Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Ceci n’est pas une Iraq

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by Luce

There will likely be a lot of punditry, scrawlings, and even astute analyses in the coming days on the military strikes by American and European forces in Libya right now. I have none of the above to offer. Instead I’ll point your way to a very good analysis by Andrew Arato at, enriched by comparatives with a wide range of modern revolutions, on the military’s role in the Egyptian revolution and possibilities for actual regime change there. A few select quotes:

Accordingly, it would be possible to treat in Egypt, the current junta and its top down method of change similarly to the various efforts of Communist and other authoritarian governments to save regimes through reform from above. They should be forced to discover that this method cannot be legitimate unless it is fully negotiated with the widest possible inclusion of opposition actors.


Let me conclude. The events in Egypt should have inspired us all (except for the Israeli right perhaps that is losing an enabler to go on without changing their rejectionist policies). We should not however suspend our critical tools when we examine the results. The project of creating a constitutional democracy in the largest Arab country is far from done, and we should realize that the very revolutionary form the country’s liberation has taken represents serious dangers to the possibility of a genuine democratic regime change the popular movements are struggling for.

And then more “of the moment” (notice how passe Egypt is now that Libya is of the moment) a nice play on Magritte’s surrealist “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” by a former roommate referencing France’s military action in Libya against Qaddafi:


Written by Kristen Loveland

March 19, 2011 at 21:09

Posted in Egypt, Libya, revolution

Imperial Realism

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by apini

To begin, an admission: I am a liberal historian/academic who likes Niall Ferguson.  His most recent article, though, really disappointed me.  He deals with the reasons why Americans should be less than enthusiastic about spreading revolutions in the Islamic world.  He also criticizes Obama’s administration for a lack of strategy in dealing with these revolutions.  I agree with the general premise that revolutions are not always good, even if they are sometimes necessary, because frequently they become dominated by orthodox radicals.  I agree that violent, destructive, and protracted wars are not good for anyone (though I would count amongst those wars the ‘wars of liberation’ in Iraq and Afghanistan…). I like that he points out, fairly eloquently, a lot of the strange contradictions about America’s own bourgeois revolutionary spirit.

But for someone who has looked at both the British and American Empires, Ferguson seems to miss one of the key features of how empires work (and their limited ability to promote a consistent ideological message).  This is not too surprising given the lack of focus on collaboration and the practicalities of empire in these books, in favour of a focus on the ‘civilising mission’, democracy, the rule of law, and the gift of ‘modernity’ and capitalism bestowed on empire’s grateful populations.

Ferguson states that

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Written by apini

March 3, 2011 at 13:46

Are We Experts Yet? Historians on the Street

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I am really pleased to be able to introduce a post from the pseudonymous JP Schneider, who in the middle of tapping out his dissertation gives answer to the question: what role can historians hope to play as “experts” on contemporary historical events, such as the recent revolutions in the Middle East? -Luce

by JP Schneider

There is an alarming but nonetheless unsurprising degree of historical myopia amongst journalists, commentators, pundits, 24-hour news networks and “experts” on the convulsions that are sweeping the crumbling dictatorships in North Africa and the “Middle East”. Many are prone to suggesting that this is an Arab version of 1989, a lazy parallel that paints the Arabs as a singular, monolithic entity, and that the systems that oppressed these people in various states somehow possess a uniformly similar economic-political system that benighted those countries – and soon-to-be countries – under the Soviet boot.  So what can historians who study the region bring to bear on public understandings of what is happening at the moment, an especially pertinent question given the criticisms leveled at Middle Eastern studies departments in the US for failing to predict such seminal events as the 1979 Iranian Revolution?

The answer, of course, is relatively little. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the cry of a post-modernist; while it has its uses, post-modernism is ultimately an invitation to get lost in linguistic and methodological contortions and disappear down the rabbit hole of futility. Rather, the point I am making is a relevant corrective to those who are trotted out, whether in the academy or in the media, as having a more informed viewpoint than the rest of us helots.

And this speaks to a broader issue about the way in which historians do their research. Let’s say we are an historian of Egypt, or indeed, for that matter, Germany. What does that research entail? We spend most of our time sitting in archives because we don’t have the time (or the money) to get out and get talking to a wide variety of people. We may be lucky and have the benefit of a wide variety of contacts in our country of choice that we can draw on to get an “authentic” view. But how representative are they? If we’re researching nineteenth century trade unionism in Egypt or Germany, how many trade unionists do we know or speak to while we’re there on that oh-too-brief research trip? Yet as soon as we’re back in our citadels of learning we are drawn on as the repository of knowledge – historical and contemporary – on unfolding situations in our areas of expertise. Think about the situation with the higher echelons within the academy. Sure they have many more years of in-country experience, and a vast network of contacts, but how much faith should we place in the pronouncements of those with named chairs? When was the last time Juan Cole (much as I respect him) visited Egypt?

