On the Ground
On the Ground
Fed-up and bored
Affect and political action in revolutionary Egypt
In the years leading up to the uprising that ousted authoritarian Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power, it was commonplace to hear outside observers and Egyptians alike blame the so-called apathy of Egyptians for the absence of revolt. Widely held views that Egyptians preferred to spend their time sipping tea at coffee shops, or watching television serials, or depending on the state for everything were immediately quashed in January and February 2011, when millions of Egyptians rose up in an effort to take down the regime that had oppressed them for decades.
What do we make of this seemingly overnight reversal of affect, from so-called apathy to anger and hope? In this short piece, I suggest that closer attention to the daily expressions and experiences of emotion before, during and after a dramatic political event reveals how people come to mobilize in support of a political cause. Paying close attention to everyday affect also guards against broad characterizations of the emotions of an entire society, which, as we see in the case of the pundits imputing apathy to Egyptians, is misguided. Through analysis of the following episodes from my ethnographic fieldwork throughout particular locations in Cairo before and during the 18-day uprising, I hope to show that what observers might have characterized as apathy was, for many Egyptians, an exasperated "fed-upness" that actually held in place - in an active sense - the grand expectations of dignity, freedom and social development for when the time came to enact them. That time was the pivotal moment of the 18 days.
On the eve of the Egyptian revolution, everyday speech was peppered with variations of the word zahaq . On any day, one could hear phrases such as " Ana zahqan, ihna zahqanin, zihiqt khalas! " In part because of its semantic richness in everyday Arabic speech, zahaq is more agentive and less burdened by the bourgeois associations of the English word "boredom." Zahaq expresses the bundle of emotions of which cynicism and boredom are a part; it also implies a kind of fed-upness - a form of exasperation. For the people I knew in Egypt, the experiential aspects and expressive possibilities of zahaq made it less a "state" (or stasis) and more a processual action - one that built upon itself in crescendo fashion. 1
Let us turn to two cases of extreme zahaq , of great expectations gone sour. The story begins in Cairo as it choked under the Mubarak regime. The state employees of a once internationally famous youth cultural center, located in a working-class neighborhood, sit on rusty chairs under a tree, swatting away flies as they wait for the children who rarely come. Sipping tea, with exasperated voices, they complain cynically about their low pay, lack of teaching resources and corrupt leadership. Across the city, at a newer non-governmental youth center, also in a mainly low-income neighborhood, the management cancels some children's activities and summons employees to more and more training sessions, and requires ever more paper reports. With these new requirements, many staff members grow wary and de-energized. Across state and NGO contexts, people are fed up and cynical as they make sense of the disconnect between their material, institutional circumstances and their aspirations to develop society by making youth more "cultured." The great expectation of cultural development seems forever stymied as the state diverts resources to the private sector, and as the private sector becomes subsumed in auditing practices.
The government youth center could bring out the zahaq in anyone. The Ministry of Culture in the Mubarak era was a huge, complex experiment in modernist development, an experiment that sat in uneasy relationship with t