Interview with Philip Rizk by Shuruq Harb
“The revolution is not a thing of the past, the revolution is still in process.” Philip Rizk stated as we began our discussion of his text “2011 is not 1968”, whereby he challenges the dominant narratives of the January 25th Revolution as a youth lead revolution. He argues that the radicalizing factor of the uprising was an underclass without leaders.
Shuruq: In your text “2011 is not 1968” you challenge the dominant narratives of the January 25th Revolution as a youth lead revolution. You argue that the radicalizing factor of the uprising was an underclass without leaders. It was not a socialist movement, nor an ideological revolution. It was not mobilized by the youth.
In what ways does dispelling these readings and myths help inform what needs to happen on the ground now?
Philip: Before I get to your question I need to clarify that I do not consider the Revolution to be a thing of the past, the revolution is still in process. Last month 1200 social protests were documented by a labor rights organization, while clashes with security forces are constantly on the brink of sparking into larger confrontations as we’ve had with only short interruptions over the past two and a half years. The reality is that the current political leaders are poorly equipped to run a state, but more than that, they are inheriting a dysfunctional framework. Not in the sense of a failed state but an exploitative, repressive neoliberal model of a post-colonial state. People will no longer sit back and accept the exploitation, the police violence, the ongoing unaccountability from state actors, from prison wardens to economic policies biased towards the elite class. I don’t believe this situation in Egypt is unique, there is a general discontent with the state of affairs of governance in much of the global neocolonial constellation. This reality is not limited to the states of the global south, even in the global north internal inequality of societies is causing outrage. I think it is important at times to question the root of the matter and the nation-state as a formula to organize societies with all its capitalist functions is not working. This form of organization imagined by our colonial ancestors is nothing more than a form of control and repression over the majority of the population. Today Hobbes’ Leviathan is cloaked in capitalist garb.
Going back to your question, the reality of a leaderless, horizontal, widespread rage against the system means that everywhere you look people are no longer afraid, no longer silent and will stand up for what they believe in. A majority of Egyptians are under the age of 30, and it is also they who are struggling to find work or know they will soon be in that situation. Combine this with the fact that for nearly three years they have grown accustomed to the possibility of no fear, they have grown accustomed to fighting being a possibility, a necessity, and thus you have the average age of fighters at the frontlines of battles becoming increasingly younger. The revolutionary rage is everywhere, not just amongst the youth, not within a movement or a party, not just in the past. My main grievance with the utility of the terminology of “youth revolution”, is that there is a constant effort to bracket the reality of the revolution, to categorize it, to make it understood, to historicize it, to identify and thus limit its participation to a category of class, age or nationality. The spirit of revolution revolves so much around the emotional translated into action. It was not a movement built up over years, or secret cells preparing a coup, a program written by the intellectuals. When people went to the street and proclaimed al-shab yurid isqat alnizam– this implied we would take down the system, not “we demand of our rulers.” It did not target only Mubarak’s “regime”, which is how the phrase is so frequently translated, but entails a desire to dismantle the system, as so many business moguls have dismantled the work places of thousands of workers, as torturers have dismantled the bodies of the kidnapped and imprisoned. People very quickly realized that the “transitional” power take over of the military generals and the current “democratic” period of the Muslim Brotherhood is merely a smoke screen for the maintenance of more of the same: More laws to suppress us, more policies in their favor, more wealth for those at the top at the cost of the underclass still leading revolution with all the cost that this entails.
In the long run this means that in Egypt, there is a seismic clash with the very concept of the post-colonial nation-state taking place, this is no longer about the discontent with a leader, its about a discontent with a system. This means that this revolutionary moment desires to overrule these realities and impose a different imaginary for society. The impotence of the political opposition is no weakness to this constant popular rejection of the status quo. The potency of the widespread perception of the hypocrisy of such elites actually makes possible a widespread re-imagining of society — it will take time, but it is on the horizon. The members of the neocolonial constellation meanwhile are fighting tooth and nail to suppress the emergence of this imaginary. From the point of view of the local gatekeepers who for years occupied the very prison cells, they now overcrowd with anyone who opposes their faltering regime. Our new “democratic” rulers desire everything to return to the way they were, only with this time the oppressed are bearing the mantle of power.
Shuruq: Do you think the current situation necessitates an ideological response? Does the revolution need to become socialist in order for it to continue successfully?
