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Taking It Over: Civil Servants and Informal Agents as (Inter)faces of the Everyday State

Panel II-15, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
How is the state effect concretely produced in daily practices, and by whom? How do the agents who shape the variegated faces of the everyday state envision their own practices? And how do they experience the very effect they contribute to create? This panel builds on the seminal works of T.Mitchell (1991) and S.Ismail (2006), to further the understanding of the illusionary, yet performative, state-society boundary. It centers the flesh-and-blood people who animate this boundary as they are located at the interface between citizens and various ranges of state provisioning. As Ismail insightfully put it, the interfaces of the everyday state are those “spaces of encounter” where “citizens come face-to-face with representatives of state authority in charge of implementing a variety of policies relating to public order, hygiene, supply regulation, service provision, and the like” (ibid. 30) and where techniques of government are inscribed on the population. While she mentioned that this involves “the work of nonstate actors as well” (34), the latter have by and large remained a blind spot in scholarship (Ciro Martinez 2022); and, while bureaucracy is an inescapable theme in MENA studies, empirical work on civil servants is remarkably rare (El Khachab 2019). Gathering empirical case studies on the faces of the everyday state, we aim to illuminate the process of "taking it over of the state" by both state and non state agents. It designates the practices through which agents take charge of (what they see as) the “good” functioning of the state on their own, i.e. by assuming tasks that they have not necessarily been ordered to perform. This is quite different from the phenomenon of “discharge” (Hibou 1999, Mbembe 2000), by which the state offloads some of its functions onto private actors. Rather, here we shed light on agents who inload extra-tasks on themselves to “properly” ensure state functions. Why and how do they take these tasks over and which state effect do they generate, intentionally or not? Additionally, we consider these agents as forming a continuum between the figure of the civil servant and that of the informal agent, who does not hold any official position as a representative of the state authority. Along this continuum, presentations explore local welfare administrators in Morocco, neighborhood councilors in Tehran, municipal agents in Gaziantep, subsidized bakers in Egypt, patrol volunteers in Khartoum, and the publics of cultural palaces in Cairo.
Political Science
  • This paper engages with the social world of subsidized bakers in two locations in Egypt, a popular neighborhood of Cairo and a village in the Upper Egypt region of Sohag. Unlike most other MENA countries where all bakeries can make and sell subsidized bread, alongside other non-subsidized forms of bread, in Egypt only licensed, privately-owned, bakeries produce the subsidized balady bread, and they are not allowed to produce any other kind of loaf. This distribution system has gone through important modifications during the last 10 years, with the implementation of a reform that changed the mechanism of subsidization and introduced the targeting of beneficiaries. Struggling against corruption (fasad) and dismantling the “bakery owners’ mafia” was one of the major reasons put forward by the government to advocate for such reform. In line with the questions raised by this session, I argue that aspects of the so-called fasad results – at least partly – from a sense of state responsibility taken over by the bakers in face of the new constraints imposed by the reform. Building on ethnographic interviews conducted with owners and workers at balady bakeries in 2021-2022, I intend to relocate the illegal and semi-legal practices through which they accommodate the new system in the social context of the labor division at the bakery and of their interactions with citizens that, far from being passive recipients, formulate specific expectations regarding what they think they are entitled to. From this perspective, corrupted practices may be better understood as the "inloading" by subsidized bakers of citizens’ state expectations. The paper is also conceived of as a dialogue with the work of José Ciro Martinez about the case of subsidized bakers in Jordan (2022). Comparing the gambits and ethics of bakers in both countries – and further, in two locations in Egypt that involve contrasted expectations – this analysis seeks to illuminate the specific state effects that these practices, and their underlying institutional and social arrangements, generate in different contexts.
  • The Justice and Development Party (JDP)’s 21 years in power have given rise to a vast body of literature on the Turkish political regime (Öniş 2015; Yılmaz, Turner 2019). The relationship between the State and the party is often designated as the central variable (Dorronsoro, Gourisse 2014) in Turkey’s “authoritarian turn” (Insel 2015), the JDP being described as a dominant party controlling public institutions and resources (Esen, Gümüşçü 2016). However, beyond the study of spectacular purges in the administration, nominations in strategic state agencies, or large-scale corruption (Jongerden 2019; Gümüşçü 2013), we still lack evidence on the way this state-party relationship operates on the ground. This communication builds on recent works on Turkish local policies and politics (Ark 2015; Doğan 2007; Joppien 2018). It focuses on women’s role as intermediaries between municipalities and local party branches. Based on an ethnographic fieldwork in Gaziantep, it shows how adopting a gender lens can help conceptualize ordinary forms of partisan influence over municipal practices. It analyzes two types of actors very often absent from the literature – and who might, in practice, be the same persons: JDP women’s branches’ activists and female municipal agents of local welfare provision. On the one hand, JDP activists in charge of electoral campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and home visits, often conceive their political activities as social work. By engaging in charitable activities, circulating information, or "doing favors" for constituents, they regularly encroach on the working of the state. On the other hand, municipal agents in the field of welfare provision – a majority of whom are women - are torn between conflicting imperatives: to embody a professional bureaucratic figure and to make the state accessible, flexible, and human. Some of them are affiliated directly or indirectly with the JDP: owing their positions to partisan networks, they tend to conceive their job as a part of a political mission. Overall, this paper shows how street-level bureaucrats and activists contribute to the circulation of people, repertoires and representations around welfare and gender. It proposes to leave aside the notion of clientelism to highlight the multiple forms of interpenetration between state and partisan logics. This communication draws on a nine-month fieldwork in Gaziantep, during which 90 interviews with women activists, employees, volunteers, and beneficiaries in the field of social action were conducted, as well as observations in local welfare institutions.
