Fieldwork in a Repressive Climate : the Case of Egypt

Originally written as part of a participation in a conference entitled “Becoming a Local: The Case of Egypt, Research in Times of Change and Uncertainty: Europe the Middle East and Beyond,” held under the patronage of the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University, May 23, 2016.

Crédit photo : Laurent Verdier, de Pixabay

Research in times of change and uncertainty is dangerous, but it can be exciting (and sometimes disappointing) for a researcher. Working in countries where Arab uprisings occurred after 2012 has become something that is frowned upon by colleagues covering other more “stable” countries (like Russia). Countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen cannot be visited as a researcher today, because it will raise questions when entering the country in question and then again in the home country upon return (in a Western country). It has become even more so since the November 2015 attacks in Paris. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia, a researcher can gain access, but he/she still faces the constraint of repression and a depoliticized people. Some of the problems linked to accessing these countries as a researcher can be resolved with online communication, in some cases, and face-to-face communication using local research jargon. The main question that is to be answered through this paper is: How can a researcher work around repression and conflict in his/her fieldwork ? This paper is an attempt to present current methods of accessing potential interviewees and interviewing them and using social networks attached to discourse analysis as tools. Also, the paper will outline the importance of making connections with local non- governmental organizations (NGOs), independent media organizations, and autochtonous researchers. It will mainly refer to Egypt as a case study. Since repression arrived in full force in Egypt after 2013, cases of arrests, disappearances, and deaths of journalists and researchers have increased.

However, this paper will demonstrate how the research and writing can (and should) continue.

During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, different segments of society and age groups united to express their discontent with the thirty-year-long Mubarak regime. For a researcher in the field of humanities and social sciences, the period of 2010–12 was like the ‘golden years.’ If the researcher’s fieldwork required interviews, participant observation, or the use of street art, these years were fruitful. With the events taking place and different power dynamics unraveling, a researcher was faced with the challenge of defining his/her work between scholarly work and what could be referred to as “expensive journalism.”

Starting in July 2013 in Egypt, and with the arrival of the Egyptian army to power, even if not constitutionally or officially, with the appointment of interim president Adly Mansour, the period of free speech came to an end. Interviews, demonstrations, and other forms of expression became rare, dangerous, and outlawed1. A group of people talking about politics in a café was reported and arrested in 2014; another (less fortunate person) was arrested in 20162. Even the street murals in Tahrir Square and other places in Cairo were painted (and repainted) over. The decrease or disappearance of the regular sign of expression toward the current military regime — which was present in people’s outspokenness, newspaper columns, television shows, and demonstrations — has affected analyses of the current situation. Although some demonstrations do take place, many do not deem them worth the risk of death or prosecution3.

That led to a misconstruction or misrepresentation in the academic field of the return of the Arab “resilient authoritarian” state and a silent opposition, which has affected domestic and international policies.

However, unlike more problematic cases — like Syria, Yemen, or Libya — Egypt is still accessible for research, with an absence of open, armed conflict. However, the military regime keeps an open eye on all media and social networks, and the crackdown and repression on all forms of protest and expression is uniform. But the army has not yet been capable of playing a “big brother” role that dismantles the aspirations of academic research4. The main question to be answered in this paper is: How can a researcher carry out field-work in a situation of repression and conflict ?

In answering this question, this paper aims at outlining three main elements that are extracted from the case of Egypt. First, how should one decipher what the local people are talking about and what is meant in what they say? Second, when (and whom) should one interview and when/how should one observe? Last but not least, how do ethnographic materials from outside of the political field provide evidence — and are even more crucial — in the analyses of different power dynamics in the political field?

In order to carry out research in Egypt today — despite the series of disappearances, deaths, and arrests — a framework and methodology should be set according to the topic undertaken5. The main hypotheses are as follows. First, understanding the context of the repressive situation functions as a backbone of the fieldwork process. Being backed or funded by an organization (whether academic or non-academic) or just carrying out research is nothing to be declared outright to anyone any longer in Egypt. The use of materials and discourse from outside of the political field can be effectively used when carrying out qualitative research for the humanities and social sciences.

Conceptual framework

The conceptual or theoretical framework that supports the hypotheses made in this paper is supported by various sources. First, Pierre Bourdieu in Language and Symbolic Power points out the importance of discourse to the political field. “Symbolic power,” to Bourdieu, is the power of structuring reality, which comes about with tools and systems6. In order for a political institution or organization to have enough symbolic power, which in turn enables it to have “governmentality” (the famous Foucauldian term), it needs to seek it from outside of the political “field” (champ politique)7. A “field” is a set of structured arrangement that has its own set of values, order, or simply sense of the world around it. The importance that Bourdieu reinforces in his book on language, symbols, and external — to the political field — forms of presentation and representation accentuates how symbols, language, and rhetoric can be used in research today. This framework has been used in research that covered the Egyptian army’s symbolic power and its fluctuations throughout the army’s political life8.

