24 January 2012

The Egyptian Revolt one year on: How should it change the way we think about development?

This week IDS releases a collection of papers authored by Egyptians who bridge the academic and activist worlds on "The Pulse of Egypt's Revolt".
The collection is edited by my colleague, Mariz Tadros. Mariz is a Research Fellow at IDS and previously an Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo and a journalist for the Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper.
The collection of papers, including a nice overview from Mariz, asks two questions:
  1. why and how did the Egyptian uprisings begin? and
  2. what are the implications for development paradigms, concepts and practices?
Linking to and getting inspiration from the other 11 papers in the volume (including one of her own on "Backstage Governance") Tadros puts forward 5 ideas:
1. We need new ways to grasp the pulse on the street
The paper argues that "disciplinary silos" and "methodological precincts" make it hard to get a rounded picture (deductive political science, for a variety of reasons, assumes Egyptians will not rise). It says that what matters is the "dark matter of citizenship" and that this cannot be assessed by surveys. Finally it highlights sites of information that are not mainstream but which need to be engaged (Wikileaks, online reactions to stories, new Arab satellite TV channels, soap operas, films).
2. Calling the revolts a "Facebook revolution" is a gross simplification
There were many triggers and it was their confluence that was important: youth (Facebook, yes, but also old fashioned pamphlets and slogans) and the brutality they were subjected to; the people, who were connected to the brutality by Al-Jazeera and the like and came out in numbers that the security forces couldn't handle; and the military which did not side with Mubarak (and we don't know how hard they had to be pushed to switch loyalties). All of these factors came together.
3. The act of revolting should not be confused with its outcome
Tahrir Square in Jan-Feb 2011 was a particular time and space: it did not represent the whole of the nation (Facebook offered limited opportunities for forging a coalition outside of youth in Cairo), and the political truce called for by rivals with a common goal--get rid of Mubarak--was quickly called off.
4. The concept of "unruly politics" may offer a powerful way to understand people's mobilisation
Much of the public dissent leading up to the revolt was missed because it does not fit conventional "checklists" of what constitutes the right way of challenging the status quo (for example the Stay at Home campaign in 2008 or campaign that conveyed their anger with politicians of their hunger by banging on pots and pans). The unruly label is because citizens engaged in spaces outside of the conventions realms of state and civil society--in hidden and informal spaces that many civil society organisations failed to connect to.
5. There is a disconnect between development paradigms and the dynamics of unruly politics in authoritarian settings.
First, there is a disconnect between the publicised state of the economy (good) and conditions on the ground (no change). Second, the irrelevance of institutions mandated to improve governance and the background operation of the State Security Investigations in pulling the governance strings. Finally, the neutering of civil society through apolitical compartmentalisation and projectisation. These disconnects, together with the right political catalysts and moment, created the right environment for mass mobilisation.
Overall, the shifts the Bulletin calls for include:
(a) a "made in Egypt" economic growth policy, one that recognises the politics of different choices about how markets function, the political consequences of those choices, and how citizens should be protected from its extremes,
(b) civil society organisations to root themselves in civil society, not in donor society,
(c) looking before leaping onto the social media bandwagon--it undoubtedly has a role to play in creating new spaces for meaningful engagement, but not if it is not embedded in the context,
(d) aid to be viewed less through a geopolitical lens and more through a developmental one, and
(e) new ways of supplementing conventional methods of data collection as to the conditions, attitudes and perceptions of ordinary citizens, capable of doing extraordinary things.
Clearly Mariz argues that the donors have a very large opportunity to shape the way they interact with civil society and the Government and that these new relationships must be driven by home grown initiatives, development. Having worked in Egypt in the late 90s this all makes a lot of sense to me. I just hope the new government provides the space to let this happen.


anuj jain said...

Amazing clarity and succinctness! My compliments to you and all the authors!

david rieff said...

Dear Lawrence,
A fascinating set of papers. Thanks for making them available: there is much to learn from them. I do wonder what exactly is meant, though, by calling for aid to be viewed through a developmental lens instead of a geopolitical one. If what is being said is that aid was given to Egypt, and the success of it measured, according to Egypt's geo-strategic importance in the region, its relations with Israel and with the Palestinians, etc., etc., but that instead the criteria --- at least as much as is feasible --- should be developmental effect, then of course I agree totally. However, if what is being implied is the old development world self-delusion that aid can ever be non-political and non-ideological, or that, in giving aid, we are not also involving ourselves in the most profound question about justice, equity, the rule of law, gender relations, etc., then this is a hopeless enterprise. Aid is always political in that it seeks to change society, to move it in some directions and away from others, and the idea that it can be approached purely as a technocratic rather than (as Amartya Sen among others has argued) as an idea about freedom and how human beings should live. And that of course brings up a second problem: is the development world ready to shoulder this responsibility, or does it want to denounce the geopolitical concerns of donors but itself shy away from the political implications of its action?
Best, as always,

lawrence haddad said...

David, i certainly meant that the development world should understand the political consequences of its actions and how politics shapes its actions, but to try to use that political process to strengthen development outcomes.. Appreciated the thoughtful comment. Lawrence