Should historians even be trying to gauge the present-day situation in their chosen country? Of course they should. The consequences of events and trends that occur in the past are all around us today. The Turkish kebab shop that sold you that deliciously unhealthy piece of meat: one small portion of the history of the Gastarbeiter. The many taxi drivers in Cairo, highly educated yet unable to find a job commensurate with their qualifications: the stagnation of the (late) Mubarak regime.

So what, I hear you cry as you stab the laptop screen in disgust and dismay. Simply this. As historians we should spend less time in archives and more time making the most of the countries we are temporary visitors in. The book or journal article can be delayed a little while. Interactions – whether snatched moments or lingering conversations – with our fellow men and women cannot. Ultimately, the scholarly work we produce will be richer for it. We might even be lucky enough to be there when history is being made in front of us.

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 28, 2011 at 09:37

The men who would be president

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by apini

I guess I’m starting with an obligatory Egypt post: I’m ambivalent.  It’s a complicated, messy situation with lots of political, social and economic causes and even more potential outcomes.  I am cautious about revolutions because after all the adrenaline, after the excitement, who will really want to go back to life as usual?  And I’m cautious because I don’t really see how a military take over is any more democratic than Mubarak’s sham elections.

But this post isn’t really about Egypt.  It’s about Cote d’Ivoire.  It’s about another place where democracy had been thwarted by a power-hungry president.  Cote d’Ivoire’s elections were the first since the end of its civil war in 2004.  Significantly, they had already been postponed once in 2007, and then again a week before, finally, runoff voting actually began in November.  When the electorate’s decision was announced by the Electoral Commission in early December, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.  This despite the fact that his opponent, Alessane Ouattara, had what in most Western Democracies would be considered a mandate: 54% of the vote to Gbagbo’s 46%.

Since early December, there has been unrest in the country.  Supporters of both candidates have been involved in violence.  Gbagbo sent the military to surround the hotel where Ouattara and his staff are staying.  In the most recently reported developments, Gbagbo has banned UN radio in the country.

Okay, they’re not really a strategic ally in the same way as Egypt.  As the world’s largest producer of cocoa, though, they aren’t insignificant, particularly given the importance of rising food prices to the beginning of these “Middle Eastern” revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.  The BBC has not had any significant coverage of Cote d’Ivoire since the Egyptian crisis began.

So what does this mean?  Well, I have two takes on it: one pessimistic, and one more optimistic, in a pessimistic kind of way.

I suppose the reason I’m outraged by this coverage is that I see it as reflective of the West’s general long-standing attitude toward Africa.  Divisions are described as “tribal” and ancient and written off.   This is part of a wider problem of what I call “media path dependency,” but which Philip Curtin more lengthily (and elegantly) explains as Africa’s image problem in The Image of Africa. Journalists’ (and academics’, and politicians’, and civil servants’, and the publics’) shorthand for understanding and describing what is going on in other parts of the world seems to rely fairly heavily on understandings and descriptions that have remained almost entirely unchanged in meaning (if not in exact language used) since the nineteenth century.  So when writing about political change in the Middle East, the people are staging a revolution against ‘tyrants’; in Africa two sides are described ethnically and their leaders are portrayed as rival ‘Big Men’ or tribal leaders; and in Asia, people rarely rebel, but when they do, it’s against ‘technocrats’.   And so desire to write these stories follows these paths as well: the Middle East is about politics; Africa is about humanitarian intervention in times of tribal chaos; and Asia is about trade.  So unless mass killing starts to take place in Cote d’Ivoire, it’s too confusing a story.  And even if it does, it will only be ‘natural’ and then of course the aid will follow to help the victims.  Africa’s politics are not taken seriously, and neither are the legitimate, democratic demands made by African citizens.  A recent article in The New Yorker pointed out that even opposition leaders resort to shocking stunts in order to draw international attention to ‘developing humanitarian crises’ that in many cases are just political problems gone wrong.

