Joshua Stacher, Watermelon Democracy: Egypt’s Turbulent Transition (Syracuse University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Joshua Stacher (JS): I developed a deep commitment to Egyptians and Egypt after living in Cairo between 1998 and 2007. When the uprising began in 2011, it was the most intellectually dynamic moment in my life. The years between the uprising and military coup (2013) taught me so much and made me rethink what I thought I understood about Egypt. I was unsatisfied with how people in academia, as well as the servants of empire in DC think-tanks, discussed what happened in Egypt. People began to describe Egypt as “a tragedy” where things went off the rails. This is how people still talk. Many people write things that specifically blame the protesters for being rigid, unrealistic, petty, and responsible for the “failed outcome.” When analysts do not solely blame protesters, the best-case scenario is a morally ambiguous position that spreads the blame among many parties.
On one level, I could see what they were saying. After all, the public character of ongoing protests and gatherings were what researchers, spectators, and adventurous tourists could interact with and experience. Elections could be measured and debated. I saw what others saw. My disagreement was with where blame was placed. My sense was that Egypt’s most senior military officers—and, as a consequence, the institution and business empire from where they came —were most responsible for the “tragedy” of Egypt’s revolutionary push from below.
Blaming ordinary protesters and citizens as a fragmented state’s elite (armed with money, weapons, and diplomatic and economic support for the autocratic norm) deployed violence against them, seemed deeply conservative and morally wrong. Being committed to those in society rather than to those operating from the high offices of state power made me rethink blame. Social scientists call this the “causal” variable. I also wanted to see what a book would look like if I remained determined to stick to events as part of a historical process of social and political struggle that connected all different events, rather than isolate them from each other or their context and history. This way we would be able to see the changes and continuities in Egypt.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JS: Being at a non-flagship public university in Ohio, research funds are limited, and mediocrity rules the day. It is hard to be innovative and expand your readership. You have to be creative if you wish to continue researching. As a consequence, I designed my graduate pro-seminar on comparative politics to really revolve around typologies and other theories of transition. We studied revolutions, transitions, elections, protests, and political economy as the uprising in Egypt unfolded. I would tweak the class each year but, effectively, these abstract theories either spoke or failed to say much about what Egypt was experiencing. Teaching in this way started to really make me engage with the theories because the stakes were in front of me. Explanations became less abstract. And I trusted the protesting Egyptians who were effectively telling the world: “Listen to us, not your theories.”
Effectively, and this is the norm, early career academics struggle with holding a PhD and being an expert because they have few experiences that prepare them for the job. For the most part, people publish their first major publications that originated as part of their dissertation. The research is usually innovative, but the extreme focus on one aspect of a massive literature only tells the research community a piece of the puzzle. After tenure, some slow down and take their foot off the gas. I decided that I wanted to personally use Egypt’s uprising to push my own limitations as a person, researcher, and academic. Rather than focus on one aspect of a transition (such as elections, protests, political economy, or state violence), I tried to incorporate these different aspects for a more integrated and connected view. How were the protests influencing election results? How did state violence arrest the trajectory of the uprising? What was neoliberalism doing in Egypt and did it cause the uprising?
The way that I experienced the transition, which was through nine short trips to Egypt between March 2011 and January 2013, influenced my thinking. During some trips, it was protests that took over my time. Other times it was elections. The economy was always crashing. And state violence expanded as the process unfolded. I decided to write Watermelon Democracy this way as an experiment to explain and synthesize the various moving parts of uncontrolled popular change.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JS: Early on at Kent State, I realized how narrow my training was. I knew a lot about a lot about “authoritarianism,” but I was less well versed in the approaches of different colleagues in history, geography, anthropology, and literature. Rather than read narrowly, I decided I would no longer give attention to overly theoretical works that said more about research design and little about reality. I got into a life of research because I was interested in documenting and understanding politics and life. Theory is fine, but it is a tool. It has never been the final word for me. What the field tells me determines how useful or useless a theoretical argument is.
To me, I see my first book as the product of someone that was insecure, anxious, and trying to impress the seniors. I was learning the academic game so to speak. Watermelon Democracy is different. Of course, I wanted the book to be read. But few people had read the completed manuscript when I submitted it for review at Syracuse. In fact, I think it was only really one graduate student and two undergraduates that read the whole document before I sent it to Syracuse University Press. I figured if the book was accessible and made sense to them, I would be happy. I was not really writing for the senior academics in my field.
