00 In the years following the January 25th Revolution, Midan Tahrir has been variably filled with tireless protesters, military tanks, gridlocked traffic, riot police, charging camels, wandering tourists, gliding bullets, makeshift cinemas, armored personnel carriers, raging bonfires, and improvised tents, among many other things. At times, revolutions have emerged there. At others, the military has emptied it of life. In the rhythm of the square, al-midan, in the assembly and disassembly of bodies beneath glowing fireworks and in thick clouds of teargas alike, novel forms of life and expressions of power have become manifest.
01 I moved to Cairo two and a half years after the assemblies of Tahrir had toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime in 2011, arriving on the literal eve of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup. As they rose to power, Sisi's regime sought to silence the turbulence of the January 25th Revolution that could still be vibrantly felt on the streets and squares of the city. In the months and years following my arrival, in scattered meetings and between sips of tea and beer, suffused with the oppressive atmospherics and emptinesses of a military regime that continued to violently consolidate its power, I sought to encounter the uprisings as they persisted in those who had shaped and continued to be shaped by them. What follows is a constellational tracing out of the resonances that emerged between many conversations and rendezvous, a delicate method of aggregating and gathering and collecting pasts in the hopes of cultivating present and future milieus.
02 In my encounters with revolutionaries, activists, academics, lawyers, filmmakers, artists, journalists, human rights workers, and writers, I was less interested in nostalgically recalling the 18 days of revolt than I was in exploring what concepts and memories could be salvaged from the uprisings that would potentially enrich the conditions for present and future struggles. One of the concepts that repeatedly and most prominently emerged from these conversations was that the ground of revolt in Tahrir was constituted by an entanglement between the present and the possible, both real in the sense of having force, and conjunctively reorganizing the conditions of possibility for living and struggling. The reorganization and refashioning of possibility in Tahrir manifested as a form of power, political and otherwise, that emerged from differentials between present situations and the possible situations that incessantly demand to exist in relation to them in the assembly and affinity of bodies in the Midan.
03 When bodies find each other in the noisy and varied assemblies of a city, as they did in Tahrir, during marches that snaked through downtown, in street cafés, at mosques, in crowded markets, at school, or in bed, they generate power and create the conditions for novel practices of living simply by virtue of their assembling together, differentially. In shared yet uneven relations, in the coherence and decoherence of differences, in the affinities, densities, proximities, and promiscuities of bodies, a power finds life in a transversal play between the present and the possible, between pasts and futures, in assemblings and assemblies that are the locus of what I call a Possible Power.
04 We should have a basic understanding of three distinct forms of possibility in order to grasp how the possible manifested as a form of power in Tahrir. The first form of possibility is indeterminate and infinite (not finite). Another name for this form of possibility is chaos, or multiplicity. The second form of possibility is determinate, a particular historically contingent set of possible moves, gestures, relations, orders, and configurations, a finite and bounded set of present potential actions. We have a tactical relation to this form of possibility in the sense that we can try to optimize our actions and relations within the limits of its formal space. The third form of possibility has a differential relation between the previous two forms and emerges from possible shifts between them, transversal slides back and forth between the indeterminate and the determinate, the infinite and finite, the ordered and chaotic. If the first form of possibility is interminably timeless in the sense of its infinitude, and the second form is captured within the contingent finitude of discrete moments, then the third form is durational, or is manifest in the intensive slippages between pasts and futures, the present and the possible. This third form of possibility I call Differential Possibility.
