Many of the slogans of the Egyptian revolution have been poetry, and as compositions with rhyme, meter and purpose, they resonate with very old conceptions of lyrical form. But slogans are not literary texts whose meanings can be reduced to a purely semantic level. Most often, they are part of a performance — embodied actions taking place in particular situations. This fact opens up avenues for thinking about literary aesthetics and political practice, and it shows the relevance of cultural analysis for the study of revolution.

Like other slogans, the words “the people want” have been sung and resung countless times in marches, assemblies and street fights, painted onto temporary and permanent forms of signage, scribbled onto walls, recorded and rebroadcast in print and televised media, and reposted at thousands of electronic media platforms. While these translations between genre, form and medium are significant, the lasting power of the slogan derives from its place within the contentious performances of revolutionary activists.

Revolution and Cultural Repertoire

Sustained political projects, like the ones that produced the Egyptian revolution, are characterized by recognizable and self-conscious patterns of action. So, too, the protest cultures they generate. Drawing on Charles Tilly’s writings on English social movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Asef Bayat observes that “what came to be known as ‘social movements’ combined three elements: an organized and sustained claim making on target authorities; a repertoire of performances, including associations, public meetings, media statements and street marches; and ‘public representations of the cause’s worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment.’” [1] While all these aspects resonate strongly with the Egyptian revolution, it is repertoire that is most illuminating for thinking about slogans in particular. For Tilly, “contentious gatherings” — such as assemblies, demonstrations, marches and strikes — are the primary actions that form a social movement. With each action, activists attempt to build upon and learn from the successes and failures of previous actions. Tilly calls this process of learning, revising and improvising a “repertoire” and stresses that this repertoire plays a role in standardizing and limiting the nature of contentious performance. [2] In this account, innovation takes place within a dynamic history of learning and adapting.

The Egyptian revolution grew out of such a sustained repertoire of actions, organized by broad networks of actors with years of experience. This history is crucial for recognizing what was new, and what was not, about the uprising of January-February 2011. Consider one of the most radical innovations of January 25: large groups of protesters marching through city streets. In Mubarak’s Egypt demonstrations may have been illegal, but there was also a sustained history of demonstrations throughout the country. In Cairo, street gatherings were a routine part of opposition politics — but they were largely stationary and confined to designated spots that allowed them to be containable and dispersible. For nearly a decade, assemblies were regularly mounted in downtown Cairo, though most often surrounded by overwhelming numbers of riot police, who separated the protesters from the general public and ensured that the event remained fixed in place. Nonetheless, throughout this period activists struggled to develop other forms of public assembly, though not all with the same result. While the 2008 marches mounted by radical labor organizations in Mahalla al-Kubra were contained by state violence, the inventive vigils of “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id” along the corniche in Alexandria in the summer of 2010 were not. Experiences such as these informed the tactics of activists who decided to hold the first mass marches through Egypt’s city streets in 40 years.

In thinking of contentious performance as repertoire, it is useful to recall the resonance of the repertory in theater. Typically, repertory describes theater that remounts works already known and tried — and a repertoire is, in essence, a catalog or playbook of works that have been previously produced to some degree of success. In this regard, it is also useful to recall Richard Schechner’s distinctions between proto-performance, performance and aftermath as stages in the process of performance. [3] Such repertory routines were long practiced in Egyptian social movements before January 25. Activists had long been organizing training sessions, workshops and rehearsals before actions — and they also engaged in warm-ups, cool-downs and debriefing sessions just beforehand and afterward. And activists relied on a regular number of public activities to create and sustain contexts of reception, using briefings, conferences, blog journalism, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. All of the central actors of the January 25 action — the April 6 Youth Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists, We Are All Khalid Sa‘id — were working with a limited set of routines and constantly sharing their experiences so as to revise and improve each action they mounted.

This logic of repertoire also applies to the production and performance of slogans. Within activist groups, there are usually individuals who are known for their wit and humor. As part of the preparation for an event, composers compile lists of slogans. The process is informal and results in lists created by multiple hands. Some slogans are painted onto banners and signs. Those who compose slogans always draw on a wealth of discourse that is already known: famous lines of poetry or song; recent or timeless words of a public figure; and slogans from previous actions, with some or no modification. Originality counts, but only if presented in the form of familiarity.