Of course, I had presented the arguments at conferences and campuses. But I was more confident in myself in this book. I took chances I normally would not have. I cared less about what others would think about it. I wanted the few Egyptians who care what someone like me thinks about things in their country to be pleased with it. I wanted them to agree with the spirit of the book despite whatever omissions or mistakes I had made.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JS: I hope that anyone that has an interest in Egypt will read it. But, as we have witnessed in Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan, uprisings remain a part of our collapsing world order. There are more moments of transition that will happen. I also think that those interested in revolutions, uprisings, and political change—or how a ramshackle elite try to refashion or establish an autocratic regime on the ashes of a political order that has been burnt to the ground—might find some interest in this book.
It is customary for researchers to say that they would love policymakers and so-called public commentators in DC to reflect on the fruits of the book’s findings. But, truthfully, this is a structural impossibility. I have come to believe that, without a progressive regime change in how the government of the United States of America operates, this is an empty appeal. Even if people such as this read Watermelon Democracy, I doubt they can appreciate it or will change their minds. Their livelihoods preclude defection from the masters of the status quo. But I have grown accustom to not caring what DC-types think.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JS: I am writing an article on the history of the Palestine Marathon. I ran the race (half-marathon) in 2018 as a participant observer, interviewed many of runners from the Right to Movement (R2M) campaign, and participated in the UNWRA US five-day relay from New York City to Washington DC last September. I have also been thinking about GPS tracking and what story big data tells us about recreational movement under occupation. I find R2M to be deeply political, even if sometimes their members do not claim that is the aim.
My other project is thinking about mass incarceration and movement restrictions in Egypt. I recently published an article in Jacobin on it. I am growing more interested in how governments control people’s movements, borders (and “border sets”—the deployment of border/surveillance techniques inside a country, as opposed to at the border), and walls.
J: What is a Watermelon Democracy?
JS: I explain the title better in the book. It emerges from one of my experiences in Mansoura during parliamentary elections in December 2005. Egyptians call any nonsensical or empty talk a watermelon. It means bullshit. The title references the dashed hopes of the revolutionaries because their military stepped on the necks of ordinary and extraordinary people from a bunch of different classes who asked for more democracy, better economic opportunities, and social justice.
As the exiled Egyptian artist Ganzeer so brilliantly captures on the cover of Watermelon Democracy, you have citizens pining for their “government” to hear them and deliver a better life only to have watermelons drop on them from the Egyptian-piloted, American-made military helicopters.
Excerpt from the book (from pages 7-10)
Once a regime’s humpty-dumpty falls off the wall, even the most powerful cannot put the old regime back together. Egypt’s state was disrupted and began to shed administrative capacities. Mubarak’s regime, specifically the daily routinized practices between ruling and ruled, collapsed. The transition began with a collapsed regime, a fragmenting state, and in the transitional vacuum of political uncertainty. The moment became decisive: Will democracy emerge or will a new autocracy be built? Revolution or not, Egypt’s process could not be returned to its preuprising political situation. The question, then, becomes why did Egypt fail to realize a revolution like Russia or Iran experienced? Furthermore, why did Egypt’s uprising produce a transition that led to the military’s regime-making experiment? The answer is not as simple as repression by counterrevolutionary forces or the machinations concocted by the “deep state.” These responses are to be expected, as revolution inevitably summons counterrevolutionary responses.
If political revolutions are rare, then revolutions or political transitions that end in a democratic breakthrough are even rarer. As Mark Beissinger shows, there have been forty-two revolutions since 1980, if we agree that a revolution is a mass protest movement that displaces a leader and aims to change the established order of politics and society. Out of these revolutions, twenty-eight of them witnessed protesters demanding more political and civil rights as well as free and fair elections. As Beissinger argues, “Most did in fact result in some degree of fairer electoral competition and broader civil and political freedoms in their immediate wake, though in many cases these achievements subsequently eroded.” Therefore, the expectation is not that a revolutionary uprising results in democracy. Rather, such political moments are more likely to produce a new form of autocracy that maintains continuities from the older deceased regime and adds innovations into the new one being forged.
