Politics and Popular Culture in Egypt: Contested Narratives of the 25 January Revolution and its Aftermath

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Politics and International Studies

Abstract

Though still ubiquitous in English-language scholarship and media, the term 'Arab Spring' is heavily contested in the Middle East. The breadth and depth of these contestations is no more apparent than in the explosion of popular cultural products and social media commentary in the largest and most populous Arab country, Egypt. From pop music to grafitti, these sources have played a vital role in articulating political meaning 'from below' in a vastly expanded public sphere. Yet there has been surprisingly little sustained analysis of how Egyptians have narrated their own history/ies of the 25 January Revolution.

This project will put 'the people' back at the centre of scholarly understanding of Egypt's tumultuous transition amidst official attempts to script a history-still-in-the-making and erase alternative narratives of events unfolding since 2011. It will reveal how struggles over the definition of Egyptian national identity have been central to this process and dependent upon malleable constructions of 'self' and 'other'. More broadly, it will investigate how moments of domestic political crisis represent opportunities to recreate notions of 'East' and 'West' with wider implications for how we understand the geopolitical.

Our investigation will consist of two strands:

1) We will examine a diversity of popular cultural texts to uncover popular narratives of the 25 January revolution and analyse how these have evolved since 2011. Particular attention will be paid to how 'the Egyptian people' are represented over time and what this tells us about how Egyptians see 'the West', delineating the role these identities have played in narrating and contesting political dynamics.

2) In parallel, we will examine official narratives of the 2011 uprising and how various stakeholders at the helm of the state have sought to justify their claim to power and discredit opposition, including through attempts at censorship and cultural policing. Exploring areas of divergence and convergence with popular narratives, we will also analyse how popular culture has subverted, resignified, reinforced or reconstituted hegemonic discourses of the nation, national identity and domestic or foreign 'others.'.

Both popular and official strands will focus on four seminal moments:
i) the removal of former President Mubarak in February 2011,
ii) the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012,
iii) the overthrow of former President Morsi in 2013,
iv) the presidential victory of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in 2014.

This project will be ambitious in the scope of Egyptian popular cultural texts examined and the use of social media to gather new digital sources and provide substantial innovation in the relatively underexamined field of Middle East cultural studies. Collaboration between the universities of Warwick, Reading and Manchester will merge expertise in international relations, history and cultural studies to develop an interdisciplinary methodology for the study of popular perspectives on predominantly top-down debates concerning Arab democratisation and authoritarianism. Through a postcolonial reading of sources, we will advance post-Orientalism scholarship that has struggled to de-center the West as the subject of analysis, bringing to the fore Egyptian voices that have been marginalized and increasingly subject to suppression by the state.

The project will provide real policy benefits, revealing the complex cultural battleground that has framed politics in Egypt since 2011 and illuminating how Egyptian representations of the 'West' have been implicated in the post-25 January transition. Engaging this audience from the outset will strengthen inter-cultural dialogue and understanding at a time when UK policy-makers are struggling to respond to ongoing upheavals in the Middle East.

Planned Impact

This research has several groups of non-academic beneficiaries and two main pathways to impact. One of the goals of the project is to engage with these groups from the outset and bring beneficiaries together in order to create an institutionalized pathway for knowledge transfer in the long term. This first pathway to impact will include:
1) Politicians and policy makers within political parties, government and inter-governmental organizations concerned with foreign relations towards the Middle East;
2) Practitioners within government, inter-governmental organizations and NGOs concerned with the Middle East;
3) Working groups, think tanks, cultural foundations, and political commentators with an interest in international relations (and specifically relations between the West and Middle East);
4) The specialist press dealing with current developments in the Middle East and those providing analysis to business and commerce;
5) Egyptian producers of popular culture, particularly 'cultural activists', such as the film-making collective 'Moisireen' and graffiti artists such as 'Women on Walls'.

How will they benefit from this research?

