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Equivocal Connection: Mechanisms for Managing Possibilities and Threats Submerged in Water Utilities
Residents of the informal area of Ezbet Khairallah in Cairo, Egypt, are always trying to answer a fundamental question: How do I get the most out of the social, administrative, and material connections that I build while letting them do the least damage to me? In response to these pressures, residents engage in practices that I call “hedging connection,” by deploying limiting, restraining, or diverting actions in their quest to make connections work well for themselves. As residents participate in systems that offer both benefit and harm, they attempt to produce equivocality in their own positions and to unravel projects of deliberate obfuscation by relatives, neighbors, and representatives of state institutions. Drawing on ten years of ethnographic research, this paper illustrates how these mechanisms operate in the context of payment and water provision in Ezbet Khairallah by tracing how the state uses hedging to delimit residents’ claims-making and how residents use these tools to manage both the uncertainties of recognition by the state and their intracommunity social networks. The nature and extent of uncertainty around utility pricing has intensified in the wake of the 2011 uprising, as the current regime has leaned into neoliberal models that seek to even further reduce state spending on basic infrastructure and other social welfare projects. Hedging is, of course, not limited to payment issues, but the pressures that make hedging crucial are fundamental to interactions around payment both to the state and between neighbors. Tracing the materiality of infrastructural networks at various scales can make visible the nature of states, their practices of governance, and layers of interaction between representatives of state or state-like entities and the people variously labeled as consumers, customers, or citizens. Hedging connection operates through multilayered systems of association and evasion, realization and inaction, connection and misdirection and are means by which residents strive to produce and eliminate uncertainty in the social, administrative, and technical systems that make up their lives.
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