March 18, 2011

Reflections on Egypt

Nine days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Zack and I landed in Egypt. We were there to explore how and what governance structures were emerging in a period of great excitement and uncertainty, and to document voices that we believed were largely missing from mainstream reporting and analyses. For two weeks, we spoke with as many people as would speak to us. Our conversations were, by turns, inspiring and troubling, encouraging and heartbreaking. We’ve just arrived back in New York and are continuing to process, distill, and make sense of all that we witnessed and heard in Egypt.We traveled to four locations across the country and spoke with day labourers, factory workers, factory owners, cab drivers, farmers, youth activists, labour organizers, community organizers, NGO officers, government officials, journalists, lawyers, white collar professionals of all stripes, and politicians.

Interviews were both arranged and ad hoc, and were conducted in homes, in workplaces, and on the streets. With the exception of one American, all those we spoke with were Egyptian. We interviewed those across the socioeconomic spectrum — from slum-dwellers to high society — and of Muslim and Christian faiths. Interviews were, for the most part, conducted in Arabic with a handful in English based on participant preference.

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Research scope was initially determined by Reboot, with the input of various local and international groups we conferred with prior to and upon first arriving in Egypt. Though we continued to absorb all that we saw through our initial research frame, our focus areas and questions naturally evolved over the course of the study. Data processing was done nightly and data synthesis with the local team took place in Cairo at the tail-end of the study.

Our Egyptian team consisted of four males — two in Cairo, one for Mahalla and Kesariya, and one in Damanhur — three journalists and one university student. All team members were local to the cities or areas in which they guided our activities. And in a country where wasta (connections/influence) are everything, our team served the study well. You can expect to hear more from them in the coming months here on Reboot.

In Cairo, we stayed one block from Tahrir Square to allow for twice daily visits to the hub — first thing in the morning, and last thing at night — to take the national pulse. This proved far more effective than monitoring local or international news — Tahrir is a fount of intelligence and insights; it was where news began and was exchanged. Though often overwhelming, we eagerly drank from the source. Unsurprisingly, we noticed mass media narratives often diverged from what we witnessed on the ground. Reasons vary but, suffice it to say, being so close to the discourse proved its value.

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And while immensely rewarding, our time in Egypt was not without challenges.

Studying a country in a time of historic change was naturally difficult. With a huge question mark over the future of Egypt and of its people, emotions were perpetually charged — much of what we heard was understandably hyberbolized, and our local team worked tirelessly to translate not just language but ever-changing national and local sentiments. Contradictory messages in the media and on the street proved disorienting both for researchers and those we consulted. To the best of our ability, synthesis activities have mitigated for bias derived from these constraints.

In the period Reboot was in-country, there was widespread distrust of foreigners. We encountered few non-Arabs, and state and military powers cautioned Egyptians to be wary of foreign intelligence. With Zack a white American — I’m a Taiwanese-Canadian — we attracted suspicion, especially in smaller towns and poorer neighbourhoods, where foreigners are in general rare, and especially unusual in the present period. Street and intercept interviews sometimes drew negative attention, and a few in Mahalla and Damanhur led to hostile verbal confrontations. A strong sense of pride also sparked public disagreements among Egyptians on whether foreigners were indeed welcome in such a time of change. Do we want outsiders to document Egypt’s revolution, or should we get our house in order first? Despite these challenges, many were eager to speak with us and exercise their newly won freedom of expression.

Accessing female participants also proved challenging, but this was expected given the Arab context. In our photos, men also strongly dominate — this is due to widespread objections to the photographing of Muslim women from both sexes and from older generations. We did, however, speak with many strong women that played critical roles in the uprising and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.

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A common misconception around the role of research is that all the magic happens in the field. In our experience, the hardest but most valuable part happens after. We’re now neck-deep in synthesis and sensemaking of the data we collected: identifying patterns and drawing insights around various themes in governance and development, and detailing opportunities for making meaningful change in Egypt. This stage creates value out of seemingly unwieldy or otherwise passive data.

Moving forward, we will be supporting various actors in mapping the road ahead in Egypt. In the coming week, we will also be publicly releasing a few of our more interesting conversations and some top-level analyses. We’ll also be launching an Egypt microsite here on theReboot.org where we hope to share a sample of our data. We hope you find this material interesting and relevant. This is a time of immense opportunity for the Egyptian people, and we feel honoured to be a part of the vibrant conversation.

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