gambling available at Vegas? Add to it the value of a permanent, physical address in directing media and social media to fruition. Isn’t that what Cairo’s Tahrir Square did to Egypt? Not to mention predecessors like Tianenmen Square and Berlin Wall. Besides the fact that Cairo was seat of government and where protest should be, Tahrir Square provided Egypt means to plug in to global attention.
Stage set, the media then searches for images of bygone revolutions in small scale production. There is a pattern in contemporary visuals as we seek to relive old idiom in changed world. One good thing about studio set is that it multiplies the impact of the specific and at the same time restricts the blood spilt courtesy telecast as surveillance. The Egyptians on Tahrir Square were never alone; the world was with them. Equally, we never inquired what was happening elsewhere in Egypt – Tahrir Square was Egypt; Egypt was Tahrir Square. Later, global leaders saw shades of Mahatma Gandhi in the peaceful transition Tahrir Square forced. If only Gandhi had enjoyed a similar media model. Would India’s freedom have come quicker? We must ask the British.
Like nuclear tests in the post-Hiroshima world, revolutions in the time of market have become contained explosions. But there is no limit to the mushroom cloud you can imagine in the head. The test at Pokhran was machismo unleashed on the streets of India. The poor atom was anything we wildly thought it to be. Can we then deny live telecast of armed conflict and revolutions in city squares, their right to be bigger than what they are? Depending on when you were born, the amount of history you witnessed or how you see the world – it is all revolution. Rendered insecure by population and the market and guarding the goose that lays the golden eggs for all, we can neither hazard full-fledged revolution disrupting the economy nor upset the model of world in a studio, which keeps revolution and world intact. Eighteen days of packed city square becomes a revolution on TV. History made, the army takes charge of country. Two days later, they dismiss parliament and suspend the constitution. In India we move from Egypt’s revolution to another content model - World Cup cricket. Tahrir Square, Eden Gardens, Wankhede Stadium – they all have similar arena quality.
What happened in Egypt holds much for the world.
How many classical revolutions appeared and faded this fast?
The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.
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