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

From the Series: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th

How to write ethnographically about Egypt after the January 25th Revolution? This problem dogged the convening of a panel at the AAA in November 2011 and the compiling of this “Hot Spot on Egypt” in the most direct of ways. We wanted to hear from Egyptian ethnographers or ethnographers living in Egypt. This proved more challenging than Jessica Winegar and I expected. The reasons bear consideration. In what follows, I draw on conversations with some of those who could not take part in the Hot Spot Forum for different reasons, as well as on papers presented at the AAA and at other venues in the past year.

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.

Others were silenced by the collapse of projects and hopes that seemed so clear a year ago. They returned to the day-to-day job of getting institutions functioning again. Some turned back to books and articles set aside in a year of endless talks in the United States or Europe. For many in the region, politics had become a full-time occupation. For others in the United States and Europe, teaching the Middle East in new ways had become key. It was hard to turn the revolution into the means of academic reproduction: papers, conference presentations, and books. For those writing from Egypt, it often seemed impossible to finish a paper taken up, over and over again, in moments wrested from other pressing tasks of the day. Narrative continuity becomes hard when each day brings a radically different reality. Is it a coincidence that the most important forum for writing and sharing analysis quickly became the website Jadaliyya, which brings together the immediacy of the blog with the scholarly apparatus of a journal and the politics of committed public intellectuals (see interview with Haddad, below).

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. For decades, 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. Egypt is no longer open access. There are other top quality programs for advanced Arabic study now (Haifa University in Israel jumped on board with an Arabic immersion program for Americans afraid of Cairo recently, boasting of its Arabic speaking population as a pedagogical asset rather than a security threat.)

These dilemmas of doing and writing ethnography in the midst of activism in 2011 were international in scope no matter what one’s perspective: remarkable symmetries and new scales of privilege appeared between the protests in Cairo and New York, Athens and UC Davis. Expired American tear gas was used on demonstrators in Tahrir; while those demonstrating against cutbacks and austerity in California retained the privilege of fresher tear gas. Bodies were bludgeoned with clubs in Cairo while “nudged” with batons in Berkeley. Modes of organizing, occupying, and communicating migrated from Tahrir to Occupy Wall Street and around the world.

Those who attended the AAA panel expressed real gratitude to those who wrote despite it all. The very act of coming to Montreal and holding the panel on November 19th seemed either insane or heroic by the end of the day. At the usual AAA post-panel dinner, one of us took calls from friends near Tahrir Square, just as Central Security Forces were massing for an assault on demonstrators. Revolution and counter-revolution were entering a new phase of a historical process in which ethnographers were deeply engaged as activists, artists, and scholars.

The papers given on the panel revealed the spatial complexities and punctuated temporality of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt. They detailed conflicts for control over the means of symbolic production (Ambrust, this Hot Spot) and for control over the channels through which signs flow (Moll, this Hot Spot). As feminist theory taught us in the 1970s, women’s unpaid labor in the home was central to the reproduction of bodies protesting on the street (Winegar 2011). Those bodies were part of spatially extended units of accountability (Kockelman 2007) in the home, overseas, on the street, and in cyberspace. The papers show how the conditions of holding the Square, and the battles that continue to this day, are created at home in Shubra or in Sohag, as well as by young men on the street or hunched over Facebook far away. “I should be on the street,” more than one recounted--even though the papers showed the extent to which cyberspace is part of the same communicative infrastructure (Elyachar 2010) of urban space through which symbols and meanings flow and through which power is consolidated.

Violence appears in many ways in the papers. We have the violence of outrageous, humiliating theft of national resources and public goods egregiously privatized. Ghannam (2012, and at the AAA panel) shows a growing process of commensuration between the theft of the regime and the theft of baltagiyya (baltagi, sing.) or thugs, who were paid to attack protestors in Tahrir. The baltagi, like the Mubarak regime, uses violence illegitimately to bully others, take over their property, or coerce them to comply with his wishes. In contrast, social action of the exemplary figure of the gada‘ (also a young man of the popular classes) is oriented around the protection of his community and community resources. Exemplaries such as the gada‘ are indexical signs that point to the long history of this concept and the semiotic resources of the Egyptian people more generally (Elyachar 2011). This extended temporality across space and time makes these exemplary figures of Egyptian popular culture powerful channels for actions aimed at shaping the future as well (Guyer 2007).

