Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Nine years ago, on March 19, 2011, the first elections of Egypt’s revolution were held in an atmosphere of intense hope, fear and uncertainty. The election was a referendum on holding elections within six months, to transfer power from the military generals who had deposed President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 to a new parliament and presidency. All but forgotten now but salient then was that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) was still intact and loudly urging a “Yes” vote. Also campaigning for “Yes” were the Muslim Brothers and a new political force, Salafi preachers and politicians who framed the referendum as a vote on Egypt’s Islamic identity. Prominent liberal and leftist groups stumped for a “No” vote, fearing a return of the ancien regime by electoral means. Unexpectedly, results showed 77.2 percent of the vote for Yes and 22 percent for No, with a turnout of 41.2 percent.

At the time and in retrospect, fixed meanings were attached to these results, based on prior convictions. Some saw overwhelming public favor for the generals compared to feeble support for liberal-left politicians. Many proclaimed the long-predicted rise of Islamists and eclipse of secularists in any open electoral contest; a Salafi preacher crowed that Islam had triumphed in “the battle of the ballot boxes.”

A contemporaneous observer who began not with preconceived frameworks but close analysis was Ellis Goldberg, a political economist at the University of Washington living in Egypt in 2011. On his blog, Nisr al-Nasr, a site that remains an uncommonly deep commentary on the events of Egypt’s upheaval as they happened, Ellis wrote, “There is no doubt that many Muslims voted ‘yes’ simply because this was the choice posed by the Muslim Brothers. However, many people voted yes because they hoped it would lead to a return to stability and especially renewal of the economy as soon as possible. Others voted yes because they would like to get the army out of power as rapidly as possible. Still others may have voted yes because that was what the Armed Forces clearly wanted and they feel grateful to the Army.” From these heterogeneous motivations of voters, Ellis set down what remains the most insightful commentary on the revolution’s first vote.

When Ellis passed away on September 20, 2019, we lost one of the most erudite, generous and original scholars of the modern Middle East and North Africa, a truly reflective mind who met its match in the bewildering polysemy of Egypt’s revolution.
When Ellis passed away on September 20, 2019, we lost one of the most erudite, generous and original scholars of the modern Middle East and North Africa, a truly reflective mind who met its match in the bewildering polysemy of Egypt’s revolution. Like so many of us, Ellis was inspired, bewildered and goaded by the revolutionary uprising, but unlike the rest, he brought to it a lifetime of superior scholarship on contemporary Egypt’s political economy, history, legal institutions and the comparative method. Though he was not a MERIP contributor or editor (save for one review), Ellis was an intellectual fellow traveler and mentor to MERIP’s writers and editors, sharing deep affinities with their analysis of Egyptian politics that steers a difficult passage between ungrounded theorizing and regional particularism.

This is a tribute to Ellis and his work, and to a mode of social science history that expands our imagination and pushes our thinking beyond the banal and formulaic.

Smashing Comparative Conventions

The first essay I read by Ellis was a provocative piece of comparative reasoning that drove his entire oeuvre. “Smashing Idols and the State: The Protestant Ethic and Egyptian Sunni Radicalism,” (1991) pursued an analogy between sixteenth century Calvinists and twentieth century Egyptian Muslim radicals. Both were religious virtuosi launching a double assault on the constituted authority of religious elites and repressive centralized states. Ellis was not the first to allude to the parallels, but his deliberate and careful method elevates a clever observation into a highly original forerunner of what we would today classify as comparative political theory. The comparison is grounded in his systematic use of primary sources from both traditions (including the chief internal document of the Jihad group whose members assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981), alongside glosses on the original texts, folk proverbs on just political authority and a careful distinction between various strains of Sunni Muslim radicalism.

I remember looking up after finishing it in my garret, thinking how it was unlike anything I had read up to that point. My diet then consisted of dreary graduate school gruel on regime typologies and endless hand wringing about the lack of theoretical coherence in Anglo-American political science. “Smashing Idols” revived my dulled mind, especially its conclusion that political science categories “suggest less variety in politics than citizens experience.” That conclusion spoke to me then as a sullen graduate student straightjacketed by disciplinary formalisms. What strikes me now is the way Ellis leverages the comparison to re-center the role of state authority in the Protestant Reformation, not the usual reverse procedure of using comparison to point out the dysfunctions of this or that process in Egyptian history.

A similar inversion drives his co-authored article on the political economy of the resource curse in 2008, “Lessons from Strange Cases: Democracy, Development, and the Resource Curse in the US States.” Taking one of the most well-known ideas about Middle East politics—that oil wealth causes distorted economies and authoritarian polities—Ellis and his co-authors test the hypothesis on the “strange cases” of US states, finding that the curse holds in American politics as well. In a rare move, they challenge both American and Middle East exceptionalism, bringing together the fields of Middle East politics and American political development.

