Puppets in Arab Politics Creative Dissent and Political Rhetoric in the Arab Uprisings

TitlePuppets in Arab Politics Creative Dissent and Political Rhetoric in the Arab Uprisings
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Kraidy, M. M.
Affiliation (1st Author)University of Pennsylvania
Section or WGPolitical Communication Research Section
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodePOLW3a
Slot Code (Keyword)POLW3a
Time of Session14:00-15:30
Session TitleThe discourse of politics
Submission ID6684

Drawn from a book project on creative modalities of political dissent in the Arab uprisings, this paper examines the use of puppetry both as a tool against incumbent dictatorships and as a metaphorical space to discuss contested notions of power, political agency, and resistance. Grounded in theories of political humor and creative dissent, the analysis is based on data, including digital videos, graffiti, newspaper columns, and interviews, collected during 13 continuous months of field research in the Arab world between June 2011 and August 2012. The paper’s main argument is that puppetry has been particularly effective in undermining the authority of autocrats. The trope of “puppet” has a distinguished lineage in Arab foreign affairs. Nationalist leaders from Nasser to Assad have wielded this rhetorical bludgeon to excoriate regimes whose lack of popular legitimacy and dependence on foreign powers earned them sobriquets of various types of marionettes. More recently, puppets have appeared in music videos excoriating Arab leaders for subservience to the United States, and on various talk-shows and blogs. The notion of “puppet” has infused political discourse in the wake of the Arab uprisings. It appeared on graffiti in Cairo accusing president Mursi to be a puppet in the hands of religious leaders, and in newspaper columns criticizing the passivity of the Gulf regimes. Notably, the embattled Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has invoked puppets in virtually every public pronouncement since the onset of the Syrian popular rebellion in March 2011, while one of the most visible expressions of creative dissent against Assad’s regime appeared in the form of a video web series, Top Goon—Diaries of a Little Dictator, a crossbreed of puppetry, theater, video, and digital art. After a broad discussion of puppetry in the Arab uprisings, this paper focuses on the Syrian case and explores the rhetoric of “puppet” as a reluctant “dialogue” between Bashar al-Assad and his local, pan-Arab and international opponents. It explores the implications for domestic Syrian politics, and for the foreign relations of Arab states, of Bashar’s calling his domestic opponents and their foreign funders (the Gulf monarchies) as puppets, and of the appropriation of the medium and rhetoric of puppetry by the Syrian opposition. The paper concludes with a discussion of the peculiar politics and aesthetics of puppetry as a tool of symbolic coercion and resistance in the transnational politics of revolution.

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