Other scholars like Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly visited the same (or similar in depth) notions on the use of language and symbols and their importance in political movements and mobilization9. Emphasis on the birth of some slogans in times of contention has its own socio-historical framework, according to Tarrow. Thus, the discourse (whether public or political) spread today in Egypt is not entirely new but is re-adapted to fit the situation. In order to carry out fieldwork in Egypt (or under similarly repressive governments), the symbolic value of the language used within and outside of the political field should be taken into consideration.

Using a discourse analysis is not a new tool in political science research. Scholars like Lisa Wedeen used a similar theoretical framework in her analysis of the cases of Yemen and Syria10.

Research and fieldwork in today’s Egypt

In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising in Egypt, two main phases for fieldwork-based research took place. The first phase was when street politics were on the rise (and were at their climax), which could be marked by the initial 25 January 2011 demonstrations, until the 30 June 2013 demonstrations11.

During this period, interviews and questionnaires were no danger for a researcher. Carrying out interviews with different age categories and political affiliations was straightforward for the mere reason that people spoke willingly. Not only did interview candidates speak more freely but they also easily recommended people researchers could talk to. Still, the simultaneity of the events with ongoing research topics is difficult to comprehend and analyze. During this first phase, the ongoing political violence — from the thugs (baltageya), CSF, and SCAF — resulted in hesitation and sometimes fear12. This fear stemmed from the fact that no one knew what was going on exactly at the time, neither the social movements (April 6 Youth Movement, We Are All Khaled Said), nor the political organizations (members of the leftist al-Tagamoa political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Kefaya, etc.). The word “thawra,” or revolution, became the term for this phase, the inter-repression period.

Revolution, revolution, until victory!

During the period of the “revolution,” slogans, art works, and songs were shared13. As a researcher using qualitative methods, there had to be a clear distinction between the following sources : newly created slogans, the revival of old ones, and the use of certain words within new slogans. Several examples can be outlined here. First, “the army and the people are one hand” (al-geish wal sha’ab eid wahda) was among the slogans that were used starting on 28 January 2011. This slogan goes back to 1952 and the Free Officers’ coup14. Although this slogan started out with the words in this order, it did not remain so. Contrary to the army’s hopes, the people soon demanded that they should come first in the order of the slogan’s wording, so that the slogan became: the people and the army are one hand.

This insistence, on its own, had a domino effect on, first, the people’s approval of the SCAF’s presence in the political field and, second, the army’s acceptance of the people’s discontent. The change in the order of this socio-historically relevant slogan, related to the army’s previous “revolution,” provided an indicator and valid point of analysis in this period of “transition” or “transformation,” as different scholars referred to it15. Another slogan that provided an interesting point of analysis was “down with the military regime” (yasqot hakm al-‘askar). The army’s rage was evident against this slogan, which emerged shortly after SCAF seized power in 2011 and persisted until Mohamed Morsi became president in 2012.

In one incident, army soldiers urinated on protestors on Mohamed Mahmoud Street when this slogan was shouted16. The fact that the MB used this slogan to give way to its own political aspirations during this period can be proved by its insistence on the slogan’s use in its discourse and on having a “civilian” president17. On its own, the word “al-askar” (the military) has its socio-historic connotations, with the reference to the “military society” in Egypt. The phrase “military society” is part of the title of the book by Anouar Abdel-Malek that analyzed the 1952 coup in Egypt and the governance of the army afterward, which all adds up to the political element of word choice18. The MB used the same word, al-‘askar, from the 1940s to the 1960s to refer to the army’s rule in Egypt, as explained in an interview, which is why the use of this wording was revolting to the army in 2011–1219.

Later in 2012, the slogan that rose to the forefront was “down with the murshid’s rule” (yasqot yasqot hakm al-murshid), in reference to the MB’s or Morsi’s rule. However, this slogan was new, because the MB had never been in power before, and this socio-historical context of having the group ‘in power’ legitimately brought about an array of new vocabulary20. Following the new vocabulary and the circulated discourse came the mass mobilization in June 2013 and the second phase for researchers after the 2011 uprising.

The army and the people are one hand

The second phase for researchers in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising was marked by the gradual decline of public expression, which started around the end of July 2013.

The newly founded Tamarod movement started a petition in late 2012 demanding Morsi’s removal from power and new elections; prominent figures (especially in more pro-Islamist camps like al- Wasat Party or the new, Salafist al-Nour Party) became weary of journalists and researchers. However, the politicized people were still open and accessible.

