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Spreading Alerts in Egypt and Elsewhere

June 18, 2015
When people keep getting warnings but nothing ever happens... they just start ignoring them.

When people keep getting warnings but nothing ever happens… they just start ignoring them.

One of the interesting things about living as an expatriate in Egypt and India was that you received frequent warning messages telling you that the embassy has intelligence that something might happen and so you should limit yourself to necessary travel. We seemed to get one or two of these per week.

And nothing ever seemed to happen.

So travelers and expatriates alike routinely deleted alerts unread because the sheer quantity of them created a lack of credibility.

I was reminded of this recently because someone asked me about the advisability of using social media to send out alerts and warnings about health issues.

And I thought: one of the silly things institutions keep trying to do  is to seek to use social media to do the kinds of things that broadcast media do well:

  • disseminate information,
  • circulate advertising,
  • distribute propaganda

In broadcast media, you have a center where messages are created, and a mass audience whose only common feature may be the broadcast media they consume.

When we try to imagine social media performing the functions of a broadcast media, like sending alerts, the process immediately appears to be problematic because:

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Foreign Hands Duking It Out Over Democracy In Egypt (and Elsewhere)

June 12, 2015
Of course

Of course “foreign hands” seek to influence Egyptian politics. The question is: are they succeeding? Yes but not always the ways they want to, suggests a series of articles in the journal Democracy.

Whenever things are going wrong in Egypt, local political actors and conservative media pundits will blame it on “the invisible hands” of foreign agents–usually the US and Israel’s Zionist agenda, but sometimes Iran, and sometimes Saudi Arabia or Qatar, and every once in awhile a coalition of all of them (seriously–someone on state media offered that to account for the protests in 2011).

But they are not alone, of course. Political scientists are always trying to figure out how exactly events in a country are influenced by the foreign policy of global and regional neighbors.

What happens when “prodemocracy” countries and “antidemocracy” countries duke it out in someplace like, oh…Egypt?

That’s the topic of a special issue of the journal Democracy entitled “Democracy Promotion and the Challenges of Illiberal Regional Powers,” edited by Nelli Babayan and Thomas Risse.  The basic argument is that in addition to those countries promoting democracy–liberal powers–there are countervailing “illiberal powers” who want to see that democracy never takes root.

So in this corner, we have the United States and the European Union, championing democracy, and in the other corners we have players like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, who are portrayed as working actively to undermine democracy.

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New Book On Revolutionary Egypt (With A Chapter By Yours Truly)

June 9, 2015
I have a chapter in this new book on the Egyptian revolution.

I have a chapter in this new book on the Egyptian revolution.

In 2012 I traveled to Oxford University to participate in an interdisciplinary conference on the Egyptian revolution. “The Egyptian Revolution, One Year On: Causes, Characteristics and Fortunes” was a fascinating experience, as I joined scholars from many different disciplines struggling, as I was, for a theoretical language that would effectively describe and explain the revolution.

The conference turned into a book project, and the book “Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles,” edited by Reem Abou El-Fadl was released today by Routledge.

My own chapter, “Re-Envisioning Tahrir: The Changing Meanings of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution,” is about the ways different political actors have laid claim to Tahrir Square, how they interpreted and articulated its meanings, and how they discursively positioned it within their own visions of the continuing Egyptian revolution.

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Did Hosni Mubarak Play the US?

June 6, 2015
Was Hosni Mubarak a savvy politician who played the Bush administration? A new analysis says

Was Hosni Mubarak a savvy politician who played the Bush administration? A new analysis says “yes.”

Whatever one wants to say about Hosni Mubarak, one has to acknowledge that he was a savvy politician (whether you list this on the positive or negative side of the ledger depends on how you feel about politicians).

In a recent article in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs William Youmans argues that one of Mubarak’s successes was resisting the “Freedom Agenda”–the multifaceted push by the George W. Bush to push the Middle East toward greater democracy.

In 2005, the administration intensified efforts pressuring Egypt, a client state, to democratize. However, the US continued pursuing security cooperation with and providing military aid to Egypt.

Youmans claims that President Hosni Mubarak kept US reform efforts at bay by exploiting the inherent inconsistencies between the Bush administration’s democratization program, and its push for security in the war on terror.

