Adel Iskandar, Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Adel Iskandar (AI): The book was not written with the intention of becoming a single contiguous narrative that coheres. In fact, it wasn’t even written to be a book. Instead, it was a collection of standalone articles composed at various junctures in the tumultuous life of revolutionary Egypt. As events unfolded, my modest musings served as a means of reflecting, at least for personal contemplation, about the outrageous contradictions that had become an endemic part of contemporary politics and life in Egypt. As I channeled my outrage, surprise, amazement, concern, and bewilderment over what was happening in the country with every passing week, I found myself compelled to offer interventions that speak to both the particularities of the moment and to grapple with the characteristics of this period of remarkable ferment.
My first foray into writing for the popular press was in the summer of 2010, in response to a kind invitation from the editors of the then-premier English language publication Egypt Independent (of the Al-Masry Al-Youm company). It was an extremely tense time, accented by the growing numbers participating in the protests against police brutality following the killing of Khaled Said and which produced remarkable activity online and noteworthy mobilization offline. The essays that I ended up producing, which are now compiled in this book, were visceral responses to events unfolding in the country. In some instances they were contextual, in other instances didactic, but with every essay, my hope was to inform about the present in light of the past while being conscious of the long-term view.
Once the American University in Cairo Press took an interest in collecting these essays and turning them into something of an anthology about the revolution, I became increasingly conscious of whether they compliment each other and how they can best be arranged. After considering different ways in which to organize them, we decided that while there was no cross cutting story, the common theme throughout was that of this nebulous, often inchoate, yet intransigently utopian notion of revolution that came through in each contribution. This meant that by simply arranging them in chronological order, despite the differing topics, styles, and motifs in each, they would nevertheless recount the stories of revolution in the abstract sense.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AI: The book is divided into three sections. The first, entitled "The End Days," speaks to the period immediately preceding the eruption of 25 January 2011 and deals with economic disparity and dependency, religious intolerance, citizenship and minority rights, authoritarian historicization, entertainment as distraction and deliverance, the facade of democracy, societal stigmas, and various forms of resistance from silence to self-immolation. The second section, "Revolution Interrupted?" focuses on the forces that worked to derail the revolutionary impulse, from constitutional reform and political paternalism to sexism and "thuggery." It also speaks to the struggle of the diasporic Egyptian community, the electoral dilemmas, the military`s attempts to appropriate the revolution, and the brutal attacks against Coptic protesters at Maspero. The third section, "Ad Infinitum," attempts to illustrate the primacy of revolution as an idea and its conceptual irrevocability. It includes essays about electoral boycotts, linguistic profanity as dissent, the revolutionary dimensions in all political camps, and the inevitable ingenuity of anarchism in Egypt.
The writings of Gramsci, Foucault, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Said, and Badiou inform the essays in the book in many ways, even when not specified or cited directly. My intent was to also break from the philological confines of scholarship and bring to the fore the intellectual contributions of such incongruous figures as the ancient Egyptian official Ptahotep, the novelist Khairy Shalaby, contemporary graffiti artists, young revolutionary musicians, and others whose intellectual and cultural contributions to the spirit of revolution in Egypt, while palpable, can often be subsumed by the debate surrounding political jockeying. It was of critical importance to me to accomplish two goals in this book—to highlight the "wisdom in ordinariness," and to illustrate that at its core and despite what appears on the political surface, Egypt`s revolution is a "critique of othering."
I try to do this with the help of unlikely interlocutors and narrations. What does Chavez`s rise tell us about summers spent by Egypt`s wealthy in the neoliberal enclaves of the Mediterranean coast? What does the sanitization of Grimm tales by Disney tell us about Coptic life in Egypt on the eve of an explosion at a church in Alexandria two weeks before the revolution? What can Orwell`s essay "Shooting an Elephant" tell us about the state`s dealings with security in Sinai? What can we learn from Erving Goffman and Jane Goodall to help us see past political personhood post-Mubarak? What unlikely commonality is shared by many of Egypt`s street children and the African-American polymath and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington?
