Political Learning in the Struggle: Perspectives From the Egyptian Diaspora

Egyptian proytesters with smartphones
Egyptian protesters deploy their … social media. (Photo: http://dennysglobalpolitics.blogspot.co.uk/)
In a cross-posting with Social Science Space partner Viva Voce podcasts, Helen Underhill at the University of Manchester describes how Egyptians living outside their native land respond to the political turmoil there, and how there is not single ‘Egyptian voice’ that speaks for them all. Listen to her podcast below.



The research

My research represents the intersection of 15 years of activism and work experience. In bringing together education, politics, social movements and migration in the context of the Egyptian struggle, I explore what and how activists learn through mobilising in a period of revolutionary change, and the implications of that learning for their continued political trajectories.

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Past Viva Voce posts

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Informed by my position as teacher and lifelong-lifewide learner, I aim to contribute an understanding that engenders looking forward. As such, my research connects activists’ learning to their trajectories – through learning in social action, how do activists continue their engagement with ‘the political’, whatever that means to them? Another important aspect to this research is that I am examining learning and trajectories within the context of diaspora politics. Egyptians in the UK participated in the 25th January revolution in many ways – they returned to Egypt, mobilised in various spaces in the UK and transnationally through online spaces.

Diaspora and migrant activists are important actors within the contemporary global political landscape, and there is much we can learn from explorations of why and how diaspora become participants in a struggle in a ‘place of origin’. In the Egyptian case, a lens that connects political learning to diaspora politics can uncover deep divisions that became so stark after the ousting of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and the subsequent election of General el-Sisi.

Why Egypt, why now?

Having spent almost two years in Egypt during the early 2000s, predominantly in Upper Egypt in the rural south of the country, I understand why many of the participants in my study feel so strongly about the struggle. Through seeing the poverty that gripped the villages in which I had worked, learning of friends’ struggling businesses, or laments of their child’s woefully poor education, I recognised their calls for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. Just like many Egyptians unable to be there in person, I stayed up through the night watching the coverage of Tahrir Square, willing ‘the people’ to succeed.

But Egypt’s struggle continues. The 25th January revolution in 2011 symbolises an historic period in the region, and the shockwaves of the unexpected resignation of Hosni Mubarak on 11th February after 30 years in power have been felt across the world. The shape of politics in Egypt changed during the 18 days of uprisings in January, and continued to change with each month since: revolution, demonstration, protest, sit-in, election, massacre, coup… The complexities of Egypt’s political context during the four years since the initial uprisings almost defy description, and it is evident from this research that linguistic signifiers hold considerable power in generating and prolonging division.

Helen Underhill
Helen Underhill
Engaged research

This is a qualitative study based on semi-structured interviews and participant observation with British-Egyptians and Egyptian migrants living in the UK. In addition, my own long-standing connection to Egypt has enabled insights from Egyptians living in Egypt. As engaged research, the words of the activists are prioritised. Their voices present many perspectives of the struggle, reflecting the intensity and complex nature of their experiences, the situation and their learning. I illustrate how activists navigate the complexities of the struggle, what and how they learn about various imaginations associated with Egypt, politics and themselves.

Initial findings support those within migration students who warn against homogenising diaspora; there is no unifying ‘Egyptian’ imaginary. The divisions that exist in Egypt between three main groups, secularists, Islamists and those who support Sisi’s presidency, are replicated among the diaspora in the UK. However, this research shows that these groupings are also problematic. The activists’ multiple identities are ignited through different moments of the struggle, and we see sympathies and allegiances diverge.

The findings also show that social movement action is an important space where activists learn about themselves, their identities, histories and relationships. Such learning is highly political. Many of the participants in this study were completely new to activism and political engagement, and through their mobilisation have developed new skills and knowledge that shapes their political trajectories. In sum, this analysis of learning illuminates moments within the Egyptian struggle that offer hope, as well as exposing the barriers that prolong division.

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Helen Underhill

Helen Underhill is a Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester's School of Environment, Education and Development. Her research draws on understandings of learning in social movements and popular education to examine processes and implications of political learning during the Egyptian uprisings and on-going revolution.

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