Cairo has long been a tremendously self-aware city—engaging both Egyptian and international scholars in dialogues about events even as they are unfolding. This year’s twenty-first Annual Cairo Papers Symposium is an example of such self-conscious scholarship and dialogue. Taking place on 6 April 2013, as protests around the city commemorated the fifth anniversary of the April 6th workers’ movement, this symposium on the Egyptian political economy was certainly timely and relevant.
The Cairo Papers in Social Science (CPSS) hosted the Cairo Papers Annual Symposium. The CPSS was established in 1977 by the social science departments of the American University in Cairo (AUC) in collaboration with the Social Research Center. CPSS seeks to promote original research on the Middle East in a variety of social science disciplines from diverse academic circles and research institutions. The Cairo Papers Annual Symposium brings together both Egyptian and international scholars to discuss their research and exchange ideas. Divided into three panels—Economics, Politics, and Culture—this year’s symposium attended to a wide range of topics, from the militarization of Egyptian industry to electoral politics.
University of Washington professor Ellis Goldberg gave the symposium’s opening remarks. Goldberg argued that, though it was momentous, the January 25th revolution was not a revolution in the sense that the term is traditionally conceptualized because previous financial and political regimes were not entirely dismantled. He described the phenomenon of “growth without development” in the Egyptian economy, and the corruption and patronage networks that have often been blamed for Egypt’s economic challenges. All of this, Goldberg explained, has led to the crisis in the Egyptian political community, characterized by a lack of trust between political groups. Ending on a hopeful note, he suggested that perhaps the hopes of the revolution are “a dream deferred”—suspended, rather than lost, in the cloud of authoritarianism.
The first session, looking at economics, began with economic consultant and urban planning expert David Sims, professor Clement Henry of AUC, doctoral student Yasmine Moataz from Cambridge University, and Dina Makram Ebeid, who is currently conducting post-doctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. This session illuminated the specific economic processes and mechanisms that have propagated stagnation in the manner Goldberg introduced. Sims highlighted recent developments in the urban-housing market such as over-expansion and accessibility of housing subsidies marked by informal processes. Despite newfound promises created after 2011, little has been done to reform past inefficiencies. While state paternalism continues within a veneer of opaqueness, the government hopes the private sector will become the stopgap it desperately needs. Ebeid presented on the strategies used by day-wage laborers to obtain work. She argued that the state influences concepts of family and reproduction by fragmenting the working class, and social values are used for the extraction of waged labor. This, in-turn, forces the working class to find alternative channels for employment often through the adoption of radical stratagems. Henry described the rise of Islamic banking practices and how, through the use of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), banks can create shari‘a-compliant markets. As a predominately cash economy, there is ample opportunity in Egypt to expand markets through microfinance. He noted that, in recent years, these markets have grown dramatically with the aid of political and religious institutions such as Al-Azhar. Moataz examined processes of islah or reform in rural Egypt. She detailed the changes in social and political conceptions of land ownership throughout Egyptian history, evidenced by the liberalization of the state and the ways in which land management practices have formed.
Focusing on politics, the second session was composed of speakers Hans-Christian Nielsen from the Aarhus University of Denmark, Zeinab Abul-Magd of Oberlin College, and Mona Abaza from The American University in Cairo. Here, the panel explored some of the societal origins of Egypt’s political and economic challenges, further illustrating Goldberg’s analysis of political apprehension and distrust. Nielsen began with an interrogation of electoral processes, drawing examples from both Jordan and Egypt’s recent past. He showed the ways in which tribalism and familial identity, especially in rural Egypt, often trumps ideological preferences. Abul-Magd presented on the increasing militarization of the Egyptian economy both before and after the January 25th revolution. She argued that, despite its claims, the increased presence of the military in Egyptian industry is not making life more affordable for Egyptians by controlling prices or subsidizing housing. On the contrary, she suggested that the military’s role in the economy of Egypt is oligarchic and detrimental to the economic and political well being of the country. Abaza focused her presentation on processes of urbanization as well as their effects on the Nile Delta and the cotton industry. Drawing on research from her forthcoming book, she analyzed a wealth of primary documents, including accounting reports and archival records, to explore the collective memories and traumas peasant workers faced as a result of urbanization processes.
The third and final session focused on culture, and featured presentations from Deena Abdelmonem from AUC, Hania Sholkamy from AUC, and Sandrine Gamblin of the French University in Egypt. Abdelmonem began with her research on the psychological responses of Cairenes to the physical and economic stresses that the January 25th revolution caused. She noted that, since the revolution, Cairo has experienced a surge in violent crime, political violence, instability, and economic stressors, causing many Egyptians to experience increased stress in their daily lives. Fortunately, Abdelmonem’s research suggests that many respondents showed signs of active coping, indicating that, at least within the study’s sample, Cairenes are attempting to respond to new conditions with pragmatic adjustments rather than isolation or retaliation. Sholkamy’s presentation examined the trajectory of the Egyptian women’s rights movement in the wake of the January 25th revolution, noting that women have played an important role in recent uprisings, both as activists and images of change. Sholkamy’s research differentiates between two distinct approaches to feminism currently articulated in Egypt—the structural approach, which argues for women’s empowerment for its own sake, and the functional approach, which suggests that empowering women is a vital step to the development of a healthy society. Though these approaches are distinct, Sholkamy argues that their advocates should seek to identify common goals to present a united front for women’s empowerment. It is perhaps fitting that the day concluded with Gamblin’s research on tourism in Egypt, which she described as “at the crossroads of culture, politics, and economics.” Gamblin’s presentation described the importance of tourism as both a profitable industry that makes up a considerable portion of the Egyptian economy and a contested industry that generates a particular vision of the nation. Tourism, she argues, is symptomatic of a broader governance style of policing boundaries and controlling access to state resources.
The wide range of topics addressed throughout the Cairo Papers Symposium related to the political economy of Egypt equipped the audience with a variety of pertinent histories that can, and should, elucidate the present. Goldberg’s opening analysis of “growth without development” along with the subsequent panel discussions forces us to renegotiate how economics and politics inform each other - not as innocuous or distinct processes, but rather bonded together in complex relationship. Truly, we can only hope the deferred dreams of the revolution become realities fulfilled.