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Investigating the role of pain as an affect triggering the 2011 uprising in Egypt



Noura Mahmoud,

Death of Khaled Mohamed Said
«The narrative associated with Khaled Said’s pain became part of a larger narrative of the Mubarak regime’s brutality against youths and activists.»

The 28-year-old Egyptian blogger Khaled Mohamed Said was beaten to death by Egyptian security forces in Alexandria on 6 June 2010. His death helped incite the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Painting of Khaled Said on the Berlin Wall, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Nora Shalaby, via Flickr

Almost ten years have passed since the first wave of the Arab Spring swept across the North Africa and West Asia (NAWA) region in 2010–11. As we now witness a second wave of uprisings taking place in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, it is worth reflecting on this ten-year anniversary, neither to mourn nor cry over spilt milk, but to shed light on some of the critical conjunctures and trajectories of the first wave of uprisings and draw lessons from the past. Unlike much of the recent writing on the 2010–11 uprisings that has focused on the issue of defeat and failure, this article aims to explore how communal pain contributed to widespread grassroots mobilization in Egypt in 2011. It examines how pain can create possibilities for challenging an existing socio-political order, giving new hope and pointing towards a different horizon. It attempts to show how pain, contingent as it is, can circulate and radiate as an affect, causing bodies to move collectively to challenge the status quo.

Noura Mahmoud graduated from the faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University. She has an academic degree in Law and Economics of the Arab region from Hamburg university. Noura is currently an M.A. candidate at Osnabrück Universität, her thesis is on the role of civil society and social movements in the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

Pain: What Affect Theory Can Tell Us

It is widely understood among affect theorists that affect is relational and bodily. Sara Ahmed and Andrew Ross,[1] among others, draw their understanding of affect from Spinoza, for whom affect is a form of force or power that flows through and beyond subjects, that cannot be limited to the border of subjectivities.[2] Therefore, affect is a relational socio-political phenomenon that can, through its circulation, challenge or reinforce existing social arrangements in a way that goes beyond discrete individuals’ capacities to do so. Since affects and emotions drive subjects to certain identities and induce them to perform in certain ways, then examining the circulation of affects can reveal mechanisms through which political bodies and collectivities are formulated and act in the world.

Pain, among other affects, can challenge the status quo by affecting individuals and collectivities. Pain involves the sociality of bodies, as the bodily surface is the site on which objects and others leave their impressions. In this sense, pain is not only produced when bodies encounter each other; it also surfaces relationships between bodies and between people who bear witness to pain.[3] As an affect, pain does not always lead to a sense of surrender. It can also be a unique mobilizing force. Yet, pain’s affective force is contingent on how it surfaces relationships in the world. Not every experience or kind of pain at every juncture will lead to bodies mobilizing in defiance. Building on this background, the following section will investigate how pain, as an affect, circulated during the first wave of the Arab Spring in 2010–11, shaping subjects, contributing to networking among them, and giving possibility to collective action.

Pain from Tunisia to Egypt

On 17 December 2010 in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, a 26-year-old street vendor set himself on fire in front of the municipality building after his vegetable cart and electronic scale were confiscated by a municipal official, who slapped him and stood by while her colleagues further assaulted him. Bouazizi’s self-immolation was, on the one hand, a deeply personal act of a man with no known ties to any particular ideology or organization, who decided to burn himself when he found no other way to communicate the extent of his pain and loss to the responsible authorities. On the other hand, however, his decision to set fire to his body in front of the municipality building also served as an act of public protest, in which he screamed his pain aloud for others to hear. On the sociality of pain, Ahmed (2002) writes that “while the experience of pain may be solitary, it is never private. A truly private pain would be one ended by a suicide without a note. But even then one seeks a witness, but a witness who arrives after the anticipated event of one’s own death.”[4]

Bouazizi’s act of disclosing his pain through self-immolation was not the only act of self-immolation that preceded and catalyzed the Arab Spring uprisings. Similar acts also took place in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan.[5] For example, on 17 January 2011, Abdel-Monaim Kamal, a 50-year-old Egyptian man and family breadwinner, set himself on fire in front of the Egyptian parliament building in Cairo.[6] Nonetheless, it is the death of Bouazizi that is widely regarded as the spark of the Arab uprisings, igniting an initial flame that went on to spur subsequent revolutions across North Africa and West Asia. This fact invites us to examine the mechanisms through which Bouazizi’s publicly disclosed pain led to mass mobilization in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the region.

