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There is more to Middle East politics than ‘tanks, tear gas, and terror’

Middle East

Dr Dina Rezk, associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history and politics at the University of Reading, would like the conversation about politics and political transitions in the Arab world to be more about the people, and less about ‘tanks, tear gas, and terror’. She is one of ten 2019 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Tell us about yourself

I remember being a 17-year-old on 11 September 2001, sitting in my 6th form common room watching the twin towers come crashing down in New York and having an almost undefinable sense that this was an important turning point in history. I suppose it was then that I became interested how politics, culture and East-West relations intersect.

I went on to study history as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and began exploring the development of formal intelligence agencies in the 20th century in a third year module enticingly titled, ‘The rise of the secret world’.

Continuing my postgraduate studies at Cambridge, I decided to investigate whether a lack of shared understanding between the West and Middle East led to a deterioration in relations in the second half of the 20th century. And as an Egyptian, I wanted to find out a bit more about my own roots, and use my past to critically examine the idea that a cultural divide has pervaded Western analysis of the Middle East. Thanks to doctoral funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), this project culminated in my first book, ‘The Arab World and Western Intelligence: Analysing the Middle East’, published by Edinburgh University Press.

It wasn’t long before another global flashpoint – the Arab Spring protests of 2011 – further honed my research trajectory. In collaboration with the universities of Warwick and Manchester, in 2016, I was awarded additional funding from the AHRC to take a ‘bottom up’ approach to understanding how narratives around Egypt’s Arab Spring have developed through popular culture.

My research has always had a strong interdisciplinary, and I suppose, also policy, focus. In that regards I don’t think I am a typical historian. From 2013–15, I worked as a teaching fellow in intelligence and security in the politics department at the University of Warwick and also as a freelance research consultant looking at the past, present and future of the Arab Spring protests with the Cambridge Security Initiative before my current post at Reading. In 2017, I received a British Academy Rising Star engagement award exploring the opportunities and challenges of ‘social listening’ and exploiting social media data, in collaboration with Carl Miller from the thinktank, DEMOS. So my interests really lie in the disciplinary space between history and politics.

What is the area of your research?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in the intersection of culture and politics, in particular, how cultural lenses are used to narrate conflict. At the moment, I’m focused on this intersection in Egypt’s recent past.

Though ever-present in English-language scholarship and media, the term ‘Arab Spring’ is actually heavily contested in the Middle East. The breadth and depth of these contestations is evident in the explosion of popular cultural products and social media commentary in the largest and most populous Arab country, Egypt. From pop music to film to graffiti, these sources have played a vital role in creating political meaning for people ‘from below’ in a vastly expanded public sphere through which Egyptians have narrated their own history/ies of the 25 January Revolution.

My AHRC-funded research puts ‘the people’ back at the centre of scholarly understanding of Egypt’s tumultuous transition. As the current Egyptian military regime tries to script a history-still-in-the-making and erase alternative narratives of events since 2011, recovering and analysing how Egyptians have challenged the official line through popular culture is urgently needed.

My research therefore sheds vital light on deeper transformations that have occurred since 2011, revealing how political power has been imagined in different ways. It explores the struggles over the definition of Egyptian national identity, which have been central to this process; how the Muslim Brotherhood has been ‘othered’ and demonised; and more broadly, how moments of domestic political crisis represent opportunities to recreate ideas of ‘East’ and ‘West’ with wider implications for both crossing, and reinforcing, cultural divides.

What is the importance of this research?

I think this research tells a different story about politics in the Middle East and perhaps the relationship between politics and popular culture more broadly speaking.

What typically tends to be reported in the Middle East are dramatic acts of violence and brutality: tanks, tear gas, and terror. These are the images broadcasting companies use to accompany their reports on the region.

Part of what I want to do with my research is to shed light on the deeper transformations that take place behind the scenes. For example, I have explored the emergence of Egypt’s first mainstream political satirist Dr Bassem Youseff, whose television show ‘Al Bernameg’ became one of the most important platforms through which to debate and discuss Egyptian politics. At one point, almost half the Egyptian population was watching him. For me this is the real stuff of politics: the conversations happening in people’s living rooms.

I am interested in how politics is affecting real people, everyday people, and how to bring something of that story to the West to complicate the violent images that we’re frequently faced with when talking about politics and political transitions in the Arab world.

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