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Cleaning Up Cairo

November 26, 2016

a-civilized-revolutionOne of the things I teach my students about power in my Peoples of the World class at Miami University is that power rests in the ways that we discipline ourselves to some moral order. We make power structures real by speaking and acting as if they were real; we bring them into existence day-by-day, moment-by-moment through the ways we live our live.

People who seek power can never rely on force alone; they must appeal to cultural principles of good and evil, right and wrong, inclusion and exclusion,  and order and disorder, to justify their actions and persuade citizens to discipline themselves to the political order they seek to create. Often these are articulated through images of embodied experiences: family life, health and illness, sports, earning a living and so forth.

This lesson is beautifully illustrated in a new article in American Ethnologist by my old friend Jessica Winegar. Jessica is the Harold H. and Virginia Anderson Associate Professor of Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University.

Entitled “A civilized revolution: Aesthetics and political action in Egypt,” Jessica focuses on what she calls aesthetic ordering, “collective action seeking to beautify public space and regulate behavior in it” which were  “cultivated and extensively performed during the 18-day protest, and … came to dominate public action in the immediate aftermath of its success.”

Aesthetic Ordering

Aesthetics, in anthropological parlance, always refers to social judgments about the form some type of social expression takes, the skill with which it is rendered or enacted, and the principles that allow members of the community to judge it as good or bad.

The aesthetic principles of a community may include many different kinds of judgments, but always circle around socially-constituted notions of what is appropriate in particular situations, often referring to supposedly universal truths to determine whether particular types of expression are good or bad, orderly or disorderly, professional or amateurish, traditional or modern, poorly-executed or well-executed, politically acceptable or illegal, appropriate or inappropriate, sacred or profane, and so forth.
Ordering, in this sense, is the process of disciplining oneself, the environment around you, and other people, according to the aesthetic principles espoused.
Cleaning Up Cairo
Beginning with the cleansing of Tahrir Square the day after Mubarak’s resignation, Winegar looks at both physical actions of cleansing, and the discourse of cleaning. This is important because:

[T]o understand why the uprising did not succeed in changing structures of power, we must attend to the pervasive set of embodied aesthetic practices and discourses that dominated Egyptian protest and civic activity both immediately before Mubarak’s downfall and in the months right after.

Winegar demonstrates that these and similar acts of aesthetic ordering dominated Egyptian protest and civic activity in pursuit former president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. They were organized by calls to  karāma (dignity) and mu’adab (decency), deeply rooted concepts that can be mobilized to authorize a number of cultural actions (I write about mu’adab and similar principles that link moral and social order in Chapter Four of Connected in Cairo).

Acts of aethetic ordering played a central role in motivating collective political action, prefiguring the nationalist utopia many protesters wished to create, and legitimizing ordinary Egyptians as active agents and upright citizens.

Whose Aesthetic Is It Anyway?

The problem is that aesthetic principles are rarely, if ever, socially universal. The principles articulated through the acts of aethetic ordering described by Winegar also reproduced exclusionary middle-class aspirations and related forms of citizenship that centered on surveillance, individualism, and consumption.

By examining these acts of aesthetic ordering, Winegar reveals the tensions at the center not only of the Tahrir movements, but of subsequent regimes of Presidents Morsi and as-Sisi, as people attempt to enact their political visions in public space.

In other words:

By barking orders to leave Tahrir, to not litter, to exit through exit doors, to speak respectfully, and so on, certain Egyptians were demanding that everyone behave according to their vision. And by invoking domestic order, they were bringing values central to bourgeois discourses on the home and demanding that all Egyptians abide by them.

More importantly, the demands of middle class Egyptian revolutionaries that we “clean up” Egypt according to their mores,introduced echoes of many state political projects over the decades: “These [bourgeois domestic values] have long been promoted by different state projects at various times, whether in the colonial period, the time of the postindependence Nasserist state, or the neoliberal era.”


Many who initially supported the revolution came to vehemently criticize strikes and sit-ins, and especially public demonstrations, as indicating uncivilized behavior or lazy people who did not want to go back to work. In aesthetic judgments that relied on a mixture of classed and generational paternalism, many middle-class Cairenes (and those aspiring to join their ranks) accused demonstrators of being social delinquents—uncouth, unbathed, and sexually immoral drug users. With the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and state media calling for people to stop protesting and instead focus on “the wheel of production” (‘agalit al-intāg), these criticisms of protesters were wed, though not reducible, to middle-class and state discourses of productivity.

Aesthetics and State Projects

After President Morsi was elected, his call for a “national Renaissance (nahḍa) plan” entailed “cleaning up the homeland,” and categorized anti-Morsy protesters as “dirty” and “uncivilized.”

After the coup that brought President Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi to power, both Morsi supporters and the youth organizers of the original protests (many now protesting the antidemocratic actions of President as-Sisi) were subject to the same kinds of criticisms (and justifications for suppression).

  • Morsy supporters, and Islamists more generally, were maligned as barbaric, uncivilized Others, whose clothing, voices, styles and modes of consumption were vulgar, and whose religiosity exceeded appropriate bounds of moderation.
  • The original Tahrir demonstrators were recast as unpatriotic, coarse, immature, and prone to criminality.

Power and Precarity

Winegar argues further that the power of aesthetic ordering as a contested political principle across all these political visions rests on the precarity of both middle classness and utopian schemes of revolution.

The term precarity refers to situations of ambiguity and risk. Middle class identity is partly a matter of income and economic networks, and in a country like Egypt, in an economy shaped by neoliberal economics, this is can be a precarious position in itself.

But middle class identities are also precarious, depending on the ability of people aspiring to middle class status to distinguish themselves at once from the laziness and dirtiness they attribute to the poor, and at the same time from the immorality they attribute to the wealthy.

The article appears in the latest edition of American Ethnologist


Winegar, Jessica. 2016. A civilized revolution: Aesthetics and political action in Egypt. American Ethnologist 43(4): 609-622.

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