Policy-makers, practitioners, think tanks and the general public will benefit from deeper understandings of the recent political transformations in the Middle East and subsequent popular expressions and conceptualisations of geopolitics. The relationship of such representations with official discourses will illuminate both domestic tensions underlying contested narratives and new opportunities for engagement with the Arab region in the sphere of cultural production. More broadly the project will elucidate the multifaceted role that 'culture' plays in international relations.

In particular they will benefit from a deeper understanding of:
a) how popular and official perceptions of the 'Arab Spring' in Egypt relate to eachother and the implications of this for Egypt-West relations and foreign policy making;
b) the contestation over the narratives that frame Egypt's transition and the ways in which these narratives are deployed to legitimize particular policy choices;
c) the diversity and vitality of debate within the Arabic-speaking world and the opportunity provided by popular culture as a forum for intercultural dialogue and cultural hybridity, thereby challenging essentialist ideas of 'self' and 'other.'

This pathway to impact will include partners such as the Cabinet Office, the British Council and Chatham House with whom the investigators have an established rapport. Policy briefings, workshops, and a project website will be used to engage and connect these beneficiaries.

The second pathway to impact will be achieved through widening participation and has two main targets.
1) The wider public:
Traditional media formats such as a project website will be used alongside more dynamic social media forums such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that facilitate user participation and dissemination. Public engagement will be sought in both Egypt and the UK via a seminar at the annual Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) in Cairo and a public sceening of award-winning 'The Square' at the Warwick Arts Centre. The Commissioning Arts Editor for BBC Radio 4, Tony Philips has already expressed a strong interest in developing a series based on the project's findings (see more details in pathways to impact).
2) Secondary school students:
This beneficiary group will be engaged with the idea of social media (ubiquitously used by this demographic) as a historical resource and encouraged to consider popular culture, from music to film, as a political forum. We will organize two school events through Widening Participation schemes at Warwick and Reading and will seek further funding to design a module on popular culture and politics in the Arab World to be taught by secondary school teachers at A-level.

Publications

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Salem S (2020) Sonallah Ibrahim and Miriam Naoum's Zaat in Journal of Middle East Women's Studies

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Pratt N (2020) Making Sense of the Politics of the Egyptian Revolution in and through Popular Culture in International Journal of Middle East Studies

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Mostafa D (2021) New directions in the study of popular culture and politics in the Middle East and North Africa in British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

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Pratt N (2021) Popular Culture, Gender, and Revolution in Egypt in Journal of Middle East Women's Studies

 
Description The research demonstrates the varied and complex relationship between popular culture and revolutionary and counter-revolutionary processes, going beyond binaries of 'the people' versus 'the regime' or 'resistance' versus 'domination'.
It reveals how shifting cultural meanings shape the unfolding of a revolution and vice versa.
The research highlights not only the importance of language and images to the shaping of cultural meanings but also the crucial role of the aesthetics of popular culture and, in particular, the new forms of cultural expression emerging in a revolutionary context.
The research has also developed a multi-layered methodology for interpreting popular cultural texts, reading them against political, social, cultural, economic and aesthetic contexts.
Exploitation Route The development of digital archives for recording popular narratives of major historical events.
The application of the methodology to other contexts of revolution/political turmoil.
The use of popular culture as a means of teaching about major historical events.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://egyptrevolution2011.ac.uk/
 
Description British Academy Rising Star Award entitled 'Social listening : developing new qualitative methods to understand digital cultures in the past, present and future'
Amount £13,858 (GBP)
Funding ID EN160162 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2017 
End 09/2019
 
Description Building Outstanding Impact Grant
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Reading 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
 
Description Departmental public engagement funds
Amount £680 (GBP)
Organisation University of Warwick 
Department Department of Politics and International Studies
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
End 06/2017
 
Description Impact Acceleration Account 2014 - University of Warwick
Amount £11,697 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/M500434/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2018 
End 03/2019
 
Description Leverhulme Research Fellowship: Virtue, Violence and Virility: Making Egypt's Presidents
Amount £54,934 (GBP)
Funding ID RF-2020-541\8 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2020 
End 09/2021
 
