Nile Delta: my current field site. Nada T.This interview is in a series on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers undertake in conducting research in the Middle East. These conversations attempt to focus on questions of methodology, and the obstacles encountered by researchers when doing fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. In this interview with Nada T., Mona Abaza continues her exploration of how these issues apply within the context of contemporary Egypt.
Mona Abaza (MA): Nada, your experience as a practicing journalist and as a social science researcher over the past couple of years has been directly affected by the transformations in the political environment from 2011 until today. You started your first year of a PhD program two months after Egypt’s military coup in 2013 that resulted in the removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power and the ascent of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. You spent the summers of 2014 and 2015 undergoing preparatory fieldwork for your dissertation research in a Nile Delta village that you first came to know through your work as a journalist. Tell us more about your research.
Nada T. (NT): My research looks at the role of infrastructure in shaping collective mobilization and issues of sovereignty and rights outside of Egypt’s city centers. My initial research started out by looking at contestations surrounding state infrastructure construction and failures.
I focused on a small village of approximately 5,000 members who started a collective movement in 2012 attempting to pressure the local municipal government representatives to provide basic infrastructural services like a paved road, a school, and a medical unit. The movement took place a year following the 2011 revolution but had its roots in at least a decade prior to this when a collective disobedience movement was launched that sought to achieve administrative independence from their governorate.
In the absence of these services, the village community members, mainly made up of a committee of migrant youth in the village, had started over the past decade to fund and work towards the construction of the missing projects.
Through my research, I sought to explore incentives for political action, the avenues people took to foreground and gain rights, and the channels chosen for negotiating and challenging power structures. I investigated how marginalized rural communities outside of the urban centers of control used infrastructure as a way to push for state accountability and recognition.
I therefore looked at how infrastructure became the channel chosen by these rural communities to claim rights and implicate state institutions and officials in their own demands for increased sovereignty.
On a parallel track, I was also following social and political changes in rural Egypt through a focus on generations. I am interesting in monitoring how notions of citizenship and rights are generationally determined. Rural Egypt has experienced a number of significant political transformations over the past couple of decades, beginning with the land reform in the 1950’s of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whose policies redistributed land to a large portion of the fellahin. Three decades later however, Egypt under presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak pushed through economic liberalization policies that resulted in a direct reversal of the agricultural land ownership system. As a result, I wanted to look at how the different generations, primarily those who grow up under different political regimes, view the state, as well as their role as citizens within it.
More recently however, I have had to switch my research site to a different Nile Delta governorate as a result of the research difficulties I faced. The switch to my current site, a different rural community in the Nile Delta, aims to carry on addressing the role of infrastructure by looking at transformations in rural Egypt over the past six decades. Yet the research has been taking different routes as a result of my newfound positionality in the new site.
MA: What kinds of difficulties did you face in your research?
NT: I chose the community I first came to know in 2012 to carry out my dissertation research. My entry into the community as a researcher took place relatively smoothly as I had these prior connections as a journalist. Many of the activists in the community welcomed me into their community. They saw this as the return of someone involved in civil society organizations (primarily the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights) and together with other media personnel in support of their struggle.
Despite an increasing security clampdown following the summer of 2013, the real challenges I faced with my fieldwork began in 2016. In the summer of 2016, I returned to my fieldwork site to officially start my period of dissertation research. A month after my return visit to the community, my fieldwork prospects were prematurely cut short. It was on a weekend away from the village that I made some calls to my host family out of courtesy to confirm my return. I received no response for a few days, which was unusual from them. After about over a week of no response, I called the human rights lawyer and activist in the village, who was also one of my key interlocutors. It was through him that the unfortunate news of my inability to return was relayed to me.
During my few days’ absence, the local security forces had interrogated the head of my host family. He was picked out in the village on the basis of a number of leads, including his outspoken political views expressed mainly on his Facebook account. Another reason used against him was his Islamist background. He identified as Salafi but dissociated himself from official party politics; he had left the Salafi Nour party a few months after joining in late 2011, over disagreements with the official political lines of the party.
