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Reading The Writing on the Wall

June 4, 2021

It’s been several years since I’ve seen anything interesting written about Egyptian graffiti, and most of that has been retrospective. Mona Abaza’s fascinating “Repetitive repertoires,” written in 2017, summarized the contemporary issue: what hasn’t been destroyed by the regime has become commodified and commercialized.

But this week I discovered an new article–dated this year–by Bolette Blaagaard and Nina Grønlykke Mollerup in the International Journal of Cultural Studies that suggested some ways we can still study graffiti productively. This made me curious: aside from my gut feelings, what is the state of scholarship on this topic?

I discovered that there are 36 academic books, chapters or articles about graffiti in the Egyptian revolution in my bibliography of the Egyptian revolution. Interest in graffiti seems to have built from 2011 until it peaked in 2015 with eight publications, then declined until, from 2018 to the present, I have found only one publication per year.

For those interested, I compile them here, complete with links and abstracts where available.

2011

El Zein, Rayya and Alex Ortiz. 2011. Signs of the Times: the Popular Literature of Tahrir Protest Signs, Graffiti, and Street Art. Shahadat, April.

Knecht, Eric. 2011. Far Outside Cairo: A Graffiti Campaign to Denounce the SCAF. Jadaliyya, Dec. 23.

Smith, Christine. 2011. Politics and art: graffiti art in Cairo, Egypt. anthrologiesproject.org, 1 December.

2012

Boraïe, Sherif (ed.) 2012. Wall Talk: Graffiti of the Egyptian Revolution. Cairo: Zeitouna.

Demerdash, Nancy. 2012. Consuming Revolution: Ethics, Art and Ambivalence in the Arab Spring. New Middle Eastern Studies 2

Findlay, Cassie. 2012. Witness and trace: January 25 graffiti and public art as archive. Interface: a journal for and about social movements 4 (1): 178 – 182.

Lindsey, Ursula. 2012. “Art in Egypt’s Revolutionary Square.” Middle East Research and Information Project.

Al-Fann Midan is one of many artistic initiatives that have sprung up since the uprising that began on January 25, 2011. Although the legal framework in Egypt has not changed (Emergency Law and laws against defaming religion, the army and the state remain in place), what Egyptians call the January 25 revolution has undoubtedly ushered in a new sense of freedom, as well as a determination to use public space to congregate and to connect, and to demonstrate support for the uprising through cultural activism.

Schielke, Samuli and Jessica Winegar. 2012. The Writing on the Walls of Egypt. Middle East Report 42(625). 

2013

Abaza, Mona. 2013. “Mourning, narratives and interactions with the martyrs through Cairo’s graffiti.” E-International Relations 7.

Abdelmagid, Yakein. 2013. The emergence of the Mona Lisa Battalions: Graffiti art networks in post-2011 Egypt. Review of Middle East Studies 47(2): 172–182

During and after the January 2011 revolutionary protests Egypt witnessed the surge and spread of graffiti and street art activities. The story of graffiti in Egypt is usually rendered as voices of dissent, modes of symbolic resistance, or expressive force of anger, solidarity, and commemoration. While it is true that the collapse of the state security services and the liberation of public space after the 2011 had fostered the growth of artistic revolutionary expressions, the story of artistic production implies more than politics of cultural representation. Rather, these artistic expressions are usually grounded in the formations, expansions, and contractions of social groups that keep on negotiating their identities, networks, capacities and limitations. In this article, I follow the trajectory of one graffiti group, Kataib ai-Mona Lisa (Mona Lisa Battalions), that started forming by the summer of 2012, to review how they make sense of their worlds, negotiate their desires within objective constraints, and conjure alternative cultures, through continuous perseverance that involves hope, desire and euphoria, as well as failure, frustration and breakdown.

Gröndahl, Mia. 2013. Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press.

Hamdy, Basma, Don Stone Karl, and Mona Eltahawy. 2013. Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution. Berlin, Germany: From Here to Fame.

Nicoarea, Georgiana. 2013 “Graffiti and Cultural Production in Contemporary Cairo:  Articulating Local and Global Elements of Popular Culture” in Journal Romano-Arabica Journal XIII: 261-272.

Abstract. The recent uprisings in the Arab World are indicators of continuous contestation of authoritarian regimes, a continuing process that leaves its mark on the field of cultural production. Revolutionary graffiti represent a dynamic self-expression practice of public opinion in Cairo, Egypt, during and in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution. As a medium of both communication and subversion, residing at the intersection of art and transgression, graffiti largely serve to re-appropriate the public space and their popularity is mainly due to the themes addressed and their relevance to issues of everyday life. But can this re-appropriation be seen as more than just a socio-political territory marking of the city? Can graffiti be integrated into a discussion about culture in the Arab World?

2014

El-Hawary, Nouran Al-Anwar. 2014. The graffiti of Mohamed Mahmoud and the politics of transition in Egypt: The transformation of space, sociality and identities. MA Thesis. American University in Cairo.

