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Egyptian Stagecraft – Rule by Appearance, Spectacles and Image Projection

Panel XII-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel introduces the concept “stagecraft” to capture a particular mode of Egyptian statecraft: rule by “staging”, i.e. appearances, spectacles and image projection. Etymologically, stagecraft refers to the process of setting the stage for a theater performance. Briefly mentioned by Goffman (1956), Shryock (2004) introduced the concept to Middle Eastern studies to highlight how publics relate to global gazes. This panel illustrates stagecraft’s untapped potentiality by turning the gaze from the ruled to the ruler. Our notion does not only refer to a modality of rule through images and appearances, but also to the very staging of the theater of governance. Egyptian history is dotted with state-led, spectacular and aggressively promoted plans and projects: The Toskha project, tourism resorts along the Red Sea, the expansion of the Suez Canal, the New Administrative Capital. While critics have shown that such schemes rarely deliver what they promise (Sims 2016), anthropologist Baxstrom (2011) suggests a redirection of focus from correspondence between plan and potential outcomes, to the plan’s efficacy in the present. Any plan, regardless of stated aims, legitimizes certain kinds of actions, ties different actors together, and accentuates certain narratives here and now. Any vision has to be conjured in order to be imaginable, intelligible before it can be realizable (see Tsing 2005). Similarly, any drama requires a stage – physical or imaginary – that has been prepared to foreground some details and hide others. These aspects of rule are what stagecraft turns analytical attention to. The panel’s five case studies examine the Egyptian state’s ability to dramatize, stage, and produce plans and visions, which in turn make future scenarios imaginable, legible, and realizable: how the Mubarak regime used the booming tourism industry to circulate certain versions of the regime, the nation, and the population; how the current regime highlights glorious images of past and present achievements to lubricate foreign policy; how the commemoration of martyrs articulate with infrastructural projects, tying national futures to past sacrifices; how spectacular state parades stage history and future through governance of space, identity, race, and gender; and how large and small projects bring together the aspirational staging of the state and ordinary citizens. All in all, the session demonstrates how stagecraft is integral to different facets of rule - authoritarianism, neoliberalism, and soft power - and how it works to prepare grounds, minds and bodies so as to make certain forms of governance common-sensical.
  • Dr. Jessica Winegar -- Presenter
  • Prof. Nefissa Naguib -- Chair
  • Karin Ahlberg -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Miss. Sixtine Deroure -- Presenter
  • Dr. Carl Rommel -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Manon Laroche -- Presenter
  • Karin Ahlberg
    This paper outlines how the concept stagecraft emerged as a productive analytic to understand the intricate politics of tourism capitalism, image curation, and rule by appearances during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. This governance mimicked the logic of the tourism business and the industry’s dependence on appearance, images and imaginaries. Cultural heritage and tourism have long permeated Egyptian nation-building (Colla 2007), but only in the 1990s did tourism become an industry of economic importance on a mass scale: international arrivals went from two million visitors to fifteen;revenues from U.S. $380 million to 6.4 billion. Scholars have analyzed the conditions of this expansion (Hazbun 2007, Steiner 2010). My doctoral research, based on extensive fieldwork with tourist bureaucrats, marketing experts, and tourist workers in 2011-2013, instead turns attention to its effects: What influence did the tourism sector assert on power and statecraft in Egypt during the Mubarak era? What types of politics did it enable? What actions and visions did it foster among state actors and ordinary people? My findings suggest that by 2010, tourism was not only a successful business; it had become an integral mode of a kind of governance that mimicked the logic of the industry itself. The paper details how stagecraft through tourism worked at different levels. The ever-growing bank of romantic and stylized tourist images were employed as a means to promote particular visions of the regime, the nation and its future. The Red Sea resorts and the hosting of high-profile diplomatic meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh staged a liberal, wealthy and beautiful version of the country for Western audiences. Simultaneously, tourism provided opportunities for increased state control in previously peripheral regions (Sinai, the northern coast and the oases). I also show how the tourist gaze became a predominant mode of imagining the nation and ruling the citizens. Images of "touristy Egypt" resonated among the population, because it concretized the country's “potential” beyond present misrule. Tourism awareness campaigns further solicited citizens to curate the image of Egypt in front of the world, displaying certain sides (monuments, the Egyptian Museum and beaches) and hiding others (poverty, misrule and pollution). In 2011, tourism was Egypt’s outward face. The future looked bright. But the revolution would destroy the scene of Mubarak’s stagecraft. But his fall also marked the end of rule by appearance. Since then, audacity, boldness and post-truth have taken over the stage.
