Reem Abou-El-Fadl, editor, Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?
Reem Abou-El-Fadl (RA): Along with many friends and colleagues, I experienced the outbreak of the Tunisian and then Egyptian revolutions while far away, in my case based at Oxford in the UK. As time wore on, I had to try to make sense of all the momentous changes in the long gaps between my very intense visits to Cairo. I wanted to continue the conversations begun there, with Egyptians and others, in a more substantial way. I was fortunate enough to be able to convene a conference to facilitate this, which took place in 2012 at the Department of Politics and International Relations of Oxford University, bringing together over twenty scholars and activists to speak, including several from Egypt. Out of these conversations came the idea for this collection, which aimed to combine interdisciplinary perspectives in order to illuminate issues that were being separated in emerging analyses.
The book project brought together thirteen scholars from academic disciplines as diverse as political economy, comparative politics, and social anthropology. They wrote their first drafts in 2013, but these were continually revised and updated as events unfolded, so we now have four years of collective reflection in the book. Its chapters span Egypt’s post-Mubarak and post-Mursi political transformations, all considered in light of earlier periods. During that time the authors have drawn on interviews, media resources, and first-hand observation, as well as archival research conducted in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, the Gulf states, Britain, and the United States.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RA: This volume responds and contributes to three main debates in the literature on the revolution so far. First, with the Egyptian political field initially flung wide open, then gradually closed through formal electoral and increasingly coercive politics, much discussion has turned on whether Egypt indeed saw a revolution in 2011, or rather a “revolt” followed by a “managed transition” towards “pluralist authoritarianism.” Employing such terms, some have been able to chart a teleological course for protest in Egypt that inevitably approaches its end. This entrapment of the revolution within binaries of success and failure is further based on a conventional focus on high politics—the durability of the Egyptian state, law, and foreign relations—as the realm through which to gauge the revolution’s impact. Some such observations aim to revive received wisdoms that the Arab uprisings had initially exploded, regarding “enduring authoritarianism” and delayed democratization in the Arab world.
By contrast, there have been several illuminating discussions of Egypt’s vibrant contentious politics since 2011, and this collection complements these by examining the popular contestation of authority in post-Mubarak Egypt right up until the Sisi presidency. Its contributors understand the revolution as a process, and locate this revolutionary process—gathering momentum during the Mubarak decades—in the changes in ordinary Egyptians’ attitudes to authority and to their own potential to unite and effect change.
Second, although it has been tacitly granted that Egypt’s revolutionary process was part of a broader pan-Arab phenomenon—through externally imposed terms such as the “Arab Spring”—there has been little discussion of the foreign policy aspirations, and related identity conceptions and worldviews, of Egypt’s revolutionaries. Indeed, several analysts—particularly from the American, European, and Israeli establishments—have been at pains to disregard Egyptian protests against foreign interference, not least because of the involvement of their own governments in propping up the old dictator. Yet any serious investigation of the heritage of the particular groups involved on 25 January 2011—Kifaya, the National Association for Change, the 6 April Youth Movement, the Justice and Freedom Youth Movement, and many others—reveals a rich tradition of protest on issues such as Palestine and the war on Iraq, which were articulated with pan-Arab and anticolonial concerns.
In the fields of international relations and comparative politics, such links have been the subject of some of the most innovative research in recent years. However, calls for further work continue, as scholars seek to better understand the links between national identity and foreign policy, particularly in non-Western cases. Accordingly, the second part of the volume discusses the ways in which foreign policymaking was sensitized to the popular will through the revolutionary process, just as domestic policy and state institutions have been, and the extents of consequent change in each field.
