Fulbright Scholar in Residence Amal Kamel Hamada gave a presentation in the Forum Tuesday Feb. 3, titled “Political Science in the Arab Spring.”
The presentation highlighted the need for the political science community to focus more on the people of a nation, as opposed to simply the government, when examining historical events. To support this, Hamada relied on her personal experience in the Arab world.
Hamada earned her Ph.D. at Cairo University where she studied the Iranian Revolution before gaining credibility as an expert on the Arab Spring in 2011, having studied the conflict.
“The region seemed very dangerous for political science,” said Hamada. “Actually, it was a field of study, but always a field of study on the government – on the state. Never the people.”
She added, “The bottom line is that political science as part of the humanities has been struggling to prove its credibility as science, and recent developments in the Arab region have added to this difficulty.”
She claimed that most literature projects a destiny onto Egypt – the destiny of authoritarianism. She said the academic community assumes that countries which don’t imitate “western democracy” will inevitably fall into totalitarianism.
Hamada said because political scientists did not pay attention to the rise of non-governmental-organizations (NGOs) in Egypt, they failed to predict or understand the Arab Spring in 2011.
She added that nearly 70 million civilians are disregarded when discussing Egyptian society because the civilians are more varied than the academic community realizes. “We do not know Egypt.”
Despite being disenfranchised, some demographics, such as women and minorities, are gaining political traction in Egypt after the revolution, according to Hamada. She then discussed the qualities of a good government, which she said should include transparency, voting and freedom of expression, among other qualities. However, she warned against a political science theory that puts a one-size-fits-all definition on democracy. According to Hamada, political scientists’ overwhelming focus on improving governments ultimately takes away from a political science that could “make the people better, and more influential in making the government better.”
Hamada presented a slideshow and examined pictures of the Arab Spring. One of the pictures included a man standing in front of a tank, challenging its authority. Since the man’s face is hidden from the camera, and his identity is unknown, Hamada said that the picture resonated among Egyptians, because the subject of the photo could be any of the 90 million Egyptians struggling in a tumultuous country.
Another photo showed women struggling with police officers. Hamada said the photo proved the perception of Arab women as feminine and docile is largely inaccurate. “From the very beginning of the revolution, women were there hitting police officers and policemen, as much as men [were]. And this is something we brag about,” she said. Other pictures showed women leading protests, a historic development in the patriarchal society of Egypt. The audience of about fifty people let out a collective gasp at a photo of a giant wall put in the middle of the street to block civilian rebels from proceeding. The wall had been painted to look transparent, with the image of the other side matching the sky and the tops of buildings that could be seen over the wall itself. This reinforced Hamada’s earlier statement about the important effect of civilians mocking the government – an effect which is never studied in political science, she said.The slideshow ended with the quote, “You can’t send them home, we need to listen and understand.” Some students were surprised by the presentation.
“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” said Sherry Rankins, a sophomore psychology major. “But I thought the pictures and the stories she shared at the end were pretty interesting.” During a Q&A session, political science Professor Coelho said, “I wanted to know your understanding, your opinion, about how US foreign policy throughout the decades have impacted Egypt’s potential to become more democratic.”
After a pause, Hamada answered, “Is that a trick question?” drawing laughter from the crowd. She argued that the American government supports whomever they think will be the inevitable victor of a conflict. She said the US must decide if it will “remain a superpower telling a small country what to do.”
English Professor Lisa Eck asked Hamada about her views on voting. Specifically, she asked whether voting might misrepresent the culture, showing it as a “monolithic voice,” and asked, “How do you build consensus through culture versus the vote?”
This sparked Hamada to comment that representative democracy is “functional,” but not perfect, and that attention must be paid to the disenfranchised who do not go out to vote.
Hamada said that another revolution is not likely to happen in Egypt over the next few years. While she may not think President el-Sisi is perfect, she said, “If not Sisi, who else?” The real change, she speculated, will come from the next generation. In the average Egyptian home, she claimed, there is a changing dynamic between parents and children.
Commenting on this, senior English major Mike Bousquet said, “It’s amazing to think that here, you don’t see that or feel it. You don’t really know what’s going on, but something so small will make a dynamic difference in our future.”
Despite her studies of the turmoil in the Arab world, Hamada has hope for Egypt. “Coming from a country that is 7,000 years old, time for me is nothing,” she said. “We can wait for 10 years, 20 years. We have been there.”