The core of the volume is committed to the humanist impulse that respects the specificities of the Egyptian environment but does not see the country in a vacuum. From conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war to the atrocities against academics in Nazi-occupied Poland, and from bourgeoisie fantasies in Venezuela to fifteenth century Florentine Christian radicalism, Egypt is a part of a human struggle between governmentality and governability. To understand this struggle, one cannot simply theorize about it from above; it is necessary to delve deep into the nuances of the local context. There are few alternatives to the ethnographic approach to inquiry in order to best address the questions across fields. It is through comprehending the shifting contours of Egyptian popular culture, humor, and sensibility that an understanding of political expression is comprehensible. It is through local literary production that global concerns about neoliberalism are engaged. Just as the Egyptian revolution is a consequence of decades of distinctly local discontent, it is also not apart from struggles that preceded from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico in the mid-1990s to Sidi Bouzid protesters in 2010.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
AI: While much of my research and writing up to this point has been focused on media in the region, I felt increasingly compelled to move beyond the realm of the often esoteric and abstract debates in communication theory and react to what I felt was unfolding in Egypt. However, this was not apart from the critical cultural lens that I employ throughout the manuscript as I try to unpack and deconstruct the discourses of politics in a country on the cusp of a cataclysmic shift.
[Adel Iskandar. Image via the author.]
One of the characteristics of research in communications and media studies is a heavy bias towards the present at the expense of history. I have tried to undo that urge in these essays and instead examine history as cultural, but not in the linear sense or implying any determinism. Rather, I used history in some instances as allegory for the purpose of instruction, not construction. So in reference to ancient history, for instance, the objective is not to suggest contiguity across temporal planes but rather to reflect on symbolic framing.
Perhaps the thread that ties this volume back to my previous work in media research is the importance of discourse in politics, culture, and society. Many of the essays in the book deal in one way or another with representation, discourse construction, messaging, metaphor, or simulacra. The point is that events in Egypt, on every level, from the national to the idiosyncratic and personal, have a representational and symbolic resonance that is largely a product of the battle over memorialization. So questions like who represents or speaks for the revolution, who is feloul (former regime), who is Islamist, who is pious, and so on are a product of successful discursive entrenchment. This discursive entrenchment is what the essays in this book try to unravel and display for examination and scrutiny, which itself is a methodology often employed in the critical discourse analysis of media.
Besides the topical and theoretical, this book has also been a major departure in terms of compositional style from my previous writings. Most of the essays, while written for a deciphering audience, are not scholarly per se. Some of them are stories and others are meditations, but all were drafted to be accessible while remaining (hopefully!) useful and provocative for seasoned observers of contemporary Egypt.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AI: The book was written to appeal to a general yet inquisitive readership rather than a scholarly one. Nevertheless, I expect that scholars of Egypt, including political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, would find the discussions raised here relevant to their work. Its readability and chronological flow would make it an educational tool and accompaniment for undergraduate and graduate curricula addressing revolutionary Egypt or regional politics. It should also appeal to a general audience that is curious and concerned about what has happened in Egypt in the past few years and wishes to go behind the often minimizing headlines to explore the dynamics that underlie the country`s continued unrest. I hope this book will be able to satisfy their curiosity, while at the same time problematizing Egypt and leaving them with more questions than answers.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AI: I’m currently working on two projects. The first deals with online viral memes in Egypt and the Middle East, especially as a reflection of political expression. The second is a book about cultural diplomacy from the US government and the transformation of political outreach to the Arab world. The two are very different projects, but each examines a compelling phenomenon in the mediation of cultural and political identity and identification in and on the region.
J: What is it like to have this book appear when Egypt is so literally in a state of flux? How would you like the book to intervene in current conversations about the Egyptian Revolution?
AI: Admittedly, given the pace of change in Egypt and the topsy-turvy nature of power dynamics in the country, I was concerned that anything written today could become either irrelevant or discredited tomorrow. However, throughout the three-year writing process, I was conscious of the fact that whatever I write at any given moment should be composed with an eye on the timelessness of specific patterns or the continuity in dynamics between political actors and social phenomena. For this reason, I think the book will outlive the momentary mountains and troughs and shifting contours in the political landscape.
