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 those in other government sectors (such as the Ministry of Finance) functioning to privatize and liberalize the economy. As men became the faces of economic “reform,” Suzanne Mubarak (the president’s wife) became the face of cultural development. She spearheaded the opening of a culture garden in the district of Sayyeda Zaynab in 1990, with a mission to “bring culture” to the children of the neighborhood. “Culture” was defined through the architecture of the buildings and garden itself – done in a modern Islamic style that linked the site to old mosques and other Mamluk-era monuments nearby. “Culture” was also defined through the designation of various “centers” in the garden; for example, a large open-air theater, studios for visual arts and crafts workshops, and a children’s library. This library housed some books that were published as part of Suzanne Mubarak’s “Reading for All” series of affordable titles in literature and sciences, although the delivery of these books was rarely consistent.
In 1992, the garden won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The jury noted that “the insertion of the park into this congested urban fabric has gone far beyond the original brief. It has generated a renewed sense of community by extending its presence into the surrounding streets. The residents take pride in their neighborhood as well as their park.” 2 The Aga Khan prize committee seemed to agree with the Egyptian government – that the problem in “congested” working class communities was a lack of pride in the neighborhood, pride which can be inculcated by making people more “cultured.” Yet the root issue was not a lack of “pride” or “culture” among neighborhood residents. It was a conflict between the state’s paternalistic and bureaucratic approach to culture and the desires of both the residents and the architect to have the garden fully integrated into local systems of values and understandings of culture. 3
By 2010, when I began fieldwork at the garden, it had fallen into utter disrepair. This once internationally famous site, a jewel in the crown of Mubarak-era cultural policy, was barely functioning. The central walk, once laden with royal palms and fountains, was now marred by broken stones, broken lights and dried-up fountains. Sewage overflowed from the bathrooms. Tall grass and weeds had overrun the playground, whose creaky, wobbly structures stood like desiccated animal carcasses. Half of the workshops and half of the library were locked up. Officially “awaiting repairs,” they were the victims of a stifling state bureaucracy, as well as a complex corruption scandal allegedly involving the National Center for Children’s Culture, a money-laundering NGO and local drug dealers.
A crackly sound system with frayed wires threatened to ruin any theater or music performance. The few children who visited the garden (usually on field trips with local schools) were greeted with a bare bones puppet show and a meager amount of dried out markers or old broken crayons.
The employees of the culture garden were all college graduates with specialties in the arts and/or education. They were, in large measure, committed to the state planners’ developmentalist vision. In their own youth, many of them had also been the subjects of state cultural development. Often the first educated in their families, or the first to have acquired objectified knowledge of “arts and culture,” they were indebted to the idea that cultural development promises upward mobility. Their great expectation was to create a more modern, refined and cultured society by helping youth take the same route they did – via state institutions. Yet these ideas were formed at a time before state institutions became overwhelmingly burdened by ornate bureaucracy, authoritarianism, corruption and the transfer of resources to the wealthy for private-sector projects. The employees knew this history, and in fact were cynical about the government as a result, but that did not disabuse them of their aspirations. Expressions of boredom and cynicism actually recycled these aspirations, because they were articulated within the normative framework of state developmentalism from which they had benefitted in their lifetimes.
On the day I met Rashid, a teacher in the crafts section, he had just returned from one of his many visits to government offices to protest the corruption at the garden and get resources flowing again. He was very cynical about whether his attempts would amount to anything (in fact, he was later charged with insubordination). Yet at the same time, he proudly showed me the ceramics projects he had created with kids several years ago and spoke of what the art department “should” be doing. As the workday came to a close, I asked if I could speak with him some more on my next visit.“You’re welcome to come back anytime. But,” he smirked, “you’ll always find us sitting under that tree.” He pointed to the lonely tree that provided needed shade to the employees locked out of their buildings.
Layla, another one of the art teachers, frequently made rounds of tea for the group as they sat there for hours, waiting for the kids, who rarely came. When we spoke on these boring mornings, she was nostalgic about her early days at the garden, when there had been adequate resources and crowds of kids to teach. She talked about being exhausted with all the art projects she managed and directed, but also how fulfilling it was to see the garden full of kids doing art. But Layla, too, was cynical that the garden would never return to its former glory. She lamented that her co-workers did not care to fight for their rights, and that the higher-ups were corrupt. She couched her comments within the great expectation of returning to an imagined ideal of “real” cultural development.