This study is concerned with the spatial transformations taking place in Mohamed Mahmoud that branches from Midan el-Tahrir; the official site of the Egyptian January 25 Revolution. Since the revolution, this street has witnessed a great deal of violence during several bloody clashes between protesters and security forces. It has also become famous for the dissenting graffiti murals wrapping the walls of it entrance. By conducting ethnography of this block of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, my study focuses on the residents and shop owners in the area, who I frame as the graffiti’s ‘unintended audience,’ to understand how these spatial and political transformations have affected this space, the residents’ experience, social relations and sense of belonging. I argue that these new spatial transformations brought by the revolution have introduced an alternative public space, inviting a peculiar array of incidents and distinctive social interactions in which people deploy the mode of speaking in their subversion of many ambivalences in the course of troubled political transition.

Klaus, Enrique. 2014. “Graffiti and urban revolt in Cairo.” Built Environment 40(1): 14-33.

Lennon, John. 2014. Assembling a revolution: Graffiti, Cairo and the Arab Spring. Cultural Studies Review 20(1): 237–276.

An essay is presented on the impact of the revolution that ended the presidency of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and diminished the constriction of democratic process under the Supreme Council of the Military Forces (SCAF). It explores the commentary of graffiti writers through wall paintings throughout Cairo. The author cites the infamous street artist Mohammad Fahmy or Ganzeer, who made a grafitto that reflects the political divide between the youth movement and a city endangered of destruction.

Nicoarea, Georgiana. 2014 “Cairo’s New Colors: Rethinking Identity in the Graffiti of the Egyptian Revolution” Journal Romano-Arabica Journal XIV: 247-262.

Abstract. The wave of uprisings and mass protests that took place in Egypt since January 25th  2011 has determined the rise of a new dimension of social freedom and the flourishing of graffiti could be considered as an aspect of this newly conquered freedom and a mark of a contentious appropriation of  public space. The writings on the streets of Cairo are just one of the elements of a vibrant, youth managed and relational protest art that has its point of departure in the recent social and historical context. The political and social changes the Arab World underwent are accompanied by a re-setting of national identity representations, an ongoing process reflected in context specific artistic products and graffiti is a very productive example in the contemporary Egyptian context. Graffiti, has been defined as a medium of communication, situated at the intersection of art and language with style, color, placement and form acting as “visual modifiers” (Philips 1999: 39). This article analyses how symbols and colors are used as modifying elements in the graffiti of revolutionary Cairo, within a  process of memorialization and reinterpretation of identity

Nicoarea, Georgiana 2014. Interrogating the dynamics of Egyptian graffiti: From neglected marginality to image politics. Revista Română de Studii Eurasiatice x(1–2): 171–186.

Summary/Abstract: The January 25th 2011 Revolution that interrupted the thirty years long reign of Hosni Mubarak brought about, among social and political changes, a series of transformations pertaining to the cultural panorama of Egypt. Graffiti is one of the cultural practices greatly influenced by the revolutionary context, to the extent that it has come to be regarded as the art of the revolution, a most revealing and trustworthy medium of artistic expression and political participation. As revolutionary Egyptian graffiti began to be scrutinized in academic works under its many aspects, little has been said about its pre-revolutionary journey. This article puts together a brief history of modern Egyptian graffiti analyzing the dynamics that shapes both current and past manifestations within the scope of creating a more detailed perspective, away from the oversimplifying gaze that reduces the practice to its revolutionary dimension or underlines its exoticism.

Pierandrei, Elisa. 2014. Urban Cairo. La primavera araba dei graffiti. Rimini: Informant.

2015

Abaza, Mona. 2015. “Graffiti and the the Reshaping of Public Space in Cairo: Tensions Between Political Struggles and Commercialization.” In Grafficity: Visual Practices and Pontestations in Urban Space. In Eva Youkhana and Larissa Forster, ed. Pp. 267-94. Paderborg: Wilhelm Fink.

Abou-Setta, Amal. 2015. Revisiting communities of practice: The case of Egyptian graffitists. Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning 5(2): 135–151.

The Egyptian Revolution gave birth to an intriguing community of graffiti artists that have been going through successful social learning processes. The naturally formed learning groups provided a fertile substance for social learning research and called for a comparison between the nature and elements of social learning and those of the learning taking place in the more traditional settings in an attempt to magnify factors of success. The purpose of this paper is to draw upon Wenger’s (1998) theory of Communities of Practice (CoP) and examines three major elements of learning in relation to it; namely, motivation, social practice, and the role of experts.

de Ruiter, Adrienne. 2015. Imaging Egypt’s political transition in (post-)revolutionary street art: on the interrelations between social media and graffiti as media of communication. Media, Culture & Society, 37(4), 581–601.

This article offers a conceptualization of the interrelations between street art and social media in (post-)revolutionary Cairo by focusing on the reasons as to why certain politically engaged young people in Egypt select graffiti as their medium for political expression in a time in which many other media of communication, most notably social media, are available. It contends that the particular appeal of street art for the graffiti artist lies in its ability to function simultaneously as a medium of communication and a contentious performance, combined with the particular power of the aesthetic to change conceptions of social reality of the audience through what Rancière has called the ‘(re)distribution of the sensible’. Graffiti and street art thus present artists with singular possibilities to express their political ideas and appeal to the public because street art combines the power of framing, the power of performance and the power of imagination.

