The New Yorker Online
April 12, 2011
(An online-only article at NewYorker.com)
In February, two days into the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, a crowd of protesters in Tobruk, in eastern Libya, created a political icon. At a square in the city, they toppled a larger-than-life version of Qaddafi’s Green Book—the cement pages were six feet by four feet—and cheers went up as the monument went down. The event was recorded on a cell phone and posted on YouTube, offering vivid proof that the uprising was for real.
An anti-government crowd, a pro-government edifice, a dramatic toppling: it is easy to regard such scenarios as inevitable or necessary parts of any revolution. The Sons of Liberty tore down a statue of George III in 1776; a statue of King Louis XV was toppled during the French revolution in 1792; statues were torn down across Eastern Europe as Communism collapsed a generation ago, and Marines yanked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003 (which I wrote about for the magazine earlier this year). A few weeks ago, in Syria, a crowd in Daraa attacked a statue of the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, who is the father of the current dictator, Bashar al-Assad. You can watch it on YouTube, naturally.
But the monument-toppling episodes that have emerged from the Middle East in recent months are exceptions; most of the uprisings have not relied on the visual clichés of the pre-digital age. There are lots of reasons for this, the most important of which is that camera-equipped cell phones are in the hands of everyone and Web sites like YouTube and Facebook are serving as distribution platforms; a far wider range of imagery is being produced by a far wider range of image-producers. We are flooded with photos and videos that used to be exceptional, such as graphic shots of protesters being beaten and gunned down — or its opposite, protesters standing up to security forces and forcing them to flee. Who needs effigies when you have the real thing?
It’s generally acknowledged that the catalytic event of Tunisia’s uprising was the self-immolation of a provincial fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, who was harassed and humiliated by a municipal inspector. Paradoxically, no video or photo has emerged of his death. The video that helped fuel the revolt showed an angry crowd outside the government building where, a short while before, Bouazizi had set himself on fire. Bouazizi’s cousin shot and uploaded it to Facebook, where it eventually drew the attention of Al Jazeera, which broadcast it widely. The amateur footage does not have a visual crescendo—the crowd mills, the crowd chants, a few people climb the gated entrance to the building. But that was the revolution—people standing up to the dictatorship—and that’s why the clip was so powerful. Indeed, other Tunisians had set themselves afire in recent years; the iconic act wasn’t the immolation of one person but the protest of many.
Egypt was similar. Tahrir Square, the focal point of the protests against Hosni Mubarak, was not all that photogenic, featuring an unharmonious assortment of buildings that included the headquarters of the ruling party. (Firdos Square had a statue of Saddam and the turquoise-domed 14th of Ramadan Mosque.) Yet Tahrir had something far more important: a mass of Egyptians whose unwillingness to leave, despite attacks by security forces and government thugs, constituted the revolution. The uprising did not need to be represented by an iconic image because the revolution, in its flag-waving, hundreds-of-thousands-of-boots-on-the-ground majesty, could be sampled in any viewfinder.
That’s not to say the revolution was icon-free, just that the icons it offered were neither crucial nor traditional. When Mubarak, on the evening of February 10th, announced that he would not be stepping down (a day before he agreed that he would), protesters became angry and many began waving their shoes at the video screens broadcasting his speech. In Arab culture shoes are regarded as particularly unclean, so waving your loafer is a high insult. Americans received a primer on shoe-as-icon in 2003, when a handful of Iraqis at Firdos Square used their footwear to beat the fallen head of the statue of Saddam, and a refresher in 2008 when an Iraqi reporter at a press conference threw his shoes at then President Bush.
In Bahrain, it was the government that tore down the icon. Pro-democracy demonstrators had gathered at the Pearl Roundabout, an intersection that had, at its center, six white arches holding a giant stone pearl three hundred feet above the ground. The monument was built in 1982 to celebrate a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council; the arches represented the number of G.C.C. members, and the pearl was a reminder of what had been a major local industry before the discovery of oil. Until protestors assembled at the roundabout—security forces killed the first of them—the monument had little political meaning. After the democracy movement was crushed by martial law, the arches and the pearl were pulled down, according to the government, “to remove a bad memory.”
The Bahraini government was fooling only itself, because destroying an icon is not the same as destroying the memory, the people, or the movement that gave it meaning. In the nineties, when I covered the Bosnian war, Croat and Serb forces destroyed landmarks that symbolized the country’s religious and cultural diversity, such as a sixteenth-century bridge over the Neretva River in Mostar and a sixteenth-century mosque in Banja Luka. This month marks the nineteenth anniversary of the Bosnian war, and, although the country is very far from overcoming its wounds, the Stari Most has been rebuilt in Mostar and the Ferhadija mosque is in the process of being rebuilt, both with their original stones.
The world’s first icons, predating the era of mass reproduction, originated in times when it was at least theoretically possible to smash every painting of a religious figure or tear down every statue of a potentate. That’s no longer possible. Bahraini bulldozers cannot remove the archive of YouTube clips showing security forces gunning down unarmed protesters. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, along with the eternal life the Web grants to digital imagery, is reshaping the form and impact of political iconography. Mubarak will not be the last dictator to suffer the consequences.