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Ethnography in a time of upheaval – Egypt before and after the ‘Arab spring’

Even within the narrower parameters of public spaces, debates which might lead to issues around accountability and transparency are not hugely popular in the public eye.

lead Snapshots of daily life: before and after.This is the third interview in a series on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers undertake in conducting research in the Middle East. These interviews attempt to focus on questions of methodology, and the obstacles encountered by researchers when doing fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. In this interview with Leila Zaki Chakravarti, Mona Abaza explores how these issues apply within the context of contemporary Egypt.

Mona Abaza (MA): Your pre-Arab uprisings research is published as a formal, in-depth ethnography of a working garment assembly plant in Port Said. Yet your more recent work consists of shorter, what you call ‘ethnographic snapshots’ of daily life in Cairo before and after Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. How much of this shift in research approach is down to external factors relating to Egypt’s uprising, and how much of it is just a matter of personal development and preference?

Leila Zaki Chakravarti (LZC): I don’t know of a single Egyptian who couldn’t tell you where they were at the time Tahrir Square erupted into revolution. I myself was in London, watching the astonishing scenes on TV. It wasn’t different from a time of war, when the homeland takes on a vivid, concrete presence in one’s overseas location. I was as confused as the rest of my friends (some of whom took the first flight home to become part of the change) over what to make of it all, and how far things might go. The repercussions of those heady days are still tangible in the lack of consensus and prevailing confusion over whether the events of January 25 constituted a popular revolt, or formed part of the wider regional agenda of political Islam, or were simply a soft military coup aimed at the ultimate preservation of the system. Even families are not able to reconcile their differences on these issues.

The deep polarisation and divisiveness around us reflects a continuing inability, perhaps even a refusal, to settle on a plausible interpretive framework – and this has inevitably had a formative effect on my continuing attempts to ‘do ethnography at home’.

I have had to modify both my research methods and my preferred modes of publication. The former have had to become somewhat more piecemeal, though not I hope less coherent (and certainly no less academically rigorous). And as for the latter, I have been trying to write in a less specialised language, and publish through more widely accessible channels than just formal academic journals.

MA: What were your earliest experiences of ‘Arab Spring Egypt’?

LZC: My first visit to Egypt in April 2011 made me instantly attuned to the state of virtual civil breakdown.  The police were clearly in an ‘out of action’ mode, invisible on the streets, and everywhere around me there were unspoken, less tangible features of public disorder.  The sudden absence of public security was being taken as the first warning of fragmentation or even total collapse of the state, and there was talk of ordinary Egyptians arming themselves in their homes with live ammunition out of fear of violence either to their families or their property.

There were widespread rumours and stories of mafia-like gangs in control of car-theft rackets, with owners who reported the theft of their vehicles to the police being told to go and do deals with middle-men and thugs in order to get their cars back. Huge sums of money were said to be involved in these exchanges between the different parties involved in these scripted transactions, including the police. One family I know had an elderly female relative living alone. She was found murdered in her living room, which drove the family not to seek the help of the police, but instead to consult soothsayers to ascertain if the killer would be found and justice done. These troubling features of public disorder were part of the day-to-day reality of survival politics, as the economic situation deteriorated into almost total stagnation, and amplified such problems even further.

Within such a turbulent environment (very different from the basically settled – albeit precarious – circumstances of my factory fieldwork site in Port Said in 2004-5) the very notion of what constitutes ethnographic research started to appear increasingly questionable in my mind.

MA: So what areas for ‘research’ grabbed your interest?  And how was that different from the research you had conducted previously in Egypt?

LZC: The very first word in the Tahrir protestors’ chanted demands for “Eish, hurriya wi ‘adala igtima’iyya! (bread, freedom and social justice!)” emphasised how their new vision of a changed Egypt was to involve a more equitable society, with the gap between the haves and have-nots being substantively addressed.

