Political Science without Clothes: The Politics of Dress or Contesting the Spatiality of the State in Egypt

By Fandy, Mamoun | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Political Science without Clothes: The Politics of Dress or Contesting the Spatiality of the State in Egypt


Fandy, Mamoun, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


The old story about "The emperor without clothes" is a parable used to alert people to the obvious that they see but deny. This is precisely the purpose of this essay. By focusing on the politics of dress, this essay attempts to expose some of the problems associated with the study of Egyptian politics, namely the Cairo-centric approach to Egypt. A subquestion of this is whether or not such an approach can be justified given the multiplicity, hybridity, and variability in dress that indicates a much more complex Egypt than has been represented in much of the current scholarship. This discussion of dress and politics will show that there are some areas which are overly "covered" in the current scholarship, namely, the areas that seem to be most analogous to current styles in Western political thinking. This limits the possibility of meaningful analysis of the complexity of Egyptian politics. More specifically, this essay's focus on dress and the multiplicity of style of dress reveals the complexity of issues such as the nature of the Egyptian state and its articulation with regional and global arrangements and provides new insights into the dynamics of state-society relations and the issues of power and hegemony. This focus will highlight a dynamic Egypt (not just Cairo) in which there is more of a state-society interpenetration rather than state-society relations or more specifically, the collapse of state-society boundaries. The study of dress will show that the politics of Egypt exists at the sutures of hybridity and informality, and that what happens at the level of the formal institutions is of limited consequences, at least domestically.

The absence of dress from the study of Egyptian politics represents one component of the metaphor, "political science without clothes," used in the title of this essay. Without considering clothes, for instance, Egypt appears as a centralized state and homogeneous. Thus the analysis of power has focused on the manifest, naked, and concentrated formal power of the state and other formal institutions (the western dress of the society, as it were) at the expense of the diffuse, fragmented, and localized disciplinary power and technologies of resistance - the informal politics and economy (or the jallabia society) in which most people function. Moreover, state and society are seen as separate domains. State autonomy is not only assumed but reduced to the personalities of leaders such as Nasser and Sadat.(1) The rise of studies of civil society in the Middle East has trapped the discipline into yet another false dichotomy of states vs. civil societies, which is not at all different from weak states/strong states, center/periphery, base/superstructure and East/West dichotomies. Yet as I will show, these artificial dichotomies fail to consider the degree of overlap and intermingling between the categories. Of course without elaboration, these dichotomies have created a peripheral discussion and focused the study on the relevance of the Middle East to Western ideals, processes and debates more than on the Middle East itself. In the case of civil society studies, not only is the dichotomy misleading, but more questions are now being raised about the political economy of writing (i.e. Where is this money coming from? and, Where does the trail lead?)(2) As the intellectual fads in political science oscillate between "bringing the state back in" or "bringing society back in," the relation between the two has continued to be or at best reduced to a spatial view of both state and society. The state has always been presented as a spatial or a geopolitical entity. Metaphors from architecture such as state building dominate the discipline. Spatial metaphors are more dominant in the international relations subfield than in comparative politics. Yet architecture is too massive and permanent to show the flexibility of state-society relations.

Analysis of dress reveals a few problems about both Egyptian studies in particular and the way we do political science in general.

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Political Science without Clothes: The Politics of Dress or Contesting the Spatiality of the State in Egypt
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