Hamdy, Basma. 2015. Walls of freedom: Process and methodologies. Street Art & Urban Creativity Scientific Journal 1(1): 67–79.

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 produced a massive transformation in the perception of urban space and the interrelated dynamic of people, their bodies, and the language within that space. Cultural expressions such as caricature galleries, makeshift exhibitions, chants, poetry readings, and memorial spaces defined the square as a place where activism and art intersected weaving a lyrical tapestry of the revolution. The most prominent of these expressions was the street art of the revolution where the act of painting on walls re-territorialized the city making it the revolution’s barometer by registering the shifting political discourses as they unfolded. Documenting and preserving these visual expressions was the driving force behind a three-year book project, entitled Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution, which narrates the revolution through striking images of the art that transformed Egypt’s walls into a visual testimony of bravery and resistance. This article will serve to offer a detailed analysis of the methodologies and tools used in creating the book as well as managing, financing, and collecting all of its necessary components. Primarily focused on qualitative visual research methodologies, the book is layered into three components or levels: one level is a visual journey of the revolution through a chronological image-timeline. The categorization and indexing of images by artist, photographer, date and translation was an important function allowing quick access to images visually placing them in a larger continuum. The second level is a reference-based timeline of events where a connection between the art and the historical/political events is presented. The third level involves the essays and analysis supplementing the timeline with historical implications, political and social contexts and personal voices collected from artists and activists.

Nicoarea, Giorgiana. 2015. “The Contentious Rhetoric of the Cairene Walls: When Graffiti Meets Popular Poetry.” Romano-Arabica XV: 99-111.

Abstract: The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 had among the common features of political popular expression in the public space the overwhelming presence of poetry to which Elliot Colla attributes a prominent role from the beginning of the uprising being not an ornament but a soundtrack contributing to the revolutionary act(Colla 2012:47). The political graffiti of Cairo, a cultural practice brought about and fueled by the revolution is not exempted, with poetry acting as the sound recorded by graffiti, transformed at the same time into a rhetorical device. This article will present an analysis of a selected corpus of graffiti featuring revolutionary imagery and fragments of poetry, focusing on the specificity of the re-appropriation of literary fragments used as elements of a revolutionary, contentious rhetoric, and the creation of an inter-textual topicality that transcends historical contexts. We will follow, at the same time, the relationship between poetry and graffiti in order to clarify the mechanisms of a lyrical dimension of Egyptian protest graffiti.

Sharaf, Radwa Othmaan. 2015. Graffiti as a means of protest and documentation in the Egyptian revolution. African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review 5(1): 152–161.

The graffiti of the recent Egyptian revolution provides rich insight into the details, subjects, and symbols of the struggle and its importance to the Egyptian people. Over the last four years, graffiti in Cairo has de-veloped from largely apolitical writings on walls into complex political images that document the climactic fall of a powerful regime. From the chants and calls of the public for Hosni Mubarak to resign, to the introduction of a military council, presidential elections, and the even-tual overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, Egyptian graffiti has recorded popular sentiments held by many Egyptians and traced the dramatic chain of events. Graffiti’s account of the revolution has often varied from mainstream media, demonstrating its ability to provide alterna-tive, yet popular, accounts of the situation. This photo essay discusses seven revolution-related graffiti images that appeared on Cairo streets between January 2011 and June 2013. Each generated considerable discussion within the city at the time of creation, and by their inclusion here, I hope that they continue to spark conversation on the situation in Egypt on and beyond Cairo’s streets.

Perrin, Stephanie Jane. 2015. “Re-Defining Revolution: A Case Study of Women and Graffiti in Egypt.” PhD diss., Simon Fraser University, School for International Studies.

Like any social phenomenon, revolutions are gendered. The male tilt of revolutionary processes and their histories has produced a definition of revolution that consistently fails women. This thesis aims to redefine revolution to incorporate women’s visions of societal transformation and the full achievement of their rights and freedoms. I argue that approaches to women’s revolutionary experiences are enriched by focusing on the roles of culture, consciousness, and unconventional revolutionary texts. Egypt is examined as a case study with a focus on the nation’s long history of women’s activism that took on new forms in the wave of socio-political upheaval since 2011. Using interdisciplinary, visual analysis, I examine graffiti created by women, or that depict women between 2011 and 2015 to reveal how gender was publicly re-imagined during a period of flux for Egyptian society. The historical and visual analysis contribute to a new definition of revolution, one that strives to achieve the total transformation of society by disrupting gendered consciousness to finally secure rights and freedoms for all.

Rizk, Nagla. 2015. “Revolution, Graffiti and Copyright: The Cases of Egypt and Tunisia” African Journal of Information and Communication 16: 48-59.

