Laurie A. Brand, Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Laurie Brand (LB): Although I am a political scientist by training, I have a long-standing interest in language study and in the use and misuse of language. While I was working on my previous book on the relationship between sending states and their expatriates (Citizens Abroad: States and their Expatriates in the Middle East and North Africa, published in 2006), I was struck by how differently emigrants from Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Lebanon were referred to in official documents. In some cases, the state seemed keen on claiming these people as part of the nation, and in others, they were largely ignored. Just as important, the terms used to refer to them changed over time, from largely faceless “workers” to “citizens” to “national communities abroad.” I wanted to understand what explained these differences.
My initial intent, therefore, was to explore the place of migration and emigrants in MENA state narratives. However, as I did more reading and preparing for a manuscript project, my attention was attracted away from the narrower focus on migration and toward the role of national narratives in the broader challenges of state consolidation or regime maintenance. I was particularly interested at this early stage in what role state educational curriculum might play, and that initially seemed the most logical place to read an official narrative’s evolution over time. As the research progressed, in order to gain a fuller understanding of various elements or storylines in the official narrative, I drew on many other kinds of official texts: speeches, constitutions, laws, national charters, and the like. However, the material from civics, history, social studies, and religion textbooks is the core of the original research material.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
LB: The book is first and foremost a study of how state leaderships construct and reconstruct the national narrative over time in response to crises. National narratives are generated at different levels, both popular and official, but my interest was in understanding state policy and intent, so I chose to look only at manifestations of the official narrative. Even there, however, the narrative is multi-stranded and complex. It includes not just the state version of the nation’s history, but also a range of values, aspirations, identity elements, etc. Since I wanted the study to be comparative and to capture evolution over time, I decided to delimit the number of narrative strands to be covered, ultimately selecting the themes of the founding story or myth, definitions of national unity, and parameters of national identity for detailed exploration.
The literature on the historical aspects of national narratives overlaps to some extent with memory studies, but I was interested in what others have called the construction of a usable past: how leaderships script historical elements in order to utilize them to maintain power in the present. I wanted to understand changing constructions of national identity and unity in this same framework of their utility to regime maintenance. Thus, part of the theoretical grounding of the study derives from classic works on nationalism and national identity construction. In addition, there is broad literature in propaganda studies, which overlaps with my concerns in that it explores how leaderships (and others) have constructed messages to address challenges or achieve particular political outcomes. However, as I progressed through the project, I was drawn to an approach that focused specifically on crisis points—which have been theorized as providing the greatest opportunities for shifts in a narrative—and what changes may have been introduced in response. Thus, I also situate this work theoretically among works that have sought to explore the resilience of authoritarianism, demonstrating that the reframing or reconstruction of the national story, national identity, or conceptions of national unity need to be understood as one of many tools available to leaderships seeking to consolidate or maintain power.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
LB: There is continuity in the sense that in all of my major research projects, I have been interested in the role of the state. I explored its differential relationship to Palestinian diaspora communities in Palestinians in the Arab World (1988). I challenged traditional notions of the bases of foreign policy and alliance-making in Jordan’s Inter-Arab Relations (1994), and I examined its interaction with women’s status and rights during periods of political transition in Women, the State, and Political Liberalization (1998). Official Stories is also in the tradition of my previous books as a work based on qualitative comparative country case studies. In terms of coverage, however, it differs in that in my previous books, I had worked, in different combinations, on Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Before Official Stories, I had never worked on Algeria, nor had I studied Egypt outside of its role of host country for Palestinians.
Yet where Official Stories departs most significantly from my other works is that it relies overwhelmingly on textual analysis. In previous research, while document collection played a role, most of my research time involved months of fieldwork involving extensive interviewing and participant observation. For this book on national narratives, the fieldwork consisted largely in tracking down and photographing thousands of pages of civics, history, and religion textbooks spanning a sixty-seventy year period. I did conduct some interviews with educators and others involved in educational reform or specialists in textbook studies, but the vast majority of the work for this project involved reading these textbooks, along with several hundred speeches, laws, constitutions, national charters, etc. issued by Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan over the years. It is perhaps because I had never engaged in this kind of textual analysis before that I underestimated the volume of the findings. In the end, for reasons of length, I had to remove the Jordan case study chapters from the book.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LB: This book and its argument seek to engage a number of different communities of students, scholars, and policymakers. Most obviously, I hope students, scholars, and political practitioners working on the MENA region will see it broadly as a contribution to our understanding of the political development of Egypt and Algeria, but also as exemplifying broader regional trends. For those social scientists—political scientists and others—who have focused on the resilience of authoritarianism in the MENA region and elsewhere, I hope that this examination of the evolution of official discourses of legitimation will be seen as a complement to the important work done on the role of more material factors, and that it will lead other scholars to consider the importance of “the word” more fully in future discussions of regime maintenance and survival. For those scholars of national narratives, I think this project shows the importance of looking, not just at national history as the primary element of the narrative, but also at values such as identity and unity. It should also, I think, help further distinguish between memory studies—which have been prominent primarily in the fields of anthropology and history—and national narratives, which should, I think, be of more central concern to students and scholars of comparative politics. Finally, my extensive use of serial iterations of national textbooks is relevant to those in various disciplines who are concerned with the content and politics of educational reform: its embedding in societal struggles over values, but also in broader processes of regime legitimation and leadership struggles.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LB: My current research is in two main areas.