One oppressively hot summer day, we had no work to do and were wishing that the Ministry would at least open the locks on the art studios to give us indoor shade. Layla started grabbing at her neck in exasperation. She exclaimed, “That’s it! Zihiqt! I’m going to die! I can’t take this anymore.” Here we can sense how zahaq is a process that foretells an endpoint, how it is a ground for political agency. At times such as this in the garden, when Layla reached her limit or when Rashid returned, fed up, from a government office with another tale of failure, negative emotions spurred passionate conversation about what exactly needed to be accomplished so that they could go about culturing youth again.
On some days I went straight from this field site to another, where I was always pleasantly surprised to encounter more material resources, but sometimes met the same boredom and cynicism. A half-hour ride from the culture garden, through more low-income neighborhoods and past a gated community on the one mountain that overlooks the polluted city, one comes to an NGO, founded in 2005, with a similar mission of uplifting children through cultural exposure. Alwan wa Awtar (A&A): The name means “colors and strings (of an instrument)” and is a reference to the development through the arts model that has won A&A international accolades, such as an invitation to meet Michelle Obama at the White House. A&A occupies three apartments in a neighborhood dominated by government housing projects built for families displaced by a 1992 earthquake. The layout of the NGO also signals the notion of culture operating at the center: one apartment hosts arts, theater, and crafts workshops; one is for a library, a computer center, and literature and etiquette classes; and one is for what the organizers call “non-traditional” education, mainly in Arabic and English literacy skills. The first-floor apartments surround one of the several courtyards in the complex, an area overgrown by weeds.
The teachers and administrators at A&A tend to come from more privileged backgrounds than those at the state culture garden. But their experiences at private schools or colleges, and with childhood arts or music lessons, also inculcated them into the notion that development via arts was key to societal development more broadly. In contrast to the teachers and administrators, the administrative assistants at A&A were often from the same neighborhood as the aforementioned state culture garden and had visited it as children. They also considered arts and culture as a means of personal and social development. Shaymaa, for example, said that she found her job personally beneficial because she was learning “so much” from working there about how to raise her own future children. But she also spent her work hours either frantically organizing kids into classes or waiting for long stretches during meetings and between activities scheduled on a course grid.
Whereas funding for the state culture garden has dried up (or been stolen), A&A enjoys support from various national and international donors. But that does not mean that employees are always hopeful and energized. In the past year three years, as A&A’s programs expanded, it also began to introduce rationalization and accountability measures in response to demands from these funders, as well as to the rising corporate ethos among elite Egyptian NGOs and their elite staffs. While the culture garden workers sat on rusty old chairs, bored and cynical about the disconnect between their material resources and their developmental aspirations, A&A staff members became frustrated with the disconnect between new material requirements and their developmental aspirations.
In the summer and fall of 2010, the NGO’s directors introduced a series of mandatory staff training sessions. The most prominent training for the full staff included a two-day workshop on UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and a four-day workshop on staff development. Two of the volunteer staff balked at the extent of these training sessions, saying that they were a waste of time that would be better spent on teaching the kids. Other staff members appreciated some aspects of the training, but the long afternoons were marked by sighs of exasperation and complaints of exhaustion and hunger. Interspersed among the fun activities when colleagues joked with one another, I heard cynical queries about how the training could actually be applied to benefit the work with children. At one of the sessions, after being presented with a list of principles of the UNICEF convention, doubtful faces turned into exasperated questions about how staff could possibly dispose of a hierarchy of rights between children and adults. In their view, contra the UNICEF convention, adults were in charge of developing children culturally, so how could children be considered on an even plane? As with the culture garden, zahaq was often expressed within a framework of commitment to the cultural development project.
