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More From the Anthropologists on the Egyptian Revolution

March 3, 2012

This photograph of jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square after hearing that President Mubarak will step down from his presidency is featured on the cover of the latest issue of American Ethnologist. Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/Polaris

Just a few weeks after the Cultural Anthropology web site released an on-line set of seventeen short essays (which they call a “Hot Spot”) entitled “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th.” (and which I blogged about here), the latest issue of American Ethnologist just came out with nine brief (3-9 pages) essays on the Egyptian revolution.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about these essays once I’ve read them. In the meantime, here are the citations, links, and abstracts for the articles. There’s also a photo gallery on the web site with photos by Samuli Schielke.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2012.  Living the “revolution” in an Egyptian village: Moral action in a national space American Ethnologist 39(1): 21–25

Media coverage of the uprising in Egypt in 2011 focused almost exclusively on Tahrir Square in Cairo. How was the revolution lived in other parts of Egypt, including the countryside? I offer a glimpse of what happened in one village in Upper Egypt where, as elsewhere, daily lives were deeply shaped by devastating national economic and social policies, the arbitrary power of police and security forces, and a sense of profound marginalization and disadvantage. Youth were galvanized to solve local problems in their own community, feeling themselves to be in a national space despite a history of marginalization. They also used a particular language for their activism: a strong language of social morality, not the media-friendly political language of “rights” and “democracy.” [Key words: Egyptian revolution, countryside, youth activism, moral language]

Agrama, Hussein Ali. 2012. Reflections on secularism, democracy, and politics in Egypt American Ethnologist 39(1): 26–31)

I reassess dominant understandings of the relations between secularism, democracy, and politics by comparing the Egyptian protests that began on January 25, 2011, and lasted until the fall of Mubarak with some of the events that occurred in their aftermath. The events that occurred after these protests demonstrated the obliging power of what I call the “problem-space of secularism,” anchored by the question of where to draw a line between religion and politics and the stakes of tolerance and religious freedom typically attached to it. By contrast, the protests themselves displayed a marked indifference to this question. Thus, they stood outside the problem-space of secularism, representing what I call an “asecular” moment. I suggest that such moments of asecularity merit greater attention. [Egypt, Islam, secularism, sovereignty, asecularity]

Ghannam, Farha. 2012. Meanings and feelings: Local interpretations of the use of violence in the Egyptian revolution American Ethnologist 39(1): 32–36)

I trace the shifting feelings of some of my close interlocutors in a low-income neighborhood in Cairo and explore some of the cultural meanings that informed their attempts to make sense of the changing situation during the first days of the Egyptian revolution. Specifically, I reflect on how existing concepts that structure uses of violence have been central to the way men and women interpreted the attacks of baltagiyya (thugs) on the protesters in Tahrir Square and how these interpretations ultimately framed my interlocutors’ feelings and views of the revolution, Mubarak’s regime, and its supporters. [revolution, baltagiyya, violence, Egypt, structures of feeling]

Hafez, Sherine. 2012. No longer a bargain: Women, masculinity, and the Egyptian uprising American Ethnologist 39(1): 37–42)

Although, according to eyewitness accounts, women made up 20 to 50 percent of the protesters in Tahrir Square, the events immediately following the Egyptian uprising revealed that women would not be part of the political deliberations between various contending parties and the Supreme Military Council in charge of the country. In this essay, I take a close look at the sociocultural dynamics behind the inclusion–dis-inclusion of women in the political sphere to question how this contradiction has, in recent years, characterized the nature of gender relations in Arab countries like Egypt. Multilayered, rapidly changing, and challenged patriarchal power lies at the very core of the uprising in Egypt. What the events of this uprising have revealed is that notions of masculinity undermined by a repressive regime have observably shifted the terms of the patriarchal bargain. [Egypt’s uprising, gender relations in the Middle East, masculinity, patriarchy, patriarchal bargain, state patriarchy, women and revolution]

Hamdy, Sherine F. 2012. Strength and vulnerability after Egypt’s Arab Spring uprisings American Ethnologist 39(1): 43–48)