Philip: Absolutely not, I think that is the strength of the current phase we are in. Further than that I think it is actually the fighting over influence, the battling over power amongst opposition groups and movements that can often be an obstacle to the flow of revolutionary force. I believe alternative ways of imagining and organizing our society will only emerge in process, not in a predetermined manner modeled on others’ frameworks. There needs to be a desire for deeply different forms of social formation, not a reformation of the existent model or imaginaries superimposed from elsewhere. This moment has some similarities with the powerful momentum of the first Intifada in Palestine. A widespread consensus on not only the rejection of the colonial status quo, but also the methods to oppose it. This is not to equate the Egyptian context with the Zionist occupation of Palestine but if we are to take seriously the reality of neo-colonialism then we are dealing with an occupation in Egypt led by local elites built on the infrastructure left behind by our old colonizers- and this will be the case no matter who is in power. This means resistance to this political constellation cannot entail a reform of what exists, it means a rising up, a throwing off, a crushing of all that entails the old system before we can move on.
The Muslim Brotherhood hide their political ideology behind a mask of religion but at the heart, their formula of sovereignty does not differ from those who came before them, local or foreign. They will alter their religion-inspired values in a second if they get in the way of the establishment of their political domination. This is most obviously the case in their relationship with Palestine. While the Brotherhood do facilitate the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, they maintain the same hypocritical position of the Mubarak regime towards the Palestinians by retaining close ties to the state of Israel. The Brotherhood hold a rhetorical stance of critique of the Zionist state while upholding “peace agreements” with the Israelis and thus conserving the political arrangement in the region. Their recent negotiation with Israeli representatives on the expansion of the QIZ industrial zones, which receive tax breaks from the USA on the condition that the produced fabrics entail limited Israeli products is like a scene out of Animal Farm, the pigs copying all the actions of their human masters one generation earlier. This hypocrisy goes deeper still in the ongoing negotiations with the IMF over a loan that will entrench further the neo-liberal program that Egypt’s sovereigns have introduced to the country in stages since the late 70s.
For years the Brotherhood have carried out programs of charity and shown a consistent concern for the poor to broaden their support base. Today they are introducing the backbreaking policies that will drive us even deeper into despair. What I want to get at is that in order to break any logic of reform, of reformulation of the old, we don’t need a socialist vision, we don’t need a Marxist vision, we need to undo the old and see where this will take us. In a video the Mosireen Video Collective worked on in the community of Tahsin, the possibilities of local governance, of a complete reformulation independent of a centralized state, begin to appear. Since the creation of this village in 1964, the state has played no constructive role whatsoever. What is there has been made possible by the residents themselves, the school, the mosque, phone lines, sewer systems, bread, security: all ascertained at the hands of the village’s residents without the aid of government.
Tahsin village declares independence, video by Mosireen Video Collect, 2012.
Shuruq: You are critical of the role of the middle class as spokespersons, translators, and interpreters of the revolution. You point out how the faces of the middle class continue to conceal the circumstances and the real faces, “forces” behind the political resistance. In your opinion, what should be the role of the Egyptian middle class?
Philip: The middle class must consider itself to be playing a partnering role. We cannot become the underclass. We must acknowledge that the risks involved in opposing state forces for the middle class are not as high as they are for others. In turn we can play roles that the underclass is not in a place of luxury to. We need to do a lot of listening, more often than not we need to shut up and constantly question our ideological packages for the sake of reality on the ground. This, of course, means we play into a certain dynamic of representation, of speaking on behalf of a revolution, here I believe we need to be very careful, very selective. There are many moments where we should not speak, when we should remain quiet, to not play into the media discourse. Yet, there are moments where I believe we need to speak as I am here, in order to compete with the kidnapping of the narrative of revolution by ideological ends of all stripes or a commercial deformation of this narrative. . This is an uncertain mandate, I don’t claim to be able to speak on behalf of a collective that is not uniform. The best I can do is to keep my ears to the ground as much as possible, to spend time with the people that make up this revolution, to listen, to learn and speak in humility. In this act of speaking I do not attempt to “represent,” I try to interpret, but representation is out of the question.
Shuruq: You said, and I quote, “The framing and broadcasting of an image is a practice of power.” What is your reading of the current Egyptian media scene? Has there been substantial transformation to state run outlets? What is your take on independent media outlets in the post-Mubarak era?
