That democracy means different things to different people is a truism so obvious as to be banal. But the intercultural problem that raises remains perpetually interesting: what do people in different times and places mean when they say “democracy”?
An article in the most recent edition of the International Journal of Comparative Sociology looks at this question from the viewpoint of speakers who use the term a lot: autocratic leaders in North Africa, including Hosni Mubarak. The author, Brandon Gordon, of the University of Albany in the US, analyzes 1935 speeches given between 2000 and 2010 by heads of state from five North African countries: King Mohammed VI of Morocco, President ʿAbdulʿaziz Butefliqa of Algeria, President Zin al-ʿAbedin Ben ʿAli of Tunisia, Colonel Muʿammar al-Qadhafi of Libya, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Gordon’s data set includes 425 public speeches by Hosni Mubarak. Of these 171 (or 40%) mention “democracy.” There are 304 uses of the term in these 171 speeches.
Gordon draws on Erving Goffman’s concepts of frames, or “schemata of interpretation” that enable people to “locate, perceive, identify, and label” objects and experiences (1974: 21). Gordon likes the idea of framing because it focuses on the agency of the speaking actors, “the intentional ways that actors attempt to construct their self-presentations to gain the support of prospective constituents and actual or prospective resource providers.”
Autocrats, in other words, “need not be committed to a given cultural object in order to appropriate it.”
But Gordon wants to move beyond the obvious idea that autocrats use the language of democracy because it is culturally resonant with international institutions, powerful global actors, and local populations. He argues that these autocrats also sometimes attempt to challenge the global cultural discourses they are appropriating by articulating frames that explicitly contradict them.
That is, they “discursively identify themselves with democracy while simultaneously avoiding substantive democratization.”
So what vision of democracy is revealed in Mubarak’s speeches?
One of the things I teach my students about power in my Peoples of the World class at Miami University is that power rests in the ways that we discipline ourselves to some moral order. We make power structures real by speaking and acting as if they were real; we bring them into existence day-by-day, moment-by-moment through the ways we live our live.
People who seek power can never rely on force alone; they must appeal to cultural principles of good and evil, right and wrong, inclusion and exclusion, and order and disorder, to justify their actions and persuade citizens to discipline themselves to the political order they seek to create. Often these are articulated through images of embodied experiences: family life, health and illness, sports, earning a living and so forth.
This lesson is beautifully illustrated in a new article in American Ethnologist by my old friend Jessica Winegar. Jessica is the Harold H. and Virginia Anderson Associate Professor of Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University.
Entitled “A civilized revolution: Aesthetics and political action in Egypt,” Jessica focuses on what she calls aesthetic ordering, “collective action seeking to beautify public space and regulate behavior in it” which were “cultivated and extensively performed during the 18-day protest, and … came to dominate public action in the immediate aftermath of its success.”
In hindsight, the biggest problem with the extraordinary protests in Tahrir Square was the lack of a coherent plan for creating democracy once Mubarak stepped down.
I hear that all the time from journalists, Egyptian friends, fellow academics and friends. Certainly it is heartbreaking to watch documentaries about the uprisings and listen to excited young protesters insisting that once the regime falls, democracy will spontaneously flourish.
Much the same has been said about Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, Indignados and other social movements that insist they are expressing popular democracy but have failed to articulate clear plans for change.
Buried in the logic of this critique is the assumption that protesters should have clearly articulated goals. This assumes that they are heterodox voices trying to change the existing system to make it more democratic.
But is creating positive social change within the existing system what protesters are actually going for? Or could these protests mean something else? And if so, what?
One way to find out is to ask them.
Armine Ishkanian of the London School of Economic and Marlies Glasius of the University of Amsterdam interviewed core activists in street protests in Cairo, as well as in London, Athens and Moscow in order to understand what these protesters expected of “democracy.”
The Bibliography resource on the Egyptian uprisings has been updated.
The bibliography now includes over 875 references.
Updates include articles from such journals as Digest of Middle East Studies, Information, Communication & Society, Journal of North African Studies, New Media & Society, South African Journal of International Affairs, and many others.
It also now includes books like Reem Abou El-Fadl’s Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles, Brecht De Smet’s A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt: Gramsci, Vygotsky, and the Egyptian Revolution, and The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform by Jason Brownlee, Tarek E. Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds among others.
Third World Quarterly has a special collection of articles on “The Arab Spring: Five Years After.”
The collection of six papers is edited by Richard Falk, of Princeton, and Bülent Aras, of Solenci University.
There are, alas, no articles on Egypt specifically (as there are on Turkey and Syria), but several of the articles touch on Egypt and issues relevant to its 2011 uprisings, and their aftermath.
Here are the abstracts:
I had dinner with Robin Wright this week after she delivered the 2016 Grayson-Kirk lecture at Miami University.
Egypt was one of seven countries she discussed (along with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia), after a lengthy description of what she saw as the main issue in the region.
One way to see the changes in government wrought by the Egyptian uprisings is as a set of military coups, she said.
The first coup occurred when the military refused to open fire on Egyptian citizens, ultimately resulting in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak.
The second was the military ouster by force of the government of of Muhammad Morsi.
During the lecture, she emphasized that Egypt’s politics have “gyrated” since the uprisings, ultimately returning to autocracy. Yet the underlying problems that led to the uprisings have never been resolved. The economy continues its downward spiral, youth unemployment continues to grow and the willingness of the government to violate the constitution in the name of security creates an atmosphere of fear and anger.
“Is the real revolution yet to come?” she asked.