Hani was one of the main proponents of this training, and in fact had initiated and run the session on children’s rights. Driving me down the mountain after a frustrating day at the organization, he told me that the problem was that everyone needed to be brought up to the same “international standard” of a “rights-based approach” to cultural development. But a couple of months later, he called me on my cell phone to tell me that he had resigned. He told me that the new office manager came from “al-corporate” – meaning the corporate world. This person was insisting that he and other section directors write detailed work plans and fill out Excel spreadsheets with all sorts of data that could be tracked and coordinated. He admitted that he thought that these things were important, but that he just “couldn’t bear” filling in Excel spreadsheets anymore because they detracted from the fun – the time with the kids. Hani was getting bored with the very processes of centralized rationalization that he had brought to the organization, and cynical that they would never translate immediately into better programs. But his new realization did not reduce his commitment to cultural development. He continued on as a consultant with A&A. He also dedicated most of his time to building another organization with a similar mission of helping youth through arts and culture, though one with a decidedly less paternalistic framework.
In both of these cases, the great expectations of cultural development went sour as people experienced a disconnect between their aspirations and their material circumstances – whether these were a paucity of crayons, sound equipment or salaries, or whether they were an excess of private-sector funds, training flip charts or Excel spreadsheets. What are the reasons for this disconnect? For the state institution, they go back at least to the Nasser era of the 1950s and 1960s, if not before. In this era, the great expectation of creating a modern Arab nation in which individuals could be developed into productive citizens resulted in the bloating of the state bureaucracy and a command economy replete with auditing procedures and surveillance practices. In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, privatization and market liberalization resulted in a diversion of resources from state institutions to private sector projects. As wages stagnated, corruption increased. These decades also witnessed the spread of neoliberal forms of audit culture and surveillance, which mapped onto the previously existing forms. 4 At the NGO, these new practices were framed as an antidote to the inefficacy of state programs. But they actually braided into people’s experiences with the bureaucracy of state institutions. Nobody wanted to be just a “muwazzaf” – a state employee who, it is imagined, spends his or her day pushing papers. So whether the state starts diverting its budget from public institutions towards subsidizing the private sector, leading to corruption at the higher levels of government and leaving poor kids without crayons, or whether private donors and corporate-minded employees implement accountability practices, leaving people with piles of Excel spreadsheets, the affective result is similar: zahaq.
When people expressed “fed-upness,” they were able to momentarily suspend the great expectation, to permit the realization that the ideal society (or ideal self) they were wishing for was not really possible to achieve in its entirety. But this was a suspension of the great expectation, not an abandonment of it. In the cases I have discussed here, we see fed-up Egyptians creating an affective reservoir that held the desires behind great aspirations in place. These emotions, I suggest, kept people attached to normative ideals. 5 In these Egyptian cultural institutions, people became fed up when things were not going as they hoped, and the expression of that fed-upness allowed for a constant reiteration of the ideal.
In this case, one might argue that the bundle of emotions associated with zahaq actually brought forth the pivotal moment of mass demonstrations. Suddenly, in this moment of transformation, it seemed that the promises of grand expectations – of cultural development, yes, but more broadly of dignity and social justice – could be kept. In the years of expressing fed-upness in daily life, many Egyptians had honed their vision of an ideal society, and their demands for how to achieve that. When a few hundred activists began the call for a demonstration, those visions and demands were clearly articulatable and translatable to everyone. The week after Mubarak’s departure, I visited the culture garden to find the employees busy cleaning up the place. They had found some old paint in the storage area and were painting trees and benches to spruce up their surroundings. Not only that, they were holding numerous meetings to collect evidence of the corruption that they had witnessed among their superiors. Meanwhile, over at the NGO, the group organized a revolution celebration, five new arts classes, new calls for volunteers and political-awareness sessions on the new proposed constitution.
A sense of reinvigoration prevailed.
If these cultural-development advocates had not spent the past years fed-up, they might have forgotten what it was they were so invested in. They would not have reiterated, over and over, the ideals of their great expectations and the specific problems they needed to solve in order to meet them. The revolution proved that great expectations could be met – even if only in those heady days following Mubarak’s departure. The reality of the persistent material circumstances had not yet set in. The nostalgic memory for those victorious days, that momentary success of a great expectation, perhaps keeps some people going through the zahaq many feel now. Perhaps we should consider fed-upness, boredom and cynicism not as a disaffected politics, then, but rather as a resource for political agency.