05 One of the people I spent considerable time with in Cairo was the revolutionary activist
"Even in the very early days, in the eighteen days and so on, you constantly saw things that before had a particular use take on a new life, for example a barricade that was being used by the police turning into a barricade that was being used to push the police out. It was a method of controlling but now it is becoming something else. The space, everything was changing meaning, was changing potential, we were experiencing and then in turn investigating potentials that were dormant, or at least potentials that we didn't know were there. And that in itself creates stuff, it creates all of these new relationships. I mean, the very simple thing of the space of the square, and not just the square, but the conversations that you end up having with people you would have never met otherwise. Everyone talks about those days and how it was a space - I don't think it was right to describe it as classless - but it was a meeting ground of so many different people and different backgrounds and different relationships and reasons for why they were coming and all of those kinds of things. That experience in itself was an experience that we were not allowed to have prior to the revolution, and that creates something in everyone. They touch something that they otherwise wouldn't have touched." (assemblages and assemblies that generated new forms of possibility through the conjunctive proximity of their manifold differences. Diverse assemblings of bodies, things, environments, ideas, and expressions transform the conditions of possibility for all involved because of the differential possibility that arises from them, the forms of indecision and indeterminacy that are produced in complex and chaotic encounters and affinities.
06 When the Midan became a milieu where bodies encountered other bodies that they "would have never met," it allowed for differential processes to unfold, mutually transforming all involved to varying intensities. In this way, assemblies are less forms of cohabitation, or forms of being together, than they are forms of transhabitation, a being-through one another that calls into question the separability or autonomy of any single body in their sympoietic becoming. Importantly, encountering difference necessarily means encountering indeterminacy as well as all of the possibilities that inseparably accompany it. Each body in an assembly undergoes a relational process of translation, a transversal passage that allows assembled bodies to "touch something that they otherwise wouldn't have touched." This encounter "creates something in everyone" in the sense that new possibilities are produced within and across the difference of the assembled bodies themselves.
08 When bodies encounter one another in assembly, they find that they can produce and practice differently than they could alone. Because it’s impossible for a body to fully know itself or another, remaining variably shrouded in the noise of unknowability and indeterminacy that is ineradicably part of difference, the potentialities or limits of an assembly’s collective production or practice cannot be anticipated in advance. In other words, assemblies produce forms of possibility that don’t exist in any singular body prior to its encounter with others. Rather, these possibilities only come forth as bodies start to become something else, together in an emergent fashion. This transition from a state of being something in particular into a state of becoming something else is central for understanding how forms of possible power emerged in the square. Every differential encounter in an assembly is a kind of speculative and experimental play with what becomes possible when assembled, a transversality and turbulence that emerges from proximities and affinities with variably different and distant others.
09 When confronted with the assemblies and their possibility, those in power were pushed into a conflict without known rules or grammars, a conflict immersed in thick fogs of indeterminacy. Security forces not only had to tactically respond to the assemblies’ durational presence in the heart of the city, but were also haunted by the specters of what the assemblies could become and what they could call into being. In this way, the assemblies virtually multiplied themselves and their power by producing forms of differential possibility, potentially expressed in novel forms of conflict or novel forms of assembly always on the precipice of the present. Even though the assemblies could have been eradicated in a direct military confrontation with the regime, they produced diverse conditions for victory in their production of the undecided without requiring a final climactic confrontation. The possible manifested as a form of power in Tahrir in the sense that the regime not only had to contend with the assemblies, but also with their unbounded and nonlinear indeterminacy, what they could do and become that could not be predicted even by themselves.