During and after the Arab uprisings in 2011, there was an outburst of creative production in Egypt and Tunisia, serving as a means to counter state-controlled media and to document alternative narratives of the revolutions. One of the most prominent modes of creative output was graffiti. Within an access to knowledge (A2K) framework that views graffiti as an important knowledge good, this article outlines the author’s findings from research into perspectives towards revolutionary graffiti held by graffiti artists and graffiti consumers in Egypt and Tunisia. The main quest of this work is to identify a copyright regime best suited to the priorities of both the revolutionary graffiti artists and the consumers of this art, cognisant also of the possibilities offered by increasingly widespread use of, and access to, online digital platforms. The research looked at how artists and consumers relate to the revolutionary graffiti, how they feel about its commercialisation, and how they feel about the idea of protecting it with copyright. Based on the research findings, the author concludes that an A2K-enabling approach to preservation and dissemination of the revolutionary graffiti – and an approach that would best cater to the needs of both the artists and the consumers – is provided by the Creative Commons (CC) suite of flexible copyright licences.

2016

Abaza, Mona. 2016. “The field of graffiti and street art in post-January 2011 Egypt.” In Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, pp. 358-373. Routledge.

2017

Abaza, M (2017) Repetitive repertoires: How writing about Cairene graffiti has turned into a serial monotony. In: Avramidis, K, Tsilimpounidi, M (eds) Graffiti and Street Art: Reading, Writing and Representing the City. London: Routledge, pp. 177–194.

I hope to engage dialectically with the ethical paradoxes that many have encountered in post-January 2011 Egypt in the ‘field of cultural production’ (Bourdieu 2002 [1993]), but in particular in street art, under a withering revolutionary moment that is spiralling into a collective despair. The aim of this chapter is to trace the transmutations in the field itself, which have been affected not only by the major political shifts through the pervasive militarization of urban life since the military takeover in 2013, but also by the very commodification of the revolution and the appropriation of a myriad of symbols, languages and icons by a counter-revolution. Graffiti witnessed an unprecedented boom at the beginning of the revolution, reaching a peak around 2012–2013, while continuing to flourish until 2014. Graffiti during the early years of the revolution dramatically told and retold the stories of the violent confrontations, killing and martyrdoms that took place in the streets. From day one, the painted walls of Cairo were vehemently wiped out by the authorities, to be instantly repainted by even more irreverent and mesmerizing graffiti that insult the police forces and the symbols of the state. It was the rapid pace of the whitening and repainting that created a significant public of followers, photographers and observers of the street. Graffiti then witnessed a definite decline with the military takeover in 2013. Nevertheless, not only graffiti but many symbols that were circulated in Tahrir (such as flags, badges, gadgets, Facebook cartoons, t-shirts) underwent a swift commodification and commercialization. From day one, graffiti was the field that attracted the most international attention, leading to an over-saturation in this form of cultural production. The current paradox lies in the fact that the branding and celebration of ‘revolutionary art’ on the global scale allowed the entrance of new young artists/ players in the cultural field. These ‘players’ have gained international public visibility, but their graffiti did not escape obvious commodification and reification through curators, art galleries and media attention. Perhaps too the criminalization of graffiti after the military takeover was one of the reasons why graffiti was picked up by secluded spaces such as galleries, cultural centres, universities and museums.

Awad, S (2017) Documenting contested memory: Symbols in changing city space of Cairo. Culture & Psychology 23(2): 234–254.

This article looks at how symbols in the urban environment are intentionally produced and modified to regulate a community’s collective memory. Our urban environment is filled with symbols in the form of images, text, and structures that embody certain narratives about the past. Once those symbols are introduced into the city space they take a life span of their own in a continuous process of reproduction and reconstruction by different social actors. In the context of the city space of Cairo in the five years following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, I will look on the one side at efforts of activists to preserve the memory of the revolution through graffiti murals and the utilization of public space, and from the other, the authority’s efforts to replace those initiatives with its own official narrative. Building on the concept of collective memory, as well as Bartlett’s studies of serial reproductions and theorization of reconstructive remembering, I will follow the reproduction of different symbols in the city and how they were perceived and remembered by pedestrians.

Naguib, Saphinaz Amal. 2017. Engaged ephemeral art: Street art and the Egyptian Arab Spring. Transcultural Studies 2: 53–88.

The wave of uprisings known as the Arab Spring that swept over the Middle East and North Africa from December 2010 to early 2013 left its imprint on political and social life in the countries concerned. This ephemeral moment also marked a change in various forms of artistic expression. Street art, graffiti, and calligraffiti are among the most striking art forms of this short period. Artists recorded and commented on events and developments in the political situation. They drew upon their people’s cultural memory to impart their messages and expressed dissension, civil disobedience, and resistance by combining images and scripts. This article is about the materiality of visual art and the translation of political contestation into street art, graffiti, and calligraffiti in Egypt. It probes the ways slogans were visualised, drawn, and inscribed on the walls of the urban space in Cairo and then disseminated on the internet and social media. Translation relates here to transcultural contacts and the interplay between texts, images, and contexts from the vantage point of intermediality. 

Taş, Hakkı. 2017. “Street arts of resistance in Tahrir and Gezi.” Middle Eastern Studies 53(5): 802-819.

