The Egyptian revolution faces a terrible crisis in the U.S. media: it does not understand how to be a good reality show. It was exciting when it broke out and roses were handed out to twitter and facebook, the key front-runners in who was to woo the world. It got mildly more interesting when Anderson Cooper was slapped by a random person—bitch slaps always enliven reality shows. The sight of hot Egyptian men and the looting of museums has provided some narrative relief.
But now. Tanks. Blood. People milling around. And a Hosni Mubarak who will not go.
It’s as though we are stuck in one of those interminable pauses reality shows call “suspense.” We are becoming restless. We want “action” and “action now.”
In truth, revolutions do not lend themselves to good reality tv.
Oh, they have the initial drama, the learning of new names, the appearance of new faces, the heart-stopping conflicts. But, unlike reality tv, we don’t get to enjoy long commercial breaks—unless snow comes down and power goes off. We don’t get a week off. And, as clever as we can be, we don’t get to label 6-8 discrete individuals with cute, zany, or interesting nicknames (Sianne Ngai’s categories). There are too many people. And not all of them are hot Egyptian men.
Pictures of “courage” sound better than they look, and intrepid U.S. reporters trying to get in the “thick of the action” risk being slapped, their petty resentments spilling over into petulance: “I was just trying to do my job, to “inform” the U.S. How dare they not respect that? How dare they restrict my freedom?” Anderson Cooper, the world’s reality tv host, has discovered a space that will not pause for him to perform care.
I am struck by how many people—close and distant—describe the revolution as a “spectacle,” as something “unprecedented,” something being “avidly watched,” registering interest and distance simultaneously. I am fascinated by how the genre of reality tv shows marks the rhetoric around Egypt—not simply who will win, but which new scandal will be unearthed to keep interest going. Even as I participate in it myself.
As irreverent as this post might be, I want to suggest something of my discomfort around the many calls for easy resolutions, to suggest there is something unnerving about journalistic and diplomatic calls for “quick” resolutions, to ask how what feels like our increasing boredom is dangerous for political work.
Let me be clear: lives and bodies are on the line. The blood we see is real blood. The bodies we see (when we do) are real bodies. I am not invested in revolutionary snuff films.
From the African side, the calls for resolution come from advocates of the most undemocratic compromise ever devised: power-sharing. I’m sure [former Kenyan life-president, Daniel Arap] Moi wishes he had thought of it—then we would have been stuck with a Moi-Kibaki team. It is easy for African dicta-leaders to cheer when Fox News shifts Egypt from the continent, precisely because it becomes possible to resist the acts of introspection that should be happening about the future of African leadership. But this is another topic.
Riveted by the possibility of spectacle, we are scrambling for new sites of conflict, asking whether there will be “surprise” entrants into this particular show. And if they don’t show up, we want to know why.
Who will win this particular reality show? Which country will get roses for being the most dynamic, exciting, suspense-filled spectacle on this side of reality? Will it be Egypt? Tunisia? Jordan? Yemen? Will Saudi Arabia make a surprise entrance? Who will get the final rose, carried on a velvet cushion by a beaming Anderson Cooper?