However, there’s another way to think about this that might be more positive (though probably not).   That is, that the West has been messing with Africa’s politics for far too long.  And people who study Africa and know what little media coverage it gets, see themselves (ourselves) as championing the continent and bringing it to the world’s attention.  But does Africa always need our help?  Does Egypt even need our help?  Or are we just getting in the way?  The African Union seems to be taking the lead in Cote d’Ivoire, and maybe that’s not a bad thing (although they now seem to be supporting Gbagbo).  In a lot of situations, the UN and Western countries seem to think they have a moral responsibility to intervene in Africa, even when they don’t (see hand-wringing/excuse-making re: Somalia, Rwanda, DRC, Biafra).   But this isn’t new either: those who felt guilty about the slave trade kept trying to intervene on the slaves’ behalf throughout the 19th century, bringing Christianity, capitalism, and ‘civilization’ and ultimately, colonial rule.  Replace those with development aid, fair trade, and democracy and perhaps a lack of interest from interventionist governments like the US and UK starts to look like a refreshing break with the past.

Obviously this is a difficult position to take if you believe that democracy and liberalism are universally good.  But if you believe that, then I guess you should be outraged that Cote d’Ivoire’s struggle for democracy has been seen its priority fall as politicians and most media outlets turn their attention to the more technologically exciting revolution (popularly supported coup?) in Egypt.

Written by apini

February 14, 2011 at 12:37

The Subaltern of Your Dreams, and Mine: Egyptian Women in Tahrir Square

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I’m very pleased to introduce a guest post from Mircea, a history grad studying South Asia, first published at his blog, Just Speculations. I’m particularly glad that he’s coined the phrase “subaltern of my dreams.” I can only hope this will be the title of his first book. – Luce

by Mircea

Over on facebook, Leil Zahra-Mortada has collected an album of photographs of women protesting in Cairo over the past weeks. Here are a few particularly striking ones:

My first impulse, after I broke out in tears, was to think about theories of subjectivity and the challenge of Berkeley anthropologist Saba Mahmood to feminist notions of agency in her book Politics of Piety. Mahmood had studied women who participated in the Islamic revivalist mosque movement in Egypt and focused on how they ethically “trained” their bodies and sensibilities to meet the demands of Islamic norms. In so doing, and building on the work of Talal Asad, she questioned the understanding of “agency” as a reflection of a subject’s conscious will and desire. Instead, it was possible for women to express agency even in the very act of following norms that Western feminism would deem oppressive and patriarchal. This, of course, set her on a collision path with those feminists who allied themselves with neo-conservative imperialism in order to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan, Iran and the wider Middle East. In a 2008 essay entitled “Feminism, Democracy and Empire,” Mahmood refuses to allow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azar Nafisi and Irshad Manji to serve as spokeswomen for all Muslim women. Why not listen, instead, to the myriad women’s movements and organisations, across the political and religious spectrum, in the Muslim world?

The Revolution in Egypt, and especially the photographs above, have shown to whoever cared to listen that Muslim women can make their voices heard alongside with men, demand those same political and social rights that supposedly belong to the Western “liberal” tradition, and scream, cry, bleed and die for them. Of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t care to listen. In a recent op-ed, written while Mubarak’s security apparatus was still beating people to a pulp in the streets of Cairo, she worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s hypothetical takeover. Bemoaning the supposed weakness of the “secular democratic forces,” she paints a dark scenario based, it appears, on some turgid autobiographical stories from when she was 15. It is assumed throughout, based on her previous books, that one of the bad things about the coming reign of Sharia will be women’s oppression.

And then it hit me: what all these critics, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Glenn Beck to French legislators banning the veil, have done is to effectively de-humanise the majority of Muslim women. Any woman who wears a scarf and/or niqab, who bears the outward signs of the patriarchal oppression that lies beneath, cannot be heard in her own voice. Look again at those photos. Those women, caught in a snapshot of anger or passion, are not calculating their own future status under the Muslim Brotherhood, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does for them while safely ensconced in the US. They are not theorizing how conservative or liberal they are, or how much agency they get. They stand side by side with women in jeans, T-shirts and fashionable scarves. Because what they’re wearing doesn’t matter, even their being women qua women ceases to matter for the moment. They are demanding Mubarak leave and the country see free elections. Subalterns do speak, and when they do they may not be the subaltern of your dreams, or mine. They don’t say, “Freedom, but as long as what comes next isn’t too Islamic, in which case we should just stay put.” They say, “Freedom. Now.”

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Written by Kristen Loveland

February 14, 2011 at 06:50