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Everyday Civility in Egypt–Before and After Mubarak

August 1, 2011

Are the ongoing protests in part efforts to create new civilities in Egypt? Photo by Malak Rouchdy.

On the one hand, civility–that mutual deference that allows people’s natural inclination to sympathy for one another to express itself in social ways–serves as a foundation for active citizenship in the public sphere. On the other hand, civility can be used as a tool to reduce confrontation and reinforce existing structures of power.

The civility displayed during the Tahrir protests offers a nice example of the former, while the debate over the propriety of Ala’ Aswani’s aggressive questioning of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq offers an example of the latter.

In “Authoritarian Government, Neoliberalism and Everyday Civilities in Egypt,” Salwa Ismail explores this complex relationship between civility as the basis for political activity and civility as a mask for power by looking at how citizens cultivate “everyday civilities”–that is, manners and forms of interaction relating to political action–through their routine interactions with the state and with fellow subject-citizens.

Civility, she writes, is an “economy of manners” in which “specific modes of conduct, norms of interaction and scales of judgment are deemed appropriate.”According to Ismail, the forms of government and techniques of control deployed by the Mubarak regime “gave rise to particular modes of action, norms of interaction and socio-political dispositions among the citizenry.”

While Ismail’s paper is (like my book!) now a fin de siecle work whose concrete data is now out of date, her model of creating civilities through social interaction is interesting and useful.

Ismail presupposes “that political civilities are tied up with processes of power relations in society.” That is, the rules that structure political debate–what is appropriate to talk about and what isn’t, and how–both enables and constrains political activity.

More importantly, Ismail emphasizes that the state, conceived as existing above and apart from the public, is an idealized abstraction that gets in the way of our understanding how power really operates, and that what we should be looking at is how people interact with officials and agents of the state in real life.

In other words, the task is to investigate the state as it comes down to the people by focusing on the practices of power that are deployed at the micro level of everyday life. By looking at the quotidian practices of officials and agents of the state and at the ways in which citizens negotiate their relations with them, we get a sense of what is done in the name of the state and what is experienced by individuals in relation to it.

The Mubarak regime was a congeries of people (“agents and officials”) who acted like an all-powerful state with regard to other groups of people. Ismail draws on her fieldwork in Egypt to give several examples. One of my favorites is:

In Egypt one of the main practices through which surveillance and monitoring as a technique of management of population in space is carried out is ishtibah wa tahari (suspicion and investigation). This involves police operations of ‘stop’ (istiqaf), ‘question’ (tahari) and ‘arrest’ (dabt). The practice is aimed at a category of subjects labelled ‘suspicious individuals’ (mushtabah fihum). Police officers on patrol and at checkpoints stop individuals construed as suspicious, request their identity cards and, often, bring them to the police station for interrogation.

Unemployed young men from poorer neighborhoods are especially likely to be deemed “suspicious” (irregardless of their actual actions). This practice shapes their understandings of the state and their feelings about their place as citizens in Egypt, leading them to live their lives in ways that avoid checkpoints, and break out in a sweat when they see cops. It leads them to understand  such things as identity cards, military service documents, and police records as crucial to their relationship as citizens in the Egyptian state. In this way, they develop and internalize subjectivity.

For example, because the police are corrupt, and use false charges and faked evidence to “neutralize” young men on the street, people come to employ similar practices in disputes that involve police intervention–she describes a wife who threatens to plant illegal drugs on her husband if he takes a second wife, and neighbors in a property dispute faking assault injuries when they learn their neighbors have filed a police complaint.

She also describes the ways people come to accept that wealthy, politically connected men–and their families–cannot be touched for their moral transgressions, while poor men, and their families, can.

Ismail uses subjectivity in Judith Butler’s sense, referring to the processes by which people submit to power and become subjects of a system of power.

I won’t continue to summarize Ismail’s paper. What I like about it is its utility in explaining what to kalifa movement, and the work of other members of the so-called Shebab al-Facebook have been doing to transform everyday civilities in Egypt as perhaps the central process of the uprising.

When people post to the Internet videos of ballot box stuffing, they undermine the capacity of agents of the state to claim popular legitimacy. When police torture is posted to YouTube, and Facebook pages are created by and for the victims, these practices are exposed to the public sphere. When the names and photos of secret police are posted to Piggipedia, these men risk the discovery by their neighbors of the immoral practices that are part of their work lives.  When people return to Tahrir Square again, and again, and again, they send a powerful message that the traditional responses of the regime–wait, be patient while we work on it, and don’t destabilize the country–are no longer working.

If, under the Mubarak regime, as Ismail says, authoritarian governmental practices came to inform everyday civilities, then the congeries of new communication practices and protests appear to be efforts to resocialize the government and to create new manners and forms of interaction among the subjects of government.

It is a complex process, as the Leftists, Liberals, Secularists, and Muslim Brotherhood Youth movements who started it must deal not only with different visions of the future Egyptian society among themselves but with Salafi Islamists who have a very different vision of Egypt’s future, with a military ruling council that wants stability and to hold on to as much of the old institutions as possible, and growing nostalgia for the unpleasant but predictable days of the regime.

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