Of course, there is nothing really new in the relevance of the fundamental economic argument. Analytically, the theme already resonates with what the Tunisian intellectual Larbi Sadiki in his analysis of the role of bread subsidies in the waves of economic reforms engulfing the region calls dimukratiyyat il-khubs (‘the democracy of bread’). Egyptians still recall the ‘bread riots’ of 1977, during Sadat’s ‘blood transfusion’ of the economy (as his infitah – opening - economic policy was popularly known), or the shuhada’ il-khubs (bread martyrs) of 2008, when Mubarak’s threat of removing bread subsidies claimed protestors’ lives, and pushed the government to change its script. And bread and butter economic issues had provided an important focus for my earlier ethnographic research into the aspirations and struggles of the young, educated and mixed-gender workforce of a garment assembly plant in Port Said, caught within a nexus of the intensively competitive supply chains of the globalised economy. The Tahrir demand was, however, not simply for khubs (the classical Arabic word for bread) but for eish (the more multi-layered Egyptian colloquial word which also means ‘life itself’).

The Tahrir demand was, however, not simply for khubs (the classical Arabic word for bread) but for eish (the more multi-layered Egyptian colloquial word which also means ‘life itself’). And indeed the rest of the Tahrir chant makes clear the inextricable unity between basic, and long-festering, ‘bread and butter’ issues on the one hand, and the need for social inclusion, political participation, equality and human dignity on the other. So it was questions around the multiple, many-layered meanings being associated with the very word thawra (revolution) – extending to articulations of the need for finding one’s voice, for individual freedom, or for sexual freedom – which became an important focus of my work.

But whereas the fieldwork experience to complete a PhD required total immersion in Port Said (where I stayed for almost 15 months), my more recent research themes, by contrast, grew out of personal encounters in my neighbourhood during the lapses in law and order following the uprising.

The first encounter took place on the morning of my arrival in Cairo, when I flung open my garden window to find that an uneducated street vendor from Fayyoum (a rural oasis some 100km from Cairo) had set up a bustling street cafe business on the pavement outside, using my garden as a storage place, and drawing the water he needed to cook and clean from my outdoor tap (for which I was of course paying). At the time all the high-level political debates filling the TV screens involved revolutionary and reactionary forces locking horns in a race to replace the old order, with arguing heads engaged in the thick of personality politics to ascertain the political and religious credentials of different political parties.

Grassroots politics, however, was meanwhile engaged (just as energetically) in doing battle over more mundane resources, as evidenced by the search by such ‘entrepreneurs of the revolution’ for economic opportunity, albeit within the more intimate, but no less ferocious, politics of neighbourhoods.

Entrepreneurs of the revolution.MA: What research methods turned out to be valuable to your ethnographic research work? And what were the main themes which emerged?

LZC: Out of this personal engagement in Egypt’s trials and tribulations came my first steps in compiling short ‘ethnographic snapshots’, as I came to call them, of whatever developments grabbed my attention, and about which people were prepared to talk. Intuition played, and continues to play, a big part in assessing if an encounter, or something someone said, could be the beginning of a new line of inquiry. Fieldwork notes became a cathartic tool to capture snippets of life in my neighbourhood, and in the different areas to which I travelled during successive trips I made to Egypt, as on an almost daily basis I diligently kept notes on how change was being experienced at the grass roots level.

I can now see how each successive snapshot both represents and sign-posts a particular stage on Egypt’s post-revolution road map – through rule by SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), followed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s short stint in government, and then the eventual return of military-in-all-but-name government under President Sisi. Each piece drew on observation, questions, more questions, photographs, and long conversations within neighbourhoods.

These proved to be ideal settings within which to triangulate data and crosscheck references, especially when the neighbourhoods were places you knew well from childhood. The complex entanglements in horizontal networks (as elaborated by John Chalcraft) became a useful framework for exploring what Roger Hardy describes as ‘the story behind the story’.

In the street-cafe vendor’s case, for example, exploring these networks had the effect of highlighting the hefty bribes he had to pay to local police and officials when he sought to secure ‘protection’ for his illegal street business – but which backfired later as opportunities for blackmail when he moved into the local market and opened a falafel shop, and his business success caused immeasurable jealousies among other more established local traders, and even well-to-do and socially prominent families living in the area.

In a more recent case that I came across and will publish about later this year (involving the filming of commercial TV soaps in hired-out private apartments), I found that such networks and alliances can even cut across entrenched class divides, and involve short-term negotiated partnerships which would otherwise have remained out of sight.

