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Living with the State in Egypt

Panel XIII-8, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel examines how everyday Egyptians make a life in relation to the Egyptian state in the wake of the broken promises and hopes of the 2011 uprising. While many analysts have examined the resurgence of authoritarianism within the Egyptian state apparatus (including the military), we need a better understanding of how regular citizens understand the state and manage the presences and absences of state-affiliated services, regulations, and forces amidst this resurgence. This kind of analysis will shed light upon why and how the current experience of state power feels qualitatively and spatially different to Egyptians than the Mubarak era, and ultimately will help us understand the durability of the current regime and possible contestations to it. Papers in this panel address how regular citizens support, contest, and live alongside or in spite of the post-2011 state in their everyday lives. Key areas of inquiry include: engagement with bureaucracy and its failures; initiatives for dealing with neoliberal state neglect in key resource provision; the “state-ification” of non-governmental institutions and social movements; emotional and affective responses to state actions and media; familial and ethical engagements with state institutions and ideologies; equivocal practices for both courting the promise and hedging the perils of state interventions; and everyday ideologies and usages of al-dawla, al-ḥukuma, or al-sulṭa. Contributions, including those of the discussants, assess the utility of predominant theories of the state across disciplines for understanding the past decade in Egypt. Further, the panel seeks to develop an emergent theory of living in the context of shifting state formations that captures how people make life amidst the resurgence and shifting nature of authoritarianism worldwide.
Political Science
  • Dr. Jessica Winegar -- Organizer, Discussant
  • Dr. Atef Said -- Discussant
  • Dr. Yasmeen Mekawy -- Presenter
  • Ms. Tessa Farmer -- Presenter
  • Ms. Mariam Taher -- Organizer, Chair
  • Yasmine Moataz -- Presenter
  • Ms. Tessa Farmer
    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.
  • Dr. Yasmeen Mekawy
    State media attempts to rewrite history have multiple political effects—they may to varying degrees distort collective memory, but they may also trigger nostalgic recollections of revolution and revive contentious discourses and debates. This paper analyzes the affective dynamics of state, mainstream, and independent media representations of the 2011 Egyptian uprising in popular media, including music videos, television series, novels, social media, and film. I examine depictions that center on the utopian moments of collective joy of protest, as well as more somber portrayals that challenge a romanticized view of resistance by dwelling on the defeat, despair, and devastating repercussions of the uprising. I argue that while nostalgic media can evoke both hope and hopelessness, both kinds of representations counter the state’s erasure of the revolution in public space as well as its resignification of the uprising as a criminal conspiracy in pro-regime media. The latter was most recently seen in season three of the popular Ramadan serial “The Choice,” which depicts the events of the 2013 protests and coup, and should be understood as the Sisi regime’s attempt to rewrite history by portraying the military leader as the true hero of the true revolution. However, nostalgic depictions also contribute to the construction of the revolution as an object or scene of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” in which the loss of the object is unbearable because the attachment is itself bound up with “the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world.” The nostalgia evoked in post-2011 media thus has an ambivalent political effect: on the one hand, it relegates to the revolution to the past, a moment in history that has passed and cannot be recovered. Nonetheless, despite the state’s attempt to control media production and narratives about the revolution and the coup, the enduring (nostalgic) attachment to and representation of the revolution as an authentic moment of national unity and self-determination preserves the collective memory of the revolution as a possible future basis for resistance. Discourses of nostalgia and loss are thus politically useful both for future oriented action, but also in the present as a means of acknowledging, channeling, and coping with political depression and despair. This paper draws on media analysis as well as fieldwork conducted with participants of the revolution in its aftermath.
  • Yasmine Moataz
    Religion has long catalyzed political mobilization. Scholars have questioned how and under what conditions religion compels people to challenge or reproduce social orders. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Islamic movements capitalized on their growing cultural power to acquire political power while promising a new social order. The new social order, scholars and leaders of the movement argue, is based on a legitimate Islamic democratic project that is in opposition to that of the modern/secular state. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork among rural dwellers in and around the village of al-Ab`adiyya Wālī Mizār in Fayyūm governorate from August 2011 until 2017 in this presentation, I will trouble this opposition. Focusing on the relationship between the Society of Muslim Brothers, the leading Islamist movement in Egypt, and the ‘state’ in al-Ab`adiyya, I argue that the counter-hegemonic strategies that the Society employed over the years inadvertently positioned them as vital agents of the ‘state.’ Members of the MB occupied critical positions in the village- and district-level bureaucracies provided welfare services through charity work, and ran the post-uprisings elections as, in lieu and/or on behalf of the ‘state.’ The paper thus contributes to an understanding of how religious movements are refracted through local contexts with specific social, political, and economic dynamics.