  • Manon Laroche
    This paper examines how the Egyptian regime stages itself in the words and image projections that are expressed through foreign policy. If we assume that foreign policy is a particular public policy, insofar that the authority that implements it has limited control over its outcome since it depends on variables beyond its sovereignty (Morin 2013), then the formulation of this policy is crucial. One crucial thing that gets formulated is the link between national identity and the expression of this identity to the outside. The images conveyed in Egyptian foreign policy discourses establish a continuity between a glorified past from the Pharaonic era to the Nasserite era, when the country had a recognized place as a regional leader, and as a country that mattered internationally. Today, this continuity is expressed in particular through the dynamics of mega projects, and the continuous use of superlatives to designate construction projects: "the largest mosque in Africa", "the largest desalination plant on the continent" etc. The very existence of these projects is enough to show the capacities and ambitions of the regime and serves to legitimize the regional action of the country and the need for external support. It is a question of the government affirming a certain idea of the Egyptian national identity, both towards the outside world, towards its partners, but also towards its own population. This research will be interested in the performativity of such discourses and such imaginaries. How do they “stage” a particular version of Egypt and how does it participate in the theater of governance? This paper will base my analysis on discourse and lexical fields around the notions of "pan-Arabism" and "nationalism" to try to understand what are the imaginaries mobilized. What image of Egypt is conveyed by this vocabulary? It will also rely on observations made during the organization by Egypt of the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022. An event of international scope, bringing together more than a hundred foreign leaders, the COP was an opportunity for the Egyptian regime to present itself on a stage where the names of pharaohs and pharaonic figures were intertwined with the more modern issues of climate change. This presentation focuses on the way Egyptian political authorities play on and forge imaginaries in foreign policy both to provide legitimacy towards the outside and to establish an identity internally.
  • Miss. Sixtine Deroure
    Dead bodies have political life (Verdery 1999) and are often being staged to legitimate political power. The celebration of losses facilitates the circulation of emotions which in turn shapes collective identities and feelings of belonging. Surprisingly, until recently, the commemoration for the “martyrs of the nation” (shuhada’ al-watan) in Egypt – mainly fighters for independence and soldiers who died in wars against Israel – were not an occasion for staging and popular celebrations, unlike military victories such as the October 1973 War (Bildt 2015). Martyr’s Day was soberly commemorated by officials laying a wreath of flowers over the tomb of the unknown soldier. Recently, however, the “martyrs of the nation” have been turned into a central component of the post-revolutionary regime’s stagecrafting to regain control over collective mourning after the irruption of the martyrs of the January 25th Revolution on the political stage (Mittermaier 2015, Armbrust 2019). Martyr’s Day is now a commemoration mainly dedicated to what are nowadays called the “martyrs of duty”(shuhada’ al-wagib)- soldiers and policemen falling in the state-led “war on terrorism” -,broadcasted live from a theater and bringing together the President and martyrs’ families in a highly emotional performance. Simultaneously, the martyrs of duty became the heroes of a successful TV series co-financed by the intelligence services and their names are being attributed to many schools, streets as well as to many new bridges and roads. Promotional videos released for Martyr’s Day articulate the martyrs’ sacrifice with the mega projects presented as part of the State development plan, suggesting that the martyrs’ sacrifice enabled the country’s future to happen. What are the narratives underlying the staging of the martyrs’ sacrifice? What kind of rule is being performed through this stagecraft? What collective futures are being projected through these ongoing losses? In addition to an analysis of Martyr’s Day commemorations (as well as video clips diffused for the celebration, reportages etc.), this research is based on a mapping of the State’s projects renamed after martyrs as well as speeches diffused during public events (opening celebrations, infrastructures’ naming campaigns). This presentation focuses on the celebration of Martyr's Day as a symbolic and real "stage" for the state's dissemination of particularly affective narratives, and on the broader staging of martyrs' names in the public space as a means of exposing the martyrs’ sacrifices and encouraging citizens to adhere to state projects as a gesture to honor their sacrifice.