Finally, while exploring the new forms of mobilization seen in Egypt’s Tahrir squares, this volume gauges the implications for Egypt’s regional and international interlocutors of precisely these novel domestic developments. The pendulum’s swing towards popular sovereignty has brought down governments and purged union and syndicate leaderships, but has also forged diplomatic crises and compelled a cooling down of relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most recently Qatar and Turkey. At the same time, it has inspired transnational and international social movements, whose links with Egypt’s revolutionary coalitions and unions have grown apace since 2011. The final section of the book critically examines the legacy of foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs and the engagement of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic actors with the Egyptian revolution on the world stage.
J: Can you walk us through the volume’s contributions?
RA: The book begins with a Foreword from Charles Tripp, centered on the question of what the open challenge to the dominant order in Egypt revealed about the nature of power, and how Egyptians have seized the opportunity not merely to imagine other futures, but also to use the potential that their joint enterprise has given them to realize those futures. I then offer an Introduction aimed at a broad audience, reflecting on the value and pitfalls involved in writing about this revolution “in process.” In Chapter One, Marie Duboc considers the labor movement’s activism in relation to the explosion of anti-war and pro-democracy protests in Mubarak’s last years in power. In Chapter Two, Nicola Pratt discusses contestations over gender roles and relations, the position of minorities, and Egypt’s relations with the West, highlighting the historical legacies of colonialism and anti-colonialism in the politics of constructing citizenship and normalizing authoritarianism in Egypt. In Chapter Three, Mark Allen Peterson traces the ways different political actors laid claim to Tahrir Square, how they interpreted and articulated its meanings, and how they discursively positioned it within their own visions of the continuing Egyptian revolution. In Chapter Four, Walter Armbrust engages with the same question of meaning construction for different Egyptians, this time by focusing on Tahrir Square as a political performance space, and martyrs and martyrdom as contested narratives on the revolution. In Chapter Five, Alexander Kazamias conceptualizes the Egyptian revolution as an incomplete process of socio-political transformation, and assesses its effects on the Egyptian state from the perspective of postcolonial state theory.
Part Two begins with Raymond Hinnebusch analyzing the internal struggles amongst the military, Muslim Brotherhood, and revolutionary youth over Egyptian foreign policy, describing Egypt as the swing power whose foreign policy is decisive for regional balance. In Chapter Seven, Adam Hanieh uses a political economy approach to illuminate the ways in which Egyptian capitalism has become tied to patterns of accumulation in the Gulf, and therefore to examine regional and international constraints on Egypt’s revolutionary process. In Chapter Eight, Corinna Mullin preserves the focus on regional and international players, this time comparing the fortunes of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions in light of US geostrategic interests in each state.
To begin the final part, I consider the processes of “sectarianization” unleashed by Egyptian, regional, and international power players in their bid to contain the revolutionary process, focusing on the period of the Mursi presidency. In Chapter Ten, Kerem Öktem presents a critical reading of Turkish public debates on the Egyptian revolution, finding that the government’s “vernacularization of foreign policy” means Arab politics are discussed according to existing Turkish political polarizations. In Chapter Eleven, Miriyam Aouragh critically revisits mainstream Euro-American narratives on the role of the internet and globalized social media in the Egyptian revolution, reading these in light of earlier colonial “civilizing narratives” in the region. In the final chapter, Anthony Alessandrini looks at very different global actors, discussing possibilities and problems in the attempts to build translocal solidarity between the Occupy Wall Street in New York City and popular movements in Egypt.
J: What have been some of the challenges in addressing the Egyptian Revolution as an unfolding process?
RA: There have been many, and I discuss these in some detail in the introduction to the volume. The most obvious challenge is our closeness in time and even space to Egyptian events. It was for this reason that several Egyptian contributors ultimately felt the need to withdraw from the project, because participating, rather than writing, was understandably more urgent for them at the time. For the rest of us, we had to make sure not to become absorbed in a particular moment and its mood, not to get fixated on great shifts or firm continuities, and to remember that many pertinent moments are still to come.
