January 25, 2011. The day will be remembered as a symbol of nonviolent political change and what the collective will of a people can accomplish; it also permanently changed Egypt’s narrative and the nation’s collective identity.
Narrative matters. Narrative patterns in a community tell its members what behaviors are expected of them and reveal their underlying sensibilities of how the world operates. Stories help us process information and form our worldview. In fact, our social cognition is believed to be tied to a neurological predisposition for storytelling.
Over time, cultural stories that gain widespread acceptance reinforce a sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative views. That the Egyptian people were able to achieve this paradigm shift and move away from an entrenched historical narrative is remarkable, although the outcome is still far from certain.
At D+6 months, Egyptians are rigorously negotiating the next steps of their government’s transformation – challenging the patterns and stories that limited them in the past and generating new narratives. The collective story that is emerging today will change Egypt’s roadmap for generations.
If Egypt was defined as a country ruled by the elite, it is now emerging as a symbol of people power and self-determination. Where it was once marked by stifling corruption and bureaucracy, it is becoming a beacon for reform and change. Egypt’s potential is promising but unknown: this has and will continue to transform the historic Egyptian narrative in ways that are not yet fully realized.
Khaled Fahmy, a leading historian and organizer of the Committee to Document the 25th January Revolution, explains the phenomena of Egypt’s evolving narrative: “This was a leaderless revolution, and one which came about through mass participation. The way we write history now has to be part of the same process, and so does the way we access that history. That for me is as much a part of the revolution as anything else.”
While it may seem chaotic on the surface, ongoing protests in Tahrir Square and continuous political meetings and party formations have created a generative and adaptive environment organic to the populace: individual stories are shared, new social patterns emerge and values sets are redefined.
What is ahead?
We will be watching carefully as Egypt’s narrative continues to unfold. There will be moments of tension and strife. But the collective narrative that is taking shape can unify a people and accommodate diverse viewpoints, which helps avoid fracture and diffuses political conflict. When policies and politics are contextualized by narrative, there is the possibility for greater understanding and acceptance.
“Let’s Get It Right: the Arab Spring Requires a New Narrative” by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed in the Huffington Post – June 22, 2011
Holly Heiberg and Lynn Johnson are senior strategists specializing in social change issues, transmedia narrative and self-organizing systems. They are based in Oregon and Colorado respectively.