  • Dr. Jessica Winegar
    In April 2021, the Egyptian government staged its most grandiose spectacle of the 21st century: “The Pharoah’s Golden Parade.” A massive event that landed on the global media stage, this parade centered on the safe transport of 24 mummies from the old Egyptian Museum to the newly constructed National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. In doing so, it traversed a path from Tahrir Square, the locus of the 2011 uprising, to Fustat, the first capital of Egypt dating back to the 7th century. It thus linked two sites of state governance across nearly 15 centuries. This paper examines the parade as an attempt by the state to craft, through elaborate staging, an alternative history of place and identity in order to govern the present and the future. Through a visual, sonic, and spatial analysis of the parade and its official coverage, the paper shows how the state attempted to erase the history and violence of the uprising by resignifying its location. Instead of a site of protests, the overthrow of a president, and state-sanctioned injury and murder, Tahrir was spatially transformed into a stage for the recreation of a glorious ancient Egyptian past as well the current regime’s power. As part of this stagecraft, the parade put forth ideal images of race and gender, and blended military, high culture, and Hollywood aesthetics. An image of an ideal Egypt emerged as a possible future enacted in real-time, aiming to cultivate onlookers as ideal civilized citizens united in praise for the nation and, by extension, its leader. By examining how costume, props, lighting, sound, and media worked together to create a spectacle at the spatial heart of the 2011 uprising, we gain a better understanding of how critical stagecraft is to erasing the threat that uprising posed to the regime’s stability.
  • Dr. Carl Rommel
    In its quest to establish “The New Republic” (al-gumhuriyya al-gadida), President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s Egyptian regime invests excessive financial and symbolic resources in megaprojects. Whether in the form of roads and bridges, metros and railways, fish farms, enormous housing schemes, or a whole New Administrative Capital built from scratch in the desert, projects (mashari‘) promise employment, growth, increased life quality, and improved national futures. While critical urbanists and development scholars have shown that Egyptian megaprojects are often unrealistic, environmentally wasteful, and rarely delivering according to plan (e.g., Sims 2016), this paper reflects on why megaprojects keep on being announced and executed, despite ostensible failures and waste. To this end, the paper casts Egypt’s recent project extravaganza as Stagecraft: a modality of governance that stages particular visions of the state and the national community so as to make them imaginable and legible, and in the end tangible and realizable. Empirically, the paper brings together two kinds of material. First, it analyzes how the vision of The New Republic gets articulated in social media promotion of infrastructural projects in the New Administrative Capital, with a special focus on the recent construction of the world’s highest flagpole. Second, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with construction workers and engineers - who built said flagpole - as well as individual entrepreneurs and real estate investors in Badr City. Badr is a long-neglected but recently booming desert city, in which many laborers and engineers who work in the nearby New Capital reside. My material suggests that megaprojects constitute a particularly effective kind of stagecraft in Egypt because the “the project” (al-mashru‘) is an organizational form where the regime’s megalomaniac ambitions and individualized dreams meet. Just as the state stages itself through projects (promoted, planned or actualized), personal future making also tends to be project-shaped. My interlocutors in Badr keep contriving and launching small business projects (taxis, cafés, supermarkets; also called mashari‘) to envision and actualize better versions of themselves: increased social status, economic and social stability. In other words, the project form entices state actors, capitalists, and hustlers alike, rendering dreams of vastly disparate scales structurally similar. Hence, staging an improved world through projects becomes a recognizable pursuit that appeals to broad layers of citizens. The New Republic that materializes among the sands, highways and towers of the New Administrative Capital resonates with many Egyptian men who are themselves projecting better lives in and around Badr City.