Another of the main accusations used against him and prompting his interrogation was his welcoming myself into their home and the village. The reasons, as relayed to me, were in relation to my presence as a researcher in the village. Another cause for suspicion was my affiliation to a foreign, specifically American institution.
The interrogators castigated them for responsibility for my presence, and for naively opening up to outside researchers as freely as they had. Moreover, they were indirectly threatened with the suggestion that I should no longer return in order not to put myself in any danger. The village community members were told that they would be directly responsible if anything happened to me, as had happened to “the other foreign researcher”, a reference to Guilio Regeni. The village community members were told that they would be directly responsible if anything happened to me, as had happened to “the other foreign researcher”, a reference to Guilio Regeni.
Regeni’s case was cited as a threat six months after his torture and disappearance, despite the fact that to this day, the Egyptian authorities continue to deny any link to or responsibility for his murder. My presence as a researcher was used as a weapon against the community that had kindly opened up their homes and made time for me. The lawyer in the village advised me to lessen any risk to the community and myself, and discontinue my research in that village.
MA: Did you face other challenges in accessing information?
NT: Part of my project was dependent on carrying out archival research and visiting sites where historical documents could be accessed. I applied to do research in the Egyptian National Archives but when applying in November 2016, was notified that no approvals had been granted for researchers in approximately six months. Since November, I have been waiting for approval.
My research was met with further suspicion at the Agricultural Ministry Library. During the third day of visiting the library and looking at the documents in the rare books section, I, along with my non-Egyptian friend undergoing archival research, were summoned by the head of the library. The initial reason provided was that no one had asked to see the rare books section in the library for several years. Why were we seeking entry?
While we were questioned, we were asked about our academic affiliations and were asked to show some proof. Why were we so interested in the rare books section? I replied by asking the library head why our access to a public library was deemed in any way different from that of the many other students who were carrying out their research unimpeded. His response was that the current period in Egypt was very politically sensitive, requiring extra measures, such as the background check he was carrying out now. This was despite the fact that we had already undergone all the general procedures carried out prior to entering the library, leaving our identification and personal belongings behind and so forth. Since we were affiliated to a foreign institution, he had to make sure who we were and what our incentives for research were. The current period had seen a lot of unfounded criticism of Egypt, he added, which especially justified such questioning.
This is even more the case for researchers attempting to access primary sources to do with the state and the economy. So now I found myself in a situation where not only was my fieldwork viewed with suspicion but also my access to primary sources, even if they were historical documents from an earlier century.
MA: How did you choose an alternative course of research to pursue and did you find this very limiting?
NT: Finding myself in a situation where the project I had prepared for several years together with the theoretical framework from which it had emerged, had to be abandoned, I knew I must find a practical, less risky proposal if I wished to continue my fieldwork. This meant that shifting to another rural context in a different governorate in the Nile Delta. The new site is one that I have been familiar with all my life but not for research purposes. It is the village my family originates from, both on my mother’s and father’s side. It is also where my maternal uncle and grandmother reside. My uncle inherited a leading position in the village and continues to hold that position.
I had to depend on kin networks and local village-level affiliations to undertake further research. Of course, while this alleviates the possible risks of running into security threats or implicating the people I work with, other challenges must emerge. The shift means that I have had to navigate power relations in the village in order to carry out my research as smoothly as I can. Being affiliated to a certain family name automatically limits and frames people’s responses to me in a certain way. This move has also resulted in a shift of focus from state contention to questions of local governance.
As a result, a lot of my current research has had to move towards becoming more ‘domesticated’. My presence in a public space holding a notebook let alone a voice recorder or camera would cause immediate suspicion. In contexts where one is clearly an outsider – standing out as an urban-based, single, female researcher – such distinctions become especially magnified in such an increased climate of fear. I still insist on making transparent my research, my background, and my affiliations to my research interlocutors. However, I have realized that I have become more careful about choosing whom to approach, and have as a result, practiced extra caution in documenting information, relying more on memory, which I later record when in a private setting. Practising fieldwork in the current period generally comes with a sense of heightened precaution. One is forced to assess critically one’s heightened sense of responsibility and the way we are implicated both in the research and in the communities we work with, as part of the magnified consequences of our multiple entanglements.
Nile Delta. Author's own photograph.