Egypt: A Scholar’s Personal Journey

Joshua Stacher, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, studies authoritarianism and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa. His firsthand knowledge of Egypt, where he has lived, and its political layers have made him a sought-after source of information on the Egyptian uprising. In 2012-13 he was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is writing a book about Egypt’s political transition after Hosni Mubarak. His photos of the uprising in Tahrir Square are shown here. 

Growing up and going to college in small-town southwestern Pennsylvania, I wasn’t sure where I needed to go next. It was somewhere out in the world and had to be different. I wanted to be culturally uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be able to speak the language. It had to be hard to live there. I wanted to be a minority.

After studying abroad and getting a small taste of Egypt, I decided on Cairo. Society seemed unorganized. Traffic patterns were nonexistent. Basic interactions and exchanges were loud. There was dirt, dust and sand everywhere. Cairo, a city that no one knows how many people inhabit, was perfect. I started my epic journey in 1998 and had no clue where it would lead.

My parents always told me that I needed to aim high and dream big. Because they gave me the ability to imagine, I took a chance and enrolled for graduate studies at the American University in Cairo. Transformative doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. I met people from all over the world. Everyone seemed to hate the repressive government, and some of my colleagues were active in fledging protest movements. I studied Arabic when I wasn’t preparing for seminars. Instead of going home for Christmases I’d backpack through Beirut, Damascus, Amman and Jerusalem. I watched how local security organized the movement of people and started to think more about how politics took place in an authoritarian system.

The years passed and before I knew it, I had entre into different groups in Egyptian society. I could get access to members of Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, interview scores of leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood and drink beers with leftists, socialists and communists of all stripes. After a while, I blended in just as well in Egypt as in America. Egypt was where I lived and studied. There was no separation between the personal and the professional. 

Sept. 11 Changes the Plan

About the time I got comfortable, everything changed. While I was writing my masters’ thesis, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 took place. The trajectory of my life changed in an instant. By the evening of Sept. 11, I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. because I suspected that however the events afterward unfolded, they would define how I would live the rest of my life.

While studying for my Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I was more often in Cairo or Damascus doing research comparing authoritarian regimes than in the quaint Scottish town. I finished my doctoral studies and realized that my best job opportunities were in the U.S. I remember being nervous about moving back home because home had become a foreign country to me. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Syracuse University, I accepted a job offer at Kent State and came here in 2008.

My mother was ecstatic. After 10 years of living away, I was only a two-hour ride from where I grew up. I was less enthused. Chasing tenure was serious and academic life in America can be mechanical. Politics felt like something that should be avoided. I’d travel back to Egypt for research trips and I felt unconnected. There were new expatriates in town and I was just “parachuting in” to fill notebooks before I rushed back to school to write up the findings.

Moreover, Cairo felt like a bother. It remained one of the most interesting places on earth, but I had gown over-familiar with it and its inhabitants. By December 2010, I remember being so bored with Egypt that rather than go to Cairo for parliamentary elections, I stayed home to get ready for the spring term. What would be the point of watching another rigged spectacle?

Throughout this time, there had been protests. The small groups I was introduced to when I moved to Egypt had grown over the years. While I appreciated their growth, I underestimated their ability to contest power. The deck was deeply stacked against them. Through all my book learning and academic theorizing, my political sensibilities had dulled, and I just accepted what I understood to be an unchangeable authoritarian reality. 

Egypt Erupts

The spring 2011 term began. While snow fell outside my office window in Kent, my phone rang. It was Newsweek wanting to speak with an expert. Busy with email and the trivial tasks of any day, I remember being short with the journalist. She asked me why the Muslim Brothers weren’t going to join the January 25th protests. I could barely contain my sarcasm. “Why?” I asked. “What good would it do for their organization? The demonstrations will go nowhere and all it will do is lead to more arrests for groups like the Brothers if they participate.” A few days later, I watched in a mesmerized state the drama that was unfolding. Over the course of my research life, I have attended hundreds of political protests. I had never seen anything like his anywhere. Egypt had – like the many times when I lived in Cairo – showed me there was yet more to learn outside of the books.

The initial 18 days of the 2011 Egyptian uprising were electric. Because of the seven-hour time difference and my teaching obligations, I just stopped sleeping. I was addicted to news. I got a Twitter feed for the latest information. I was invited to meet with senior members of the National Security Council at the White House as they prepared to brief President Obama on what his Egypt policy should be. I was quoted in The New York Times and interviewed by National Public Radio. I briefed Jimmy Carter about Egypt at The Carter Center in Atlanta. I published bold arguments that lots of my friends didn’t like. It was the most exciting period of my academic life.

I used spring break 2011 to go to Cairo. There I ran into friends from U.S., European and Australian universities. The debates that emerged and the discussions were infectious. I had never learned so much as quickly as I did, watching Egyptians push against their elites, regional powers and international forces who were clamoring for a return to the predictable days of Mubarak’s autocratic system.

At various points along Egypt’s turbulent transition after Mubarak, the direction of change passed intersections that could have produced different and more progressive outcomes. The Egyptian military escalated state violence against Egyptians. I spoke out against the trend. The U.S. government sided time after time with the agents of the status quo. I spoke out against this to show the connective points of transnational flows of power, capital and coercion.

One of my frequent interviewees in Cairo, Mohamad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in 2012 in the first free presidential election in Egypt’s modern history. When given the opportunity to side with the street protestors and change or the state and continuity, Morsi chose the latter. I railed against Morsi and his autocratic tendencies. When commentators blamed the protesters for “not having a plan” or being disorganized, I countered that governments and elites carry far more influence than populations in how a political situation emerges. 

Challenging Orthodoxy 

At no time in my professional life have I been as awake or alive as after the Egyptian uprising. I morphed into a bigger proponent of challenging political orthodoxies. If the goal of every researcher is to have a meaningful, robust academic agenda that seeks to understand and explain the globalizing world in order to prepare our students for life, the Arab uprisings facilitated and enhanced this dynamic.

I have come to respect the process of research as life transforming. Just like the 22-year-old kid that I was in 1998, showing up in Cairo to gain some overseas experience, I continue to learn about life and politics from Egypt and the Arab world. The most important lesson that I have learned is that there are not clear or easy boundaries between life and research. I discovered that not all that should be learned is book-based, and research designs have limits. Learning from experience and experiences is the single greatest way to develop nuanced understandings of the complex social world, clear opinions about the best types of political systems to help achieve social justice and how best to transform my interactions with students, colleagues and friends into cauldrons of critical thinking. This is what inspires me. I hope it inspires others to find their Cairo, which is, after all, just one of countless destinations of scholarly pursuit. Wherever your research agenda takes you, committing to the people and the place you study makes all the difference.