To unravel the modality through which Bouazizi’s pain – symbolized by setting himself on fire – circulated through Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries, leading to mass demonstrations, encounters, regimes falling, and broad socio-political change, the narratives accompanying his death deserve focused attention. Images and videos of Bouazizi’s self-immolation quickly proliferated on Facebook and other social media platforms, where they were widely seen and shared by millions of citizens. Those citizens became witnesses of Bouazizi’s pain. The narrative associated with Bouazizi’s death gave explicit expression to the pain suffered historically by many different groups of citizens, allowing those witnessing Bouazizi’s pain to identify themselves with his story. The socially constructed meaning of Bouazizi’s death connected his individual story of pain to a broader historical context, linking it to widespread grievances already in the public domain, namely decades of struggle against socio-economic inequality, state repression, authoritarianism, and neoliberal policies. In this sense, Bouazizi’s suffering body became a symbol of the pain felt by many citizens with similar grievances, and part of a bigger narrative that managed to connect those people who identified with it to each other, even though they were physically scattered and structurally disconnected.

The existence of similar socio-economic conditions in Egypt helped in the circulation of the Tunisian narrative of Bouazizi’s death to Egypt. Besides the aforementioned self-immolation of a 50-year-old Egyptian man, the leakage of the photo of Khaled Said’s murder by police officers in Alexandria communicated another powerful story of social pain. Khaled Said was portrayed in the media as a middle-class Egyptian who was arrested from an internet café, dragged outside and brutally beaten to death by police officers as revenge for posting a video clip online implicating the officers in an illicit drug deal. His very public murder was another act of disclosed pain. Its sufferer did not choose to disclose it, yet it was witnessed by millions of people on social media in Egypt and beyond. The narrative associated with Khaled Said’s pain became part of a larger narrative of the Mubarak regime’s brutality against youths and activists. The story of Khaled, a 28-year-old middle-class Egyptian, made it easier for other Egyptian youths to identify themselves with him, and to render him a symbol of the Egyptian revolution. The widespread circulation of the horrific post-mortem photo of Khaled Said’s battered face induced Egyptian youths to imagine his pain. When this pain was openly disclosed, it surfaced a relationship between the sufferer and witnesses and among the witnesses themselves, facilitating the building of a collective identity.

Importantly, the pain that circulated among Egyptians during the revolution was not just a pain tied to the past; it was not just images, videos, and comments stored and reactivated during the revolution. The same pain was continuously reproduced in demonstrations throughout the 18 days of the uprising. Despite the blackout imposed by the government to prevent media coverage of what was going on in Egypt’s streets during the revolution, the proliferating images and videos of brutal assaults by the authorities against the demonstrators were a powerful tool in the communication and circulation of the pain imposed by Mubarak’s repressive regime on different clusters of the Egyptian population. This pain was clearly disclosed from the side of the sufferers and witnessed by other people who, in turn, felt common cause with them and, influenced by their pain, took collective action. Witnessing the pain of others caused bodies to move into streets, to occupy squares all across the country, to shout against the regime, and to defy fear of deadly bullets and tear gas.

Narrating Pain

The narratives associated with pain are a crucial factor in imagining that pain, and consequently, influence the type of action that might be induced by the pain’s affective circulation. Narratives of the pain in question can be communicated through assemblages of various elements, such as songs, videos, stories, and speeches, among other things, which may eventually coalesce into a coherent collectively generated narrative. Who contributes to writing this common narrative and from which perspectives? How is it communicated and shared? These are critical questions to consider when assessing the affective role of pain in the world of politics.

Throughout the days of the 2010–11 uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt, the wide spectrum of protests came to focus on a single unified demand: “al-sha’b yourid isqat al-nizam” – “the people want to bring down the regime.” After being loudly shouted in the streets of Tunisia, this slogan appeared in Egypt shortly thereafter. In each place, affective narratives of pain were disclosed and circulated through social media, via videos, blogs, and personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, eventually coalescing into a single narrative: a tale that pointed blame at the ruling regimes and demanded change. In Egypt, the gruesome post-mortem photo of Khaled Said bearing the marks of police torture contrasted with a pre-arrest photo in which he appeared the exemplar of average middle-class Egyptian youth disclosed the pain caused by the Mubarak regime’s quotidian brutality and injustice. The sit-ins in squares across the country, not only in Cairo’s iconic Midan al-Tahrir, facilitated and intensified social interaction among people in what Asef Bayat has called “the remarkable politics of the square.”[7] By providing a space for the stories of this pain to be narrated and shared among other sufferers and witnesses, the squares catalyzed the affective circulation of pain. Through affective transmission and transformation in the squares, streets and virtual sphere, the Egyptian uprising in 2011 eventually coalesced around a coherent and consistent narrative of pain, felt in different intensities throughout diverse sectors of society in Egypt and beyond.