Description An on-line article for teachers about politics and popular culture in the Middle East 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 'Essential Readings: Politics and Popular Culture in the Middle East' provides an overview of important literature on the subject and maps out main themes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://mespi.org/2020/05/27/politics-and-popular-culture-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/
 
Description An op-ed discussing the 6th anniversary of the Rabaa Massacre (August 2019) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The op-ed, co-authored by Nicola Pratt and Dina Rezk, highlighted the relevancy of some of the findings of this. research project for understanding the extent of popular support for the mass killings of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in August 2013. The article was published by a US on-line news site called 'The Globe Post'. The article was shared on Facebook and Twitter 69 times.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://theglobepost.com/2019/08/14/egypt-rabaa-anniversary/
 
Description Article for The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This article places Sisi's 2018 re-election in historical perspective, was well received and led to further opportunities for engagement.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://theconversation.com/egypts-sisi-dashed-his-countrys-hopes-and-what-support-he-has-is-eroding...
 
Description Article for The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The article was titled 'Mohamed Morsi: death of Egypt's former president shows deep state was always going to triumph' and was well received, and led to further invitations from the Conversation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://theconversation.com/mohamed-morsi-death-of-egypts-former-president-shows-deep-state-was-alwa...
 
Description Article for the Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This article questioned the idea of social media as an equaliser, was well received and led to further engagement opportunities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://theconversation.com/nas-daily-palestinian-blogger-delivers-upbeat-message-to-millions-but-he...
 
Description BBC 3 Freethinking episode: Afropean identities, Filming the Arab spring 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact On this radio show I discuss Jehane Noujaim's Oscar nominated documentary The Square and Egyptian politics engaging BBC listeners to consider the relationship between politics and popular culture in Egypt since 2011.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0005sjw
 
Description Film weekend 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The activity consisted of a film weekend including film showings, panel discussions and audience Q & A, exploring how Egyptian film-makers have represented the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath. The event contributed to shaping public discussions about the role of popular culture as an historical source and raising awareness about how it can be used to help students and the wider public understand contemporary Egyptian history and society. The event sparked questions and discussion and the event evaluation forms demonstrated an increased interest in finding out more about current events in Egypt. On the back of this, further engagement with schools is planned.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/research/researchcentres/cpd/popularcultureegypt/filmweekend/
 
Description On-line multimedia archive 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact "Politics, Popular Culture and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution" is a digital archive documenting the 25 January 2011 uprising and its aftermath through the prism of popular culture. It has been designed for both researchers and students interested in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, as well as contemporary Egypt and the relationship between politics and popular culture more broadly. Users have reported an increased understanding of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://egyptrevolution2011.ac.uk/
 
Description Online article. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact A 2000-word article was written for the independent e-zine Jadaliyya, which focuses on news, analysis and commentaries about Middle East politics, society and culture. The audience for this website includes other academics, students, activists, artists and others interested in the Middle East. The aim of the article was to make a wider public aware of our research and to present preliminary findings. As a result of this article, we were contacted by an academic in the US with similar research interests and we discussed possible collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/25933/revisiting-the-"blue-bra"-incident_towards-a-new-a
 
Description Opinion piece for The Globe Post 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This piece was titled: Sisi's Attempts to Entrench Authoritarianism in Egypt Reveal Regime's Fear and provoked questions about the wider historical and political context of current practices in Egypt.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://theglobepost.com/2019/03/15/egypt-sisi-authoritarianism/
 
Description Radio 3 Essay 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This essay looks at politics and the role of humour as she profiles Bassem Youssef 'the Jon Stewart of Egyptian satire', the reception of which was well regarded and led to further engagement activities with Radio 4.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000knfp
 
Description Radio 4 Obituary for President Hosni Mubarak 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This obituary was a reflection on Mubarak's impact on Egypt and was well received.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000fq4p
 
Description Radio 4 broadcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Coming of Age: Letters to 2021 gives a personal perspective on the defining moments of the 21st Century from 9/11 to the Arab Spring. I received positive feedback from the general public and policy community that the piece had made them rethink the idea that the Arab Sping had 'failed.'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000qyy3