Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th

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On January 25, 2011, Egyptians from all social backgrounds marched to public squares across Egypt and began an 18 day revolution that captivated the world.  Calls rang out in Tahrir for “Dignity, Freedom, and Social Justice.”  Stereotypes of Arabs as apathetic and politically backward crumbled as Tunisians and then Egyptians (and now countless others) led the world in the first post-Cold War revolution against the world’s growing inequalities.  Arabs were once portrayed as kowtowing to kings and authoritarian leaders, but now they are revolting against them.  Women and men, young and old, city dwellers and rural people joined together and fought the political and economic systems that oppressed them. 

The Egyptian revolution neither began nor ended in those 18 days before Mubarak stepped down.  As anthropologists struggled, like many Egyptians and academic observers, to make sense of an overwhelming set of events, they drew on their fieldwork experiences from past decades to show how the revolution was rooted in long-standing day-to-day struggles for food, jobs, security, and dignity, as well as in years of organizing and activism among various groups--most notably labor and Islamic collectives. 

On this first anniversary of the “official” beginning of the Egyptian revolution, we find an ever more complex, and constantly shifting, social and political landscape.  The military regime and gerontocracy remains entrenched, cutting deals with the older leadership Muslim Brotherhood, which recently took the lion’s share of seats in Parliament.  For many Egyptians, the revolution is not over. As the one-year anniversary demonstrations showed, they have not given up on their clear set of demands to overthrow the broader regime and to regain dignity in their lives.  For others, notably Islamists, the revolution brought tangible victories and the ability to speak and congregate freely for the first time in thirty years. In the eyes of some, especially those on the precarious edge of the wage economy, the revolution brought instability and “social chaos” and may not have been worth it.  Anthropologists trying to make sense of these complex shifts in society, and to support Egyptians in their struggle, find themselves having to rework the tools of their discipline and what it means to be an anthropologist. These issues, and more, are discussed by the authors of the pieces in this Hot Spot.

This Hot Spot was originally conceived by the editors of Cultural Anthropology during the events of January-February 2011, when most observers and participants were far more optimistic than today about a speedy transformation of power in Egypt. Through no fault of the editors, it took much longer to put these pieces together, for reasons we discuss in some of the articles that follow, especially in Elyachar and Sabea. As it turns out, we believe that the outcome is much stronger than it would have been a year ago. Just this week, as we finally began to post these pieces, events again took a tragic turn. 74 Egyptians were recently killed in a soccer stadium, in what most Egyptians call a massacre (magzara), due to the widespread perception that they were planned or at least facilitated by the army and police, in part to take revenge on the role of soccer fan clubs in the ongoing revolution. These most recent events are not discussed in the Hot Spot. But by reading what follows, we hope that you will gain a much better sense of what is underway in Egypt and the region, learn more about the challenges posed by the massive revolts of the past year around the world for the writing of ethnography, and know more about where to turn for information and analysis of Egypt and the region. As editors of the Hot Spot, we thank everyone who took the time to dare to write about so much that is so uncertain, and for the help and cooperation of our colleagues at Jadaliyya and American Ethnologist as well as to the editors ofCultural Anthropology, Charles Piot and Anne Allison, and its managing editor, Alison Kenner, for their endless patience and immense help.

(Top Image: "Do not let your revolution be stolen." Photo by Omnia Ibrahim. Published in "Messages From Tahrir" edited by Karima Khalil, 2011)


Mohamed el-Erian, “Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution Must Succeed,” CNN World, January 25th, 2012.

Julia Elyachar, 2005, Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Egypt (Duke University Press).

Julia Elyachar, “Phatic Labor, Infrastructure, and the Question of Empowerment in Cairo,” American Ethnologist 37:3(452-464), 2010.

Julia Elyachar, “The Political Economy of Movement and Gesture in Cairo,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17:1(82-99), 2011.

Jane Guyer, “Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical, and Punctuated Time,” American Ethnologist, 37:3(409-421).

Paul Kockelman, “The Relation between Meaning, Power, and Knowledge,” Current Anthropology, 48:3(375-401), 2007.

Paul Kockelman, “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise: How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It,” Linguistic Anthropology 20:2(406-421).

Tomaz Mastnak, "Return of the People," Transeuropéennes, February 18, 2011.

Nancy Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A symbolic study of value transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Janet Roitman, “The Anti-Crisis,” In Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon (, December 2011.

Posts in This Series

Building the New Egypt: Islamic Televangelists, Revolutionary Ethics and ‘Productive’ Citizenship

Conversation on the Egyptian Revolution: Fieldwork in Revolutionary Times

Writing Anthropology of and for the Revolution

Jadaliyya: A New Form of Producing and Presenting Knowledge in/of the Middle East (Interview by Julia Elyachar)

Do we need the army’s helping hand?

Watching Cairo From Beirut

Fieldnotes, Airplane Ride Back

Public Christianity in a Revolutionary Egypt

The Real Tragedy Behind the Fire of Institut d’Egypte

The Battle of Cairo's Muhammad Mahmoud Street

Writing the Revolution: Dilemmas of Ethnographic Writing after the January 25th revolution in Egypt

A “Time out of Time”: Tahrir, the Political and the Imaginary in the context of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt

Far Outside Cairo: A Graffiti Campaign to Denounce the SCAF

The Ambivalence of Martyrs and the Counter-revolution

New Texts Out Now: Karima Khalil, Messages from Tahrir