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Writing Ethnography in Post-Mubarak Egypt

April 10, 2013


Photo by Emily Crane. Used by permission.

How does one write ethnography of an unfolding revolution?

“For decades,” writes Julia Elyachar, “Cairo has been the default location for anthropologists as well as journalists and development workers: it was unquestionably stable, open to Americans and Europeans, and home to the best Arabic language program in the world.”

Now this has changed, Elyachar continues in an introductory essay entitled “The Politics of Writing in Revolutionary Times: Dilemmas of Ethnographic Writing about the January 25th revolution in Egypt and its Aftermath.” In it, she lays out a litany of the ways Egypt has changed as a field area for anthropologists:

Some of the challenges of writing from Egypt this past year are obvious. Too many voices–of friends, relatives, acquaintances—were silenced forever, shot dead by Mubarak thugs, or run over by SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) tanks.  Some of the voices we longed to hear from were in jail, could possibly be back in jail, or might end up there soon. Some were locked inside at home, depressed by the course of events, unable to go outside other than to Tahrir and back again each day. Others were busy with the piled-up tasks of junior faculty anywhere: classes to be taught, grades to be filed, tenure files to be assembled, bills to be paid, children to be raised, and parents’ health crises to be attended to—all this fit into days otherwise occupied with organizing strikes at the University, volunteering at clinics for victims of SCAF violence in Tahrir, and testifying at hearings.


In the new Egypt, anthropologists who felt impelled to document the revolution rather than write a planned book faced new risks. Research permits violated were more likely to be revoked; residence permits once taken for granted were not being renewed.

Elyachar is the author of a brilliant book called Markets of Dispossession (Duke, 2005) which I’ve reviewed elsewhere.

Being There

“Being there” is critical for ethnography. Some anthropologists were there, and brilliant writing may proceed from their work (I’m looking forward to seeing great things from Jessica Winegar, Walter Armbrust, Sherine Hamzy and many others in the near future…).

Some social scientists, however, went to Egypt because of the revolution. Some came to check on their networks of hosts and colleagues and friends, and just to be part of something those friends were experiencing.

Others, however, went to Cairo to re-establish their bona fides to be teaching and writing about the Middle East. My former AUC colleague Mona Abaza wrote a widely circulated, scathing critique of such social scientists, the equivalent of parachute journalists, who call on their colleagues and friends to arrange meetings for them with revolutionaries, then return to the U.S. to write as “experts.”

This said, it is no coincidence that many belonging to our [local] scientific community have recently felt somehow “misused” through being overwhelmed by Western tourist-revolutionary academics in search of “authentic” Tahrir revolutionaries, needing “service providers” for research assistants, for translating, and newspaper summaries, for first hand testimonies, and time and again as providers of experts and young representatives for forthcoming abounding conferences on the Arab Spring in the West. “Cherchez”, the authentic revolutionary in each corner of the city, is the fashionable mood of these times. In theory, there is nothing wrong with providing services, had the relationship been equal, which was unfortunately never the case.

Although obviously (to me) aimed primarily at academics from prestigious US and European universities who lack their own local contacts, the missive has stirred up a good deal of hurt feelings among other academics. I’ve spoken to three young scholars who have lived in Egypt for extended periods of time, speak Egyptian Arabic, and have their own local communities of friends and hosts, but who nonetheless felt tarnished by Abaza’s statements. This is especially true of those Egyptian and international students who parleyed their AUC MA degrees into PhDs at just such high prestige  institutions as the scholars Abaza is criticizing are coming from.

But I think these students miss the central point: if they have their own extensive networks, hosts and friends, they are not parasitic on the AUC establishment, so Abaza’s criticisms do not apply to them.

I’m reminded of my experiences as a journalist and the hierarchies of prestige and expertise we experienced, which Mark Pedelty has captured well in his ethnographic study of war correspondents War Stories. Like ethnographers, journalists root their knowledge in the experiences of “being there”–yet local journalists find themselves serving the needs of superficial but high-profile correspondents who fly in when the local become international news, and who leave after a few days of reporting from the field.

It is interesting to reflect on this in the light of Abaza’s own work on consumption in Egypt. Her book Changing Consumer Cultures of Modern Egypt: Cairo’s Urban Reshaping (2006, Brill) is a postmodern pastiches of images and vignettes and statistics and anecdotes producing a sweeping effect. This kind of writing is often associated with just the kinds of scholarly flaneurs that Abaza is criticizing–but in her case, the ability to write of changing tastes is a reflection of the depth of her experience in Egypt, not only the numbers and kinds of interviews she has conducted, but her memories of consumption practices in the middle-class home of her girlhood, and the physical landscapes she has watched transform from working class shops and dwellings to shopping malls and five-start hotels. Without the depth of long-term “being there,” Abaza could never have pulled it off.

