Activism amidst Disappointment: Women's Groups and the Politics of Hope in Egypt

By Nermin Allam
Submitted to Session P4739 (On the Verge of Rout: The Politics of Hope and Disappointment Post the Arab Spring, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
For many observers, the return of authoritarian confidence, the changing zeitgeist among activists and the mixed gender outcomes following the Egyptian uprising are signs that the grand visions of the uprising are gone. More dramatically, that the "Egyptian Spring" was a false hope in a future that never came and that politics now is one marked with disappointment. In this paper, I map the field in which the politics of disappointment and hope unfolded among women's groups after the 2011 Egyptian uprising. I argue that disappointment does not mark the end of politics and activism; it may rather give rise to the politics of pragmatic hope. Studying the politics of disappointment is momentous and meaningful as women are largely the first and foremost group to experience disappointment following political struggles and regime change. The data for this project draw upon 32 semi-structured interviews with activists and leaders of women's rights organizations. Data was analysed within the prism of critical discourse analysis, this entailed a closed reading of the words of participants with a view to what is occluded from the discussion. I build on participants' accounts to highlight the influence of state feminism, deep state, civil society fragmentation, gender violence, and authoritarian resilience on Egypt's transition and activists' experience following the uprising. Utilizing the rich theoretical tools found in social movement and contentious politics literature, I conceptualize the 2011 uprising in Egypt as an episode of contention. While revolutions can either fail or win, episodes of contention, social movement theorists explain, are characterized by their cumulative effect regardless of the cycle's immediate outcome. This approach is significant for my research; utilizing it I offer a dynamic explanation of the challenges that hindered gender equality and democratic transition in Egypt. The survey of these forces encourages us to moderate our expectation and appreciate the diminutive forms of sustained activism that managed to develop notwithstanding all the odds. The analysis presented also highlights some of the ways in which female activists reconfigure their demands and strategies in the midst of complex entanglements of hope, failure, and pragmatism. I emphasize how activists maintain their activism and the memory of social resistance through participation in creative social and/or artistic initiatives, engagement in critical debates over longstanding taboos, and the survival of friendship networks. This survey is significant to avoid stereotyping women as passive and the MENA region as stagnant.