The difficulties of documenting Egypt's ongoing revolution

Mary Mourad, Saturday 29 Sep 2012

A Summer Academy lecture panel devoted to documenting Egypt's revolution discusses the challenges and importance of gathering material on Egypt's popular uprising

Khled Fahmi and Emad Abo-Ghazi
Khled Fahmi and Emad Abo-Ghazi

Over one year has passed since Egypt's January 25 Revolution, yet a number of questions remain unanswered until now, despite the vast ocean of literature and material that documented the watershed event.

The Summer Academy discussed this topic at its open lecture earlier this week.

Khaled Fahmy, head of the Committee for Documenting the Revolution at the Egyptian National Library and Archives, began by describing the documenting committee's objective, which is to keep a record for posterity, rather than simply write an "official" history of the revolution.

FAhmy said that although the methodology for collecting material was already determined, there was nevertheless a host of challenging questions, such as: When did the revolution really begin? Who participated in it? Would those against the revolt be part of its history?

The next raft of questions were technical, regarding how to build archives and catalogue the enormous amount of material (which includes hundreds of hours of video) and who would pay for the storage of the material and ensure it was updated using the most advanced and accessible formats. "Our worst fear is that we collect material that is not properly used or managed, but only stored," Fahmy said.

According to Fahmy, the deeper intention of the project is to enable Egyptians to enter the National Archives repository and access their own history. Fahmy concluded by noting the challenge of documenting a revolution that is still ongoing and whose final outcome is yet unknown.

Mosireen is a movement that aims to provide an alternative revolutionary media and provide space to produce material in support of revolutionary demands.

"We have an archive of media material, copies of movies, mostly anonymous, shot from mobiles or other simple tools," Mosireen's Sherif Gaber said.

They didn't stop to ask questions about how to archive; that left them focused on collecting material. Now they're starting to archive, mainly through volunteers who sympathise with the revolution.

"Storage is the worst thing," Gaber said. Members of the group felt it was living material, and therefore question how to use it and grant access to it. This led to questions about footage, since movies do not stand alone without a certain history and story behind them, and information is required for the archive to become usable and informative.

The Biographical Dictionary of the Egyptian Revolution is a project by a student of history at the American University in Cairo, Nariman Amin, who was the main force behind it, together with her class. The project started questioning the "who" of the revolution, starting with old-regime characters, but soon confronting problems: Who is a symbol? Who was working for the old regime but was a revolutionary?

The projects struggled to catalogue individuals who emerged during the revolution and around whom little history exists, with limited reliability among sources.

Emad Abou-Ghazi, former minister of culture at the time of the project, and who is originally a historian, started by reflecting on the fact that archiving and documenting in itself is a violation of sorts of the revolution.

"Revolution is a process of deconstructing everything standing, while the process of archiving is about formulating the argument of authority. Our mistake was to try and put the revolution within the boundaries of the state archive that is rooted in its security mindset," he said.

Samia Mehrez raised the question about the actual writing of the history of the revolution, given Muslim Brotherhood claims about its role in the revolution and since they're now in power. Abou-Ghazi commented that, right now, there's an intention to educate students about the revolution from the Brotherhood's point of view, re-writing history to suit the head of the state. Yet this will keep changing, since the educational institution will continue to be led by whoever is in power.

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