ON THE BATTLE OF THE CAMEL
The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 34.4 (September 2011). In order to read the full text, you can purchase the article below.
A sledgehammer meets glass, distant shouts, sirens, the air thick with tear-gas and smoke, shards of glass sparkling on the concrete, smoldering cars, the street strewn with objects askew. Bodies running together, bodies forming packs that spread out into lines and condense again into tight swarms. Riots often employ a familiar set of compositional devices: bodies circulating in atypical pathways, the spatial displacement of objects, the breaking of brittle surfaces, the burning of combustible elements. While one can certainly give an account of these moments within a struggle as resulting from a particular calculus of social and material forces, what can one learn from an inquiry into the riot’s formal dimension—its shards and ashes, its clamor and mess, its inescapable sensuality?
This essay examines the “Battle of the Camel,” a street confrontation between pro- and anti-Mubarak forces that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (“Liberation Square”) on February 2, 2011. This mounted camel charge became a spatial contestation of political legitimacy enacted on a corporeal level. By embodying social antagonism within urban space, riots such as the Battle of the Camel often fall prey to the accusation of destructiveness, a claim that overlooks the far more destructive role played by capital within social relations on an ongoing basis. Riots shift the power to disrupt urban space from capital and the state to the riot’s collective body. In thinking through the dynamics and significance of the riot as a form of struggle, its embodied dimension plays a crucial role. The actions of the body add an additional layer to the coding of the riot that exceeds textual signs such as chants and posters. As an embodied set of actions, the practice of the riot produces its own logic and permissions not only for the rioter but also for urban space in general. The corporeal struggle over space and time that emerges during a riot resonates with attempts made by choreographers such as Anna Halprin to experiment with which movements are possible in a street context. The present analysis of the Battle of the Camel, and riots more broadly, attends to the formal aspects of struggle, a dimension that is often overlooked or neglected. Turning towards the body and its crucial participation in the elaboration of a political struggle makes evident a corporeal contestation of legitimacy at play in Tahrir Square, and riots in general.
My description of the Battle of the Camel is pieced together from the video footage and international news sources available from my distant location in California. In writing about such a recent and unprecedented unfolding of events in North Africa and the Middle East, I am aware that a complex politics of representation surrounds any attempt to name or describe these events. I do not wish to generate a narrative that too quickly explains and contains the uncertainty of what has and will occur within the unfolding cycle of struggles.
Beginning on the January 25, a protest encampment against then-president Hosni Mubarak occupied Tahrir Square, a prominent public square in downtown Cairo. Events on one particular day during the popular uprising, Wednesday February 2, 2011, became known as the Battle of the Camel. A pro-Mubarak rally convened on the morning of February 2, following a televised announcement the evening previous, during which Mubarak declared that he would not run for re-election in the fall in order to appease protesters.  Mercenaries hired by the regime, paid 50 Egyptian pounds (roughly $9 USD) for the day, and plainclothes police officers held a rally in Lebanon Square in Western Cairo, during which camel riders and horse-drawn carts paraded in circles around the square. Around noon, the Mubarak supporters moved from the west of the city to central Cairo, approaching Tahrir Square. Gathering around the Egyptian Museum and pushing through the army tanks that blocked the street leading into the square, pro-government forces mounted on camels and horses besieged the anti-Mubarak protesters. Carrying clubs, rods, sticks and staffs, they burst into Tahrir Square and provoked bloody confrontations as they rode directly into the encampment. Gunfire accompanied the arrival of the camel entourage, possibly the army firing upwards in order to disperse protesters. The anti-Mubarak demonstrators pushed back against the incursions into the square, causing the mercenaries to flee. The violence continued into the evening, as pro-Mubarak forces threw rocks and homemade bombs from the Qasr al-Nil Bridge leading into the square.
In video footage of this daytime Battle of the Camel, it is apparent that the mounted joust generated a complex set of movement dynamics in the square. Groups of galloping camels cut channels through the dense crowd. A constant barrage of varied sized rocks flew like confetti in the air above the heads of those running on the ground. Huge swaths of the square began to dash as if fleeing an encroaching natural disaster, generating gaps that the pro-Mubarak contingent filled. The line between the two sides slid around the traffic circle at the centre of the square, recalling opposing football teams negotiating the position of the line between them during each play. Both pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators wore plain clothes, making the sides visually indistinguishable to outside observers. In waves of acceleration and deceleration, space became overturned, claimed and filled. In the attack of the square, the camel riders did not have a specific territorial objective beyond heading into the crowd and busting it up. The space of the square became abstracted from its specific functions and qualities during the attack and defense of positions in space.
The movement dynamics reflected a spatial joust for political legitimacy. The aggregation of bodies in the square had an abstract relation to the ouster of the president. The form of the struggle decoupled from its supposed ends. The square became an arena to enact a power play in which the position of bodies performed the struggle for control. Despite the abstraction of political legitimacy into space, bodies in the square could not escape the materiality of the violence—they suffered beatings, injuries to the head and deaths. Amidst the waves of back-and-forth violence, the struggle for space mediated the struggle for control of the country. The uprising in Egypt succeeded in generating a mass delegitimation of a regime that had previously organized social relations, the process of which continues to unfold with uncertainty.
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Olive McKeon is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She writes on the intersections between dance studies, Marxism and feminism.
Image Credit: Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 4, 2011. Photograph by Mona Seif. Creative Commons Attribution license.