  • Launched in early Nasserist era, the project of Cultural Palaces and Houses aimed to provide Egypt’s population with an easy access to culture framed as a service from the State. However, the institution that supervises today over 300 cultural establishments and employs thousands of people is regularly targeted for its presumed failure to do so, as evidenced by many establishments being either closed down or in a poor state of repair. It is common to blame the failure of Cultural Palaces on the fact that they are run by civil servants and not the professionals of culture, such as writers, artists or painters. Indeed, in the context of dwindling State budget for culture and the expanding private sector in cultural production and sociability, state-owned Cultural Palaces became dependent on informal literary communities in organizing the events, attracting the audience, and placing them on Cairo’s urban map of literature. This presentation centers a specific group of agents who play a key role in running Cultural Palaces in Cairo: the directors of literary clubs (andiya’ al-adab). A bureaucratic entity attached to Cultural Palaces whose functioning is regulated by the General Administration of Cultural Palaces (GACP), literary clubs are run by literary-minded citizens without a formal attachment to the State, or, in other words, “writers, not civil servants”. Instead of the State, the heads of literary clubs draw their resources from their active participation in Cairo’s literary communities and the ability to create an affluence (hashd), which features as the statistical measure of failure or success of Egypt’s cultural bureaucracy. Based on a long-term ethnographic fieldwork in four Cultural Palaces conducted between 2017 and 2022 in Cairo, this presentation explores state-society boundary by attending to concrete forms of relations between civil servants and the heads of literary clubs, marked by cooperation, conflict, negotiations over zones of influence, and constantly shifting power balance.
  • In Iran, as elsewhere, many actors claim to address the grievances of ‘the poor’, ‘the oppressed’, ‘the weak’ or ‘the dependent’. Currently, these actors include international institutions like the World Health Organization and the UNDP; national and local political institutions such as the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare; religious and revolutionary charitable trusts such as the Foundation of Martyrs and Veteran Affairs; local cooperatives; international and local NGOs; local religious associations and mosques; Islamic interest-free loan banks; militia of basidj; neighbourhood councils; as well as individual actors. This long list signals that, far from being centralized, the Iranian social relief sector and welfare system is not pitted between the state and civil society, nor between religious and non-religious institutions, quite the contrary (Harris 2017). Firstly, it is a realm where multiple actors intersect, individuals, institutions (local, national, international), and public or private organisations. Secondly, it is a space at a crossroads of the different legitimation repertoires of the Iranian Republic – be they religious, revolutionary or civic. Thirdly, it is a realm of encounters and conflicts over resource distribution (material, financial, and moral) between these actors (Piran 2013, Adelkhah 2009). Focusing on a neighbourhood-level analysis, the paper moves beyond the notion of the state as a black box to analyse its concrete manifestations through the sociological analysis of the everyday practices of neighbourhood volunteers yet elected and acting as local civil servants: the neighbourhood councillors. By studying how they act as local policy intermediaries in the social relief sector, this paper will address the following questions: despite the 'fragmentation' of social public action, ongoing social conflicts, the overlaps between the associative, administrative, and political organisations intervening in the social relief sector (Harris, 2017), how do the everyday practices of the neighbourhood councillors make the state endure (Roitman & al., 2019), and exist as unified, centralised, 'off the ground/out of society' (Catusse & Grangaud, 2019)? To what extent do neighbourhood councillors contribute, even when criticising existing social policies and redefining the scope of their activities, to the reproduction of social and political inequalities and, more generally, the (re)production of an authoritarian state effects? This paper leans on the author's PhD, which consisted of an ethnographic and sociological study of five neighbourhoods in Tehran between 2007 and 2012 and the Iranian social relief sector analysis undertaken during two postdoctoral fellowships (2017-2021).
  • In 2013, the Kingdom of Morocco generalised a system of free access to healthcare for the most disadvantaged populations: the Ramed. This targeted social policy has consequences for hospital management: on the one hand, by contributing to reconfiguring the work of administrators and agents at hospital admissions and consultations desks, and on the other hand, by making the care process even more complicated for beneficiaries. Faced with an influx of patients who are often uninformed about the procedure, the officials in charge of implementation find themselves dealing with situations that are unprecedented for them and having to interact with private security guards responsible for directing and sometimes filtering the public. Based on interviews with administrators and counter staff as well as observations in waiting rooms and reception areas, this paper will discuss the realities and ambivalences of what is commonly referred to as the discretionary power of state agents. It will also highlight the implicit and explicit social categorisation work that state officials engage in in their day-to-day interactions with a plurality of actors, from claimants to intermediaries to their non-state colleagues. In fact, civil servants and hospital administrators are at the interface of several categories of public and partners with whom they also have to negotiate and sometimes impose. Finally, it will look at the ordinary perceptions and judgements that civil servants have of their work and their position within the State. In this respect, these perceptions benefit from being examined from the angle of the moral economy or, to put it another way, as expressions of feelings of justice or ordinary injustice towards their employer, the State, which does not spare them any more than they themselves are able to spare the public of public action.