During the Arab Spring, the Victory sign linked the disparate uprisings across the Middle East into a unified movement. From Libya to Egypt, from Jordan to Syria, the V gesture allowed protestors to communicate a set of shared ideals embodied in the initial self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller: half economic freedom, half national self-determination.
As a visual image in the age of social media, the V helped the Arab Spring surpass the many linguistic and cultural barriers that crisscross the Middle East — otherwise, a rebel in Benghazi would have been hard-pressed to understand the dialect of a protestor in Tahrir Square.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses with Libyan soldiers upon her departure from Tripoli in Libya in October 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The V also allowed the anti-regime demonstrators of the Arab Spring to talk to the West. When Hillary Clinton met with Libyan rebels in October of 2011, she posed for a photograph in which she -- and they -- displayed a Victory salute. The message was clear: The U.S. and Libya share the same cause.
In Egypt today, the Muslim Brotherhood has deliberately eschewed the V in place of the four-fingered Rabaa. Here are four reasons why that matters:
First, with the Rabaa, the Brotherhood has chosen to limit its message to the Arab-speaking world. Unless you follow the intricacies of the Egyptian army’s crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators, the four fingers mean nothing to you. The word “Rabaa” itself is foreign to Westerners, and the new sign has no pre-existing connotations. The use of the Rabaa means the Brotherhood cares about building political support in their own region — and has written off Western political opinion as less important.
Second, in using this new sign, the Brotherhood divorces itself from the legacy of the Arab Spring. Once he became president, Mohamed Morsi proved to be unsurprisingly undemocratic. He packed posts with Brotherhood members and tried to usurp powers for his party. Before his downfall, many commentators both within and outside Egypt complained that he violated the ideals of the revolution and subsequent elections that brought him to power, despite Morsi’s vows to protect democracy in Egypt. The Rabaa gesture allows Morsi supporters to avoid this recent and unpleasant past of broken promises. It diverts the conversation from the fact that the Brotherhood proved to be poor rulers who abandoned the promise of the Arab Spring and instead focuses attention on the Egyptian army’s atrocities.
Third, the Rabaa is a manufactured symbol. Various reports place its origin in Turkey, not Egypt. It supposedly started spontaneously when Turkish soccer players scored a goal and raised four fingers into the air — to support those massacred at Rabaa al-Adawiya, they claimed. Soon after, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan embraced the symbol and popularized it. In all probability, the Rabaa was likely a cleverly orchestrated campaign in Turkey to align Erdogan with the Brotherhood in a sympathetic fashion.