So the two components of the title itself, “Egypt In Flux” and "Unfinished Revolution," speak to a predictably reliable situation in the post-Mubarak era rather than a perceptive hunch on my part. Egypt has functionally been in flux since 25 January 2011 and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. As for the revolution being unfinished, this speaks to the abstract and utopian vision of the revolution that will leave it unattainable for some time to come, as well as the stubborn structures and organizations that remain at the helm in Egypt and will not let radical change occur in the political and economic configuration of the state.
["We are the leader that we have been waiting for." Cairo grafitti, image by Keizer.]
Flux is a function of transformation. If the book had been published during the presidential elections, or the constitution`s drafting, the Maspero or Mohammed Mahmud clashes, the attacks in Sinai, the revolutionary uproar of 30 June or the military ouster of Morsi on 3 July, or the ensuing polarization or whatever comes next, it will have been an appropriate and fitting title.
I feel that read retrospectively, while hindsight is never 20/20, it nevertheless is able to identify all the antecedents of the current moment and problematize all of the issues that are salient today. For instance, the essays in the book, while composed before the removal of Morsi, serve as a testament to the vindicated prognostication that saw the military as economically corrupt and politically suspect and the Muslim Brotherhood as paternalistic opportunists. In the same way, an article written about state security and baltageya (thugs) is perhaps more relevant now than when it was first composed in May 2011.
What I do hope, however, is that the book is able to help readers glean the complexities of the Egyptian revolutionary movement rather than attempting to simplify them. So when the media in Egypt is being critiqued, the reader is able to see the political economic trajectory of the country`s communications institutions. When faith in the political process and electoral transitions seems to decline rapidly, the reasons should not go unexamined. When there is a rise in jingoistic militarism in Egypt following the downfall of Morsi, this needs to be seen in the context of decades of authoritarian historicization and other long-term nationalist illusions. When sexual harassment and violation appears rampant and endemic, it must not be seen as a recent phenomenon embroiled in the revolutionary fervor. When attacks against Copts and churches seem to have increased, it must not be seen solely as a recent outcome of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist politics, but rather preceded by an authoritarian, minoritizing, and divisive statist infrastructure.
J: Where do you see this book fitting into the larger body of work on Egypt, now and in the future?
AI: In the coming months and years, many books will be published about Egypt, from sound research to populist polemics. My hope is that this book is able to modestly contribute to the consecration of contradiction as a way of reading and understanding the Egyptian revolution. More than likely, future works on Egypt will try to either compartmentalize the revolutionary impulse into analyzable parts and then apply theories and models, or else look at it holistically by flattening the past few years into one simplified cogent story. I will feel the book has accomplished what I`d hoped for it if it offered glimpses into spatial, temporal, theoretical, ideological, cultural, and historical fragments of a larger totality that it does not (and cannot) espouse or imply capturing.
Excerpt from Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution
From “Learning to Mourn with the Poles” [November 11, 2010]
It was a few minutes before noon on a chilly November morning when the professors and students from every department at the university, from mining to history, slowly filed into the majestically ornate Room 66 of the administration building. They had been asked to convene to attend a critical lecture about the overhaul of their institution of higher learning—among the most prestigious in the land. Their country, now under an occupying force, was about to undergo a forced ideological and cultural transformation and the new rulers declared the national education system was to be scrapped and replaced with their own.
Anxiety about how a change in the curriculum would affect the university was palpable and the scholars feared their jobs and careers might be in jeopardy. As the campus’s 144 faculty and their assistants and students took their seats, and after a few minutes had passed, it became apparent that there was no speaker and no lecture to be delivered. The rector’s mandatory invitation to the entire university to attend this lecture was a trap.
As members of a military known for its merciless brutality entered the room, it was evident something had gone eerily wrong. For the next half hour the building was filled with screams, shrills, and tears as the men in uniform arrested all the attendees on the pretext that the university was operating without the authorization of the new government. In a remarkably efficient act of intellectual annihilation, and in less than an hour, the country’s oldest university, dating back to the fourteenth century, had been completely dismantled.
This is the story of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, which, on 6 November 1939, two months after the Nazi invasion of the country, ceased to exist. At the end of the incident, 184 members of the university community were arrested and deported to concentration camps in Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Auschwitz, and others, where thirty-four lost their lives and the rest were scarred by the torture they experienced and the horror they witnessed.