Another problem is that we know that the sources of information we can access are restricted. Above all, state violence has silenced some voices forever, while thousands of political prisoners languish in jail, and the records of state institutions are inaccessible. The details of external players’ influence on Egyptian affairs will also be classified for some time. Meanwhile, among media and other sources, we are limited by practices of censorship and self-censorship. In these circumstances, we must acknowledge the fragility of our conclusions.
Ultimately, however, we all felt that the value of seeking these conclusions, of engaging with history as it unfolds, trumped these caveats. Developments on and between the Egyptian, regional, and international levels carry important implications for our fields of scholarship and their dominant paradigms, for the methodologies we use and the sources that we have traditionally relied upon as evidence, and for our responsibilities as scholars of the Arab world, taking stances on policy and in pedagogy.
First of all, the revolutionary wave that spread across the Arab world sparked upheavals in the academic field too. We wanted to seize this opportunity to further destabilize the received wisdoms that were now coming under question, whether regarding endemic authoritarianism or the promise of neoliberal reform. Second, balancing the lack of some sources I discussed, today there is an abundance of alternative information available through the world of live coverage and social media networks. We do need to devise systematic methods to keep track of it all and its reliability, but it remains a treasure, and we will arguably be able to check against misinformation more effectively if we engage now. Last and most important, there is the responsibility that comes with any social science study, particularly in an area fraught with legacies of colonization, authoritarianism, and dependency. As academics and students, we exist within structures of power and knowledge making that enable us to influence significantly the way in which policymakers, journalists, and investors deal with the people of the area we study—in this case, ninety million Egyptians. All the contributions in this volume, in their effort to understand what is going on now, and not later, reflect a commitment to those people and their struggles.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RA: I hope that the book will have insights for students and scholars of Egypt and the Middle East in multiple disciplines. Its discussions of contentious politics, public space, the state, and counterrevolutionary processes should appeal to readers in politics and anthropology working on both Arab and non-Arab cases. Political economists will also find chapters on Egypt’s labor movements and on international and regional neoliberal connections.
I hope that international relations and regional relations specialists will welcome the analyses of the foreign affairs implications of the Egyptian revolution, as well as of the engagement with the Arab uprisings of global powers and social movements. Chapters on this engagement—in Turkey, through the internet, and in solidarity movements—have bearings on important theoretical debates around Orientalism and postcolonial politics.
Finally, the volume’s showcasing of the differing arenas in which popular sovereignty is played out and authority contested in revolutionary contexts should offer comparative food for thought for scholars of revolution in Eastern Europe and Latin America as well as the United States and Western Europe.
I hope the book will become a staple text in the teaching of the Egyptian revolution and Arab uprisings, given its diverse contributions and its spanning of a relatively long initial phase of the revolutionary process. I also modestly hope that the volume provokes new ways of teaching and thinking about the revolutionary process in Egypt, that emphasize its regional and international dimensions, compelling readers not to evaluate its fortunes without reference to these.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
RA: In one way, the book is a departure from my previous work, in that my doctoral and postdoctoral research focused on the Cold War period, and particularly the foreign policies of Turkey and Egypt. In another way, however, it follows on from them quite clearly, as my interest in foreign policy making has been in its connections with national identity conceptions and nation building policies, while this book also connects struggles for change on the domestic level with struggles among regional and international players to facilitate or suppress that change. During 2012, I was particularly interested in these foreign affairs dimensions, publishing an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies on the place of anti-Zionism and Palestine in the Egyptian Revolution, and another in the International Journal of Transitional Justice on the need to examine external actors’ culpability in transitional justice practice in post-Mubarak Egypt. The Revolutionary Egypt volume brings together several distinguished colleagues with similar interests and contributions.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RA: I have just published an article in Nations and Nationalism on the early manifestations of pan-Arabism during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers in Egypt. I am also working on a project investigating political protest during 1970s Egypt, with a focus on the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. This research in fact sheds light very clearly on the grievances that were brewing before the 2011 rupture, and the examination of both concurrently has been eye opening.
