Six months into Egypt’s 2011 January Revolution, I joined a march protesting military trials for civilians. When my friend marching right next to me started rolling a cigarette, a man on the sidewalk shouted at us: ‘is this the freedom you want? You just want to be like the West and smoke hash on the streets!’ By the end of our three-hour-long march, and before we were able to reach the Ministry of Defence, army tanks and barbed wire blocked us and a vicious attack by locals in the neighbourhood ensued. On the train back home, surrounded by protesters who were injured and shocked, I started thinking about how freedom was fixed at the West. I became increasingly angry. Our march to stop arbitrary arrests and to demand and imagine a different future were reduced to a mere demand for ‘selfish’ and Westernised personal rights. The notion of Westernisation assumes a wider set of attitudes and behaviours that are associated with ‘decadence’, ‘perversion’, and sexual ‘deviance’. In many ways, freedom does not suit us, not yet anyway!
Earlier in the same year, ex-Vice President Omar Suleiman declared that Egyptians are not ready for democracy.(2) The separation between Egyptians and the ‘perverted’ West, and Egyptians and democracy became a main thread of revolution and counterrevolution. Government accusations that protesters are homosexuals, paid in ‘US dollars and KFC meals’(3) aligned protesters with Western behaviours and materialist desires. Simultaneously, a peculiar figure emerged in discourse. The ‘honourable citizen’ was called upon to stay vigilant against deviations from the perceived moral and cultural standards of Egypt. Over time, an increasing anti-revolutionary sentiment emerged, even among those initially enthusiastic about the revolution. A decade later, I took my teenage curiosity around these discourses of deviance and honourability into the academy, this time as a fully-fledged adult trying to understand the complexities of counterrevolution in Egypt. I found that these discourses have shaped counterrevolutionary subjectivities and played a vital role in the success of the counterrevolution. The figure of the honourable citizen, the fulcrum of normative regulation, influenced how Egyptians were expected to behave and shaped the conduct and desires of individuals, including what they understand to be ‘legitimate’ resistance.
In my research I highlight the contradictory tropes of the ‘honourable citizen’ as a way to destabilise monolithic understandings of Egyptianness, and to reinsert the multiplicity of Egyptian desires and ways of being that the January Revolution brought to the fore. On the one hand, the mobilisation of the ‘honourable citizen’ in discourse incites an aspirational form of citizenship in line with neoliberal governmentality, emphasising personal responsibility and a focus on individual conduct in alignment with honourability as a way towards eventual democracy. On the other hand, representations of normativity in Egypt emphasise the docility, naivety, and homogeneity of the ‘Egyptian people’, and draw from colonial representations of colonised subjects.(4) This latter representation has reinforced the portrayal of Egyptian resistance as reactive, irrational, and easily misguided by ‘foreign plots’.(5) By associating homosexuality with deviance and foreignness, Egyptians were encouraged to be vigilant, not only against so-called Westernised deviants in revolutionary squares, but also, and more importantly against Egyptians’ own potential for being misled by deviant agendas.
Continued moral panics around homosexuality, especially since 2001,(6) fuelled concerns about Western encroachment and the erosion of Egyptian sovereignty, ultimately governing Egyptian conduct in ways that aligned with normativity and honourability. The concept of aspiration to honourability, at the centre of normative regulation is intentionally elusive, perpetuating the need for continued governance through changing meanings of normativity over time. Portrayals of the January Revolution and its participants as deviant and out of place against a slippery mobilisation of normativity, show how sexuality is an existential vector for the survival of the state, and demonstrate how revolution and counterrevolution construct sexualised international orderings of progressive versus backward states that maintain and privilege Western modes of socioeconomic and political organisation.(7) What the Egyptian case demonstrates is that the construction and maintenance of these orders and hierarchies are not only the work of the global North; they are also produced and reproduced in and by the so-called global South.
(1) AL-GHARIB, MALAK. 2020. ‘Our Stories: Queer Communities and the Egyptian Revolution’. Mykalimag. https://www.mykalimag.com/en/2020/02/19/our-stories-queer-communities-and-the-egyptian-revolution/.
(2) KIRKPATRICK, DAVID. 2012. ‘Egyptian Presidential Candidate Carries Banner of the Old Order’. The New York Times, 8 April 2012, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/09/world/middleeast/omar-suleiman-egypts-new-candidate-represents-old-order.html.
(4) AZEEZ, GOVAND. 2014. ‘Western Notions of Middle Eastern Revolutions: Counter-Revolutionary Discourse from Mahdi to the Arab Spring’. In The Contemporary Middle East: Revolution or Reform?, edited by Brenton Clark, Adel Ghafar, and Jessie Mortiz, 64–86. Melbourne University Press.
(5) ABDELFATTAH, FATIMA. 2012. ‘This is how the military spoke... A reading of the transformations of the Supreme Council’s speeches during a year of government’. Al Masry Al Youm. https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/151436.
(6) ABDELHAMID, AMIRA, 2020. ‘“When will we be ready for democracy?”: The mobilisation of deviance as counterrevolutionary technology in Egypt’. Journal of Resistance Studies, 6(2).
(7) WEBER, CYNTHIA. 2016. Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. Oxford University Press.