Social emotions in Egypt

We tend to believe that emotions are limited to individuals.

This belief is encouraged by the atomization of capitalist societies into monads who experience life via a screen and belong to virtual not concrete communities; and also by psychology’s near monopoly on the study of emotions and its conception of them as uniquely individual experiences.

But once in a while events shake us out of this limited view and remind us that emotions exist because humans are social, communal mammals.

Imagine, for example, you are among the 60,000 passionate Napolese football (soccer) supporters at the Stadio San Paolo, Naples, watching Napoli play. No. Not ‘watching’. You are part of the action, moving and singing as one. All your senses are involved, not just sight. The sound goes through you. You can’t hear yourself think. A loose confederation of tribes united in opposition to a common enemy: the other team.

Or you are swept up in the emotional contagion we call the ‘Arab Spring’ that rolled across Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, beginning in 2010.

You are one of the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 2011, laying symbolic siege to the Mubarak regime. Day and night, putting your body on the line against the police, militias and the army, by your mere presence forcing change. Or so you think.

Within that one space forces of revolt and suppression fight it out. Firebombs and rocks. Buildings burn. An abandoned police truck is tipped over and set alight. Eyes gleam. You absorb others’ energy and add to it. The atmosphere is tense and explosive, with a whiff of tear gas. Hilary Clinton visits and claims to be intoxicated by the air of freedom.

A year later you discover it was a military coup.

The emotions in Tahrir Square exist within and among these Egyptians. They are so real you feel you could cut them with a knife.

There’s a fair chance that you’ve never felt so alive in your life. And you realize what puny things individual emotions are.

It pays to know about the social life of emotions.

To beat Napoli at home, the visiting coach needs to know how to counter that cascade of energy from the stands to the pitch. Very few foreign coaches know how because most don’t understand the people of Naples.

To cause a revolution in Egypt you need to distinguish between emotional fervour and emotional discipline.

The young believed that the heady days of January, 2011, like young love, would last for ever. The old know better.

They know that emotions can be turned inside-out like a glove and redirected to from whence they came.

They know that passion is exhausting and that tired people crave stability.

They know that all they have to do is wait.

And Egypt is ruled by old men.


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