The Ends of Ethnography

“Being there” also entails modes of belonging. What does it mean to do participant observation of a revolution? What kind of participation is this? Does “observation”–the writing up of field notes, the gathering of interviews, the synopsizing of facts into lists and charts and relationships–distance oneself from the genuineness of the revolutionary spirit?

These questions are raised by a very brief, pointed essay by Reem Saad entitled “Reflections on the Egyptian Revolution.”  She writes:

Since the first days in Tahrir, I would retire late at night thinking I should record what happened, at least write down the date and main events. Sheer exhaustion made it impossible. As days went by, exhaustion was relatively under control, and so much was lying there waiting to be anthropologised, but I did not touch it. It seems, somehow, I felt or decided that if I “use” this as ethnographic material it would detract from taking it all in, from all of this becoming part of me, of who I will become. Was I making a sacrifice? Was it a convoluted tribute to the martyrs and their blood- that none of this should make it to, say, a “publication” or a tenure application file? That I should not pollute the pure by feeding the sublime event to the cold and brutal machine that rules our existence as academics?

But it is not really so much the practice of ethnography that bothers Reem as the ends toward which the ethnography is aimed. As a discipline, anthropology is always parasitic on its hosts. The anthropologist,individually, always benefits–personally and professionally–to a greater degree than our hosts. Reem is concerned that she not profit from activities for whom others have made great sacrifices.

Yasmine Moll, NYU grad student and author of an interesting recent article on Egyptian televangelists writes about the positionality of doing ethnography of the revolution from within the revolution. On the one hand, as an Egyptian Yasmine is excited, engaged and filled with revolutionary spirit. On the other hand, she sometimes fears to participate in arguments and debates about the revolution for fear of not being sufficiently

She writes:

I felt I had to hide, or at least not explicitly articulate, my disagreement with this informant’s views because I didn’t want to jeopardize my fieldwork relationship with her. I went so far as to limit her access to my Facebook profile, as I was regularly posting updates and pictures of Tahrir on it. As an anthropologist, I strove to understand her reasoning and to contextualize it within the broader narrative of her life and work. As an Egyptian citizen and a Muslim, however, I found her position absolutely unacceptable.

Yasmine also found that the footage she was taking during the revolution–not unlike many other revolutionaries bringing their cameras to Tahrir Square–could be turned into a video that makes an important point about gender that anthropologists may take for granted but which many others do not hold. Posting the video to Vimeo produced exciting results:

I didn’t at all anticipate the very positive response it would get: over 7,000 hits on Vimeo and Youtube, requests from both college and high-school teachers in the US to show it in their classrooms and have me Skype-in to talk about it, and emails from viewers who told me the video made them rethink their assumptions about the types of actions “possible” for veiled Muslim women, and so on.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Samuli Schielke, who had been conducting ethnography in Egypt and recording the frustrations of Egyptians for many years. He went to Cairo just days after Jan. 28th and left just a few days before Mubarak stepped down. He took many pictures and blogged about the experiences at When queried about when his research would be published, Schielke wrote

I didn’t know how to answer because I then realized that the blog had become the research output. An academic article might never be able to convey what I think the blog did.

Schielke sought to write as an anthropologist but also as a revolutionary, or at least as a fellow traveler.

it was always clear to me that I was writing not just about the revolution but for the revolution. The same writing was intended both as anthropological analysis as well as revolutionary propaganda (directed mainly at a Western readership that oscillated between enthusiasm and scepticism about the events). This is a tricky thing. Scientific research is obliged to an ethos of truth, while revolutionary action requires a tactical relationship with truth. At the same time, I also believe that a revolutionary uprising is one of those situations where one cannot speak truthfully about the events without choosing sides. When people are shot dead, there is no neutral ground for disengaged analysis. My account of the Egyptian revolution is an extremely partisan one, and I would consider it a failure if it were otherwise

Interestingly, many of his Egyptian revolutionary friends said what they liked best about the blog was its neutral and objective tone. It was they who translated the blog into Arabic and published it as a book entitled Hatit’akhkhar ‘ala al-thawra: Daftar yawmiyat ‘alim anthropolojia shahid al-thawra (You’ll be late for the revolution: The diary of an anthropologist who witnessed the revolution).

New Media, New Data

One of the perplexities of new media is that even while it is used as a tool of revolution, it creates complex networks of interlinked texts which bear, within themselves, indexical indicators of the time and place in which they were generated (to the second, no less). This means that they offer an extraordinary new source of historical and processual data.

What kind of data do the texts created by new media provide for us? What kind of semiotic unit is a tweet? Tweets from Tahrir, an edited collection of tweets by organizers and winesses of the Jan. 25 revolution offers one kind of account, the use of tweets as an historical archive of materials on how the revolution unfolded minute-by-minute..

But another crucial question involves the interplay between social media texts, with their capacity to be distributed virally through reader/appropriator interest, and other forms of text, both mainstream media and non-electronic media. Oral poetry, music, signs and grafitti all played a part in the Tahrir uprising and its aftermath, and all reached far beyond the immediacy of Tahrir through digital photography, postings to Facebook, tweets, web site postings, and even collections in photographic books.