Within each group, there is usually an activist, or set of individuals, known for their loud voices, stamina and courage. They are given the task of leading the chants, sustaining them, and knowing when to change course and adapt. The form is either call and response, or lead and follow. As one person’s voice wavers, another steps forward to take up the slack. The longer the action, the more members of the group will rotate into this role. Sometimes, the leader will use a script of specially coined slogans, but always, the main slogans will be based on ones already used successfully in a previous action.

Though there is wide lexical divergence in the slogans, in terms of genre, form and sound there is little variation. The rhythms and meter are few in number, and already known to all who participate. A slogan cannot become repertoire within the space of a single performance. Rather, a slogan becomes powerful through a process of repetition and trial, which usually takes days if not weeks or longer. During an action, activists listen to see how the slogans work, and whether they appear to have resonance or effect. Afterward, activists meet to discuss the event, and they consider the effect of one day’s slogans as they prepare for the next. Throughout the process, activists are recording the action and preparing to share details of the event with others, including favorite slogans. Similarly, allied groups share their experiences and slogans with one another. Through this feedback loop, activists disseminate and adapt slogans. Those slogans thought to work well become part of the repertoire of the next protest; those that do not are either revised or discarded for another day. And just as the model of repertoire would suggest, of the hundreds of slogans performed during the Egyptian revolution, only a fraction became a lasting part of the repertoire.

The People Want

When Egyptians first began to chant “the people want to topple the regime” on the evening of January 25, this slogan was both already familiar and radically fresh — a combination that seems to have been part of its power. Egyptians knew that Tunisians had already been chanting it, sometimes with subtle variation. The familiarity was due partly to media coverage and partly to the existence of international activist networks. Human rights and Internet activists across the Arab world had long focused their attention on the Tunisian regime. Before Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule began to crack, these networks were well established and in daily contact with Tunis. Activists in Cairo describe lending logistical support to Tunisian comrades from the early days of the Tunisian revolt. When Tunisian authorities began to shut down websites, Egyptian activists immediately opened up mirror sites and reposted videos and commentary onto social media outlets. From the earliest days, it was largely Egyptian-sourced Twitter feeds — with hashtags #Bouazizi and #SidiBouzid — that rebroadcast links to the Tunisian demonstrations. Thus, as the slogans of revolution began to proliferate and amplify within Tunisia, much of the action was also coming from supporters in Egypt.

Many of these same Egyptian activists were busy preparing for January 25. Why they took up this Tunisian slogan, but not others, invites comment. First, the register of the slogan is instructive. Unlike many of the other slogans from the Tunisian uprising, this one was in neither French nor Tunisian vernacular. The language straddles colloquial and standard media Arabics, even if no one would speak this way in everyday conversation. More importantly, the register articulates a shared language that connects back to the recent experience of revolution in Tunis and forward to other Arab countries. Like the Tunisians before them, Egyptians knew that they were not only singing to themselves — they were self-consciously performing revolution for the entire Arab world.

As some Egyptians have said, what was most striking to their ears the first time hearing it was that it contained no metaphor. The simple act of declaring what one wanted in blunt language was something radically new. In a political culture dominated by half-truth and innuendo, the directness of this speech might be seen as a form of estrangement poetics.

But the most important observation to make about the slogan is that it unmistakably cites the opening line of Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s 1933 poem, “The Will to Live.” [4]

If, one day, the people want to live, then fate will answer their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.
For he who is not embraced by life’s passion will dissipate into thin air,
Woe to him whom life loves not, against the void that strikes there,
At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare…

These opening lines are more than famous. These are words that would be known by any educated person anywhere in the Arab world.

Al-Shabbi was a gifted poet from the Tunisian hinterlands who died relatively unknown in 1934 at the age of 25. Few of his poems were published in his native land during his lifetime. His main interlocutors lived in Egypt, and it was through these friendships that a few of his later poems, like this one, were published in the Egyptian journal Apollo. Al-Shabbi was for the most part interested in existential themes — life, love and loss — and their connections to pastoral landscapes. No one would ever mistake his works for platform poetry, let alone agitprop. On the contrary, despite its reference to “the people,” his poem “The Will to Live” is motivated by figures of natural elements — wind, water, ice and flora. It narrates the journey of a seed struggling to live through a cycle of seasons. In fact, when read in the context of Shabbi’s work it becomes clear that what Shabbi meant by “the people” was something very different from how it is being read today. The term “the people” recurs in a number of al-Shabbi’s last poems (most notably “To the People” and “To the Tyrants of the World”), but always in the context of an eternal battle between forces of nature — life and death, spring and winter, light and darkness. “The people” in Shabbi’s diwan is thus not a figure of mass politics at all, but rather the isolated creative genius, the romantic self-making artist, a voice in the wilderness calling forth das Volk.

