Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘revolution’ 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

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 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.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 14, 2011 at 06:50

Thoughts on Egypt

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by Weiner

One can’t help but feel energized by recent events in Egypt. Though I’ve studied the Middle East a bit in my day, I’m by no means an expert and am wary of making any forecasts or even attempts at sophisticated analysis. While I’m optimistic, the cynic in me says that we must be cautious, aid and encourage the forces of democracy as best we can, but not declare victory just yet.

As a historian, I try to think of causes. Many are trying to credit Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, or G.W. Bush’s rhetoric of freedom and funding for election monitors, or the activism of labour unions, or the technologies like Facebook and Twitter, for fomenting, or causing, or aiding this revolution and speeding Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In truth, I think it’s probably fruitless to look for a monocausal explanation. I think all these factors were and are important, to a greater or lesser degree. But if I had to identify the most important element, using Occam’s razor and opting for the simplest explanation, I wouldn’t choose Bush or Obama or any of the others. I would go with Thomas Friedman’s take: “they did it.” Inspired by the example of Tunisia, having been clamoring for freedom for over a century if not more, the people of Egypt brought the autocratic regime down. These were people from all walks of life, young and old, religious and secular, Muslim and Christian, poor people and workers and elites and intellectuals and members of the middle class, soldiers and civilians, but Egyptians all (I apologize for being all hokey here).

The other significant thought I have is about non-violent resistance, especially in light of the recent shootings in Tucson. Many Americans worship the Constitution’s Second Amendment not just out of a principle of freedom, but out of genuine distrust of the government, of the notion that an armed citizenry provides some sort of “check” on government authority. I always thought this view rather fanciful. The millions of American gun-owners, however rowdy they may or may not be, do not really threaten government authority in the United States. The US military has tanks and planes and bombs that could easily overwhelm them. Instead, we need only look to the recent history of the Civil Rights movement to show that non-violent resistance can actually force the government’s hand and bend it to the people’s will far more effectively than the “barrel of a gun” that Mao claimed as the locus of power. A tweet from Keith Olbermann crystallized this thought in mind: “the right to bear arms (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter in overthrowing tyranny.”

I always suspected as much was true in a democratic context like that of modern America, but I never imagined it could also be true in authoritarian regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt. True, real power may reside with the Egyptian military, but what we often forget in these contexts is that institutions like the military are made up of real people. People who were once civilians, and may again be civilians in the future. People who have friends and relatives across the spectrum of society. People who are moved and inspired by the throngs of their compatriots crying out for freedom.

I am no pacifist. Armed struggle has its place in the arc of justice. But the lesson of Egypt is one all Americans should take to heart, even those who “cling to guns and religion.”

Written by David Weinfeld

February 13, 2011 at 15:28

Going Beyond “The Revolution Will (Not) Be Tweeted”

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by Luce

This blog has already broached the question of what causal role we ascribe to technology in historical events, particularly in recent revolutions and uprisings in Tunisia and now Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell recently asked whether the Egyptians need twitter to revolt (answer: No), reasserting his conviction from last fall that

‘high risk’ social activism requires deep roots and strong ties… surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.

I’m not sure if I’d go that far. But what has felicitously fallen into my lap during my qualifying exams prep? An entire book devoted to the question of Control and Freedom Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. While not explicitly focused on political uprisings, her opening paragraph goes:

We have lived, and still live in, exciting times, from the fall of the Berlin wall to the heady days of the dot-com era, from the events of September 11, 2001, to the ongoing turmoil in geopolitical relations. all these events have been linked to freedom: the triumph of the Free World, the free market, and the free circulation of information; threats to freedom from abroad, and the U.S. mission to spread democracy and freedom. All these events have also been linked to technology and networks: Eastern Europe’s collapse has been attributed to computer technology and broadcast/satellite television; terrorist networks turn everyday technologies like airplanes and cell phone into weapons; the U.S. military’s and intelligence agencies’ control and communications networks are without rival, if not without fault. But what does it mean to attribute such causality to technology and link freedom to what are essentially control technologies?

In my best grad student fashion, I’m going to pull two conclusions already from this paragraph: first that the idea of technology as politically transformative is an old story, a fact that itself makes the relationship between technology and political freedom quite interesting; and second that what may be uninteresting in all the recent analyses of the significance of the tweet is the superficiality of the analysis. “Did twitter cause the revolution?” is a silly question and provokes a yawn-fest of a debate. “What does it mean to attribute such causality to technology and link freedom to what are essentially control technologies?” That’s something to think about.

I’ll get back to you when I’ve read the book’s other 300 pages. Is it too much to hope that might happen in a few hours or so?

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 4, 2011 at 10:20

The Tunisian Revolution on Facebook?

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by Weiner

I’m not sure if David Kirkpatrick, author of the pro-Mark Zuckerberg The Facebook Effect, and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times journalist recently reporting from Tunisia, are the same person. I suspect not. Still, I thought it was a remarkable coincidence when David D. Kirpatrick cited the following as evidence for Tunisian strongman General Rachid Ammar’s growing popularity:

On Facebook, a staging ground of the street revolt, almost 1,700 people had clicked that they “like” a Web page named “General Rachid Ammar President” and emblazoned with his official photographs.

The coincidence proved especially powerful because the first few pages of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect celebrated Facebook’s ability to organize popular netroots opposition to FARC in Colombia.

This in turn reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.” In response to those who praised the role of Twitter and Facebook in bolstering Iran’s recent and shortlived “Green Revolution,” Gladwell noted that real protest, like the 1960 lunchcounter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, takes place with tremendous effort, face-to-face organizing, and genuine sacrifice: putting jobs and school on hold so you can sit at a segregated lunchcounter for days on end. That kind of movement takes much more energy than simply clicking “like” on a Facebook page or retweeting a political tweet. Of course, people did actually take to the streets in Iran, but the point is that they were the real revolutionaries, not the ones who watched safely from their computer monitors.

I have no idea what’s about to happen in Tunisia, or Lebanon, or anywhere else where revolution is brewing. I hope that Facebook and Twitter can aid progressive and popular social movements. But with an eye to history, I, like Gladwell, suspect that real change comes only with real sacrifice, with solidarity forged through strong emotional ties rather than cyber-friendship.