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Democracy Historicized: Rethinking Revolution, Repression and Representation in Contemporary Egypt
Over ten years removed from the Arab Spring, and questions regarding political expression, representation and justice are as prominent as ever in the Middle East. The political concept of democracy, in particular, remains a contentious one—both for scholars who critique democracy as an imperial import, as well as Western policymakers and political scientists who uncritically prescribe it. Based in the disciplines of anthropology, political science and history, this paper neither celebrates nor censures democracy. Instead, this paper engages with Talal Asad’s distinction (2011) between democracy as an ethos and democracy as a state system. Specifically, this paper examines political discourse at a provincial Egyptian civil society club across three distinct periods: 1) the decade before the 2011 uprising, 2) the 2011-2013 revolutionary period, and 3) after the 2013 counterrevolution. Through an analysis of local archive materials, I will first survey how the civil society club’s administrators managed political discourse under Hosni Mubarak’s police state. Next, I employ ethnographic data gathered through participant observation and semi-structured interviews to illuminate how the club transformed during the relative freedom and democracy of the revolutionary period. The final post-2013 section of the paper uses ethnographic data to provide a glimpse into Egyptians’ everyday lives under a corrupt, violent, and authoritarian military state. The overarching premise in this paper is that scholars must historicize in order to decipher the manner in which any one concept (in this case, democracy) interacts with and within a state system. My primary argument is that democratic sensibilities as an ethos increased amidst the rise of democracy as a state system at a certain place and time: Egypt between 2011 and 2013. My corresponding thesis is that, after the 2013 coup d’état, democracy as an ethos and democracy as a state system died a simultaneous death. Thus it was not democracy as a state system that undermined democratic sensibilities as an ethos, as Asad wonders, but authoritarianism and empire. This conclusion, in turn, raises new questions about repression, representation, and justice in the Middle East.
Political Science
Geographic Area
Arab States
Sub Area