Soha Bayoumi | Revolution, Hope and Actors’ Categories… or What’s an Engaged Scholar to Do?

By Soha Bayoumi

Microanalysis of the Revolutions?

            What is the role of engaged scholars who are studying the political events of the “Arab Spring”? Is it to explain the reasons behind those significant political events and the major political and economic powers that shaped them? Is it to define what they are—revolutions (2.0?), revolts, uprisings, protests, reforms,“refolutions” (Bayat) or something entirely different? Is it to interpret the trajectories they took? Is it to predict the outcomes of those trajectories? Is it to compare them to other major political events in modern (or even premodern) history to determine how similar or different they are? Is it a combination of the above? It seems to me that most of the scholarship and political commentary produced thus far on what has been dubbed “The Arab Spring” has focused on one or a few of those questions—questions are that are certainly worthy of pursuit and answer. However, I believe that one area that remains severely lacking in this ever-increasing corpus of scholarship and commentary is a focus on the ordinary people who made those political events a reality, who put their bodies on the line, who risked and, in the case of many of them, lost their lives in the process. In other words, what I’m modestly offering is an invitation to engaged scholars to study the “politics of the ordinary” in extraordinary political circumstances, or engage in studying “how ordinary people change the Middle East.” (Bayat, Life as Politics, 2009).

As an engaged scholar studying the Middle East, with a focus on Egypt, I have chosen to look at how ordinary Egyptians, many of whom may not have been politicized prior to the Egyptian uprising of 2011, became enmeshed in the political events that started in 2011. Given my interest in studying Science and Technology Studies, with a focus on the links between medicine and politics and the politics of healthcare, I decided to study the role played by physicians and medical professionals in the Egyptian uprising. My forthcoming book, Doctors of the Revolution: Health and Social Justice Activism in Egypt, co-authored with Sherine Hamdy, aims to examine the roles played by groups of doctors in the lead-up to the Egyptian uprising of 2011 and following them into the the tumultuous politics of Egypt’s uprising between 2011 and 2013 and into the restoration and the reconsolidation of authoritarianism which followed that volatile political and social moment.

My interest in this work stems partly from my interest in studying medical expertise, its shaping and its deployment in volatile and tumultuous political contexts, but it also stems from my interest in seeing how different actors contributed to and dealt with the turbulent political events that make up what we now refer to as the Arab Spring. In that sense, it is partly an invitation to social scientists to examine the roles played by actors, other than those that garner most of the attention, from political parties to youth groups, to look at professional groups, neighborhood organizations, among other actors, and examine the specific dilemmas that they faced and which made up the day-to-day of the uprisings. The roles played not only by physicians, but also by lawyers, journalists, garbage collectors, among many other groups, deserve an in-depth examination, if we are genuinely interested in a microanalysis of those landmark political events.

Moreover, I see in studying doctors’ mobilization for health and social justice amidst the political awakening of Egypt’s Arab Spring an opportunity to examine the intertwining factors that fomented the Arab revolts. Although there is a vague consensus among social scientists that the Arab revolts have been the result of political grievances against authoritarianism and economic grievances against neoliberal policies in the region, the research on the role played by socioeconomic grievances in fueling those revolts has been rather limited. The aim of studying physicians mobilization for health and social justice, in this regard, is twofold: on the one hand, to contribute to the research that highlights the role played by socioeconomic factors in the Arab revolts, and, on the other hand, to question this distinction between purely political and purely economic factors, and to argue instead that political factors cannot be divorced from economic ones, both analytically (how neoliberal policies are connected to specific political choices on the part of the ruling coalitions in those regimes, for instance) and ethnographically, according to the understanding of the actors who played key roles in those revolts (how neoliberalism, income and wealth inequality, kleptocracy, corruption, authoritarianism, torture and police brutality, and the State’s failure to provide basic social services to its citizens are all intertwined in the minds of the citizens who saw those conditions as colluding to erode their human dignity).

Revolution and Hope

 “Nothing as much as revolution simultaneously demands hope, inspires hope, and betrays hope.” — Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries

 “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” —Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope

Some of the readings for this session, like a lot of other scholarship and expert commentary on the Arab Spring, have been invested in examining what remains of the hope inspired by those landmark events. Despite the restoration of authoritarianism following the military coup in Egypt: the return of draconian laws and police brutality, the foreclosure of the political sphere and the deployment of a propaganda machine churning out a politics of fear and paranoia, I argue that socio-professional mobilization has managed to carve out a space for action in a foreclosed and extremely polarized public sphere. Again, the case of doctors offers an interesting example. In October 2011, the Egyptian Medical Syndicate (EMS) held its first election in 19 years, following decades of a joint monopoly by the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) of its Board. Doctors Without Rights (DWR), an independent socio-professional group rallying since 2007 for better wages and working conditions for physicians and against the privatization of the healthcare system, ran in that election under the electoral “Independence List” (Qāʾimat al-Istiqlāl) and managed to occupy a number of seats, though the majority of seats and the leadership of the syndicate went to the MB. Two years later, in the following elections in December 2013, DWR consolidated their position by winning a majority of the seats. In 2015, and despite running against a much better-funded regime-supported electoral list, the Independence List swept the election at the national and local levels, and continued earlier this month (October 2017) to consolidate their victory.

