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Gender and the People in Revolutionary Times

[“Down with the Murshid’s Rule. [“Down with the Murshid’s Rule." Image by Sherene Seikaly]

For decades, the "people" and the very possibility of politics in the Arab world have been objects of despair. Proclaiming the extinction of the Arab people’s capacity for politics and their acquiescence to a seemingly impermeable authoritarian state system had become conventional wisdom. The “Arab street,” activists seemed too comfortable professing, had failed to realize its historical promise. The inevitable march into history seemed eternally postponed or, worse yet, impossible to imagine. 

Many thinkers became increasingly mired in a calcified liberalism. The marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the impoverished, most often embodied in the figure of the Arab woman—with her body and its adornments as the site of contest and definition—became the object of choice for study and sympathy. Liberals eulogized the collective body of the people and along with it, the possibilities of politics and popular sovereignty. Radicals who pushed us to challenge central liberal tenets also seemed to foreclose the possibility of politics. An epistemology of despair took root alongside the authoritarianism that knowledge producers (activists, journalists, and academics) failed to explain.

This body—of the people and its constituents—was also an object of hatred and fear.  In its potential as the base for an Islamist future, the people threatened the prevailing order. It was after all the Islamist threat that Hosni Mubarak wielded so effectively to keep “the devil we know” ensconced in power.

But beginning in December 2010, massive numbers of individuals willing to sacrifice life and limb shook these well-trodden grounds. In Egypt, in those first eighteen days of Tahrir Square, the people did not just voice their demands; they momentarily realized them. Despair and its experts were now on shaky ground; all of us faced the long forgotten, for most of us unknown, territory of hope. 

Activists, techies, poets, artists, and academics were jolted into looking again and anew at the people. Triumph prevailed. But triumphalism has emerged as the troubled Janus-face of despair. The people were once again an object, only now of lionization.  

In Egypt, this narrative of a heroic nation fulfilling its destiny took its shallowest formulations as a commodity of sorts—whether in the Mobinil advertisements quoting Obama’s praise of Egypt’s revolutionary youth at Cairo International Airport or in the proliferation of products that used the revolution as a branding device. The people were now a product. In their national exceptionalism and their homogeneity they would deliver a new Egypt.

It was not long before this new Egypt and the very nature of the people constituting it would take shape as a site of deep contention. The body of the woman and the struggle to claim it was at center stage. During those heady days of hope in Tahrir a revolutionary code of conduct did more than perform a patriarchal form of “protection” of women’s bodies. The code was indeed, if only momentarily, an instance of how revolution could break old modes of the acceptable and the normal. 

The transitional rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was heavily invested in reclaiming these utopian spaces for the previous rites of intimidation, humiliation, and torture. But even in the face of this reclamation, changes were under way. Women, like Samira Ibrahim and others, waged courageous battles against the state’s claims to their flesh; they publicly testified about rape and dislodged some seemingly impermeable red lines.  

But the molds of the acceptable and the normal, like the authoritarianism they accompanied, were more stubborn than those utopic eighteen days could account for. While the new Egypt promised possibilities for politics, it also entailed a heightened level of sexual violence and intimidation.  Incidents of gang rape of protestors in Tahrir proliferated.  Men harassed, stripped, poked, raped, and repeatedly stabbed women in their vaginas. The struggle over women’s bodies was no longer only between the state and revolutionaries but also between and among the people. Who was to blame for this violence, these now salient instances of public lynching and rape?

The specter of the people lurked. No longer the object of idealization, they embodied the position of blame. It was the people who were now at the root (once again) of the country’s so-called backwardness.The evocation of the people as the cause of backwardness will be familiar to students of history. It was and continues to be this evocation that colonial officials used to justify their rule over and their exploitation of the colonized. The centrality of the “liberation” of women’s bodies to the “development” of the “undeveloped” is all too familiar as well. These imperatives have resounded since the late nineteenth century: from Lord Cromer in Egypt to Laura Bush in Afghanistan.

Indeed authoritarian regimes were faithful in sustaining these colonial legacies. They maintained the foundational equation of development: affect limited economic amelioration so as to maintain social hierarchies and contain dissent. For these reasons, contemporary liberal condemnations of the people, blaming the poor for their hunger, and the illiterate for the vacuity of politics, have been disturbing but not surprising.

One glimpse of this liberal approach came from Mohammed El Baradei, who in the early days of the presidential race predicted the Muslim Brotherhood’s low electoral popularity. There would be many rude awakenings to come. One was in December 2012 when the constitutional referendum passed. Baradei explained this setback with a bifurcated map of the Egyptian people: “Right now, we have the educated middle class on one camp and the so-called Islamists and the majority of the illiterate part of the country on the other side.” Such a map screams for a critique of our understanding of the people in all of its gendered dimensions. An engagement with class is also necessary here. For it was one of the most accomplished women of Egypt’s political class who along with other leading jurists proposed that illiterates should garner a “fractional” vote. These disclosures of the liberal establishment should, but sadly do not, shock us.

What is perhaps more interesting is the new establishment’s categorization and understanding of the people. Having premised its social legitimacy on eighty years of opposition and providing basic services to the marginalized and disenfranchised, what lessons does the Brotherhood provide on the possibility of politics, the idea of the people, and the hope for popular sovereignty? Having filled the gap the state left behind, what does the Brotherhood at the helm look like?

Not good. Sectarian strife has been salient. It was perhaps at it most spectacular this April at St. Marks Cathedral when state police tear-gassed people in the church as plainclothes thugs threw stones at exiting mourners. Just last week a mass murder of four Shi’i Egyptians brutally expanded the category of the “other” further still. The record on gender has been similarly abominable. In response to a commission on the increase of sexual harassment, Shura council members squarely blamed the victims. Reda Al-Hefnawy of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) argued: “Women should not mingle with men during protests.” Salah Abdel Salam of the Al-Nour Party added: “The woman bears the offence when she chooses to protest in places filled with thugs.”  The increased use of blasphemy laws does not bode well for the freedom of expression either.

Some observers have concluded that the current regime is “fascist.” But the story, as many have pointed out, may be more about continuity than rupture. Indeed a cursory look at economic policy on the one hand and understandings of the people on the other hint at some of these continuities.  In the work and initiatives of its leading members and millionaires such as Khairat al-Shatar and Hasan Malek, the Brotherhood has explicitly and repeatedly committed to increasing foreign investment, decreasing public spending, and encouraging privatization. How the Brotherhood, and more importantly, its impoverished base, will fare as the party upholds the very neoliberal paradigm that it cushioned for the last three decades is unclear. 

And how is this base spoken to and understood? In addition to the clear and ever expanding limitations of full belonging in the Brotherhood’s conception of the Egyptian, an equally gnawing and once again painfully familiar problem appears. 

In a recent speech the independent but Brotherhood-aligned and appointed prime minister and water specialist Hisham Qandil explained that the ignorance of rural women who do not clean their breasts before nursing was the primary cause of diarrhea in Egypt. Here again, we find a gendered mapping of the Egyptian people that blames the poor for their poverty.

Qandil’s thesis shares much with colonial, authoritarian, and liberal understandings of the Egyptian people. It is these very continuities that we must attend to in both the neoliberal and developmental paradigms, so as to think anew the idea of the people and the possibility of popular sovereignty. It would be one way to survive the roller coaster of hope and despair that revolutionary times entail as Egyptians head to Tahrir once again.

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