ajnabieh: Palestinian flag in front of billboard for the movie Prince of Persia.   (prince of persia)
The subjects of today's analysis: Kahrabtak ("your electricity"), a new site that allows people to report power outages all over Egypt, and Harassmap, a several-year-old site that allows women* to report street sexual harassment. This is a very preliminary analysis, and I haven't started going through reports off Kahrabtak to see content; this is just based on the structure of the sites as they stand.

What struck me immediately on going to the Kahrabtak website is that it looks just like Harassmap. Sure, the color scheme is different, but in a way that's like how going to different Tumblrs or MySpace pages is different: you still inevitably know what type of site it is. In this case, they are both implementations of the Ushahidi platform, which allows people to send text and email reports of the thing they are recorded, which is turned into visual data that includes the text of the report. Because they share a common platform, they share a structure and a lot of text. But this is all, on some level, just a generic trait: they're both Ushahidi platforms, so that level of textual similarity isn't necessarily meaningful.

There are a few relevant differences, though. Harassmap has links in the top pink sidebar to information about the platform, a set of links to organizations providing help and support to harassed women, and a place where people can go to volunteer to do street-level anti-sexual-harassment work in their neighborhoods. Kahrabtak, for its part, doesn't have any of that information. There are no links to the broader levels of social contestation over electricity shortages: not the "We Won't Pay" campaign of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, for example, or any other political action around outages. There's no background on who the people are who are involved in the project, and information about the structure it comes from. Instead, there is a line of text, which says that the project is to capture real-time data about both outages and the "misuse" ( سوء استخدام) of power.

This suggests two things about the different mapping projects:

1) Harassmap is located in an existing network of people taking political action around street harassment/sexual harassment. In fact, street harassment has been one of the central concerns of Egyptian feminism over perhaps the last five years, and Harassmap as a project is an outgrowth of a coalition of women's & feminist groups looking for new ways to talk about the project. Kahrabtak, on the other hand, is unlinked to any broader project. That doesn't mean that the people behind it aren't; the article where I learned about Kahrabtak mentions that the people involved are also a part of another website monitoring Morsi's presidency, with a background in activism. But none of this is explicit, ready to be read anywhere. Purely from the site, Kahrabtak appears sui generis.

2) Harassmap places the blame for sexual harassment on the harassers, and does not make any judgments about the harassee. In their form, there is no space to document what you were wearing or what the conditions were. Sometimes people write about these things in their freeform comments, but even if you were wearing a tank top and shorts at two in the morning your citation of sexual harassment is still implicitly valid. Kahrabtak, on the other hand, lists as one of its categories to report "street lamps on during the day," a sign of electricity wastage. They're interested both in where blackouts are, and whether somebody's done something nearby to overload the system. This isn't, precisely, victim blaming, in the same way that it would be if Harassmap collected data on where there were women in revealing clothing who were "asking for it." But this is a way of saying that the cause of the blackouts might be something that's reportable, that people could see and label.

Geography is different between the two maps, as well. The vast, vast majority of Harassmap's reports of harassment come from the greater Cairo area, with Alexandria next, and then the resort towns in Sinai. Although the largest single location of reports is within Cairo on Kahrabtak (not surprising, given that nearly a quarter of the residents of Egypt live in greater Cairo, and that we're looking at people who use the internet, which also means an urban/educated bias), it's not even a bare majority; most of the reports are in Upper Egypt, which is also, incidentally, where most of the demonstrations are.

Assuming that those who have the ability to report blackouts also have the ability to report sexual harassment, and vice versa, this suggests one of two things. First, we have more evidence that blackouts are a bigger problem in rural and Upper Egypt than in Cairo. This isn't terribly surprising, but here we see the data in a new way. The second issue is that different people who have the theoretical access to these tools will choose to participate in one of them and not another. That is, that Cairenes might be more willing to identify and counter sexual harassment than people elsewhere in Egypt, and that they might be complaining less about the effects of the blackout. (Middle-class Cairo, which is who is on these sites, went from annoyed to super mad when the Metro went down a few weeks ago. Qena and Sohag were already livid by that point.)

I don't have any conclusions yet, but there are two general thoughts swirling around this for me. 1) People make choices about what issues to take action on. The extent to which a given problem bothers them personally makes a big difference, but so also does what sort of agency and blame they assign for the existence of the problem to begin with. So probably some of these differences are traceable to how people variously define the issues of sexual harassment and electricity shortages. 2) Whether or not an issue is taken up by a stable, pre-existing coalition of political actors is not generally a determinant of whether or not there will be some form of policy adjustment to deal with the issue. However, it is an issue if you're going to be defining a constituency to lobby for future changes, or for inclusion into political processes; there needs to be a group there that can be mobilized deliberately, not just turn out into the streets in a rage every now and then. It's not clear yet whether a group can grab onto the electricity issue and use it to define a constituency the way that feminist groups have used harassment to define women's interests and women as a group.