Excerpts from Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles
From “Introduction: Connecting Players and Process in Revolutionary Egypt”
Revolution (and Counter-Revolution) as Process
If the rationale for scrutinizing events in Egypt in real-time is accepted, the issue becomes how to navigate so much uncharted terrain. On each anniversary of the 25 January 2011 protests, the debate over whether we have been witnessing a revolution, or merely an abortive “revolt,” has loomed large. Even as Tahrir Square continued to fill to overflowing every week in early 2011, the binary oppositions had already begun to be circulated, and the urge to contain and delimit was palpable. For example, while Egyptians battled the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as fiercely as they had Mubarak, many argued that the SCAF’s presence indicated the durability of the Egyptian security state, and merely a shifting of hands amongst its elites (Ottaway 2011, Walker and Tucker 2011). Two years on, during the rule of senior Muslim Brother Muhammad Mursi, many emphasized societal divisions and the threat of religious autocracy (Wood 2012, Friedman 2012). By the third year, a chorus of voices had declared the revolution dead, after Egypt’s military sealed the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood presidency (Vltchek 2013, Brown 2013, Daraghi 2014). Many different cases were made for what seemed to be a predetermined answer.
This book’s authors present an alternative conception, by training a keen eye on popular mobilizations in Egypt, and understanding these as part of a longer revolutionary process. We can understand this process as encompassing all the waves of mobilization in explicit pursuit of the expansion of political, economic, and social rights that have rocked Egypt during confrontations with the Mubarak regime, and since his ouster. In these protests, citizens have been waging wars of position against pillars of the state, including the crony capitalist elite and state-aligned religious establishment, demanding the overhaul of entire institutions and ossified practices. The foundations for this were laid by the so-called “1970s generation” of Egyptian activists, many of them university students and workers, who contested the policies of president Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981). It was Sadat who introduced the unpopular cocktail of economic liberalization, political repression, US aligned foreign policy, and peace with Israel, which Mubarak entrenched, and which alienated so many Egyptians. Given that repressive rule has been so intertwined with socio-economic dislocation in Egypt, the political revolution this unleashed has had a powerful and parallel social character, with the galvanizing participation of the urban and rural working class.
During Mubarak’s three-decade rule, contentious political practices gradually spread across multiple sectors, always outside formal political organizations, which had been either subdued, co-opted, or controlled by his regime (Idriss 2011). During the regime’s last decade especially, citizens previously unused to public protest began to demonstrate ever more boldly (Shokr 2010). In April 2010, assembled on the street outside the Egyptian parliament were no less than seven different sit-ins, including public sector employees, workers laid off by private companies, and a large group of disabled campaigners (Charbel 2010).
By the time of the January 2011 protests, active coalitions comprised youth groups across the political spectrum, such as those of the major opposition parties and of the anti-Mubarak campaigns Kifaya and the National Association for Change; older leftist, liberal, and Arabist politicians from the same groups; human rights activists and labor lawyers from such bastions as the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre; youth from the Muslim Brotherhood who rejected the quietism of their conservative elders; students, university staff, writers, journalists, and engineers from pro-democracy campaigns; football fans or “Ultras” who carried old vendettas against the police; thousands from the workers’ movement that had gained momentum since the Mahalla strikes of 2008; and the groups that had sprung up in solidarity with them, such as the 6 April Youth Movement (Barakat 2011). They marched alongside unorganized Egyptians from the public, private, and informal sectors, as well as the unemployed, swelling the ranks of the revolution after the first Friday of Rage, 28 January 2011.
The ensuing process extended to more than mere “refolution,” given protesters’ demands for fundamental regime change, rather than reform, but neither did it resemble the Leninist revolutionary ideal of a vanguard seeking to insert itself into the executive (see Bayat 2013). The revolution was above all one in self-image, and in imaginings and practices of self-rule. There was a change in ordinary Egyptians’ attitudes to their own potential to unite and effect political and socio-economic change. This meant that many Egyptians seemed content with mandating a new administration to make a fresh start, but would seek to hold any illegitimate incumbent accountable, according to strict standards (Ahram Online 2013).
