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I wrote the following comment in an online discussion during the Egyptian protests in early 2011. I’m reposting it here to ask questions of continuing importance for political ethnographers, and other social scientists.
In the wake of the American Anthropological Association’s release of a letter expressing concern about Egyptian artifacts (for 150 words) and Egyptian people (for 30 words), the AAA blog has allotted more space to the issue of the protests themselves.
The piece is called “We Are All Egyptian,” and begins “There are tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir today. And there are millions of Egyptians who are not.” The writer, Yasmin Moll, is doing fieldwork in Cairo and devotes the piece to people’s changing and conflicted attitudes to the protests.
I’ll leave it to others (Zero Anthropology critiqued the AAA’s priorities here) to ask questions about what the AAA is not saying, about say the thousands of Egyptians who are official or unofficial detention today, or about the web of relationships between the United States and the regime.
What interests me about this piece is the quasi-political position of an ethnographic preference for uncertainty, indeterminacy, and the legitimacy of all sides. That is summed up in the following paragraph:
“From the vantage point of those of us in Cairo, however, the picture is much more complex, fluid and messy. And simplifying it for the sake of a sexy story or a catchy headline risks marginalizing the many Egyptians from all classes and backgrounds whose political stances don’t fit neatly into one or the other of these categories.”
Strike out “in Cairo” or rewrite “a sexy story or a catchy headline” as “[insert academic or political purpose here]” and you get a handy template for justifying the use of ethnography. One I’m sure we’ve all read in one form or another. And one that many of us have used, or will have the occasion to use.
First question, though, isn’t this an argument against extracting meaning or seeking a pattern in any reality? Doesn’t this form of practice ask us to not draw conclusions from anything as complex and indeterminate as actual people? In this case, we’re talking about a reality that has electrified people across Egypt, and around the world. Would such ethnographic messiness written about Tunisia’s revolt last month have had the same mobilizing effect in Egypt as the stories that were told?
Second question, does it make sense to describe an anti-structuralist method as politically liberating? The narrative is familiar: Writers (unfairly) fit people into categories, missing what is important. But look at the political nature of the verb: “risks marginalizing.” The implicit argument is that writing about people in a way prioritizes, say, collective action over emotional uncertainty, is part of a power structure that pushes them aside. In this case, with a very visibly present power structure being shaken, the connection between the epistemological power of those writing about the uprising and the political power of those trying to suppress it is dubious, if not nonexistent.
Third, I wonder and worry about this kind of disciplinary positioning for anthropology. Having chosen to study how and when people form into collectivities (I focus on social movements, and on processes of revolution, in recent Bolivian history), I recognize in the AAA’s blog a position that says ethnography should be directed to the individual over the collective, to the messy over the galvanized, to the fluid over crystalized. I may be over-projecting my own research interests on to the AAA blog, but I also worry about a claim that “complex, fluid, and messy” is “real ethnography,” while studying large-scale social and political changes is not. Since Cairo now and Bolivia in the past decade are interesting moments precisely because of the coming together of thousands upon thousands of people, producing tangible political results, to make increasing complexity the goal of ethnography is to call for an ethnographic approach that misses the point of these transformative moments.
Zolberg, Aristide R. 1972. Moments of madness. Politics & Society 2(2):183–207.
Thomassen, Bjørn. 2012. Notes towards an anthropology of political revolutions. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(3):679–706.
As we cheer on Egypt’s anti-regime uprising, we should also be learning as much as possible how it worked. Some things, of course, are only important in a society that has lived under decades of emergency rule. But most, I think, apply just about everywhere. Since we’ve seen government spying and storm trooper-style riot cops deployed in just about every country, it’s great when we can learn things that stop them.
Here are some of my favorites so far.
Open source protesting: Making its round in Egypt during the last days of January was a brilliant little pamphlet called “How to Protest Intelligently.” This easily reproducible, forwardable, xeroxable pamphlet brought together an open-ended set of tactics and strategies and widely distributed them. San Francisco bikers will be familiar with the well-distributed xeroxes that circulate at Critical Mass (some mockingly call this form of leadership “xerocracy”), but its relatively rare that protesters aim for mass distribution of their plans to the rest of society. When enough people are fed up, but might remain inactive without a plan, this can be strikingly effective.
By the way, open source is a metaphor here, that has relatively little to do with actual computers. It seems that e-mail and pdfs did actually help in Egypt, but mimeographs, printing presses, fax machines, or copiers would have functioned just as well in another era. (Non-blog-oriented hat-tip to the European collectives circulating open source windmill designs to put renewable energy into grassroots hands.)
Gather where you is, Converge on where you ain’t:* One piece of simple advice from the pamphlet is this universally applicable tactical plan. Apparently, it actually happened this way. Ahdaf Soueif, for example, reports:
This is the scene that took place in every district of every city in Egypt today. The one I saw: we started off as about 20 activists, after Friday prayers in a small mosque in the interior of the popular Cairo district of Imbaba. “The people – demand – the fall of this regime!” Again and again the call went out. We started to walk: “Your security. Your police –killed our brothers in Suez.”