By virtue of their being vocal advocates for doctors’ professional demands for better wages, better working conditions (protection in the workplace against assaults and against occupational injuries and infections) and better training opportunities, and by combining that professional mobilization with consistent demands for reforming the health sector, opposing the privatization of the healthcare system, guaranteeing universal healthcare coverage and ensuring the rights of the patients, DWR managed to garner the trust and support of the majority of Egypt’s doctors. By invoking a medical ethos, the Board of the medical syndicate fought as for the healthcare of prisoners and detainees, to defend the doctors who were imprisoned on trumped up political charges, and to stand up to the political exploitation of the suffering of the sick and poor.

The medical syndicate has also shown that its demands can galvanize a wider public. In the midst of police impunity, police assaults on medical doctors and healthcare workers have escalated over the past few years. In January 2016, two emergency doctors were assaulted in a major public hospital in Cairo by policemen who wanted the doctors to issue one of them a medical report that significantly exaggerated his injuries. When the doctors refused, they were severely beaten up and arrested. The Board of the EMS immediately expressed its unconditional support for the assaulted doctors and their colleagues and endorsed the doctors’ decision to close down the hospital until the assailants are arrested. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) responded by offering its apology and assurance that the assailants would be subject to an internal investigation. The parliament tried to “broker a peace” between the doctors and the MOI, but the doctors, backed up by their syndicate, insisted that charges must be brought against the assailants, and called for an extraordinary general meeting of the medical syndicate. The two policemen were arrested and released a few hours later, which furthermore incited the wrath of doctors. Meanwhile, pro-regime media launched a campaign aimed at tarnishing the doctors’ credibility, highlighting previous cases of medical negligence and accusing doctors of being politicized and hell-bent on stirring up trouble.

On February 12, 2016, in a historic turnout, over 10,000 Egyptian doctors showed up at the extraordinary general meeting of the medical syndicate from all over Egypt. The doctors filled all the meeting halls and thousands overflowed into the street, not far from Tahrir Square, chanting against the “thuggery” of the Ministry of Interior, in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the Egyptian revolution. Hundreds more, activists, public figures, representatives of political parties and civil society organizations, turned out to show their support for the doctors.

The chants of the thousands of doctors in the street, after over two years of crushed protests under a draconian anti-protest law, inspired many to see in the mobilization of doctors a rekindling of the revolutionary spirit. The doctors voted, among others things, to hold protests in front of their hospitals, to offer medical care for free in emergency rooms in public hospitals and to refrain from offering any services for a fee in those hospitals, which amounts to a masked strike that penalizes the government and seeks the sympathy of the patients, but which also reflects the views of the leadership of the syndicate that healthcare in public hospitals should be completely free. This move on the part of the doctors was also an attempt to prevent the government from using its usual tactic of exploiting the doctors’ strike to drive a wedge between the doctors and their patients.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the syndicate’s insistence, that the doctors’ demands were professional, not political, the mobilization succeeded in galvanizing public support against police impunity and the disregard for the rule of law. Remembering the role of doctors since the early days of the revolution, one tweet that was went viral read “I support those who persevered and fulfilled their duties on January 28 [i.e. the doctors] in their fight against those who fled, abandoned their duties and opened the prisons [i.e. the police].” The meeting, dubbed the Day of Dignity, was seen by many as a symbol of the doctors’ mobilization not only for their own sake but also on behalf of many Egyptians who lament the loss of their recently found dignity at the hands of a brutal police State. It also serves as an example of how socio-professional mobilizations could play a role in leading the way out of Egypt’s current political stalemate. Perhaps part of our role as engaged scholars is to “make hope possible” amidst the rampant despair.

Lost in Translation: Revolution as an Actors’ Category?

 “You are not going out to make a revolution and live; you are going out to make a revolution and die… for your siblings, for your children, for anyone, so that others can enjoy this beautiful thing.” — Mina Daniel (1991-2011), martyred icon of the Egyptian revolution, killed in October 2011 at an attack by the Egyptian military against a peaceful Coptic protest in Maspero, near Tahrir Square

 “Doctor, this revolution must happen; there is no middle ground. It’s not politics, it’s a revolution that must happen. In politics, there may be compromises, but not in revolutions. This revolution will happen. And we will not concede.” — Tarek Helmy, renowned Egyptian heart surgeon on an exchange between him and a protester in Tahrir Square during the eighteen-day occupation of Tahrir

One of the issues that social scientists run into and, I argue, should be mindful of is how their informants refer to the events they are trying to describe, and how those references might change over time and depending on the surrounding political context. It is paramount to pay attention to the nuances and subtleties of how Egyptians, for instance, refer to the events that shaped the political landscape of 2011. It is true that lexicographic choices are often determined by political forces and processes that are sometimes far from being democratic or emancipatory (see the insistence by the Egyptian regime on denouncing any attempt to describe the military intervention following the popular protests of 2013 against President Mohamed Morsi as “a coup”) and that they are often the outcome of a contentious political process. However, it is important to note how Egyptians describe the events of January-February 2011 and those that ensued. The fact that the vast majority of Egyptians refer to those events as a thawrah (revolution) is noteworthy. It is also noteworthy that those who were blatantly opposed to the overthrow of Mubarak referred to it vaguely in the beginning as “the events” and then more recently, with the reconsolidation of authoritarianism under Sisi, as a Naksah (“setback” echoing the common term used by Arabs to describe Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day war). I argue that it is a worthy endeavor for social scientists to pay closer attention to the locution of our informants as we engage in larger philosophical arguments about what and how to name the political events that we are analyzing.