10 About half way through my time in Egypt, I was introduced to the writer and historian
"The revolution was this incredible moment of a real breaking down of barriers somehow. Because you are physically in the same space, whether by choice or just passing by or you were there because you have a certain grievance or whatever your motivations or your political position or orientation, you’re forced to be with and around other people, and you’re forced to talk to them. And I think that is the moment where people got to think ‘Oh, this is interesting, what is this? How can we talk to each other?’ And through these repeated encounters, you really have a breakdown of barriers. You saw new initiatives that couldn’t have opened before. You saw new cultural spaces, new cafés even. It was a changing face of downtown as a space of gathering. It densified and diversified in ways where there were a lot more people that were involved. It was the appearance of ad-hoc assemblages in the urban environment." (In our conversations,
11 In opposition to these forms of relational indeterminacy, states have historically engaged in the strategic maintenance and management of various forms of difference, predominantly along the strata of class, gender, citizenship, religion, ability, age, and sexuality. The active regulation of these forms of difference by security forces and other organizations is meant to suffocate forms of indeterminacy that, if allowed to spread and have duration, can otherwise loosen the rigid ordering and hierarchy of embodied differences and unsettle the state’s regulatory power. Importantly, people fail to be different in the ways that they’re ordered to by the state and by others, escaping and at times intentionally subverting and sabotaging difference, and this failure and sabotage constitutes a form of noise that is a ground for possibility. Bodies manifest as being more or less different in different ways, conforming at times and deviating at others, and this more or less of difference is a space of experimentation and speculation that is an opening for revolt. Assemblies become important in the way that they can help create the conditions for the noise of these failures and deviations to proliferate, intensify, and find duration.
12 A short while after my conversation with
"Most important was the Midan. You know, I’ve never been in a long protest like that. And it wasn’t just the 18 days because I think that there was at least a year and a half after that where I continued to go to a lot of protests. And perhaps the health problems that I have are from all of the tear gas that I inhaled, or one of the reasons, anyway. The Tahrir protests were important because for the first time I felt that there was this sense of community between the participants and it really didn’t make a difference from which class, religious background, gender, age, it was amazing. It was euphoric, I think people were addicted, we needed to go to feel that feeling. And it was the first time that we felt that we owned public space. I think this was so different because previously the police were the ones who owned public space. And you know, of course, that after several days of protest, the police disappeared and vanished completely from the streets. So like, wow! You know? It’s ours, the streets were ours. And graffiti started immediately. And it was important because it wasn’t just a creative impulse on the part of the young people who did it, but it was as if it was registering the events every day that were happening between the authorities and the people, that community of large numbers of people. The square also was not just a feeling of community but a sharing of amazing creative events." (One of
13 The occupation and defense of Midan Tahrir during the January 25th Revolution is one of the clearest examples of the experimental processes that refashioned the conditions of possibility for struggle by virtue of the novel possibilities that it rendered actualizable. In the years before the revolution, protest movements had been fiercely struggling to hold small demonstrations in different areas of Cairo. Organizing against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or against the corruption and repression of Hosni Mubarak's regime, or against worsening economic conditions that followed the enactment of neoliberal policies, small assemblies regularly attempted to gather in different spaces of the city only to be routinely contained and dispersed by security forces. It was only later on, during protests against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, that activists found that Tahrir could be more easily held and defended against the repressive attacks of the state because of its expansive size and many connecting alleyways and streets. This becoming-possible of the midan as a space of assembly, the experimental realization of a particular possibility that took years to enact, was perhaps the single discovery which enabled the January 25th Revolution to take shape at all. The experimental processes that emerge between bodies, things and environments unsettle established conditions in unpredictable fashions and offer the chance to discover and invent new practices of living, becoming, and revolting.
14 In a late night conversation in an outdoor café with the theorist and activist
"I think that it is a question of the conditions of possibility. Part of what the revolution gave was not necessarily the overthrow of the state and the state apparatus but a clearing of ground wherein, whether or not the answers were present they could begin to be discussed, to where alternate futures had room to grow and flourish. The sheer number of new organizations that came up and new types of political organizations and cultural organizations are kind of testament to that. I think it is very spatial. I think it was about: once you push the police out, there is this kind of ground that you have to start experimenting." (As
15 These experimental processes take shape historically in the oscillating differential movement that occurs between spaces of being and spaces of becoming. A space of being is a space in which things are made to be something in particular, in the sense of having coded and recognizable differences and relations that are reproduced in a process of articulation, apprehension, and capture. The most obvious repressive manifestation of this process in Cairo is the police and young military conscripts that are deployed and stationed at most intersections, ensuring that things are kept as expected and repressing anything that fails to appear as such. These various forms of policing help to continuously shore up territories where things must be stable and recognizable. A space of becoming, on the other hand, is a space where things aren’t stuck in any particular form of being but rather are marked by the speed in which they are becoming something else, in an indeterminate fashion. A space of becoming acts not as a territory, but as a milieu where already-existent relations and differences begin to transversally and differentially become undone. Within milieus, waves of experimentation find duration, actuating processes of differentiation just as they disrupt others, reorganizing the conditions of possibility for assembly and assembled becoming.