The numbers grew. Every balcony was full of people: women smiling, waving, dangling babies to the tune of the chants: “Bread! Freedom! Social justice!” Old women called: “God give you victory.”
For more than an hour the protest wound through the narrow lanes. Kids ran alongside. A woman picking through garbage and loading scraps into plastic bags paused and raised her hand in a salute. By the time we wound on to a flyover to head for downtown we were easily 3,000 people. (“An eyewitness account of the Egypt protests,” Guardian, January 28)
* “If you can’t organize where you is, you can’t organize where you ain’t” — received Saul Alinsky-style wisdom
Missing step, How to Defend a Public Plaza from Cops and Mobs of Hired Thugs: Seriously, I’m curious. And a lot of experience has been generated.
How to make demands from a giant crowd: Now that Tahrir Square has proclaimed itself an “autonomous republic,” and demands are flying from every corner of Egyptian society, not to mention every foreign government, the crowds whose effort has made change possible are trying to articulate their demands. Here’s how:
In Tahrir, the square that has become the focal point for the nationwide struggle against Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship, groups of protesters have been debating what their precise goals should be in the face of their president’s continuing refusal to stand down.
The Guardian has learned that delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of cheers or boos it receives from the crowd at large.
Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions.
“When the government shut down the web, politics moved on to the street, and that’s where it has stayed,” said one youth involved in the process. “It’s impossible to construct a perfect decision-making mechanism in such a fast-moving environment, but this is as democratic as we can possibly be.” (“Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,” Guardian, February 5)
As I alternate between interviewing Bolivians about the process of mass collective action that overthrew two neoliberal governments in 2003 and 2005, and watching the unfolding uprising in Egypt by the Internet, I’m doing my best to learn from both situations. For now, here’s one bit of writing describing Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War that seems especially relevant to events in Egypt in 2011:
Hay ocasiones en que la muerte y el miedo son los puntos infranqueables que detienen una insurgencia social frente a las murallas del gobierno. Por eso el Estado necesita monopolizar la coerción legítima pues ésta, que encarna el posible uso de la violencia y muerte en contra de la sociedad, es la garantía última y final de todo orden político constituido. Sin embargo, hay momentos en que la muerte cataliza el ímpetu de la sublevación, en que la muerte es la seña que permite unificar colectividades distanciadas dando pie a un tipo de hermandad extendida en el dolor y el luto. En ese momento la muerte es derrotada por la vitalidad de una sublevación de voluntades sociales llamada insurrección.
There are occasions when death and fear are the insuperable obstacles that stand in the way of a social insurgency outside the walls of government power. For this reason, the State needs to monopolize legitimate coercion, which embodies the possible use of violence and death against the society, since this is the last and final guarantee of every constituted political order.
Nevertheless, there are moments in which death [instead] catalyzes the impetus of the uprising, in which death is the sign under which formerly distant collectivities can unify, giving rise to a sort of extended bortherhood of pain and mourning. In that moment, death is defeated by the vitality of the uprising of social wills that is called insurrection.
—Álvaro García Linera, “La sublevación indígena popular en Bolivia
[The Indigenous Popular Uprising in Bolivia],” 2004
On Sunday, Egypt held parliamentary elections which are widely known to be neither free nor fair (denunciation by the Carnegie Endowment for international peace). The elections were a demonstration of the government’s plans in advance of the 2011 elections, when long-time president Hosni Mubarak may make way for his son to rise as a successor. Unlike the media frenzy over the selection of Kim Jong-Il’s son to receive a special title, little mainstream outrage has been directed at Mubarak’s machinations. Egypt remains under its third decade of emergency rule (which ban demonstrations and some opposition parties), and is the largest non-democratic recipient of United States’ foreign aid by far. It’s also the largest undemocratic country in the Middle East, helped to remain so by our tax dollars, and military and diplomatic support. It’s the clearest sign that the alleged US policy to support democracy in the region is a joke.
In the absence of outside support, people in Egypt have made a number of challenges to this situation. One of the latest was the mid-day peaceful uprising on Sunday by residents of Balteem and Hamoul against voter fraud. Their actions were in defense of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy (profile). Since 1995, three of Sabahy’s voters have been killed by Egyptian riot police, while he won office in 2000 and 2005.
8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps.
9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.
1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.
1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.
2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”
4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”
The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.
Ultimately, these efforts appear not to have saved the day. Instead it was the threat of further government violence that won. Al Ahram reported at 4:35 pm, “Police armored vehicles have stormed Balteem, in Kafr El-Sheikh, firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air.” Later, Sabahy himself convinced his supporters to stand down (again, the full day is here):
7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon.
Somewhat obnoxiously, a government spokesman claimed, “The [governing] party’s careful selection of its candidates was a factor in defeating big opposition names such as Hamdeen Sabahi.” Sabahy withdrew from the race, and made these comments later: “The rigging proves that the [governing] NDP wants no opposition in parliament. With the new parliament, we will see increased restrictions on freedom of expression, including new restrictions on the media.” Whatever the wisdom of backing down (and no one should be too eager to second guess such moves when lives are at stake), residents’ willingness to take their anger to the streets are remarkable under so much pressure.