This incident in Krakow was repeated all over the country in an operation known as AB-Aktion (Ausserordentliche Befriedungsaktion), or “Extraordinary Pacification Action,” which was devised to eliminate the intellectual class in Polish society. In all, sixty thousand leaders, professors, teachers, aristocrats, artists, and priests were arrested or executed at ten regional sites during the Nazi control of Poland.
Every year on 1-2 November (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead), Poles lay wreaths and light candles on the graves and others spots commemorating their dead. During those days, the country is covered with flowers and candles, especially in Krakow, the regional capital of Nazi rule and a main artery in an extensive network of concentration camps. Auschwitz lies just sixty kilometers from the city. Over the past week, flowers sat in front of Room 66 of Jagiellonian University’s main building to remind the academic community of what it sacrificed seventy-one years ago.
I often ask the Poles I meet about their collective psyche. How do they deal with loss and mourn death? How do they repent from guilt? How do they overcome trauma? Some say the Poles have developed an aesthetic appreciation and acceptance of somberness and melancholy. Others say that despite their pride as a nation, they have a strong sense of responsibility, bordering on self-deprecation. While Americans celebrate the day of the dead in the provocative, seductive, and absurd costumed festivities of Halloween, the Poles visit their family graves. Americans have a remorseless and unending “pursuit of happiness” that attempts to obscure the sadness of loss and replaces it with the mimicry of fantasy. The Poles engage with mortality and do not fear the somber contemplation of loss. It is not surprising, given the millions of people killed in cold blood in their land.
Yet most countries are following America’s example—a nation where dire political circumstances are dominated more by farce than fact, where it is easier to distract than interact. It is not surprising that the largest political demonstration in Washington, D.C. this year was a faux protest called by a political satirist (Jon Stewart) and a parody of a right-wing pundit (Stephen Colbert) on Halloween weekend at a time of overwhelming duress in the American polity.
In our increasingly high-tempo, consumerist lives where we are often inundated by a seemingly infinite number of distractions, we are less inclined to deal with the unpleasant, the grotesque, and the deeply moving. Instead, we lead lives chasing after gratifications. We do not know or care to understand where our garbage goes; we have a narrowing patience for human tragedy; we are disgusted by the processes that bring food to our table; we are increasingly intolerant of aging; we go to great lengths to escape the specters of illness and try to abbreviate the mourning of death. So how, then, do we deal with trauma if we spend much of our lives avoiding it in every small way?
Dealing with trauma is about exploring and rearticulating histories and truths. In Egypt we have a precarious relationship with truth. For those with the luxury of camouflaging their woes and escaping their responsibilities to society, their blindness to reality around them has created novel ways of seeing the world. But for many the dire reality is inescapable. It lives in every alley, yells from every rooftop, and sleeps in every shallow grave.
How do we deal with unpleasant realities and dark histories? How do we deal with the poverty that surrounds us? How do we confront our complicity in the living conditions of the Gazans? How do we come to terms with our exaggerated historical narratives, like that of our victory in the October 1973 War? How do we begin to address, and whom do we hold responsible for, the systematic decline of Egypt’s intellectual class from the early days of the 1952 coup until today?
As controversial and problematic as these are, they are infinitely less burdensome than the guilt that the Poles continue to shoulder. Although they are the ones who suffered under Nazi occupation, they too have to live with the burden of these genocides. While we may not have participated in, condoned, or sat silent during the mass extermination of millions in our backyards, we too have skeletons in our closet, the kind that no Halloween costume can obscure. And while we continue to ignore the symptoms of the gaping wound in our collective consciousness, we go on like the living dead, sleepwalking in a seemingly consequence-free environment. But we must heed the impending revisionist history of our current day, which no measure of propaganda, laziness, or distraction can efface. Let us take a page from the proudly self-critical Poles by counting our losses, accepting defeat, admitting mistakes, repenting, and atoning for our hand in tragedy, and block out the careless chorus of inchoate optimism that has left us with few alternatives, and even fewer intellectuals.
[Excerpted from Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution, by Adel Iskandar, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2011 by Adel Iskandar. Published by the American University in Cairo Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]