First, I remain interested in national narratives and their development since the uprisings of 2011. For example, I continue to follow closely the evolution of discourse in Egypt as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi clarifies his political and economic program in the context of battles over the meaning of the revolution and of his attempt to claim part of Nasser’s legacy. I am also interested in the evolving relationship between nationalism and religious referents in state discourse, as well as in how leaderships discursively reconfigure the identity or role of the military in countries where for decades the military has not confronted an external enemy.
Second, in a return to my previous book on sending state relations with their expatriate communities, I have been writing on the processes by which MENA states extend the right to vote to nationals resident abroad, known as out-of-country voting (OCV) in the literature. There has been a dramatic expansion of this right in the last several years for MENA region nationals—most recently, Turkey allowed its nationals to vote from abroad for the first time in the recent presidential elections—but also significantly in Libya and Egypt, which implemented OCV for the first time, and Tunisia, which has significantly expanded the rights and representation of nationals residing abroad since the revolution. Changes in these laws participate in on-going processes of reshaping national identity and national belonging, whether the political systems are authoritarian, as in Egypt, or nascent democracies, as in the case of Tunisia. Relatedly, I am in the early stages of a project that will explore the role of the very existence of a diaspora for sending state institutional development.
J: How do you see an emphasis on the analysis of national narratives as contributing to an understanding of the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East?
LB: The last few years have been a fascinating time to be working on a project on the role of narratives in periods of crisis. In each of the countries in which there has been significant upheaval—whether major demonstrations, revolution, or ongoing armed struggle—the battles over defining the nature of the struggle (is this a revolution or not), the legitimacy of the participants (traitors, fulul, or revolutionaries) and the boundaries of the nation (who is part of us and who, by virtue of their politics, is defined as outside the national fold) have been critical parts of the ongoing transitions. For example, battles over redefining the role of religion in society, as we have seen most clearly in the Egyptian and Tunisian cases, have figured centrally in the production of new national constitutions. In the case of Egypt, the extremely contentious exchanges over the meaning of 25 January 2011 versus 30 June 2013, against a long-standing backdrop of the founding story of the July 1952, revolution have been central in the ongoing power contestation and attempts at reconsolidation in post-Mubarak Egypt. And in the past few weeks, we have seen the emerging discursive strategies of the Islamic State, as part of its efforts both to consolidate its hold on territory, and to appeal to an audience of potential recruits well beyond. These are but a few examples of many; they all highlight the critical role that new or reconstructed narratives play across countries as leaderships engage in struggles for regime legitimation or consolidation.
Excerpts from Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria
That the control of discourse has been a central concern of authoritarian leaderships is obvious from the experiences of many countries around the world, and certainly those in the MENA region. Algeria’s second post-independence president, Houari Boumedienne, made clear that historians were to follow his directives in narrating Algeria’s past, and both he and the Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat established institutions aimed at controlling research and studies on historical periods deemed critical to their image or claim to rule. In addition, in authoritarian political system like those of Egypt and Algeria, ministries of information, public guidance, press and publications, and the like have been established with the central task of constructing, controlling and propagating messages, stories and symbols aimed at generating support, or in some cases, silence, among the citizenry. Although their impact has waned with the rise of alternative information sources, before the globalization of electronic media, authoritarian leaderships exercised significant, and in some cases monopoly, control over such messages through state information outlets, various forms of cultural production (cinema, theater, literature), educational curricula, and associated pedagogical materials.
The first task of a national narrative is defining the people, but this is not an end in and of itself. Rather, it serves to specify the boundaries of the political community, which are then the subject of or subject to the broader narrative’s collective mission or goals. One of the most important of these goals is legitimation, the process by which a leadership secures the people’s acknowledgement of its right to rule. In some countries in the so-called developing or post-colonial world, in which national borders are relatively recent and were often imposed by the former imperial power, the problem is more acute than elsewhere, for the ruling elite need a narrative that legitimizes, not only their role, but the very existence of the country as a single, unitary entity. As part of the legitimation process, the leadership, which may have come to power through other than a recognized, institutionalized process, must success in constructing its interests as coincident with those of the public and the public good…
Once that link is made, the task is then to mobilize support for the leadership’s guiding ideology and the policies that flow from it. In some countries it may be possible to construct a “national” history that suggests approaches to present challenges. In other words, implicit parallels may be drawn with past historical threats or events, which then serve as morality tales for the present. In both Algeria and Egypt, heroic episodes of struggle against invaders in past centuries were marshaled as evidence of the two peoples’ ability in the present to confront whatever threats might arise. In other cases, what may be required is less a direct use of history and more a construction of the bases of the people’s obligations to the nation or country. Here, presumptively shared values and goals may be instrumentalized. Such was the approach used by the Algerian leadership in the 1990s as it sought to construct a long-standing national value of tolerance derived from Islam in the face of a domestic insurgency that based its opposition to the state in purported Islamic values.