In comparison to 2011, a brief look at a previous student uprising in Egypt illuminates the significance of the type of narrative associated with pain for its potential to affectively circulate. In her book The Stillborn, Arwa Salih tells the story of the Egyptian leftist movement’s failed revolution between 1970 and 1973, arguing that the adoption of different fragmented narratives was a major factor behind the uprising’s failure. Salih describes the leftist youth who were the cornerstone of the student demonstrations launched from the universities in this period, as members of an alienated vanguard detached from the country’s masses. As she puts it:

This was what vanguardism did to our generation. Becoming a member of the “vanguard” was the first step on the road to disengagement from the real world and it generated alienated relationships of all kinds. It was an elite that devoured itself. Its obsession with hierarchy fostered so much rivalry and hatred, fear, and sycophancy, that one was astonished to remember that these people had once been rebels.[8]

Salih illustrates the disconnect between Egypt’s leftist youth and the rest who participated in the demonstrations, stating that both sides had different demands. Leftist students directed their demands against President Sadat’s neoliberal policies and US imperialism, while other citizens called for war against Israel for its occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. Once President Sadat launched a war against the Israeli occupation in Egypt, he redeemed his legitimacy and became a national champion in the eyes of most Egyptians, a fact that subsequently allowed him to throw leftist activists in prison without significant opposition from the rest of the population. The vanguard of leftist youth felt and articulated a different narrative of pain than the majority of Egyptian citizens, leading to the prioritization of different demands among different parts of the population, rather than coalescing around a shared narrative and collective struggle.

Coming back to the year 2011, what unified Egyptians with different backgrounds and induced them to rise up collectively against the repressive regime throughout the 18 days – despite the fragmented state of Egyptian civil society and the scarcity of resources for mobilization – was the affective circulation of a particular shared narrative of pain. In the aftermath of the revolution, many other painful and brutal events have taken place, yet people have not been triggered in the same way as they were in 2011. This underlines the idea of the contingency of pain as an affective force and the importance of the circulated narrative.


This article has explored the affective role of pain in triggering Egypt’s 2011 uprising. For pain to circulate as an affect that induces bodies to move in reaction to it, the narratives associated with the pain play a crucial role. The disclosed pain surfaces contingent relationships among individuals and collectivities, while narratives circulated about the pain can coalesce into a coherent narrative and sense of collective identity with the potential to drive action. Ten years after Egypt’s 2011 uprising, the relationships surfaced and collective identity forged through the suffering and witnessing of pain inflicted by the ruling regime continue. Indeed, social change is a long-term process involving continuous trials entailing successes and failures, pain and anger, rage and fear. Revolutions inevitably involve multiple rounds and in the ongoing political struggle for bread, freedom and social justice, the narrative is not fixed or finished, but still being written. The second wave of uprisings currently unfolding in the region emphasizes that the story is not over yet. Narratives of the revolutions are constantly (re)constructed, both during periods of revolutionary uprising and in their aftermath. What is important is how these narratives are written and to whom they are directed, as like the coherent narrative of pain that developed and circulated across the region in 2010–11, such narratives bear powerful affective potential. Revolutionaries today should heed these lessons from the past and take the lead in directing their own narratives in a way that can affect and mobilize the masses.

[1] Ross, Andrew AG. Mixed emotions: Beyond fear and hatred in international conflict, University of Chicago Press, 2013. Ahmed, Sara. Cultural politics of emotion, Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

[2] Williams, Caroline, “Affective processes without a subject: Rethinking the relation between subjectivity and affect with Spinoza.” Subjectivity 3, no. 3 (2010): p. 245–262.

[3] Ahmed, Sara, “The contingency of pain”, Parallax 8, no. 1 (2002): p. 17–34.

[4] Ahmed, Sara, “The contingency of pain”, p. 17–34.

[5] Bargu, Banu, “Why did Bouazizi burn himself? The politics of fate and fatal politics.” Constellations 23, no. 1 (2016): p. 27–36.

[6]Man sets himself on fire in Cairo protest”, BBC News, 17 January 2011.

[7] Bayat, Asef. Revolution without revolutionaries: Making sense of the Arab Spring, Stanford University Press, 2017.

[8] Salih, Arwa. The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt, Seagull Books, 2017: p. 69.