David Faris went to Cairo on a lark – as he says, “well, not a lark exactly, I was looking for a research project” and to do this, he apartment swapped with a friend who lived there. That research project ended up as his dissertation on the politics of the Middle East, focusing on the digital media activism that was taking place in Cairo. He first arrived in Cairo in 2006 and fell in love with the city, at least at night, “it’s a sick sort of love, an abusive relationship, really. I love it so much during the night that it makes up for how difficult it can be during the day.” The heat, crowds and long summers of Cairo during the day may not have made for a perfect fit, “Imagine how it is on the hottest day of the year in Chicago. It’s like that every day of the summer and the summer lasts from April to October,” he says.
Almost the entire Middle East was under authoritarian rule at the time Faris first arrived in Cairo. Yet there were stirrings of political activism online. During that summer Dr. Faris met a blogger at a dinner party who was essentially working on overthrowing the Mubarak government, “I thought he was fascinating, and the people he was involved with were also fascinating.” This meeting formed the basis of his research project. He returned the following year to interview the people involved in online political activism.
Keep in mind this was in 2006, about four years before the first sign of the Arab Spring erupted when, as is commonly accepted, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire to protest the authoritarian regime in his country. In 2006 there were no signs of a popular uprising anywhere in the Middle East. The people Faris met were instead on the fringes of politics in Egypt. As he says, “[there] weren’t very many people at the time who thought this was important.”
The research project Dr. Faris was working on at the time has resulted in a book published last year, Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging, and Activism in Egypt. In the book, Faris argues that it was circumstances particular to Egypt, more than Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, which allowed the revolution to take off. Rather, Faris writes, it was activism online, happening since the 1990s, combined with sustained protest movements, and an independent press that allowed Mubarak’s regime to fall so quickly.
Dr. Faris spoke about his book here last January – but now Egypt is facing a whole other set of issues on top of the ones he laid out in his book. I asked Faris if it is hard to study the a place when the politics are constantly in flux, and he told me a story about teaching a class on Egyptian Politics during the Spring 2011 semester. The class was going to be a study of authoritarian rule. Ten days in, the authoritarian government in Egypt was overthrown and he had to entirely rewrite the syllabus for the class. It must have been an amazing and interesting semester, and as a former student of Dr. Faris at Roosevelt University, I’m a little upset that I missed it. As Dr. Faris says, “To get anything scholarly out of Egypt is really hard right now. But it’s kind of exhilarating at the same time.”
Luckily for those of us not able to take a class with him, Dr. Faris will be speaking again at a Niagara Forum on Friday, November 1st. As always, lunch is at 11:30 and the forum will be from 12:15-1:00pm. Dr. Faris intends to speak on the Egyptian electoral system and constitutional design. He will outline the types of institutions that the constitutional planners are thinking about deploying and his ideas about what will work and what will not. Reservations are available here.