Following the revolts that unseated Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, a contradictory discourse has emerged in which Egyptians imagine themselves to be resilient in body and spirit but also enfeebled by years of political corruption and state negligence. During the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the regime’s orchestrated violence neither crushed the movement nor provoked activists to abandon their vow of peaceful protest. However, Egyptians’ pride in the physical and moral resilience that enabled this feat is infused with an understanding of its fragility; many face vulnerabilities to disease within the context of environmental toxins, malnutrition, and a broken, overtaxed health care system. And they mourn the deterioration of moral principles and values after years of brutal oppression and social injustice. These conflicting views—of vitality and vulnerability—have led to a dizzying oscillation between optimism and despair; even as people celebrate the accomplishments of the uprisings, they are also keenly aware of the formidable challenges that lie ahead. [Egypt, revolution, Arab Spring, political awakening, Mubarak, doctors]

Hirschkind, Charles. 2012. Beyond secular and religious: An intellectual genealogy of Tahrir Square American Ethnologist 39(1): 49–53)

Competing visions of Egypt’s future have long been divided along secular versus religious lines, a split that both the Sadat and Mubarak regimes exploited to weaken political opposition. In this context, one striking feature of the Egyptian uprising that took place last spring is the extent to which it defied characterization in terms of the religious–secular binary. In this commentary, I explore how this movement drew sustenance from a unique political sensibility, one disencumbered of the secular versus religious oppositional logic and its concomitant forms of political rationality. This sensibility has a distinct intellectual genealogy within Egyptian political experience. I focus here on the careers of three Egyptian public intellectuals whose pioneering engagement with the question of the place of Islam within Egyptian political life provided an important part of the scaffolding, in my view, for the practices of solidarity and association that brought down the Mubarak regime. [Egypt, politics, intellectuals, secular, Islam]

Mahmood, Saba. 2012. Sectarian conflict and family law in contemporary Egypt American Ethnologist 39(1): 54–62)

Egypt continues to experience interreligious sectarian conflict between Muslims and Copts since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The same factors that had contributed to escalating violence between the two communities continue to be at play in postrevolutionary Egypt. One of the key sites of sectarian conflict is interreligious marriage and conversion, an issue that ignites the passion and ire of both communities. While issues of sexuality and gender are at the center of these conflicts, religion-based family law plays a particularly pernicious role. In this essay, I rethink the nexus between family law, gender, and sectarian conflict through an examination of both the history of the emergence of Egyptian family law and the simultaneous relegation of religion and sexuality to the private sphere in the modern period. [sectarianism, Copts, Islam, state, family law, sexuality]

Saad, Reem. 2012. The Egyptian revolution: A triumph of poetry American Ethnologist 39(1): 63–66)

The 11-day interval between the fall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and the onset of the Egyptian revolution is now almost forgotten. These days were important mainly as the time when inspiration was nurtured and the big question on people’s minds was, could a revolution happen in Egypt? Never before had this question been debated so intensely. I look at two contrasting ways of addressing it. On the one hand, seasoned political analysts (mostly political scientists) were predominantly saying no, Egypt is not Tunisia. On the other hand, activists were talking dreams and poetry, especially invoking lines from two famous Arab poets on the power of popular will and the inevitability of revolution. In this case, poetry prevailed. It was not only a source of inspiration but also carried more explanatory power than much social science. Here I document this moment and pay tribute to poetry and dreams. [Egypt, revolution, Tunisia, poetry, experts]

Winegar, Jessica. 2012. The privilege of revolution: Gender, class, space, and affect in Egypt American Ethnologist 39(1): 67–70)

In this commentary, I challenge assumptions about political transformation by contrasting women’s experiences at home during the Egyptian revolution with the image of the iconic male revolutionary in Tahrir Square. I call attention to the way that revolution is experienced and undertaken in domestic spaces, through different forms of affect, in ways deeply inflected by gender and class. [Egypt, revolution, gender, class, space, affect, generation]

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