Abstract: With the tremendous visibility of popular mobilization in the last decade, scholars have increasingly directed their attention to the streets to examine the dynamics of power and resistance. Among emerging venues of politics, this study examines street art and graffiti as a performance of resistance in the 2011 Tahrir Revolution and 2013 Gezi Protests in Egypt and Turkey, respectively. As re-appropriation of the urban landscape and modes of self-expression, street art and graffiti lie at the intersection of politics, space, and identity. Inspired by James C. Scott’s concept of ‘arts of resistance’, this study takes up these ‘street arts of resistance’ as revealing the hidden transcript, namely, the self-disclosure of subordinates under the politics of disguise. While unpacking that subversive power, this study rests on its claim that street art and graffiti not only seek to represent, but also to perform and interject. Thereafter, it examines how these modes of visual culture interrupt time, space, and the self, along with their respective effects.

2018

Majid, Asif. 2018. “Graffiti during and after Egypt’s most recent revolution.” In Peterson, Christian Philip, William M. Knoblauch and Michael Loadenthal, eds. Routledge History of World Peace Since 1750 (Pp. 208-226). Routledge.

My argument is twofold: 1) Egyptian graffiti embodies the three central tenets of the revolution, and 2) it is improvisatory in both artistic form and political content. In reflecting the revolution’s three central tenets—economic, political, and social justice—graffiti uses Egypt’s urban walls to amplify, challenge, and reinscribe the revolution’s demands. Artistic calls for economic justice (“bread”) expose the longstanding and growing gap between rich and poor, the subalternity of children who live on urban streets, and ongoing contestation about Egypt’s future. Demands for political justice (“freedom”) unveil dissonant opinions about the Egyptian military, the decentralized nature with which graffiti was employed, and the social vulnerability required for political freedom. Calls for social change (“social justice”)draw attention to the gendered façade of perfection around revolutionary euphoria that elides sexual harassment issues and the policing of women’s bodies such as through so-called“virginity tests” administered by the military, the historic cross-religious resonances of the revolution, and the need for common spaces of memorial.Second, graffiti, by its very nature, is improvisatory both in artistic form and political content. By this, I mean that the actual act of what to spray and how to do so takes influence from both structural macro-level issues (i.e., economic inequality, mass corruption, and sexual harassment) and immediate micro-level concerns (i.e., needing a memorial to honor protesters who died supporting the revolution and reclaiming specific artworks after state-sponsored censorship). Both the macro and the micro dovetail in the making of graffiti,where choices of location, symbolism, and artistic form constitute particular responses to general economic, political, and social configurations of the Egyptian state. In so doing,artist–activists transformed the economic and socio-political goals of the revolution into an improvisational assertion that the creation of beauty, too, can shape Egyptian life

2019

Hammad, Mahmoud. 2019. Graffiti and Political Sarcasm as Tools for Political participation in Egypt. Euromesco Policy Brief, 105. European Institute of the Mediterranean.

This article aims to examine the features of the development of political activism, witha focus on political sarcasm and graffiti. The first part of this policy brief analyses the political activism in Egypt since 2004 and its increased resort to social media. The second part examines the transformation of activism and a gradual development of its tools, from a more “traditional” use of online tools (i.e. posting and moderating a debateon social media) to adoption of more captivating tactics – political sarcasm and graffiti.Subsequently, the article discusses the legal developments in Egypt related to control of political activism in the country. Lastly, the article provides some recommendations on how to ensure safer space for online users and promote and safeguard street artists

2020

Bardhan, Soumia, and Karen A. Foss. 2020. “Revolutionary Graffiti and Cairene Women.” In Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring, Stephan, Rita  and Mounira M. Charrad, eds. (Pp. 267-282) NYU Press.

2021

Blaagaard, Bolette B, and Nina Grønlykke Mollerup. 2021. “On Political Street Art as Expressions of Citizen Media in Revolutionary Egypt.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 24(3): 434–453.

This article traces the intersecting and interstitial spaces of political aesthetics in political street art featuring key activists of the Egyptian uprising of 2011–13 as well as the following struggle. We argue that the complex political expressions displayed in the images as recontextualized and embodied afford the images different roles in citizens’ political and social struggles. We develop three modalities of political street art – emplacement, travelling and conversation – that allow different works different roles in the political formation of subjectivity. In order to understand street art’s role in political subjectivity formation, this article applies visual discursive analyses to two expressions of political street art: first, the stencil of a blue bra, referring to sitt al-banat, a woman who was stripped naked in public as she was beaten unconscious by Egyptian military soldiers; second, the mural of then jailed activist Sanaa Seif in the Copenhagen borough of Christiania.

Special Issue: “Religious Dynamics in Post-Revolutionary Egypt”

September 11, 2019

Add a subheadingThe social science journal Social Compass released a special issue in French and English on “Religious dynamics in post-revolutionary Egypt” (or “Dynamiques religieuses dans l’Égypte post-révolutionnaire” for Francophones).

The issue includes an introduction by Gaétan Du Roy and Séverine Gabry-Thienpont, and articles in French by Clément Steuer and Costantino Paonessa, and in English by Sebastian Elsässer and Mina Ibrahim.

The abstracts are as follows:

Steuer, Clement. 2019. Qu’est-ce qu’un parti fondé sur une base religieuse ? Interprétations concurrentes d’une catégorie juridique dans le contexte politique égyptien. 66(3): 318-332.