When Tunisians took up al-Shabbi’s poem in early 2011, it had already been around for 80 years. While the poem was largely consigned to half-life in official textbooks, it was also clearly a source of deep cultural resonance across the Arab world, especially wherever struggle could be imagined in existentialist terms. Yet even as this poem is one of the best known of the entire modern period, it is — and always has been — stilted in a number of ways. On the one hand, it is composed in a mono-rhymed classical meter that was as anachronistic in 1933 as it was in 2011. On the other, its romantic themes were equally detached from the political agendas of the period of national liberation and the period of post-independence stagnation. In Tunisian and Egyptian political culture — as elsewhere in the Arab world — platform poetry often plays a prominent role in political repertoires. But al-Shabbi’s poetry is largely absent from those traditions.

How this poem became available for revolutionary use in 2011 thus demands some explanation. Part of the story lies in the effort by a generation of Tunisian nationalists seeking to Arabize the cultural institutions of the country. In 1955, two decades after his death, al-Shabbi’s diwan, Aghani al-haya, was finally published. As part of an effort to remake al-Shabbi into the national poet of Tunisia, his verse became part of the national curriculum and until this day, every student in Tunisia (and in many other parts of the Arab world) is compelled to memorize these lines in the yearly mahfuzat examinations.

But another crucial part of this story comes from how, in the mid-1950s, the first two lines of this poem were inserted into the principal stanza of the anthem of the Neo-Destour Party, soon to rule the country. The bulk of the lyrics of the anthem, known as “Defenders of the Nation,” were composed earlier by the Syrian-Egyptian poet, Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafi‘i. For a brief period in 1957-1958, the song served as the first national anthem of independent Tunisia. At President Habib Bourguiba’s instigation, a contest for a new national anthem was held and “Defenders of the Nation” was replaced by a song that contained not so veiled references to the president himself. This other song served as the official national anthem for three decades, although most Tunisians continued to show their preference for the older rendition by performing it. After the 1987 coup d’état, “Defenders of the Sanctuary” was officially reinstated, as if to underscore the differences between Ben Ali and the man he had overthrown.

It is within the principal stanza of the song — the stanza repeated at state functions and sports events — we find the first two lines of al-Shabbi’s poem:

Defenders of the nation, o defenders of the nation! Hie thee, hie thee to the glory of the age!
Our blood has roared in our veins, “Let us perish, let us die so that the homeland might live!”
If, one day, the people want to live, then fate will answer their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.
Defenders of the nation, o defenders of the nation! Hie thee, hie thee to the glory of the age!
Our blood has roared in our veins, “Let us perish, let us die so that the homeland might live!”

Despite the fact that this insertion causes a break in the rhyming pattern, al-Shabbi’s lines fit because they share the same meter.

With this history it becomes clear why al-Shabbi’s poem was so available to Tunisians before and during the revolution. It was not, as some have claimed, simply because Tunisians have a deep love for an old poem. Rather, it is because of national policies that Tunisians could not help but know al-Shabbi’s words and associate them with state ritual. As the legitimacy of the Ben Ali regime crumbled over the years, there opened up a wider and wider gap between the words of the national anthem and the occasions at which they were sung. In the context of their deployment in political spectacle, something else becomes clear — the challenge that was there all along in the poem. Al-Shabbi did not write that the people do want to live. Rather, he posed a conditional designed to taunt — if the people want to live.

During the Tunisian revolution, protesters often sang the same national anthem. [5] These events were quite literally demonstrations of a counter-public, as revolutionaries repossessed the public rituals, words and spaces of the Tunisian state in order to contest the patriotism of the Ben Ali regime. So, when Tunisians began to chant the slogan “the people want to topple the regime,” they were self-consciously taking the conditional voice that appears in al-Shabbi’s poem and the national anthem, and transforming it into the declarative.