If Ghannam’s paper makes clear the symbolic constitution of violence, Ambrust’s begins with violent attacks on symbols, and attempts to determine their interpretive range by fiat. His paper focuses on martyr images—pictures of those whose lives were killed by the regime in the course of the revolution, and the image of the martyr Sally Zahran in particular. Martyr images were a key medium for political contests in the months following the revolution. Sally Zahran was perhaps the most recognizable martyr and a “productive prism” through which festering social tensions became clear.

Not only signs, but also the channels through which signs are conveyed and interpreted (Kockelman 2010) are the object of revolutionary conflict in Egypt. Channels are not neutral conveyers of meaning. Television stations, newspapers, the internet, and communicative infrastructures in general are important (if backgrounded) actors in the papers. Who owns these channels and uses them to what ends? Naguib Sawaris, owner of the new internet TV station, OnTV live, and the newspaper in which the Martyr poster with an unveiled Sally Zahran is first published, is a “Coptic Billionaire.” If a Copt owns a television channel or a newspaper, can the news it conveys be trusted in a post-Revolutionary, post-Maspero world (Shenoda, this Hot Spot)? Ghannam’s informants were sympathetic to Mubarak when they heard his penultimate speech on state TV; when Mubarak had lost their allegiance, the same images on state TV could no longer move them.

Time after time a decisive “rupture” seems to have arrived, and yet it does not. This “crisis” is not the exception to an assumed normality or social structure (Roitman 2011). Rather, it is the “new normal” (M. El-Erian 2008). We stay in the fog (Ambrust, this Hot Spot), the diffuse mess of reality (Sabea, this Hot Spot), and the hurly-burley (Kockelman 2010) of the revolutionary process and the politics of semiosis. There is a hurly-burly of naming as well. Is this really a Revolution, capital R? What is the meaning of a martyr (Ambrust, this Hot Spot)? Temporality becomes key here. Sabea disrupts debates about whether or not the Revolution is a revolt or a small “r” revolution. In her paper, revolution becomes an iteration of Fridays, each with a name marking the decisive events of that day. What appears to be contingent in the ethnographic present of revolution is revealed as part of a longer historical process, in which the specificity of each event, each Friday, is yet preserved. We see the localities of struggles, in a university office over working conditions, or on the street over a poster (Ambrust, this Hot Spot). The papers point to an incipient ethnography of rupture, which never quite arrives.

We have, in our papers, a portrait of time out of time (Sabea, this Hot Spot) and of space out of space (Ghannam 2012). We thus have also the constitution of space-time (Munn 1992), and the transformations of value that entails. We have concepts and words and images whose meanings change, and socio-technologies turned to different ends than intended when they were first deployed. Development models perfected in 1990s style neoliberalism--the NGO, the microenterprise, empowerment through debt and self-labor—are set to different ends (Elyachar 2005). The discourse of microenterprise and development NGO is redeployed as a socio-technology by Islamic televangelists (Moll, this Hot Spot). Methods of occupying the Square, dislodged from Tahrir, go off to Wall Street and Montreal and travel around the world. The imaginaries created, the aesthetic and organizational framings of affect and meaning and value, themselves travel, and were with us in Montreal as troops began to attack in Cairo.

All this created its own fog (Ambrust, this Hot Spot) of the moment – its overwhelming nature, its physicality, its confusions—and unique challenges for ethnographic writing—let alone for politics, towards a future we cannot yet see, in a language (as Sabea puts it) that we can not yet hear.

But, thanks to those who are writing and those who have stopped, to those creating new infrastructures of knowledge production (Haddad, this Hot Spot) and those teaching the Middle East in new ways, thanks to those writing ethnography from Beirut (Nucho, this Hot Spot), Tehran (Haeri, this Hot Spot), and on the airplane home (Hamdy, this Hot Spot), we have the privilege of witnessing the punctuated temporality of a longer historical process. As ethnographers, we play a small part in documenting an unfinished revolution that must succeed (el-Erian 2012), and a return of the people (Mastnak 2011) that will not be erased.


Mohamed el-Erian, “Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution Must Succeed,” CNN World, January 25th, 2012.http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/23/el-erian-egypts-unfinished-revolution-will-succeed/

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. http://www.transeuropeennes.eu/en/articles/244

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 (politicalconcepts.org), December 2011.