Affective Politics and Political Transformation in Turkey and Egypt

What are the emotional and affective dynamics during and beyond the mass protests on Cairo’s Tahrir square and Taksim square in Istanbul? How do emotion and affect matter for political participation? What does this entail for more long-term transformations in both countries? These and other questions were tackled during the international workshop “Affective Politics and Political Transformation in Turkey and Egypt” on December 5th and 6th 2019 at FU Berlin, organized by the CRC-project C01 Political Participation, Emotion and Affect in the Context of Socio-Political Transformations. The event not only opened a critical reflection evolving around the affective politics during the protests in Egypt and Turkey and their aftermaths, but also offered a space of encounter and inspiring exchange on the methodological, conceptual and epistemic levels of affect and emotion studies within the social sciences. This was possible thanks to the valuable presentations of the invited participants Yael Navaro, Maria Malmström, Dina Makram Ebeid, Derya Özkaya, Umut Yildirim and Amy Holmes as well as those by the C01 team members Cilja Harders, Bilgin Ayata, bahar firat and Dina Wahba.

The opening keynote lecture by the renowned Cambridge scholar Yael Navaro already indicated the critical and reflective character of the workshop. In her public talk “Affective Regimes in Turkey and Beyond”, Navaro pointed towards the deep entanglements of politics and affects, describing affects as integral to governance both empirically and conceptually. Looking at contemporary Turkey, she studied the political incitement to nationalistically orientated affects as well as the discouragement and criminalization of non-nationalist affects. Moreover, Navaro presented a critical genealogy of how we study affects and emotions. Articulating the necessity to “rewrite the legacy” of affect studies and to challenge certain scholarly genealogies, she criticized the post-humanist understanding at the center of affect studies. Here, she pointed to two related issues: the artificial divide between emotions and affects and the problematic understanding of affects as transcending subjectivity and personhood. Such an approach, Navaro claimed, tends to advocate an a-historical and un-personized hence a-political form of affect studies. Challenging this, Navaro suggested a form of affect that, enabled by its methodological and theoretical-conceptual repertoire, takes the historicized, gendered, racialized, class cutting and palimpsestic dimensions of affect into account. Accordingly, scholars like Sara Ahmed or José Esteban Muñoz appear as a more important source of inspiration to her than Gilles Deleuze, Nigel Thrift or Brian Massumi.

The next day started with the panel “Midān Moments – Affect and Political Transformation in Egypt and Turkey”, in which Bilgin Ayata and Cilja Harders introduced their nuanced concept “Midān Moments”. The concept, developed within the CRC 1171 “Affective Societies”, integrates emotions and affects when considering agency and bodily presence during and after mass mobilizations on public squares. Understanding emotions as ambiguous and non-linear and acknowledging that “mixed feelings are the rule” enables to grasp the special and temporal dimensions of political participation. They further touched upon their methodological as well as conceptual approaches. The first panel’s commentators, Yael Navaro and Hanan Sabea, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo, both emphasized the concept´s ability to grasp historical, political, gendered and spatial levels of political participation. 