If al-Shabbi’s florid metaphors had been tarnished by their association with state ceremony, the revolutionaries dusted off two terms — “the people” and “want” — and threw them back in a blunt manner whose musical phrasing was not that of the national anthem. The difference in music of the slogan as chanted poetry is significant since its sound patterns were also borrowed from the repertory of Arab protest music. Unlike other key slogans of the revolution, “the people want” has no rhyme, assonance or even consonance. But it does have a stress pattern, which, while not a classical meter, is recognizable as the most popular music pattern of slogans performed at demonstrations in the Arab world, namely those associated with the pan-Arab slogan “Bil-ruh, bil-damm, nafdik ya […].” (With our spirit, with our blood, we sacrifice for you […]). Earlier in Tunis, this same sound pattern was initially used in other slogans, including a popular bilingual chant, “Dégage, dégage, dégage, ya khumaj” (Get out, you rotten scoundrel). [6] On January 25, some protesters in Cairo had been singing “With our spirit, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, o Egypt” for much of the day. [7] When they finally began to sing “the people want to topple the regime,” they were doing so to a tune they had been singing for hours, a tune picked up from a much older protest repertoire.

Slogan Fatigue

The analysis of repertoire can explain the dissemination and persistence of slogans, but it says little about content. Surprisingly, many have accepted this particular slogan as if its significance were self-evident, even though it is in fact quite ambiguous. From one perspective, the stated desire of wanting “to topple the regime” looks quite specific and tangible, from another, general and even vague. From one vantage, it looks as if the Egyptian revolution succeeded in pushing through its demands in a mere 18 days; from another, it its equally clear that the revolution has not yet begun.

Ambiguity has shadowed this slogan almost from its inception. For instance, on the third day of the uprising — Friday, January 28 — protesters beat back lines of riot police and, by nightfall, managed to capture Tahrir Square. The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was in flames, as were police stations across the city. The riot police had taken off their uniforms and fled. For the first time, Egyptians found themselves in control of their own cities. It was only then that the army decided to enter the fray. Protesters were understandably eager to avoid a confrontation with the tanks as they rolled in. Others thought they could form an alliance with the army against the police. In any case, a new slogan about “the people” went out: “The people and the army are one hand.” The terms of this slogan, too, were derived from recent activist repertoires, particularly the call for Muslims and Christians to stand together in solidarity following the bombing of a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day. “One hand” was also the phrase used repeatedly in activist Asmaa Mahfouz’s viral YouTube plea for solidarity posted on the night of January 24. [8]

Many of the organizers knew well that the army was a key power center in the Mubarak regime, and that “the people” could not want both to topple the regime and to form an alliance with its core. Despite this premonition, the phrase “the people and the army are one hand” would not disappear until May after the army first began to fire openly on demonstrators. (And since the summer of 2011, it has been a “counter-revolutionary” slogan associated with rallies backing the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, or SCAF, Egypt’s de facto rulers since Mubarak’s ouster.)

This early, ill-fated gesture of reconciliation with the army made clear that references to “the people” and the “will of the people” could be quite naive. Nonetheless, the slogan “the people want” has remained a constant part of the repertoire of revolution, even as it has been adapted into other slogans. As the narrative of revolution has broadened over 16 months, the slogan “the people want” has continued to occupy a central position — and the ambiguities have only grown. These words are not just chanted in demonstrations, but painted all over the walls, a constant reminder that the struggle persists and grows more complicated. Days after Mubarak resigned in February 2011, it became the phrase “the people want to honor the martyrs of the revolution.” In March, it became “the people want to topple military rule.” In August, when Mubarak was put on trial, it became the “the people want to sentence the president to death.”

In October 2011, when Coptic Christians protested sectarian violence and official discrimination, the chant in the street was “the people want to topple the marshal,” in reference to Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi, leader of the SCAF. When Egyptian state television urged viewers to attack Coptic demonstrators, revolutionaries repackaged the old slogan once again, now as “the people want to purify the Ministry of Information.”

And so it goes. The slogan has served as the discursive scaffolding for hanging every new demand, even though if taken in sum, the above demands might seem incoherent and at times contradictory. This history of slogan repertoire highlights the fact that while repetition is the strength of performance, it also marks a weakness.

