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Civility in the Middle East: Eleven Scholars Weigh In

July 22, 2011

Civility is the mutual deference and self-restraint people pay to one another that enables active citizenship to come into play.

As the Arab Spring breaks into Civil War in Libya but continues as a dialogue between people and interim regimes in Egypt and Tunis, Third World Quarterly offers a new and timely special issue on “civility” in the Middle East.

In Chapter Four of Connected In Cairo I describe a bunch of students talking about Egypt as a “shitty society” (mugtama zibala) or a “chaotic society” (mugtama hamagy). They complain that their parents want them to live their lives by Egyptian traditional values like adab (good manners/moral values) or shahama (gallantry), but it is impossible to live by such ethical codes when no one else does.

Incivility, in other words, breeds incivility, according to these young people trying to figure out how to be Arab and Modern in Egypt.

I don’t use “civility” as an organizing concept in my book, being focused on identities, but there is no question that ideas about civility play a crucial role in the imaginations of the teens I’m describing. But I think it is even more useful in understanding what is happening in Egypt now.

Civility, in political science parlance, involves forms of “mutual deference” (Boyd 2004) and “self-restraint” (Salvatore, this issue) that allows certain forms of active citizenship to come into play. The capacity for Muslims and Copts, men and women, cosmopolitans and locals, well-to-do and poor to come together in Tahrir Square in ad hoc formations to accomplish common goals rather than fragmenting along these lines of potential (and historical) fissure, is an example of civility in action, and emphasizes the usefulness of the term.

The authors recognize that civility as an analytical concept must be contrasted with local ways of imagining civility in historically-conditioned cultural contexts. They also acknowledge that civility can mask conformity, and so contribute to exclusion and structures of power.

Civility offers an alternative to the more common political science conceptualization of “civil society” which focuses on institutions. Civility, as Armando Salvatore points out in his essay in this issue, is a much more protean concept. It is attractive to me as an anthropologist because it deals with the “mundane” and “pragmatic” activities of ordinary people (Volpi, this issue), is shaped by communication and interactivity (Ismail, this issue), and can be explored ethnographically.

Two of the papers directly address the issue of civility in Egypt. The first is “Authoritarian Government, Neoliberalism and Everyday Civilities in Egypt” by Salwa Ismail. The abstract reads:

This contribution explores how authoritarian governmental practices come to inform everyday civilities—manners and forms of interaction among the subjects of government. With a focus on Egypt it examines how forms of government and rule deployed by the state give rise to particular modes of action, norms of interaction and socio–political dispositions among the citizenry. Central to this analysis is the examination of political subjectivities that develop in regular encounters with the agents and agencies of the state. These subjectivities generate understandings of self in relation to the apparatuses of power—out of intimate knowledge of their workings and of the multiple orders at which they operate. Integral to citizen subjectivities are civilities cultivated in interaction with the state and with fellow subject-citizens.

The second is “An Uncivil Partnership: Egypt’s Jama’a Islamiyya and the state after the Jihad” by Ewan Stein. His abstract:

This study will examine the Jama’a Islamiyya (ji) as an example of a group that has, in different ways, tried to shape patterns of civility and position itself as an interface between state and society in Egypt. It charts and offers an explanation for the ji’s intellectual and programmatic transition fromaspiring to create a totally new polity based on a Salafi Islamic form of civility to an accommodation with the state and apparently more tolerant posture vis-a-vis society. The study analyses the ji’s shifting interpretation of hisba and argues that, although the ji appears reconciled to a more co-operative stance, the group continues to promote an unrealistic vision of state-society relations in Egypt. Whereas before the ‘revisions’ the ji proceeded from an idealised conception of the Islamic state and the potential for its realisation in Egypt, its new ideas suggest an equally naive conception of the existing state and its ability to regulate, and police, society. The political and intellectual trajectory of the ji tells us much about the role of societal groups in sustaining authoritarianism in Egypt and suggests that any compact between the ji and a regime like that of Mubarak is likely to remain ‘uncivil’.

Here’s the Table of Contents listing all the articles:

  1. Introduction: “Invoking Political Civility in the Middle East,” by guest editor Frédéric Volpi, pages 801 – 806
  2. Civility: Between Disciplined Interaction and Local/Translocal Connectedness, by Armando Salvatore, pages 807 – 825
  3. Framing Civility in the Middle East: alternative perspectives on the state and civil society, also by Frédéric Volpi, pages 827 – 843
  4. Authoritarian Government, Neoliberalism and Everyday Civilities in Egypt, by Salwa Ismail, pages 845 – 862
  5. An Uncivil Partnership: Egypt’s Jama’a Islamiyya and the state after the Jihad, by Ewan Stein, pages 863 – 881
  6. Transitional African Spaces in Comparative Analysis: inclusion, exclusion and informality in Morocco and Cape Verde, by Pedro F. Marcelino and Hermon Farahi, pages 883 – 904
  7. Fascism, Civility and the Crisis of the Turkish State, by Tim Jacoby, pages 905 – 924
  8. Hizbullah in the Civilising Process: anarchy, self-restraint and violence, by Adham Saouli, pages 925 – 942
  9. Official Islam and the Limits of Communicative Action: the paradox of the Amman Message, by Michaelle Browers, pages 943 – 958
  10. The Arab State and (Absent) Civility in New Communicative Spaces, by Emma C. Murphy, pages 959 – 980
  11. Dis-Orienting Clusters of Civility, by S. Sayyid, pages 981 – 987
  12. Epilogue:  Civilities, Subjectivities and Collective Action: preliminary reflections in light of the Egyptian Revolution, also by Salwa Ismail, pages 989 – 995


Boyd, Richard. 2004.  Uncivil Society: The Perils of Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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