After the Raba’a dispersal/massacre in August 2013 and the crackdown on explicit or non-underground forms of expression or opposition, public silence became the norm, again, with many similarities with the Mubarak — and apparently Nasser — era. Interviews, in turn, were impossible, since people believed that anyone could be an informant for the government or the intelligence (mukhabarat). The slogan of “together to eradicate terrorism” (m’an lel qada’ ‘ala al-irhab) began to appear in the corner of all television channels and became part of al-Sisi’s presidential campaign. During this period, even participant observation for a researcher became dangerous, since all protestors were liable to prosecution by a law passed at the time to ban all public protests21.

The importance of the words used on television as opposed to those used on the street and among social groups became of more value than before for a researcher in the field of humanities and social sciences. The comparison between the different discourses exchanged provided for a representation of power dynamics in the Egyptian political field that may not have been revealed otherwise. Also, the public discourse by the different political actors — the army, MB, interior ministry, and people — showed the connoted messages represented overall22. Interview candidates who were previously interviewed did not wish to be interviewed again, some out of a failure to grasp the events, others because they had the country and feared for their families.

The word “terrorism” was (and still remains) among the highly used and circulated words of this phase23. The Egyptian version of the “war on terror” is an ongoing official government discourse.

Research in Egypt today

For a researcher covering Egypt and depending on qualitative methods to reach his/her information, words need to be used and analyzed as an integral part of the research and outcomes. Today, potential interview candidates who are reached by phone, just to request an interview, will not only demand how you got their number but will deny that they know anything of what you refer to in the call24. Especially so, candidates who might be prominent in certain political organizations should not be contacted by phone but rather asked at their workplaces (if known) and then by using inexplicit words. The following vocabulary words should be avoided in all phone calls: research (bahth), the army (al- geish), the MB (al-Ikhwan), the demonstrations (mozaharat), foreign university (gam’a agnabeya), and other similar obvious. Thus, instead of saying “the army,” the wording could be twisted to say, “the people who are running things,” while “demonstrators” could be “people who are There” and the “MB” is “the people from before,” and so on.

Further, local NGOs have been under close government supervision since 2011. Their treatment as a gateway for foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs started shortly after the 2011 uprising, with claims of having been sources of foreign funds to disrupt the transition process in Egypt25. NGOs that have local — autochtone — lawyers can provide quantitative evidence for certain hypotheses on topics related to human rights violations in prisons, military/police training, and similar topics. However, the lawyers themselves are often open for interviews, since their work is already explicit.

Last, journalists, academics, and local researchers are not all to be asked for contacts without some preliminary knowledge about them and their socio-political tendencies, if any. They face a similar situation that a PhD candidate might; but caution is required as some have affiliations with old or new political organizations. Minor journalists in private newspapers are valuable candidates for general information and sources to reach other candidates. However, the choice of the private-newspaper journalist to be contacted depends on the research topic undertaken because these newspapers have political ties and affiliations as well. Thus, preliminary research is required before going to the newspaper’s headquarters and ask to contact a specific person.


Research in Egypt is interesting, but the danger that comes with it gives the mixture of a simultaneous rush and fear. As a researcher, it should be remembered that the people who are contacted are scared and living in fear. That should be respected. A bottom-up methodology, as adopted and previously discussed by Jean-Francois Bayart in his article “Comparer par le bas,” is the ultimate researcher’s cure in times of repression26. However, how deep of approach a researcher could get differs according to the topic and (sometimes) linguistic abilities. Using discourse analysis, participant observation, and connecting them to the socio-historical context in the case of Egypt portrays power dynamics that might not have been visible with plain interviews.

The ongoing research on the MB and the army as political rivals depends on discourse analysis, interviews, and a socio-historical base to analyze this power-struggle dynamic and its continuity in the Egyptian political field. The socio-historical connection is of crucial importance to the discourse analysis and in analyzing the recent events starting in 2011. Most of the slogans that were used and lasted were used previously in different political contexts in Egypt. Interviews only confirm what was discovered while using the discourse analysis. Finally, becoming a local who understands and breathes the represented context was the topic of this paper — after all, the discourse is a “representation.” It is not facts and figures that are often required and analyzed in order to access information about the power dynamics in any given political situation.*

Sara Tonsy, docteure en sciences politiques, Sciences Po Aix – CHERPA

Pour citer cet article : Sara Tonsy, Fieldwork in a Repressive Climate : the Case of Egypt, Un Œil sur la Cité, 16/09/2020,