*Disclaimer: I'm going to use the term "women" to refer to the victims of sexual harassment in this context, because of the way that gender ideologies and the gender binary work in Egypt; there isn't a defined way to talk about the street harassment of gender-nonconforming individuals within this framework, or to talk about the sexual harassment of men by other men or by women. As the issue is constructed in contemporary Egyptian politics, we're talking about men groping, touching, or catcalling women. Obviously in the world things can get more complicated, but this is the active framework on the ground right now.
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
I'm pleased to announce that I'll be spending my next year as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, working with Courtney Jung on the Toronto Initiative for Economic and Social Rights, a research project focusing on how economic and social rights are conceptualized and implemented in the developing world. I'm looking forward to working with their whole dataset, as well as getting to do conceptual work behind the project, but, for the moment, I'm focusing on my specific research project for this fall: how economic and social rights are mattering (or not) in post-revolutionary Egypt. What follows this is some preliminary thinking about the questions I'm going to be examining while I'm in Egypt this September, and for the rest of the year, about how the right to well-being gets instantiated in various political contexts.

While Egypt has no shortage of major political crises to attend to--the drafting of the constitution, the ongoing game of chicken between the military, the judiciary, and the civilian government, a new cabinet, and the deep fears of religious minorities--the issue that is rising to the front of everybody's attention is the ongoing electricity shortage. Since July, every governorate in Egypt has seen rolling blackouts; they've been rare and short in Cairo, but long and brutal in Upper (Southern) Egypt and the periphery.

In Egypt right now, it's upwards of 35C/95F every single day; it's also Ramadan, meaning that many Muslims are abstaining from food or water for fifteen hours a day. Under these conditions, losing access to refrigeration, air conditioning, electric fans, water pumps (both in rural areas and in urban slums without regular water access), and other electronic devices is punishing for the population. This has lead to a run of protests up and down Egypt; here, for example, is a map I made of every protest location mentioned in the English-language reporting on the issue; note the geographic dispersal. (Don't be fooled by the narrowness of the ribbon of protests; nearly all of Egypt's population lives in that narrow ribbon. It's called the Nile.)

Why are the shortages happening? Reports on the ground are confusing. Most of the reporting I've read cites technical factors: crumbling electricity infrastructure, political challenges to new power plants, and an increase, over the past few years, in electricity consumption nationwide. But all technical factors exist in the context of political and social reality; they have a material status, but that material status comes to have meaning in in the particular social location where they exist. So, why is this happening at all? Who deserves the eminently political blame for this crisis?

On the one hand, the strong impulse of most official responses is to try to dissolve the blame by spreading it out. There are the millions of new air conditioning units installed nationwide in the past few years; there are protests against the building of new power plants, there is the decline of the infrastructure under Mubarak. The solution suggested by this analysis of the crisis is to improve the infrastructure as quickly as possible (they keep saying "within days," but color me skeptical), and to ask everyone to make the best individual decisions they can. Prime Minister Qandil just provided the best example of this when he suggested that Egyptians should wear cotton clothing and all stay in the same room rather than spreading out throughout their houses, to save power. (The response was, shall we say, hilarious.)

On the other hand, though, is a desire to blame the government for not providing. And here is the connection to my work for TIESR: the protests, including the "We Won't Pay" campaign organized by the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, frame access to electricity as a right that people are being denied. Most understandings of economic and social rights don't include a right to electricity, and probably for good reason; they focus on the core rights that allow a person to live a healthy, well-developed life. (Sen's notion of capabilities, for instance, still produces a Human Development Index as thin as life expectancy, literacy, and wealth, for instance.) But people's experience of having rights is different from the theoretical articulation of a right. The Egyptian citizens who are refusing to pay their electric bills until the power comes back are doing so because they believe that they are owed well-being by their government, and that this well-being include the right to electricity in the hot summer months.

This is all tangled up alongside the fact that many of the places seeing the most intense electricity protests are also seeing water shortages. The right to water is one that is recognized by the international community, even if it is rarely enforced. But in Egypt, right now, access to clean water is tied to access to electricity; both are primary deprivations that those who are protesting understand as being failures of the government to fulfill its part of the social contract.

By the time I arrive in Egypt in September, the battles over electricity may have faded; holiday-related electricity usage will likely have fallen, since Ramadan will be over, and the weather will have cooled down marginally, at least in lower Egypt. Alternately, the plans that the government keeps talking about might actually alleviate the problem. (Although--well, let's just say if your solution is "we need some solar panels!" and you think you can fix the problem in a matter of days, I doubt that you'll meet your own timetable.) However, this is clearly a crucial issue for understanding now just how the Egyptian government is going to provide the standard economic and social rights to its citizens, but how those citizens will demand the right to well-being, in whatever form it takes, from their government.

(For more information: here is a good article on the giant, nation-wide powercut on August 9th, here is an excellent article on the technical problems and their relationship to politics, and here is my very-much-in-progress spreadsheet of articles about the crisis in English.)


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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