Philip: We are reliant on various forms of media in Egypt for the distribution of information, but I always retain a sense of distance, a measure of doubt to a practice that must pass through different forms of editorial censorship and self-censorship. Simultaneously, these platforms of media dispersal bare the seeds of tools of repression within them. When the Egyptian military breaks a protest, maims and kills and the details of this are silenced in all registered media outlets, then these have become a tool of oppression. At the end of the day, all these outlets serve either the state apparatus or the personal interests of their owners. Thus a channel perceived by many as part of the opposition like ONTV, vehemently silences the occurrence of worker actions or tends to contort them as counter-revolutionary sectarian forces in the spirit of its business elite owners. Furthermore, many of these media outlets share the same weaknesses of other institutions, namely that they are extremely centralized and often silence the occurrence or diminish the value of protest outside of the capital or urban centers. Through their aura of being all-conclusive, such media outlets distort an ongoing resistance that is based in an underrepresented social strata of Egyptian society. In summary, all media organs, whether state-run or private inhabit their own interests, which are never revolutionary.
Shuruq: What other visual practices can help break this paradigm of power over the contextualization of the image?
Philip: As an image practitioner I have tried in various ways to oppose this practice of power. Disseminating images of opposition, of riot, is the most obvious method I have used to do so.. As part of the Mosireen Video Collective the internet is the obvious place to do so, where we have most control over our distribution, but this has a limited, largely elitist audience. This is a vital space to claim but it is not sufficient. By taking these images onto the street, as we did starting with Tahrir Cinema, we sought to take this confrontation of images to a public space. Here we not only screen images of opposition, including a variety of unseen, censored images, but engaged in discussion and confrontation between different points of view. We also disseminated our images through flash drives, CDs and Bluetooth connections in an attempt to use new methods to get our images into different spaces: living rooms, coffee shops, university dorms or further street screenings.
Our initiative was later translated into the Aeskar Kazeboon campaign, which pushes for the spreading of revolutionary street screenings in a non-centralized manner, flooding streets from Alexandria to Aswan with images censored from TV screens and newspapers. At Mosireen we also train activists across the country to engage in this practice of image creation by providing workshops on basic film-making and their dissemination for revolutionary purposes.
In my personal capacity as a film-maker, I am constantly trying to identify new modes of filmic engagement to oppose a regime of power that is represented in state-driven and commercial practices. My short documentary “Pity the Nation” unpacks the sources of the food price crisis. In the first screening of the film, the then Minister of Agriculture who had been interviewed in the film, was placed on stage and for over three hours an audience confronted him with questions over agriculture policies. The questions stemmed largely from a highly critical audience that included a number of angry farmers who would unlikely ever get the chance for this kind of encounter with a Minister that determines much of their everyday reality but remains protected in the fortresses of his Ministry.
Shuruq: I think what is important about what you are doing is that you are thinking of the visual medium not only as a representational tool, but as a site of confrontation, a place of action rather than merely a recording device.
Philip: In our film “Out/In the Streets” that is now in production, Jasmina Metwaly and I want to take this confrontation in a different direction. The film focuses on the tale of a group of workers who were made redundant shortly after the government privatized the factory in which they worked. The privatization deal of course is only one example of many such cases that happened illegitimately under the influence of IMF and World Bank-inspired economic policies, in this case under the auspices of USAID. The film will include elements of documentary and filmed theatrical street performances by some of the former workers. The film clashes with standard film culture and with the dominant image of revolution on a variety of levels. There is the aspect of memory. Since day one of the revolution that we are still in the midst of, its narrative has been contested by all sorts of powers: The authorities, blaring their interpretation over the various state media outlets, foreign funders and powers, opposition parties and story tellers out to become the next revolutionary narrators. In the midst of this cacophony the memory of the events are quickly forgotten or tainted. Our intention with this film is to use a visual practice that will confront this reality.
