Scholarship on Egypt

I have a piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education about how Egypt specialists (mostly in the US) are re-evaluating old assumptions, posing new questions, and flocking to Egypt to research the revolution. Unfortunately there's a subscription wall, but here's the beginning:

Scholars who work on the Middle East have been furiously updating their syllabi and revising their book proposals in the past month and a half. The events in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya have upended conventional academic wisdom about the region.

"In some ways it recalls the way Middle East studies was reoriented after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975, and the Iranian revolution, in 1979," says Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Middle East, a regional leader, and a U.S. ally, has long been a focus of attention among Middle East specialists. The collapse of the Mubarak regime is leading scholars to re-examine several common assumptions—about the persistence of authoritarianism, the process of democratization, and the appeal of Islamism—and to pose a variety of new questions.

In the article I discuss how studies of the resilience and persistence of authoritarianism have dominated the field for a long time now -- and how suddenly, with the revolution, professors were scrambling, with half their readings seeming irrelevant to what was happening (which is not to say that some parts of Egypt's regime may not turn out to be quite persistent, unfortunately).

Professors mentioned that they expected there to be a new focus on "non-elite" politics, on grassroots and popular movements, and on the everyday. They also discussed ways in which the weight of Islamism within Egyptian society and politics may be re-evaluated (again, it is definitely a significant factor--but the revolution showed that there are other forces out there, and that the pre-eminence of Islamists in the opposition may have been orchestrated by the regime). 

Other topics of obvious interest to Egypt specialists include military-civilian relations; the role of new media; youth culture; transitional political periods; and the extent to which Arab countries are connected to and influenced by one another.

And we can expect a lively debate on whether theories of democratization and democracy promotion got it right (in that programs and civil society organizations supported by the West helped train a new generation of Egyptian activists) or missed the boat (by espousing a gradualist model with the regime as the main agent of "reform," and not even envisaging collective action). 

(P.S. A big thanks to someone who isn't quoted in the story but who greatly helped: friend of the blog, Skidmore professor and Egyptian-politics-geek-emeritus Sumita Pahwa).


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.