By scripting challenges as deep and perhaps even existential, the official narrative establishes the bases of responsibility to the country and the nation (and by implication the leadership), exhorting the people to serve, protect, and even die for them. The threats prompting such mobilization may be external, such as the shadow of armed conflict or attempts by foreign powers to infringe upon domestic sovereignty, as in Egypt in response to defeat in the 1967 war. Or, as both the Egyptian and Algerian cases amply demonstrate, crises may also proceed from the domestic front: economic challenges, such as industrial development, agricultural reform, educational expansion and poverty reduction; socio-cultural ones related to ethnicity, language, or religion; or political ones related to power sharing and resource access. Whichever the case, the official narrative must articulate a national identity generally presented as unity, that is capable of mobilizing “the people” to confront such threats, whether real or fabricated. It must concomitantly make the case for why those in power are deserving of loyalty or allegiance—that is, legitimate—as these challenges are faced.
…school textbooks are an obvious, rich source for reading the official narrative….in the highly centralized educational systems such as those found in most postcolonial political systems, there is a bounded set of textbooks, all children in public schools use them, and students are exposed to their content repeatedly over many years. As a result, the opportunities for inculcating a state-sponsored version of history, identity and mission through textbooks are much greater than through perhaps any other source to which broad sectors of the population, in this case children, the vital next generation, are exposed…
Several words of caution are in order, however, regarding government textbooks and the narrative. First, a model that assumes a well-functioning educational system over which the state or its agents have full control is an ideal type, far removed from the reality of many state school systems around the world. In Egypt and Algeria, countries in which universal education was an explicit goal, the questions of how successful educational infrastructure expansion and delivery have been, and what percentage of the school-age population actually attends school, loom large. At independence, training sufficient numbers of teachers and providing quality physical infrastructure were major challenges in many countries; and in the new millennium, after decades of “Washington consensus” policies of starving social service line items in state budgets, such problems have recurred or been exacerbated.
Another issue is the production of teaching materials. Some analyses assume an infrastructure capable of crafting such materials when such a set of institutions may well not exist, may be staffed by incompetent bureaucrats, or may include cadres who hold competing views of the state or the nation….
Finally, school textbooks generally are not recrafted overnight; indeed, the process of reforming or rewriting any curricular elements (whether they have import for the national narrative or target changes in pedagogy) is often contentious and drawn-out. Therefore, changes in interpretation, orientation, or content of the narrative may first be expected to appear in other government documents, such as speeches. In the meantime, traditional elements continue to be inculcated through schooling, thus at times creating dissonance between different official texts, potentially affecting the outcome that narrative changes are intended to achieve.
Evidence from many of the challenges or crises discussed [here] suggests that the multivocality or flexibility of the basic story lines and symbols facilitates not only incremental shifts but also significant redefinitions (albeit less frequently) of them or in their constituent elements.
As for more striking changes or new story lines, the answer that has gradually emerged through this exploration is that significant modifications are most likely to emerge in the context of a threat to a regime characterized by preexisting factionalism within its ranks, or when it faces significant opposition from below. The examples here strongly suggest that the composition and coherence of the leadership group or regime coalition at any given point is far more influential in determining whether rescripting is produced than is the specific nature of the crisis or challenge—war, economic crisis, internal insurgency—involved.
Establishing completely new narrative strategies of legitimation is quite rare. Indeed, the only examples we have encountered in this work are those of the initial emplotting of founding stories. In Algeria, the narrative was forged through the liberation struggle, which was subsequently established as the new official founding story, even if it did draw on the islahi historiographic tradition. In the case of Egypt, the founding story was that of the initial overthrow of the monarchy; however, with a program and vision that differed significantly from what had preceded it, the narrative of the Free Officer’s Revolution quickly set itself apart as a new beginning. It did not deny Mehmet Ali’s role in laying the foundations of the modern Egyptian state, but the corruption and collusion of his descendants with the British provided the opening for the establishment of a new founding narrative, that of the 23 July Revolution.
[Excerpted from Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria, by Laurie A. Brand (p. 6, 14-15, 21-23, 196), by permission of the author. © 2014 Stanford University Press. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]