16 The manifold conditions of possibility of a situation are composed of complex relations between bodies, spaces, architectures, affects, environments, and atmospheres, in one instance composing something actual in the world as particular conditions align and in another instance decomposing that thing as those alignments shift. In the weeks, months, and years following the first 18 days of revolt, the Midan was occupied by bodies and cleared by security forces in ebbs and flows, fluctuating between territory and milieu while creating and extinguishing the conditions for assembly in each cycle of the Midan’s rhythm. Much of the longer revolutionary period leading up to the coup was spent materially defending the Midan from state-organized attacks that were meant to reimpose order, some of the most famous of which were the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud street to the east of Midan Tahrir. Possibility, and its conditions, are always fragile and contingent in this way, in need of cultivation, care, preservation, and at times militant defense. This back and forth between determinacy and indeterminacy, order and assembly, was the principal terrain of struggle and contestation.
17 In addition to the regime’s security forces, another fundamental restriction on the possibility of the assemblies was the more dispersed and decentralized regulation of gender. Gendered difference, as expressed historically in the patriarchal division and regulation of bodies, is one of the primary forms of difference that the state manages and maintains to (re)produce its power, a power predicated on determinacy and order. Any process of differential becoming, of assembling new forms of proximity, promiscuity and affinity that open the way for queer becomings, emerge in unavoidable conflict with historically stratified differentiations. Women took part in the revolution in large numbers, but always did so in relation to ongoing histories of sexual violence and harassment on the same streets that their bodies filled during the uprisings. In the assemblies that took shape in the months and years of the revolutionary period, gendered and sexualized forms of violence perpetrated by the military as well as groups of men repeatedly took place within and around the Midan, violently reproducing and reinforcing the gendered hierarchies and divisions that the state relies upon.
18 Near the end of my time in Egypt, I was able to meet with precariously. This context deeply curtailed the possible range of our conversation, but we were able to discuss the role that sexual violence played during the revolutionary period:
"Working with survivors of sexual violence in Tahrir Square was a huge moment for me. I was traumatized, that’s another thing, but it was very significant for me to see how it’s very hard for the environment we live within to accept women participating in a public space. Another significant thing, that I can’t talk about specifically with you but I can talk about it in general, was when I realized that the life of a woman is very complex, that we cannot say that a certain form of violence is a turning point in a woman’s life but rather generally is a part of her experience. We realized that maybe if we started working on issues of sexual violence within the private space, for example, we would understand better what’s been happening for the past few years in public space as well." (Women’s mass participation in protest movements in Egypt was not historically unprecedented, but their involvement in the many assemblies of Tahrir took place in intimate relation to the risk of harassment and assault, as well as much longer histories of gendered and sexualized forms of violence that take place in diverse spaces across the city. In most of the world, women’s presence in public is something that persistently has to be defended, and the assemblies of Tahrir were no exception.
