Book Review: The Naked Blogger of Cairo

Below is the pre-publication text for a review published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry. The final, published review can be found here behind a paywall. 

In February 2011, a month after the “Day of Revolt” in Egypt, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed union-busting legislation under the guise of a budgetary repair bill. Then a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I joined thousands of other concerned citizens in occupying the state capitol to protest the bill. Contrary to claims by Walker and conservative talk radio, liberal sympathizers did not send professional activists to flood the capitol. What they did send was pizza. Local restaurants received orders from all 50 states and at least 14 countries, including Egypt, to deliver pizzas to protestors at the capitol. As much as those on the ground were encouraged by messages of support, it was the constant stream of baked cheese and dough that sustained their bodies. Bodies that marched, barricaded doorways, and shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Marwan Kraidy’s The Naked Blogger of Cairo captures this centrality of the physical body during times of dissent. Rather than write another meditation on how new communication technologies shaped the actions of activists in the Arab world, Kraidy centers his analysis around the oldest communication technology. In doing so, Kraidy offers a refreshing take on the Arab uprisings, one in which Facebook and Twitter are not framed as revolutionary agents but rather as tools used to publicize corporeal dissent.

Central to the book is the concept of creative insurgency, artistic creations and innovative actions that spur and sustain collective uprisings. Kraidy presents creative insurgency as having two modes: radical and gradual. Radical creative insurgency describes discreet “violent and spectacular” acts in which “the survival of the human body itself is at stake” (p. 18). Such acute moments of extreme sacrifice and tragedy, such as Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, call into question the legitimacy of authoritarian rulers. Gradual creative insurgency works more slowly and erratically. Exemplified by subversive humor and sustained critique, gradual creative insurgency can challenge authoritarian rule by chipping away at a ruler’s authority bit by bit. Although Kraidy distinguishes the radical from the gradual, he quickly acknowledges that many forms of creative insurgency are a blend of the two. Sometimes the radical inspires the gradual. Sometimes the gradual culminates in the radical.

Kraidy is not concerned with answering existential questions about the Arab uprisings—why did they happen when they happened, were they successful, what happens now? Instead, The Naked Blogger of Cairo presents a collection of stories about individual bodies that defined a series of collective struggles. Kraidy situates these tales within their context, laying out the historical and cultural trajectories for corporeal dissent in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.

In Part 1, Kraidy presents the body, both physical and metaphoric, as an organizing principle for understanding authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian rulers see their kingdoms as extensions of their bodies and seek dominion over the bodies of those they rule. Citizens, in turn, can voice their dissent by regaining control over their bodies. At its heart, creative insurgency is an attempt by members of the public to wrestle control over their individual bodies as well as the body politic.

Part 2 focuses on radical creative insurgency and draws most of its examples from Tunisia. From protest suicides to hunger strikes, radical protestors exert agency over their bodies through acts of violence and sacrifice that demonstrate the limits of authoritarian control. Part 3, then, turns to gradual creative insurgency, focusing mostly on Egypt. Through parody, name-calling, and other forms of subtle resistance, gradual protestors seek to expose the bodies of authoritarian rulers as feeble and grotesque. The culmination of gradual creative insurgency is best captured through the demise of Hosni Mubarak, his physical and metaphoric dissolution made clear when he arrived at his trial in tears and wheelchair-bound. Kraidy writes, “Mubarak’s teardrops authenticated his demise; his body, incapable of dissimulation, marked the autumn of the autocrat” (p. 90).

Part 4 looks at forms of creative insurgency that feature elements of the body (e.g., hand gestures, eye sniping) or extensions of the body (e.g., puppets, graffiti) that demonstrate the blending of the radical and the gradual. This section focuses mostly on Syria but also includes examples from several other global uprisings. Part 5 introduces the book’s titular character through an exploration of naked activism and the contentious politics surrounding nude, sexualized, and exploited female bodies. Although women’s bodies are central to creative insurgencies, they typically are deprived of agency and turned into “props, incentives, and sites for men’s battles” (p. 198).

The book closes with a discussion of the creative-curatorial-corporate complex—where protest art and global capitalism intersect—and the increasing threat of Daesh (also known as ISIS), which has appropriated the tactics of creative insurgency to support its violent and repressive ideology. In his final tale, Kraidy questions whether the murder of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh represents a return to the status quo ante in Egypt. Sadly, al-Sabbagh, who was shot by police during a commemorative march at Tahrir Square, exemplifies the continued vulnerability of Egyptian activists as a new authoritarian ruler works to wrestle back control over the body public.

Wonderfully written and cleverly organized, The Naked Blogger of Cairo arrives at a time when Benjamin Peters (2016) traces the word “digital” to its indexical root, the finger, and Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) reminds us, “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body” (p. 103). Kraidy’s focus on those who use their bodies as technologies of dissent is a welcome contribution to scholarship on communication for social change and activism, which is experiencing a period of digital euphoria. In short, The Naked Blogger of Cairo is certainly not the first scholarly account of the Arab uprisings, but it is one of the most original and essential.

References

Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Peters, B. (2016). “Digital.” In Peters, B. (ed.) Digital keywords: A vocabulary of information society & culture (pp. 93–108). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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