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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

How the January 25th Uprising is Reshaping the Norms of Egyptian Domestic and Foreign Policy

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

The most spectacular effects of the January 25th uprising have been in the change of persons and institutions: the televised speeches, the constitutional declarations and voting, and, of course, the stirring visuals from Tahrir Square. To this point, however, the protesters’ most substantive achievements have played out on the level of norms. The eighteen days of demonstrations that brought about President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation opened a redefinition of what was possible and what was acceptable. In particular, the youth movement at the core of the uprising has contested the security mindset that characterized Mubarak’s government and its most important international relationships.

It is too soon to conduct a detailed comparison of standard practices in the Mubarak and post-Mubarak eras. Instead, this paper examines Egypt’s relations with the United States during the past decade, a period of active cooperation toward shared security goals. Chief among these aims is countering Iranian influence by undermining Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As demonstrated by the anxious reactions of Washington and Jerusalem, popular sovereignty in Egypt could jeopardize this arrangement. After providing that background, the paper turns to changes in Egyptian policy on security issues that have occurred since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power from Mubarak and vice president Omar Suleiman. Although active participants in Tahrir Square protests constitute a small (and electorally negligible) share of the public, their persistent efforts have carried counter hegemonic effects. They have succeeded in unsettling the taken-for-granted quality by which rulers treated the Egyptian people and US strategists regarded the Egyptian government.

With respect to the broader revolutionary movements sweeping the region since January, Egypt provides one of the most transformed cases in a still fluid set of developments. My own view is that we should set aside parallels with Eastern Europe in 1989, where outcomes were highly homogenous and democratic, and instead recall sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s. In that region major political upheaval delivered a wide variety of outcomes, ranging from new democracies to re-calibrated autocracies. A second point for this work It is vital that political scientists and their students set aside the comparative politics/international relations division; it is a dated tool for bureaucratic organization within departments that obstructs critical inquiry. A simple paradigm replacement would be thinking in terms of "international politics" or "world politics." 

One of the most helpful pedagogical gains from the uprisings is that it underscores the anti-essentialist tenet of recognizing how Arabs represent themselves and speak for themselves: they do not need western surrogates speaking on their behalf, much less portraying them in tendentious terms. It would be interesting to see how students now respond to core texts from Edward Said and Bernard "Arabs don't revolt, they just get aroused" Lewis.  In closing I would just add that it is a bit difficult to say how this year's events will affect my scholarship and teaching because we do not yet have outcomes. For example, if a SCAF proxy wins Egypt's presidential election and continues ruling under Emergency Law-like strictures, we may see much more continuity than the dramatic ouster of Mubarak implied. 


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