20 During one of my conversations with
"We knew that these sexual attacks that were happening in Tahrir Square were political acts. It was organized. I don’t know who was actually organizing them or was actually doing it or wanted it to happen, but it had been happening for years and no one was doing anything about it. It changed the way we thought of what was happening. There were these inspiring moments. There were hundreds of volunteers that would risk getting beaten or attacked, just to secure the square against these attacks. There were those stories of extraordinary bravery of people, men and women in the square that would go and get girls out of the mob circles. These days were very sad, and the situation was always crazy around these attacks, but you could find inspiration in these stories when you saw your colleagues and friends just going into the square, and the stories about how they helped these girls and how they got them out of the mobs, and how they would send away the perpetrators. There were moments of inspiration all the time, and I was always fascinated that we in ourselves, as nobodies, could do something against this. And to a certain extent we succeeded. We saw the possibility of doing things differently. And this they cannot take from us. We witnessed the potentiality of something different." (These interventions were meant to both produce and defend a milieu in the Midan, an assembly where women could revolt as well as men, where new kinds of affinity across gender could be enacted and practiced in opposition to patriarchal forces that seek to only intensify gendered divisions, exclusions, and hierarchies.
21 The assemblies of Tahrir took shape in opposition to the limits imposed upon them by the order of the state, as dominantly expressed in the distribution and regulation of difference. The practice of combating violence "as nobodies" was not a liberal project of trying to create a form of blind equality between differences, but rather was about disrupting the processes of differentiation as such. This form of combat was at the heart of the process of becoming in the milieus of the assemblies, of queerly dismantling forms of difference while producing the differential possibility of taking part in "the potentiality of something different." The affinities, densities, proximities, and promiscuities of the assembled acted against the state's processes of differentiation and the rigid distribution of difference, creating the conditions for indeterminately becoming something else, something otherwise, together.
22 The act of assembling together in the streets threatens to reorganize limits and bring forth novel practices and relations. As much as the historical divisions in Egypt seem to foreclose the potential for complex coalitions, affinities, and alliances, what must be stressed is that positionalities are never entirely resolved nor fixed, but rather are incessantly reproduced and reconfigured in dynamic encounters between bodies. To assemble is to be with, think with, act with, endure with, and become with other bodies and engage in the production of differential possibility that cannot be fully anticipated in advance. This indeterminate noise, the noise of difference and becoming, is the requisite condition of possibility for resistance, an opening to speculate about and experiment with what is possible. Scattered and transversal movements in the chaotic aggregation and disaggregation of bodies in assembly produce plural futures that overcome the difference of the present with the difference of becoming. This differential nature of bodies means that they are never entirely resolved or fixed, as bodies themselves poietically emerge from vast complex networks of relation that exceed any singular body or group of bodies. The relational indeterminacy that arises from assemblies ensures that new practices of living and forms of becoming remain perpetually possible.
23 Near the end of one of my conversations with
"It’s very important to me, and has been very important to me to always try to find that space where, despite these huge and literally violent differences, the door can remain just about open enough for an alternative possibility to be enabled. Which requires a very warm trust. This is despite the fact that you may hold opinions that I find offensive to the point of extreme violence, racism, or whatever any of those other things are. I guess this comes to the heart of it. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it’s my way of living anyway, that somehow there is that little space of warmth that I might just open or try to keep open to allow that other possibility to grow." (For
24 It would be a fundamental mistake to think of the assemblies of Tahrir as being something singular, discrete, or resolved. Instead, we should try to think of the them as being chimeric, a form of multiplicity. Power is not reducible to the agency of any singular body or group of bodies, but rather emerges from the relational process of assembling itself at diverse scales and speeds. It is ultimately a failure of our imagination to curtail ourselves to what already is or was present, without also attending to what is, was or could become possible. We have to find ways of actively responding to and having responsibilities to what could be and what could have come to be, a speculative and precarious endeavor, but nonetheless an urgently necessary one. Almost always, possibility remains elusive. Only within rare situations, most often imperceptibly, do novel things appear as possible at all. The differential possibilities produced in the becomings of the assembled constitute a field of struggle that has the potential to radically reorganize and reshape the conditions within which bodies live, learn, love, become, fight, imagine, dream, are born, and die. Hope remains in the milieus of past and future assemblies that maintain these shared spaces and times for the otherwise.