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Citizenship Versus Denizenship

June 3, 2015

PhalanxWhat is the difference between people who live in a nation state as members with rights and responsibilities, and those who live there without accepting such rights and responsibilities?

The former is a citizen, the latter a…denizen?

One of the best lessons in citizenship I ever got came from sitting in on a lecture by Dr. John T. Swanson, Egyptologist, classicist and associate provost at American University in Cairo.

John described the way that Greek citizen soldiers–hoplites–fought during the Archaic and Classical periods (ca. 750–350 BC) in a formation called the phalanx.  The hoplites would line up in ranks in close order and lock their shields together, while the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The hoplites thus presented to the enemy a shield wall with a mass of spear points projecting from it, which made frontal assaults against the phalynx difficult.

John pointed out that the structure of the hoplite shields was such that they partially covered the soldier holding them, but also the weapon-holding arm of the next soldier in the formation. Safety required close cooperation and the complete assurance that no man in the phalynx would cut and run.

Citizenship thus required intense loyalty to one another. Your ability to rely on your fellow citizens was thus a matter of life and death.

Citizenship was, of course, gendered. Only adult men could be citizens and enjoy the rights–and fulfill the responsibilities–that came with citizenship.

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Al-Sisi On-Line: Egypt’s President On Social Media

May 29, 2015

alsisi_Google+

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak notoriously was anything but sophisticated in his understanding of social media. Seeing it as a toy available only to an educated and relatively affluent few, and failing to recognize the cross-platform capacities of social media with cell phones–which are ubiquitous in Egypt– he failed to engage with social media at all. Aside from the official government web sites, which were handled by technicians and clerks far removed from the president in the hierarchy, the president had no substantive social media presence.

President al-Sisi has certainly learned from the Arab Spring protesters the importance of a wide and robust social media presence. During the presidential campaign he established not only an official web site [www.sisi2014.com], but a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and accounts on Google+, and Instagram as well as a channel on YouTube. All but the campaign web site still exist, and all of these sites contain links to each other, forming a tight web economy.

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Corporate Mortality and the Culture of Failure

May 26, 2015
Sizes of some 30,000 companies traded publicly on US markets from 1950-2009, measured by their sales (controlling for inflation and GDP growth). The relatively rapid growth of smaller companies near the beginnings of their lifespans account for the ragged lower portion of the chart, as well as the relatively steep initial sales increases. As companies reach maturity, their sales tend to level off. Credit: Marcus Hamilton and Madeleine Daepp

Sizes of some 30,000 companies traded publicly on US markets from 1950-2009, measured by their sales (controlling for inflation and GDP growth). The relatively rapid growth of smaller companies near the beginnings of their lifespans account for the ragged lower portion of the chart, as well as the relatively steep initial sales increases. As companies reach maturity, their sales tend to level off.
Credit: Marcus Hamilton and Madeleine Daepp

What about failure?

When I was writing my article on entrepreneurship in Egypt (Peterson 2010), which I heavily cannibalized for Chapter Six of Connected in Cairo, one of the things in which I was particularly interested in was failure.

One of my key points was that when US companies fail at home, that’s just business. But when they fail while doing business in Egypt or comment on the failures of Egyptian entrepreneurs–and I suspect this holds in many countries–they blame it on the local “culture.” Egyptian business failure is blamed on a supposed poor work ethic, on institutions like wasta, and on a presumed “lack of entrepreneurial imagination.”

When I sought to contextualize the discourse of these businessmen with some general statistical data, I was shocked to find almost nothing on business failures.

Obviously all businesses dies sometime, and every entrepreneurial adventure is by definition a risk, yet there was not only no theoretical literature on entreprenuerial failure, there were no statistics. And none on business failures generally.

Well now there is (thanks in part to another anthropologist). It turns out the average publicly traded company in the US lasts only ten years.

The Life Span of Companies

EveLifespann more interesting, the interdisciplinary team of two physicists, an anthropologist and an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico discovered that companies die off at roughly the same rate regardless of size, what kinds of products or services they produce, how long they have been in business, or how well-established they are.

This finding runs counter to the few theories that exist in business literature, which either assume that newer, less established companies are more vulnerable, or that more established, less flexible companies are more vulnerable.

Causes of death include:

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