Thursday, February 17, 2011

Perspectives on Egypt


An Egyptian protestor decries the government’s theft of billions from
the pension fund. Photo by Jessica Winegar.

“I rushed to Tahrir as did thousands of Cairenes. My subway car was filled with young people who had spontaneously invented chants that expressed their joy. One of these was, ‘They said we were the youth of Kentucky (Fried Chicken), but we were the ones who protected you (Egypt).’ (It rhymes in Arabic.) Another: ‘We are the youth of the internet, not those only concerned with dating.’ I sat across from one man in his late 70s who sat with a smile on his face, staring at the teen and twenty-something men in amazement and admiration, with tears of joy in his eyes.  He kept saying to me in English, ‘Revolution. Revolution.’

“He was going to Tahrir too, and when I got there, amidst the massive celebrating crowds, I saw countless older men and women, some quite old and in wheelchairs or with canes. They walked with their spouses, and/or children and in many cases grandchildren. Some of the mothers and grandmothers ululated. Fathers and grandfathers participated in the moving cheer, ‘Lift your head up, you are Egyptian!’ It seemed that they had once been able to lift their heads up in pride as Egyptians, and although now many were stooped from the effects of living under an oppressive dictatorship, they were clearly so thrilled that their offspring could now lift their heads proudly and that they were among the fortunate ones to live to see this day.”

So observed Jessica Winegar F’09, assistant professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, amidst the jubilant atmosphere in Tahrir Square when word came that President Mubarak had stepped down. She and other ACLS Fellows—from California to the Middle East, from computer labs to the streets of Cairo—understand the revolution as a moment both reshapes and is shaped by history.

Watching the revolution unfold in Egypt, Iza Hussin F’07, assistant professor of legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has been “struck by the uncertainty there has been about what these events ‘mean’ for the states, participants, and region.” Omnia El Shakry F’07, associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis, adds that media coverage of these events has lacked “any real sense of history.”

Jesse Ferris F’08, F’07, vice president for strategy for the Israel Democracy Institute, sees the roots of today’s revolution in Nasserism, and particularly the advent of the Egyptian military complex:

“Mubarak is only the fourth in a chain of military officers who have assumed the Presidency since the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in the revolution of 1952. The structure of the regime has remained largely unchanged since the days of Nasser. A small cast of ex-officers stands atop an enormous bureaucracy intertwined with a bloated national party apparatus, all three of which are sustained in power by two parallel security structures: the military and an assortment of internal security forces. Although it has not seen action in decades, the military remains the most significant power broker in Egypt, and its power has been magnified over the years by the construction of a vast military-industrial complex that is thoroughly entangled with the civilian economy.”

El Shakry, however, argues that Egyptian society under Nasser was “equally characterized by an ideology and practice of social welfare,” a social contract between the state and the people in which “democratic political change was exchanged for piecemeal social reform” and the reinforcement of existing social relationships.

El Shakry reminds us that Egypt experienced three revolutions in the twentieth century: the 1919 revolution that ended British colonial rule; the 1952 military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power; and the 1974 neo-liberal Intifah, or opening, that led to a free-market economy and strengthened the private sector at the expense of Nasser’s social safety net. This led to an “immense polarization of wealth, drastically exacerbated since the 1990s, [which] has left many Egyptians consumed by the search for food, shelter, and human dignity, with an estimated 40 percent living below the poverty line.” The ongoing decline in the quality of life set the stage for the 2011 revolution. For many of today’s older protesters, demonstrations are not new, Winegar notes; many of them have a history activism, fighting “against the privatization of health insurance and the theft of billions of pension funds.”


Demonstrators in Cairo. Photo by Jessica Winegar.

Winegar is currently in Egypt at work on her ACLS fellowship project on state secularism and the Islamic revival.  She describes this as a multi-generational revolution, and watches as Egyptians who grew up during the different regimes bring the past to life in their activism. Under Mubarak, many “upper middle class Egyptians in their fifties and sixties who had been leftist student activists in the 1970s . . . watched their youthful dreams of creating a just society crumble before their eyes, as neoliberal capitalism, authoritarianism, and corruption, took vicious root in Egypt.  They themselves sought greater stability in their lives and so, with marriage and children, they hunkered down in decent apartments and built comfortable lives for themselves and their families . . .  Their 1970s street activism had, in the Mubarak era, been limited to signing intellectuals’ petitions, writing the occasional article, or going to the occasional demonstration and being cordoned off by the security police.” In 2011, they assembled in Tahrir Square, joined neighborhood watches, and argued with pro-Mubarak neighbors.

“I also saw many pro-democracy demonstrators in their late sixties and seventies,” she continues. “These men and women had been raised on Nasser’s revolutionary language; their childhood, teens, or twenties had been filled with the promise of a just and prosperous society.  But their potential was curtailed by the steep decline in quality of life from the later Nasser years through Sadat and Mubarak.” Like their younger counterparts, “their struggle, and their disappointment, was marked on their bodies.” Many, including the relatively privileged, suffer from the ailments of a stressful life and poor health care: high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, mental stress, and cigarette addiction.”

The revolution transformed perceptions. After Muburak stepped down, “We never thought this would happen” became a common refrain, but Winegar concludes, “It was as clear as day.” Ferris agrees that the revolution could have been predicted, though “knowing that an event will happen is not the same as predicting when it will happen.” In this case, the overthrow of the Tunisian government and the Egyptian military’s restraint allowed the inevitable to finally unfold.

While Winegar was in Tahrir Square, Todd Presner F’06, professor of Germanic languages and literatures at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues at the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities were creating “HyperCities Egypt,” a digital map of Cairo that locates and archives tweets from the uprising, bringing Egyptian voices to the rest of the world while also preserving them for the future. This program is based on “HyperCities Berlin,” an interactive, web-based research platform for analyzing the cultural, architectural, and urban history of a city space built with funding from the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship program.

Presner explains:

“We wanted the world to be able to hear these voices coming out Egypt since they add a very different perspective and dimension when compared to traditional broadcast media. To date, we have archived and mapped more than 300,000 tweets coming out of Egypt since the project began.  These are searchable and can be studied by scholars interested in understanding the roles that social media played in documenting and fomenting the revolution in Egypt.  At the project’s core are values central to the next wave of digital humanities: harnessing new technologies to expand the global public sphere, animating the archive in new ways, and using technologies to increase the purview, relevance, and importance of the humanities in the world."

Can humanities scholars tell us what is next for Egypt? Ferris argues that the emergence of a “genuine multi-party system” is unlikely, and that the “rapid population growth, scarce natural resources, a chronic shortage of wheat, and insufficient exports”—challenges that have persisted since Nasser’s time—will prove challenging to any future government. Instead, he sees a two-party system backed by the army, as emerged in Turkey in 1950, as one possibility, and a new secularist or Islamic dictatorship as another possibility. Hussin adds that “Islam never did, nor does it now, promise a monolithic shari’ah state, but presents a plethora of resources for mobilization, locally defined institutions, and the construction and contestation of new identities.”

She further describes the 2011 revolution as a “moment of making,” one that humanities research can illuminate in all its richness. We can look to engaged researchers to answer questions such as those posed by Hussin: “What structural elements of the moribund regime will become underpinnings of a new order? What symbols, logics, and languages of power will the new civic culture adopt, and what will it make anew?” As scholarship on Egyptian politics and society shows us, history is a process, and each day is informed by the day before. 

Read more: 
"Egypt's Three Revolutions: The Force of History behind this Popular Uprising" by Omnia El Shakry F'07
New UCLA project streams Twitter updates from Egypt unrest on digital map of Cairo 

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