In Egypt, the ‘political parties with a religious basis’ are explicitly prohibited by law since 1977. However, this ban has had a negligible impact on political life, because administrative jurisprudence has since long diminished its scope, by reducing the question of the religious basis of a party to that of the confession of its members. Nevertheless, the secular opponents of the Islamists have repeatedly claimed, since the constitutionalization of this ban in January 2014, that it should be interpreted more strictly. This article first recalls how the Islamist and secular camps emerged during the political and constitutional struggles of the 2011–2013 era, before examining the competing interpretations of the notion of ‘religious party’, such as made by the administrative jurisprudence, by supporters of the ban on Islamist parties, and by the Islamists themselves.

Elsässer, Sebastian. 2019. The Coptic divorce struggle in contemporary Egypt. Social Compass 66(3): 333-351.

Since his accession in 2012, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II has initiated a number of reforms within the church, including a major overhaul of the church court system and the introduction of more liberal provisions concerning divorces. This article explores the historical development and current state of divorce and divorce law within the Coptic Orthodox Community in Egypt and the complex interactions between Coptic citizens, their church, and state courts. Scrutinising interviews and press statements by the new pope and senior clerics, it investigates their ideas of Coptic family law and their justification for changing the Church’s approach to the divorce issue. It also takes the perspective of divorced Copts and looks at the myriad paths people have been following in search of legal and administrative loopholes, and assesses the impact that the new regulations will have on their lives.

Paonessa, Constantion. 2019. L’après 2013 des confréries soufies égyptiennes : allégeance au pouvoir, dissensions internes et « renouveau du discours religieux ». Social Compass 66(3): 352-365.

This article discusses the role of some Sufi orders and some of their sheikhs who are members of the Higher Council of Egyptian Sufi Brotherhoods in the project to ‘renew religious discourse’ (tajdīd khitab al-dīnī) launched by President al-Sissi in 2015. In particular, it raises the question of the extent to which contemporary Sufi ulemas reclaim concepts belonging to the Islamic mystical tradition, such as that of tajdīd (renewal), in order to adapt it to the needs of the country’s political agenda. Finally, based on the case of the al-’Azamiya brotherhood, this article aims to question the role played by Sufi identity as a factor of political mobilization.

Ibrahim, Mina. 2019. A minority at the bar: Revisiting the Coptic Christian (in-)visibility. Social Compass 66(3): 366-382.

How do Coptic Christians make sense of a predominantly negated practice such as drinking and selling alcohol? What do they do when they are forced or voluntarily desire to join alcoholic spaces that are refused by ruling religious and social forces? In this article, I build on the unorthodoxy of beer and liquor as per the hegemonic Coptic Orthodox Church tradition of khidma in Egypt by pointing out to completely overlooked interactions that Coptic Christians have at alcoholic spaces. I argue that experiences of Coptic Christians at a bar complicate how and where Copts strive for a ‘visibility’ (i.e. recognition) in a country of a Muslim majority. Especially with the brutal crackdown on the post-2011 street activism following the 2013 coup, predominantly negated venues of entertainment and fun give us hints to important meanings of agency in the lives of members of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.

Image by abdelazizmagdy40 via Pixabay.

The ’60 Minutes’ as-Sisi Interview as Media Event

January 29, 2019

untitled design(1)“What was he thinking?” is the question people keep asking about General as-Sisi’s Jan. 6 interview on 60 Minutes.

It was interesting to watch the interview, which was heavily edited and used strong anti-regime voices to contextualize as-Sisi’s comments, but even more interesting to look at how the metadiscourses generated by the interview turned it into a media event.

The term “media event” is most commonly used as a synonym for Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudo-event” an event or activity conducted for the purpose of media publicity, that is, something that wouldn’t really be an event if the media were not present. I prefer to use Boorstin’s term and to reserve media event for news stories that become events by virtue of their mediated impact.

In the largest sense, of course, all news stories are communicative acts in which someone says something to someone through some medium with some effect, and these communicative acts take place within communicative events–recognition of which is the basis of the ethnography of communication. But communicative acts and events are governed by sets of norms and genre rules that give them a sense of standardization and regularity. For a news story, one of these norms is that news is a flow of information about something. News is usually understood as a channel through which information flows, rather than an event in itself.

Except when the publication of the information itself becomes news, becomes something that must itself be reported. This can happen because an investigative story explodes into the mediascape and into public discourse, becoming the basis for other news stories, rebuttals, investigations, dinner conversations, web page trolling, memes, and so forth.

But it isn’t always serendipitous. Media producers often actively seek to create conditions for stories break out into the public sphere.

So in using media event to refer to the as-Sisi interview, I am writing about how the news interview, itself a performance with specific genre characteristics, became itself the basis of news stories and commentaries, before fading into relative obscurity as most media events eventually do. In this sense, the news interview with as-Sisi became a media event as it became reframed by 60 Minutes, CBS News and others as “the story Egypt didn’t want you to see”, and as its real or purported effect in the world becomes a story in itself.

There are multiple overlapping levels of mediated political performances taking place here. As a heuristic, I’ll identify four:

Read more…

The Internet & Democracy: Have We Learned Anything?