In parallel have run the efforts of several counter-revolutionary forces, namely those actors with vested interests in the status quo ante, or in curtailing the expansion of rights and freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt, or both. These have worked to drive wedges into the revolutionary coalitions of 2011, seeking to overwhelm their separated, weaker components, and nip their reimagined politics in the bud. Thus the context for the mass protests in 2011-2 was a transitional process imposed from above by the Egyptian military command, accompanied by the frequent use of violence against protesters, crackdowns on strikes, and censorship of the press. This unfolded through a tacit pact with the Brotherhood, whose leaders did not contest the transitional process (Sallam 2012). The context in 2012-3 was the presidency of Muhammad Mursi, whose legitimacy was hotly disputed. He saw to the rushing through of a controversial, and to many, illiberal constitution, and was in turn supported by a coalition of Brotherhood supporters and radical Islamist Salafis.
During both periods, the so-called fulul, or “remnants” of Mubarak’s regime, whether in the state apparatus or the media, became increasingly active, as the avenues for their political influence reopened. No period has illustrated this more clearly than that of current president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s ascent to power, during which several mouthpieces of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party returned to political and public life, and state violence surged. Finally, it is no surprise that in the case of Egypt, with its geostrategic position bordering Israel and hosting the Suez Canal, this counter-revolutionary impulse is shared by actors further afield.
Yet as Amar and Prashad (2013: x) write, “the Arab Spring…is a dynamic for freedom and justice that transcends these significant moments of retrenchment. It always has been a process not just of toppling headmen but also of revealing repressive structures and making power blocs show their cards.” The current regime in Egypt has yet to build a strong base, and remains under pressure to deliver on public works and redistribution, while veteran and younger activists are channeling their efforts into the long game of political organization. It is still too early to tell (Khalili 2011).
Further perspective is afforded by recalling the rapidly changing debates that have preoccupied Egyptians and their observers since Mubarak’s toppling. During the 2011-2 “transitional period,” the questions had been: will the SCAF truly relinquish executive power? What are the conditions underpinning the pact between the SCAF and the Brotherhood? How should Egyptians deal with former regime remnants (fulul) in the political process and with the issue of security sector reform?
During Mursi’s one year of rule, the questions became: what will the contours of Egypt’s new constitutional order be? Will the Muslim Brotherhood entrench its hold on power? Will the army return to the scene just at the point of intensifying civil strife, Turkish-style? Or will a new leadership emerge from the ranks of oppositional coalitions from the Mubarak or Mursi eras, to claim the revolutionary mantle?
In the wake of Mursi’s removal, the questions included: does the specter of civil war, or Islamist terrorism, loom over Egypt now? Who will represent the millions who took to the streets on 30 June, disenchanted with Muslim Brotherhood rule? Will their political representatives succeed in extracting concessions from the military elite, or will the latter control the outcomes of yet another political transition? What is the stance of the United States, and how does it affect domestic competitions for political power? Will Egypt be shifting axis?
Today, during the early presidency of al-Sisi, questions have evolved again: has Egypt returned to the binaries of the Mubarak era, pitting the security state against the Islamists? Does the mass media reflect—or suppress—popular understandings of national solidarity in Egypt? To what extent is Egypt’s foreign policy shaped by its Gulf and US donors? Are Egypt’s relations with Russia improving? Have the demands of 25 January been finally stifled, or will Egyptians apply the criteria by which they judged the SCAF and Mursi once more?
The answers to some of these questions have been hammered out over several months, while others will remain elusive for some time to come. In tracking this process, we can only make sure to pay attention to all its participants, and to even the faintest signs of imminent change, thereby accommodating the open-ended nature of the revolutionary process.
[Excerpted from Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles, edited by Reem Abou-El-Fadl, by permission of the editor. © 2015 Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]