  1. A law was passed in November 2013 outlawing protests of any kind. “Interim President Adly Mansour Signs Controversial Protests Law,” Egypt Independent, November 24, 2013, []
  2. “French, Egyptian Journalists held in Café for Discussing Politics,” Mada Masr, Nov. 11, 2014, []
  3. This is based on interviews carried out since 2014 until 2016. Even politically active people refuse to participate in demonstrations []
  4. in November 2015, Ismail Alexandrani, a researcher covering Sinai was arrested at the Hurghada airport; he was charged with belonging to a terrorist organization. Also, in January 2016, Giulio Regeni, a PhD student who was carrying out fieldwork about workers’ syndicates, was murdered in Cairo, Egypt. The government denies that he was killed by security forces []
  5. Ongoing research that uses the same methodology described throughout this paper aims at answering the questions: How could the relationship between the MB and the Egyptian army be analyzed? How does this relationship affect the governmentality of either political actor? This constitutes the PhD dissertation by S. Tonsy at Sciences Po Aix – CHERPA []
  6. Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Oxford: Polity, 1991), 23 []
  7. Governmentality is the group of institutions that govern the population; “the line of force [that] led towards the pre-eminence over all other types of power;” it is an invisible power. Michel Foucault and others. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 108 []
  8. Sara Tonsy, Holger Albrecht, and American University in Cairo. Department of Political Science. The Egyptian Army’s Cult: a comparative analysis. MA thesis, 2014 []
  9. Sidney G. Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) []
  10. Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) []
  11. Street politics, as the concept used by Asef Bayat in Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013) []
  12. One of the activists recommended by an interview candidate, Samer, was killed in the Mohamed Mahmoud demonstrations in late 2011. Samer had to leave Egypt in 2013 following the Raba’a dispersal (massacre) in August 2013 []
  13. Caricatures, poetry, and song lyrics that define the sentiments and power of the people at the time are popular. Songs, like that of the band Cairokee, “Ya al-Midan,” are among the most prominent about 2011, which was followed by “Nas Betro’us wa Nas Betmout” (Some Dance and Some Die) in 2014 and “Akher Oghneya” (The Last Song) in 2016. Also, there is Yasser al-Menwahley’s “Rima.” []
  14. Menna Khalil, “The People and the Army are One Hand: Myth and their Translations,” Samia Mehrez, ed. Translating Egypt’s Revolution: the Language of Tahrir, Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2012, 249-275 []
  15. Holger Albrecht referred to what was taking place in Egypt at the time as an “authoritarian transformation,” while Clement Steuer referred to it as “transition.” Holger Albrecht, “Authoritarian Transformation or Transistion from Authoritarianism? Insights on Regime Change in Egypt,” in Arab Spring in Egypt: Revolution and Beyond, eds. Bahgat Korany and Rabab El-Mahdi (New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2012), 251–71. Clement Steuer, “The Role of Elections: The Recomposition of the Party System and the Hierarchization of Political Issues,” in Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion and Social Movements, eds. Bernard Rougier and Stephane Lacroix, trans. Cynthia Scoch and John Angell (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 81–101 []
  16. Taous, in an interview in February 2016. Taous is an interview candidate who was close to the army during the 1960s and after. He resides in Egypt []
  17. The explanation provided by Steuer in his chapter on the demands of several Islamist movements, notably the MB, on having a “civil” or non-military state, delves further on the difference regarded within the MB about this aspect of governance []
  18. Anouar Abdel-Malek and Charles Lam Markmann, Egypt: Military Society, the Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change under Nasser (New York: Random House, 1968) []
  19. Taous interview []
  20. The vocabulary used had words like: ikhwanization (akhwanah), legitimacy (shar’eya), and others. Discussing them in detail is out of the scope of this paper []
  21. The same law referred to in the Introduction of this paper []
  22. Roland Barthes referred to connoted messages given by images, their captions, etc., as a whole, final product. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) []
  23. Sara Tonsy, “Terrorism and Egypt’s Current Political Discourse,” Sciences Po Aix – CHERPA, Document de travail, January 2015, []
  24. This happened with two interview candidates, although both of them were relatively supportive of the 2013 coup. One of them said, “You know what the weather is like in Cairo these days . . . [pause] . . . it is suffocating, hot!,” which does not require further explanation []
  25. The police raided several NGO offices in Egypt in 2011 and their assets were frozen. In 2013, several research and human rights organizations were forced to shut down, while their directors faced trials []
  26. Jean-Francois Bayart, “Comparer par le Bas,” Sociétés Politiques Comparées, no. 1 (2008) []

Sara Tonsy

Sara Tonsy has a PhD in Political Science from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence, 2019. She works on the case of Egypt and the rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian army since 2011.

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