December 18, 2018

Connected In Cairo headersIn the first wake of the Egyptian uprisings, and their framing as a “Facebook” revolution or Twitter revolution or “social media revolution” there was a lot of Utopian discourse about the power of social media to create political transformation from authoritarianism to democracy.

Where are we now in our understanding of the role of the Internet in social movements, democratization and political transformation?

The Internet is a “great missed opportunity” for democratic political action and democratization, argues Stephen Coleman in his book Can the Internet Strengthen Democracy? (Polity 2017). Coleman’s “missed opportunity” is largely seen as a failure by governments–especially in democratic countries –to use the Internet to reconfigure political practice and connect with citizens.

Those citizens themselves, on the other hand, have adapted their own political practices to the digital era in many ways. Coleman insists that citizens are not masses being affected by technologies of communication but active agents who think about
political agendas and make judgments.

One of the great strengths of Coleman’s work is thus that he abandons technological determinism–“what is the Internet doing to democracy?”–in favor of asking what political actors are doing with the Internet. His answer: not enough.

The core of Coleman’s argument is in Chapter 3, where he lays out six strategies through which the Internet enables–or can enable–citizens to effectively engage in politics:

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Getting Into Grad School

December 11, 2018

Application lettersThis might seem like an odd post because it is only tangentially related to Egypt. But it is based on lessons learned while I was the director of the graduate program in Sociology-Anthropology at the American University in Cairo. These lessons were learned as I went through the process of weeding more than a hundred applications to our graduate program every year, and these lessons helped me advise our students on how to present themselves so that their substantial accomplishments will show to the best effect. And it worked: many of the students I advised got into top notch graduate schools in Europe, North America and Asia.

I thought about this because a student asked me for a letter of recommendation to a graduate program recently, and as part of the package she sent me her “cover letter.” That’s what she called it. And that’s what it read like. And I e-mailed her and suggested she make some substantive changes to her application letter.

I’ve given this talk a hundred times, but I’ve never written it down before. Here it is:

A letter to graduate school is different than a letter applying to an undergraduate program. When you write to a graduate program you applying to a specific group of specialists in a field of research and asking them to invest a great deal of time and money in you, instead of one of the many other applicants for the program. Your application letter is not a cover letter for your c.v.; it is an advertisement of what you have to offer, an explanation to busy graduate faculty of why you should be one of the handful of students they accept into their program this year.

To that end, I usually advise students that a letter to a grad program should serve at least four functions:

  1. First, it should provide a hook, something that makes you stand out.
  2. Second, it should explain and expand on the accomplishments that are just bullet points on the resume.
  3. Third, it should explain not just why you want to study the field you are applying to, but why you want to study that subject with them, in their particular graduate program.
  4. And finally, it should speak to what you will bring to the program.

Let’s take each of these separately.

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Changing Its Tune

December 4, 2018

Back in 2012 I blogged about MidEast Tunes (mideasttunes.com) one of the largest Arabic music sites in the world. I just updated my old post to fix the broken links–they changed their url from mideasttunes.org to mideasttunes.com)–and discovered that the site has gotten bigger and better.

Founded in Beirut in 2010 by an organization called MidEast Youth, the site is another of the myriad efforts to leverage social media as a tool for progressive social change in the Arab World and beyond.

Now you can create playlists, share what you are listening to Facebook and other social media, and even listen off-line.

They also have an app, so you can be mobile with your music.

Get it on the app store
Get it on Google play

Hacking the Homeland Hack

November 27, 2018

Untitled designEarlier this year I published a post describing how back in 2015 three artists  — Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Stone — were hired to create background graffiti for the sets of the TV show Homeland, and decided to express their disdain for the way the show represents Arabs in general, and Muslim Arabs in particular, by inserting messages that broke the fourth wall and critiqued the program in which they appeared.

The artists took credit for the act as soon as the show had aired, and it came to be called “the Homeland Hack,” and much celebrated by activists/artists.

So celebrated that German artists David Krippendorf decided to do a “homage” to the hack. He created an installation called “This Show Does Not Represent the View of the Artist,” a small series of silkscreens that reproduce the graffiti from the hack in gold on silk. This art is in line with much of Krippendorf’s other work, which involves appropriating images from films and media and recontextualizing them to expose and rearticulate  the ideologies that pervade them.

In a less dramatic, more rareified and certainly better compensated way, Krippendorf’s work is inspired by the same impulse that inspired the Homeland hack–which is why he wanted to make an homage to it.

The original artists were deeply offended that their work was appropriated and used without their permission. So they confronted the artist.

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Reporting On Egypt, From China

November 20, 2018

Untitled designThere is an account in Chapter Three of Pál Nyíri’s Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World in which a couple of Chinese correspondents reflect on their reporting of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

They explained that their Western colleagues saw the uprisings, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and the subsequent political chaos as the story of a failed transition to democracy, and this view framed the news stories they wrote.

The Chinese journalists, on the other hand, saw the revolution as the collapse of a great country after the ouster of the strong authority who held it together.

The point of these reflections was that both American and Chinese journalists can struggle to work professionally, and report honestly and accurately, while telling their audiences quite different “truths” rooted in the very different political, economic and historical contexts that make their news meaningful.