The second panel “Affect, Emotions and Participation in Egypt” was chaired by Nabil El-Kot, Consultant Psychiatric in Cairo and an important cooperation partner of the project. The panel shed light on different aspects of political participation. Dina Wahba, who conducted research within the project C01 for several years, addressed the interconnectedness of materiality, affectivity and space through her research in the Cairene neighborhood “Maspero triangle”, where she was working with the urban poor to understand the link between the everyday and “politics from below”. In her presentation “Moving out of The Square: From the Midan to the neighbourhood”, she stressed how the current Egyptian regime attacks and erases the affective archive(s) of the revolution. The question of archives was present throughout the second panel. In her presentation “Trauma and the Haunted Archives of the Aftermath of Revolution in Egypt”, Dina Makram Ebeid, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo, asked how ruptures and continuities come together through time and how they constitute the political ecology today. Being interested in the articulation of pain around major political events, she looked in detail on the everyday experiences of, around and beyond them. This led her to the concepts of “living archives” and the concept of “false memory” to answer the questions of how to live through and with multiple traumas. She pointed to the archive of “Khawareg el Abbasseya” (“Archive of feeling bad”) and the artist Amira Hanafy’s work “A Dictionary of Revolution”. These artistic works represent types of activist engagements and modes of research inquiry, similar to the work of Maria Malmström, Associate Professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. In her presentation “Urban Bodies in the Cityscape of Cairo: Passion, Despair and Entanglement”, she focused on the audio level while centering the body and the bodily experience and memory in her inquiry. Working with soundscapes, she argued, helps to trace the different intensities, silences and rates, that revolutionaries live through simultaneously in different times. Bilgin Ayata chaired the third panel “Affect, Emotions and Participation in Turkey”, which addressed the topics of affective togetherness in protests as well as affective landscapes in Turkey. In her paper “When ‘Çapulcu’ meets ‘Terrorist’: Limits of an Encounter”, bahar firat explored encounters between Turkish and Kurdish protesters in the affective arrangement of the Gezi protests, showing the difficulty of closing affective gaps in spite of new senses of togetherness and possibilities of solidarity. The desire of coming together also played a role in Derya Özkaya’s presentation “Coming Together, Resisting Together and Falling Apart: Affective Politics of Postponement in the Post-Gezi Political Opposition in Turkey”. Özkaya, former researcher in CO1, observed how Gezi took on the meaning of utopia, where new imaginations of politics take place and affective communities as well as a shared sense of solidarity creates feelings of belonging. Considering that the political appears in those physical encounters, the reduction of politics to mere claims of visibility creates “politics of postponement” and affective dissonance of participants. The concept of affective landscapes was brought up in the contribution of Umut Yildirim, post-doctoral fellow at ICI Berlin. In her input “Mulberry affects: Ecologies of Resistance and Ruination in a Middle-Eastern Eco-system”, she explained how the Mulberry tree had become a symbol for the affective sense of “genocidal landscape” in eastern Turkey. These geographies witness to environmental activism, ancient gardening and feminist notions of nuisance and care, which are threatened by destruction through the state. This destruction shows how lives and ecologies labeled as terrorist or illegal are endangered. The potential of ecologies as another possibility of conceptualization opened the following discussion on how to be even more courageous in producing theory from the field and to tell stories from the empirical material.

Amy Holmes, Associate Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo and visiting Professor at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard University in 2019, concluded the workshop with her presentation “How to compare Egypt and Turkey”, which was drawn upon her latest monograph “Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi” (2019). In “Coups and Revolutions”, Holmes analyzes the waves of revolution and counterrevolution in Egypt between 2011 and 2018. Her work presents a new framework for analyzing the state apparatus in Egypt based on four pillars of regime support that can either prop up or press upon whoever is in power. Moreover, the book introduces the new concept of a “coup from below” and explains why and how the Egyptian revolution was crushed. Setting different criteria, such as the form of a military coup, the spaces of Midans/Meydans in Istanbul and Cairo, the role of the media and the notion of memory and time, Holmes identified in her presentation “utopic moments of protests” as well as “moments of madness”. She also argued that the protests were not only the materialization of standing up against authoritarian systems but also of supporting a utopian vision and the pursuit of its realization.

Throughout the workshop, the researchers critically reflected about their place in the affective assemblages they are trying to understand. Especially questions concerning the methodological level in order to center the historicization and entanglement of affects and affective arrangements often recurred during the two days. The ongoing reflection on the possibilities of comparison was particularly fruitful for the C01 project, which focuses on both, Egypt and Turkey. In all the panels, the conceptualization and operationalization of time, or rather how to think of these, came up at different points, just like the significant role affect plays for collective practices and togetherness. Throughout the panels and the discussions, thoughts on the essential question how researchers actually conduct research and build theories kept surfacing and finally evolved into a call for researchers to take their material seriously and to theorize in close correspondence with it.