Ambiguities of “the People”

There is no doubt that the slogan is now well past tired. In fact, it did not take long for the fatigue of “the people” to surface as a theme in revolutionary culture. In this regard, one might consider a song by the hip-hop artist, DJ 3mr 7a7a (‘Amr Haha, spelled, as the rapper does, with the numbers young Arabs use to render distinctly Arabic phonemes). 7a7a is part of a subculture that, prior to the revolution, had been relegated to the margins of Cairo’s slums. In this sense, it is important to remember that the story of the recent explosion of subcultures in Egypt is intertwined with the story of the revolution itself. Throughout the modern period, Egyptian culture has borne the stamp of state centralization, state subsidies and state censorship. The revolution has disrupted this history, and centralized, statist notions of cultural production have collapsed. On the one hand, the state is no longer in a position to support official cultural production. And on the other, the state is no longer in a position to censor and repress subcultures as it used to do. This collapse is also an opportunity. Performers, like 7a7a, who were already operating with a do-it-yourself ethos have seized it in new venues and with new audiences.

The lyrics of 7a7a’s songs display unambiguous enthusiasm for continuing the revolution. [9] But in one particular song, entitled, “The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit,” 7a7a pokes fun at the slogan “the people want” even as he champions it:

The people want something new [to think about] The people want five pounds’ phone credit
The people want to topple the regime
But the people are so damn tired
It’s hard living hand to mouth
The people have said their word
And Tahrir is their place

While 7a7a uses the same musical pattern of the slogan, he also adds rhyme where none existed before. Moreover, unlike the slogan, this song can only be pronounced in the vernacular. And like the sounds of the words, the lyrics also refer to a very local urban experience of poverty. This song also draws into question the tiredness of the slogan and the term — “the people.” More precisely, 7a7a points out that “the people” is a rhetorical figure. In other words, 7a7a’s riff on revolutionary rhetoric suggests something very important, namely that the most powerful metaphor employed during the uprising was that of “the people” itself.

Throughout all the permutations of the slogan repertoire, its subject and verb have remained constant, even as its object has evolved. This fact suggests that the subject of wanting — the people — wants many things rather than just one. But, as Ernesto Laclau argues in On Populist Reason, it also suggests that the actors who invoke “the people” do not compose a single subject, but many. [10] “The people,” in this account, performs an act of metaphorical substitution. “The people” is the figure that allows revolutionaries to lay claim to the representation of the whole of society.

Following Laclau, we can also appreciate how the slogan “the people want” also involves a totalization of claims. Though the protests were initially launched to articulate particular and partial demands, as soon as “the people” was invoked, the action transformed into something whose scope far exceeded the sum of particular claims being made. As revolutionaries have testified, the feeling of belonging to a collective was regularly instantiated through this language about the people and its demands — it was the collective act of stating that the people wanted something that created the sense there was a social actor by that name. For many Egyptian activists, it was this locutionary event that proved there was an Egyptian people capable of revolutionary action in the first place. Here it is important to recognize a peculiar aspect of “the people” as a metaphor: For it to perform, it must be seen as non-metaphorical. When it is possible to imagine that the number of individuals speaking the slogan represents society itself in its entirety, the language of the slogan not only appears merely propositional — a statement of fact — but also non-metaphorical. It is in this play of action and language in slogan performance that one sees the reach and aspiration of revolutionary activists.

What is at stake in this slogan is this representation of the heterogeneous classes and factions of Egyptian society and what they want. From the very beginning, revolutionaries have been quite aware that their success depends on their ability to control the metaphor of the collective singular, “the people.” But by now, every other political force also understands this reality: There is no political claim that is not made in the name of some image of the people and its revolution. Even counter-revolutionaries — such as the Muslim Brothers, business elites, salafis and the army — understand this game and play by its rules. The logic of repertoire says nothing about the coherence or truthfulness of claims — it respects only success. Given the success of popular claim making, no party to the revolution can afford not to speak in the name of the people, and it is unlikely that this slogan will disappear anytime soon.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Qussay Al-Attabi, Ferial Bouhafa, Gamal Eid and Hamadi Redissi for help and critical feedback in this research.


[1] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 4.
[2] Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 15.
[3] Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), pp. 3-33.
[4] Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, Aghani al-haya: diwan shi‘r Abi-l-Qasim al-Shabbi (Cairo: Dar Misr lil-Tiba‘a, 1955), p. 167.
[5] See footage from the January 14, 2011 demonstration in Tunis:
[6] See footage from the January 24, 2011 demonstration:
[7] See footage from Qasr al-Nil Bridge, 1:46 pm, January 25, 2011:
[8] See Mahfouz’s plea at:
[9] See Sarah Carr, “7a7a,” Inanities, June 21, 2011:
[10] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (New York: Verso, 2005).

How to cite this article:

Elliott Colla "The People Want," Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).

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