This book is about the popular expansion and elite erosion of political space following a revolutionary protest mobilization in contemporary Egypt. In particular, I examine the process of Egypt’s revolutionary uprising and how a new ruling class began building a new autocracy by incrementally corroding gains made by protesters and harnessing viable continuities to govern. I achieve this by exploring the dynamics of opposition relations during a revolutionary mobilization and then examining how newly empowered SCAF generals from the defeated regime try to recapture state authority by diluting the demands from revolutionaries. To achieve this aim, I explore the fields of opposition relations, elections, state violence, and political economy to show the ways that these generals try to regroup by fashioning together old and new figures into government before trying to develop routine practices between those who govern and those who are governed. In short, SCAF’s generals are trying to build a new autocratic regime. As a process, the construction of this new regime in Egypt is incomplete.
By examining these areas of opposition relations, elections, state violence, and political economy, this book not only engages important topics connected to political transitions but also shows the intimate ways in which new leaders try to incrementally design a new regime on top of a previously discredited one. Such an approach also details the challenges these new autocrats confront based on their decisions to divide and rule opposition groups, employ elections, unleash state violence, and fail to alter the political economy. Rather than debate whether the revolution succeeded or failed to deliver democracy to Egyptians, this book reveals the process of building a new and different authoritarian regime on the ashes of a collapsed order.
Irony abounds, however. It is practically a given to assume that the military is at its apex in terms of political power in Egypt these days. ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi governs without visible challenges from below and looks to do so for the foreseeable future. Regional and international states enable, finance, and protect al-Sisi’s brutal rule and many human rights violations. Some argue that al-Sisi has created a political arena worse than the one Mubarak lorded over. To be able to govern this way, the debilitated state that al-Sisi inherited relies on capacious amounts of movement restrictions, repression, and mass incarceration. Yet, calling how al-Sisi and his apparatchiks govern “a regime” extends too much credit. Such a designation gives away too much because there is no coherence and they remain ad hoc in their strategies. Egypt’s ruling generals know that they do not want mass mobilization. Other than this, their aims are ambiguous and conditioned by structural contradictions and challenges they either inherited (economy) or manufactured (elections, state violence) during the transition.
The Egyptian president and the major institution from which he draws his authority to lead are confronted by a more divided and polarized society, a weaker economy, an enfeebled state that has lost some of its administrative capacities, and an inability to integrate society politically. There is no ruling party, no semiautonomous judiciary, no legal or illegal opposition allowed to organize or mediate between the state and society, no quasi-competitive elections, and no way to maintain social welfare benefits for an ever-expanding population. Al-Sisi and the other generals continue to regime-make on the ashes of a state Mubarak ran. He sits atop the throne of a state that is a shadow of itself compared to the Mubarak-led apparatus, and which a revolutionary movement has already collapsed.
This book tells the story of how Egypt’s most senior military generals gutted a revolutionary atmosphere and process before deciding that if a new regime was to be built that foreclosed the possibility of future uncontrolled mass mobilizations, they would have to lead from in front of the curtain of state power. Before and after imposing that reality, SCAF’s generals engaged in autocratic regime-making by playing on the divided relationships of Egypt’s systemic and antisystemic opposition, using elections, deploying state violence, and continuing to crisis spend in Egypt’s political economy of social revolt. These dynamics become more focused after the 2013 coup.
Ultimately, and despite grim appearances to the contrary, SCAF’s regime-making in Egypt may eventually produce an autocratic juggernaut that is flexible, that is expansive in its tools of manipulation, that penetrates society, and that is adaptable beyond leaders immediately reaching for the iron fist of repression. But, then again, the process might also fail entirely. After all, Egypt’s leaders are surrounded by another round of uprisings in Sudan and Algeria and increased conflict in Libya.
Just as revolutionary atmospheres and processes rarely produce democracy, blocking revolutionary outcomes does not simply default to authoritarianism. Blocking a revolution that has taken down a regime leaves a political vacuum. Therefore, like democracy, autocracy requires architects, engineers, and construction workers. This book details Egypt’s 2011 revolutionary uprising and the ways that people from surviving institutions of a defeated regime regroup and try to incrementally establish a new autocratic regime. It is unclear if they will succeed in this endeavor as Egyptians are dragged through an oppressive hellscape while they try. Yet, by piecing together wider slices of issues that defined Egypt’s transition, we can gain insights into how the dreams of revolutionary movements get transformed into a new, more repressive political order by SCAF, who have appointed themselves the guardians of the state.