I also found that, for me as a researcher, the standard ‘case-study’ approach was giving way to more longitudinal methods of fieldwork as I followed the street vendor’s progress – and setbacks – over successive visits to Cairo. This made it possible to explore changing patterns and deeper tensions within basic bread and butter issues, and how these themes interplay with other aspects of polarisation in local markets and neighbourhoods. These include the rural/urban and unprivileged/affluent divides found in the experience of the itinerant vendors who descended on Cairo’s middle class neighbourhoods, or the hidden gendered features of class in new patterns of female employment brought about by the changed economic, political and social environment. I also became aware of how these different mutations could be moulded into opportunities that either mitigated against or enhanced individual economic and social power. The issue of mobility across the city became an almost obsessive research focus in 2013, when fears of violent retaliation by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood affected the livelihoods of informal-sector workers travelling across the city.

I specifically recall how the issue of mobility across the city became an almost obsessive research focus in 2013, when fears of violent retaliation by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood affected the livelihoods of informal-sector workers travelling across the city, forcing many to make extremely complicated and costly travel arrangements. It was interesting how it also led to other revealing developments, such as the widespread use of illegal tuk-tuks in working class neighbourhoods – initially a self-help measure set up to protect residents from violence within their own localities, but later given quasi-legal status by the government to operate across other prescribed areas within the city. 

In these ways the simple mundane exercise of a ‘journey into work’ became loaded with class and gender subtexts, showing how the entire process of basic bread and butter issues is never impartial for the grassroots, and how their daily-life struggles contextualise the multiple layers of meanings of the chants of January 25.

MA: How would you describe your difficulties in doing research - and are there ways of overcoming these hurdles? In particular, where do you stand on the vexed issue of ‘self-censorship’?

LZC: The restoration of istiqrar (stability) has from the start been the watchword of the Sisi regime, with its strong emphasis on saving the institutions of the state from collapse, and its seemingly unending “Harb ala il-irhab (War on Terror)”.  

Yet it is clear to me that this form of ‘stability by Presidential Decree’, forcefully implemented by the resilient institutions of the state, has had the effect of suppressing participation. It has meant that the public spaces for debate and freethinking have shrunk considerably, presenting practical problems, and requiring a different approach, to research. The length of time to collect convincing data is much longer, and I have recently found that more than one trip is needed to acquire a sense of the internal coherence to the multiple dimensions of any one story. Many interlocutors seem unable – or unwilling, at least initially – to express their thoughts freely, though I don’t believe this is out of fear of state power so much as the absence of reliable and mutually accepted facts and data. It is nevertheless the case that, even within the narrower parameters of public spaces, debates which might lead to issues around accountability and transparency are not hugely popular in the public eye. It has meant that the public spaces for debate and freethinking have shrunk considerably, presenting practical problems, and requiring a different approach, to research.  

Other difficulties are invariably security-related, with the need for constant awareness about whether the material being collected might be susceptible to being regarded as ‘classified’ or ‘subversive’ by hyper-vigilant security agencies, always on the lookout for ‘collaborators with the enemies of the state’.

This goes well beyond basic ethical issues such as obtaining interlocutors’ consent for interviews and quotations. It extends to the forms in which research results can eventually be published eg waiting until an issue has ceased to be sensitive or ‘hot’ (even at the risk of the work appearing dated); or leaving the political punch to the last paragraphs of a paper (rather than upfront at the start, as some editors seem to prefer); or sanitising visuals eg to remove revolutionary graffiti and debris from images of ‘stabilised’ urban scenes; or avoiding publishing anything on or near anniversaries of critical events.

Every researcher who has worked under these conditions over the past 6 years must have assembled their own manual of such precautionary measures. Whether they combine to amount to ‘self-censorship’ is, I suppose, ultimately a matter of individual judgement. What seems to me incontestable is that such tactics call for a heightened degree of agency on the part of researchers as to what, and how, they are prepared to commit to print, so as to maintain professional and personal integrity in providing truthful accounts of even those features of post-‘Arab Spring’ reality which are the most challenging and painful to witness, analyse and record.

About the authors

Leila Zaki Chakravarti is a Research Fellow at the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies, London University. She is currently publishing a monograph based on her PhD fieldwork exploring constructs of class, gender and religion within an export-orientated garment manufacturing factory in Port Said, Egypt. Her current research interests focus on constructs of masculinity within the workspaces of professional football.


Mona Abaza is Professor at the Department of Sociology, American University in Cairo. Her latest books include The Cotton Plantation Remembered: An Egyptian Family  Story (American University in Cairo Press, 2013) and Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei (American University in Cairo Press, 2011).

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