One of the most successful of these books, Karima Khalil’s Messages from Tahrir collects photographic images of signage used by protesters in Tahrir during the Jan 25th-Feb. 11 protests. In an interview, Khalil describes the project thus:

I went through about seven thousand photographs, focusing on signs people were holding in Tahrir Square between 25 January and 11 February 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down. Starting with my own photographs, I looked carefully at what the signs said and how powerful the message was. I wanted the images collectively to represent the range of emotions I saw in Tahrir: mourning, rage, determination, pride, sarcasm, steadfastness, good humor, satire, and ultimately celebration, as well as caution. The book shows them in that order. It tells a story.

Ethnographers have always contextualized their material with additional data. Social media provides vast quantities of new possibilities for thick contextualization that we are only now getting glimmers of how to handle.

Ways and Means

Moll’s digital videos and Schielke’s blog point to the ways that efforts to write for as well as of the revolution has changed the means through which their scholarship is disseminated. New media have not only opened up opportunities for revolutionary practice but have become central tools for scholarly reflections on the revolution.

Perhaps the most significant of these efforts is the web site Jadaliyya, an extraordinary scholarly resource. Interviewed by Julia Elyachar, one of the web site’s founders Bassam Hadad describes it thus:

Our politics are mirrored by the design content in our website. … We mix everything together–long analytical documented pieces, together with what are usually called “opinion pieces,” together with poetry, literature, and art. We do not separate these into different “sections” on the main page. We publish in different languages on the same page; we have articles in French, and lots in Arabic. We are not producing our work with an eye to the market, nor to two different markets: one “western” and the other “Arab.” We have one version that goes everywhere…

What such web-produced scholarship allows, of course, is the possibility of radical transformations of scholarly output; publications that are more immediate, more intimate and more dialogical than the usual scholarly formats. And this was, as Hadad states, one of the reasons for creating Jadaliyya:

By 2010, my colleagues and I had gotten really irritated by the fact that, although the news cycle had narrowed and narrowed, there was no medium to capture the middle ground between daily blogs and peer-reviewed scholarly journals. At one end, were  daily blogs. Often very creative, scholarly, and energetic, but they were also one-person efforts. On the other end were peer reviewed articles in journals that can take six months at best to get out information and analysis. There was a huge unoccupied vacuum between the two. We created Jadaliyya to fill that vacuum.

The complete  interview is available as Jadaliyya: A New  Form of Producing and Presenting Knowledge in/of the Middle East (interview with Julia Elyachar). Haddad is the co-editor of a new book on the uprisings from Pluto Press, The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings.

The essays quoted here are drawn from among several great pieces collected and edited by Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar and published as a “Hot Spot” (a collection of essays by anthropologists around a common topical theme of current interest) by the journal Cultural Anthropology. I urge you to read the entire article here.


Abaza, Mona. 2012. Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring. Cultural AnthropologyHotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Elyachar, Julia. 2012. Writing the Revolution: Dilemmas of Ethnographic Writing after the January 25th revolution in Egypt. Cultural Anthropology Hotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Haddad, Bassam and Julia Elyachar. 2012. Jadaliyya: A New Form of Producing and Presenting Knowledge in/of the Middle East. Cultural Anthropology Hotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Haddad, Bassam, Rosie Basher and Ziad Abu-Rish, eds. 2012. The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order? Pluto Press.

Khalil, Karima. 2012. New Texts Out Now: Karima Khalil, Messages from TahrirCultural Anthropology Hotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Moll, Yasmin. 2012. Conversation on the Egyptian Revolution. Cultural Anthropology Hotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Saad, Reem. 2012. Reflections on the Egyptian Revolution. Cultural Anthropology Hotspots: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th, Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar, eds.

Schielke, Samuli. 2011. Hatit’akhkhar ‘ala al-thawra: Daftar yawmiyat ‘alim anthropolojia shahid al-thawra (You’ll be late for the revolution: The diary of an anthropologist who witnessed the revolution, in Arabic), transl. Amr Khairy, Cairo: al-Nafisa li-l-‘ulum wa-l-adab.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica Winegar permalink
    April 11, 2013 5:50 am

    Great reflection on the issues!

  2. Karima Khalil permalink
    April 16, 2013 6:07 pm

    Very much enjoyed these reflections – very nice post and such a nice surprise to stumble on praise for Messages in the middle of it. Thanks.

  3. April 26, 2013 10:52 pm

    Excellent site. Plenty of useful info here. I’m sending it to some friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you on your sweat!

  4. MPeterson permalink
    April 14, 2013 7:05 pm

    Ethnography is often conducted under circumstances of great insecurity. Most ethnographer a go home, however, to write and theorize in places of security. Perhaps the greatest distinction between local anthropologists and those of us who live much or most of our time outside Egypt is that they are writing and theorizing in insecure circumstances as well.


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