Seen from this vantage, Egypt’s revolution as a failure recedes and what comes into view is the audacious venture to build a new political order cleansed of the old guard.
More recently, Ellis tried out the creative potential of comparison to rethink perhaps the single most popular contrast to come out of the Arab uprisings: the Egypt/Tunisia pairing. The formula is to narrate Tunisia as the success story and Egypt as the paradigm of failure, lauding the Tunisian political class for its skillful compromises compared to the self-destructive intransigence of the Egyptians. Not quite, wrote Ellis. “Democratization succeeded in Tunisia because the old elite was neither excluded nor subjected to the threat of political or administrative marginalization. The old elite, not revolutionaries or Islamists, proved to be the pivotal actor.” Seen from this vantage, Egypt’s revolution as a failure recedes and what comes into view is the audacious venture to build a new political order cleansed of the old guard. No one who has read MERIP from the first days of 2011 will have underestimated the enormity of this venture.

The Failure of Failure

In a withering critique of mainstream American political science’s approach to Latin America in the 1960s, the development economist Albert Hirschman lashed out against the cognitive “propensity to see gloom and failure everywhere.” This “failure complex” was still very much alive when I started reading Middle East political science; it felt like a report card delivering serial Fs. The failure of import-substitution industrialization; the failure of national integration; the failure of socialism; the failure of Arab nationalism; the failure of democracy. Egypt through Ellis’s eyes was a different world. His first book, Tinker, Tailor, Textile Worker: Class and Politics in Egypt, 1930-1952 (1986) traced the connections between the small worlds of work and the larger world of politics, showing how laborers in different industries gravitated to different political groupings in the hothouse atmosphere of Egypt in the 1940s.

In a small masterpiece critiquing the trope of crisis in historiography, he took to task progressive historians who wrote about Egypt but wrote out Egyptians.
The same attention to how micro-level economic roots connect to macro political structures drives Ellis’s careful re-reading of peasant acts of sabotage in the 1919 anticolonial rising. In a small masterpiece critiquing the trope of crisis in historiography, he took to task progressive historians who wrote about Egypt but wrote out Egyptians: “The explicitly anti-imperialist accounts of Egyptian history exclude Egyptians from any active role in the construction of the economic and political order that lasted more than half a century.” (199)

I do not invoke this to hold up Ellis as some warrior champion of Egypt’s subalterns, even though he painstakingly ferreted out the sources to write their actions and decisions back into the record. Just as he eschewed breezy philosophies of history that lacked any details, he had no patience for romantic accounts of subaltern “resistance” to the state. My point is that he ignored the divisions between social and political history, since Egypt’s history cannot be written without featuring the state, any more than it can be understood without the collective self-assertions of its farmers, laborers, party politicians, religious revivalists and youth activists.

State and Revolution

The 2011 uprising was the breakthrough that brought these groups into open confrontation over the institutions and decisions of the state. Ellis’s blog posts and published articles stand among the finest analyses of this critical juncture. He and his doctoral student Hind Ahmad Zaki were the first to notice the resurgence of haybat al-dawla early in 2011, the conservative theory that “the state has a terrifying or awe-inducing aspect that is a necessary part of its authority.” I picked up on their insight and elaborated the concept as the explicit governing doctrine of the counter-revolutionary regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in power since 2014.

Long after scholars and journalists lost interest in the Egypt story and moved on, he continued his deep reading of dense events to extract meanings and consequences.
Ellis never tired of arguing that we have to take seriously the conflicts and divisions ushered in by the uprising, instead of falling back into the frameworks of failed revolution or failed democratic transition. On the first anniversary of the revolution, as Egypt’s convulsions continued to elude the tidy categories and classifications of structuralist social science, he wondered, “What would happen if, instead of beginning with the canonical understandings and cases, we began with events themselves?” Long after scholars and journalists lost interest in the Egypt story and moved on, he continued his deep reading of dense events to extract meanings and consequences. His last blog entry is, to my knowledge, the only sustained account of how the general-turned-president al-Sisi consolidated his personal control over the only state organ left that could have potentially challenged his rule: his parent organization the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

In what turned out to be our last conversation in summer 2019, we had an animated long chat about the revised introduction to his manuscript on the uprisings, “Demonstrations of Democracy,” a phenomenological study of the revolution that promised to untangle and re-synthesize the multiple strands explored in his blogposts over eight years. Then we got to talking about some long forgotten episodes in early 2013, especially the increasingly hysterical three-way jousting between the Mohammad Morsi presidency, the Shura Council (upper house of parliament) and the Supreme Constitutional Court. Ellis commented that Egypt’s revolutionary politics were battles between institutions, and not just personalities, jealously guarding and extending the scope of their authority. Analogizing to a longtime passion of his, he likened the intra-state conflicts to Karate, the hard marshal art of assaulting and kicking the opponent into submission, rather than Judo, the art of fending off and wearing down the adversary.

Ellis loved Egypt and knew more about its history and political economy than anyone I know. He sometimes pop-quizzed me on dates in its inter-war history; naturally, I failed most of the time. His social science mind was an exemplar of the “reverence for life” that Albert Hirschman counseled to more carefully understand the world around us. At a time when lives in Egypt are imperiled by deprivation, dictatorship and disease, as are so many lives across the globe, an intellectual sensibility grounded in a reverence for life is a gift and an exigency.

 

[Front page photo: Ellis Goldberg, University of Washington, Department of Political Science.]

How to cite this article:

Mona El-Ghobashy "Ellis Goldberg, Egypt and a Reverence for Life," Middle East Report Online, April 02, 2020.
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