In mid February after we had forced Mubarak to step down, the workers of the Starch & Glucose company occupied their factory for years at a standstill demanding for it to be run again. The new owners are in the midst of selling the machines off piece by piece, as well as the land on which the derelict factory lies along the Nile’s banks for a vast profit. Such forms of grand theft of the population are one of the realities that stoked the flames of anger and revolt against the government. With this film we will evoke these memories that the privatizers and the authors of the annals of history want swept under the rug of forgetfulness. Further, in Out/In the Streets we place an underclass, the precariat, members of an informal world, in center stage. They tell their stories, they piece together their world for us on stage, not the middle and upper class that line the images of dominant cinema. Finally, by bringing the theatrical performance to the streets of the community in which we film, we will engage a community outside of the usual filmic commercial experience. This is not a project of entertainment. We want to use the visual practice to open up a space of debate, of collective discussion, of resistance to hermetic filmic practices.
Shuruq: With the Mosireen Video Collective you have used different strategies, sometimes breaking down the propaganda of the state, and even adopting similar tools/strategies to discredit it. Other times, the videos are mostly putting forward testimonies about the violence imposed on protesters. Could you comment on these visual strategies?
Philip: One thing that a viewer needs to realize is that Mosireen is not a uniform practice. Different people within our collective have different passions and emphasize different events within the revolution. Most of us boycotted the presidential elections but not all of us could agree on a position, so we actually ended up making no videos addressing the elections. This position of silence on what most consider to be such a vital aspect of the revolution is a very clear stance. This revolution’s single aim is not to achieve “democracy,” which might be the most deceptive narrative of our revolution.
Much of what we create is a form of counter-propaganda, whereby we intend to subvert the rhetoric of the authorities. One of the clearest cases of this is the video we made after the Maspero massacre, in this horrible moment when military soldiers killed protesters with live fire and by driving over them with APCs. The military junta’s spokespeople came out afterwards and claimed these things simply never happened. But we had the images to prove it and so we had to create a tool of counter-propaganda to tell our version of the story to counter theirs.
Maspero Massacre, video by Mosireen Video Collect, 2011.
We have no aspirations to some form of alternative journalism, we don’t tell both sides of the story, we only tell our version. In this time of contestation over revolutionary narrative I think the testimony is a very powerful tool to declare the hypocrisy of the authorities, to reveal the lies of the police and army soldiers. But this format is also limited and at times competes with the mainstream media, which has obvious advantages over us with much larger funding and TV outlet. There are instances of government or self-censorship where we need to tell these stories because others will not, but there are times when we need to build an argument that goes far beyond the format of the testimony.
Video by Mosireen Video Collect, 2012.
We are currently working on a video about the authorities’ use of sexual torture. This form of torture is a merciless tool of repression aiming at the heart of a spirit of resistance. What our video will do is build an argument for the structural nature of its use under all regimes, Mubarak’s, the generals’ and under the current Muslim Brotherhood reign. The cases we hear about are certainly only the tip of the iceberg, most of those tortured — especially sexually — will not come out to testify, because of the social stigma of this despicable act. The purpose of this video is to stoke the street’s anger. This anger cannot die now because if it does, our chances of changing this system diminish every day. Our images seek to provoke this rage in people because the revolution is far from over.
Shuruq: You have exhibited a selection of the Mosireen videos in exhibition formats internationally. What does it mean to exhibit the videos in this new context? What new meanings emerged, and in what way has this been empowering towards your activist agenda?
Philip: I see these screenings as part of our responsibility to disseminate images of protest in an attempt to enhance the dissemination of imaginations for resistance. The screenings took place as far apart as a refugee camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, and a public square in Mexico City. We perceive these moments of protest as a global affair. The images are powerful and carry within them the germ of protest. Images have something that words don’t in that they entail the power to inspire, to open the imagination. We clearly see our struggle within the context of a global struggle against the powers of domination. I recall after a Q&A at a screening in Berlin a woman from Argentina came and talked to me afterwards, pointing out the intense similarities with the wave of action that occurred in Argentina around the 2001 uprising. She had never thought of these connections before because this is not the image relayed to her through the media. These connections need to be made, especially in the global south as we struggle against an often deemed invisible neo-colonialism. This is why we place a lot of emphasis on translation. There is a group of translators that are constantly subtitling these stories of revolt to make them accessible to a global audience because we must see ourselves within a broader struggle and not an atomized battle against local dictatorship. Through these screenings new connections, new relationship, new networks and new meanings are developed, but it is a difficult process, a deep investment and we are always short of time, short of energy and short of people. In sum and made simple, we are playing a part in the contestation over the narrative of a global battle over how we want to live our lives.
Published May 20,2013.