For the Chinese correspondents, their experience of the Egyptian uprisings and their aftermath, and the stories they tell about it, offer a cautionary tale relevant to audiences back home, and the wider world: there are worse things that can happen to a country than not having democracy.

I find this story compelling because it offers a more nuanced approach to understanding how different regimes of truth generate different kinds of news than simplistic accounts that reduce ideologies to elementary categories like “free,” “not free,” and “partially free.” (I previously reviewed a paper by Ying Roselyn Du that does just this).

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Is As-Sisi Seeking Legitimization Through Repression?

November 13, 2018

Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us in order to create political development…“Sisi sworn in for second Egyptian presidential term amid crackdown on critics,” read the headline of the Reuter story on President As-Sisi assuming his second term in office. The Guardian headline was similar: “Egypt’s Sisi is sworn in for a second term, amid crackdown on dissent”

As-Sisi rode to power in 2013 on a wave of enthusiasm. Here, it was hoped, was someone who could bring back stability, improve the economy and be a secular president for all Egyptians. As I wrote elsewhere, reflecting on post-uprising Egypt through the lens of liminality theory:

Egypt’s quest is to find a “ritual specialist” to end this period of liminality by initiating the “decline and fall into structure and law”—the new order that will replace the old. Al-Sisi’s capacity to fulfill this role depends on his ability to present an authoritative narrative of order for the new Egypt…

In the event, as-Sisi’s regime has attempted to crush all forms of dissent, targeting Islamists, critics, activists, human rights organisations and journalists.

Among those arrested during the swearing-in period:

  • Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (Feb. 14), physician and former presidential candidate, accused of leading a terrorist organisation .and spreading false news inside and outside the country
  • Moataz Wadnan (Feb 23), journalist, accused of publishing false news that incites against the state (apparently for interviewing Hisham Geneina), and of joining an illegal group that aims to disrupt state institutions.
  • Adel Sabry (Apr. 3), editor in chief of Masr-al-Arabia, a news web site, for spreading false news by republishing a New York Times article about alleged irregularities during the 2018 presidential election
  • Hisham Geneina (April 24), former head of the Central Auditing Authority, accused of spreading news that harms the armed forces.
  • Shady Abou Zeid (May 6), comedian and vlogger, accused of joining an outlawed group and spreading false news.
  • Amal Fathy (May 11), activist and actress. Accused of membership in a terrorist organization, calling for terrorist acts over the internet, and spreading false news that “damages the public order and harms national security” (apparently for complaining on social media about being sexually harassed by two policemen).
  • Shady Ghazaly Harb (May 15), political activist, accused accused of insulting the president and spreading false news with the intent of destabilizing social peace and national security
  • Haitham Mohamedeen (May 17), activist and human rights lawyer, accused of joining a terrorist organisation and calling for the overthrow of the regime by publishing false news.
  • Ismail Al-Iskandrani (May 22), journalist and social researcher, sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly belonging to an illegal organization and spreading false news regarding national security in Sinai.
  • Wael Abbas (May 23), blogger and journalist. Accused of joining a banned group.
  • Mona el-Mazboh (May 31), Lebanese tourist, accused of deliberately spreading false rumors that are harmful to society and infringing upon religion for posting a video about being harassed and cheated in Egypt.

Yet even as the regime engaged in this effort to silence protests,  as-Sisi proffered in his swearing-in speech a narrative on inclusiveness:

Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us in order to create political development…

I assure you that accepting the other and creating common spaces between us will be my biggest concern to achieve consensus, social peace and real political development in addition to our economic development…

I will not exclude anyone from this common space except those who chose violence, terrorism and extremist thought as a way to impose their will…

I think there is more going on here than mere hypocracy. This juxtaposition of rhetorical commitment to inclusivity and the common good while engaging in increased arrests and incarcerations (and, let’s face it, torture), made me think about an argument on repression and legitimization in a (relatively) recent article by Mirjam Edel and Maria Josua in the journal Democracy.

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Framing The Revolution In Chinese

November 8, 2018

Greater China_s reporting on the role of social media in the Arab UprisingsIt will come as no surprise to most of us that how the Egyptian Revolution, and the Arab Spring more generally, was covered in global media would depend on the attitudes of authorities in those countries toward uprisings in general, democratic uprisings more specifically, and the use of social media as a tool of mobilization in particular.

Still, the details of how particular media frame events is usually interesting, and that proves to be the case in an article entitled “Tinted revolutions in prismatic news: Ideological influences in Greater China’s reporting on the role of social media in the Arab Uprisings” by Ying Roselyn Du of Hong Kong Baptist University, published in Journalism.

Du uses a sample of 162 news stories for the analysis, including 55 from mainland China, 65 from Hong Kong, and 42 from Taiwan. These stories came from 60 newspapers, including 32 from mainland China, 15 from Hong Kong, and 13 from Taiwan.

Essentially, Dr. Du found that newspapers in Taiwan and Hong Kong were far more likely to discuss the role of social media in the Egyptian protests than mainland Chinese newspapers, and that Taiwanese newspapers were more likely to write about the ways people found to get around Egypt’s Internet blockade than either Chinese or Hong Kong news media.

Du concludes that:

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