Egyptian Flag during the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Wikicommons Photo courtesy Jonathan Rashad

On Pharaohs, Pundits and Scholars

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Daniel Martin Varisco

Egyptian Flag during the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photo courtesy Jonathan Rashad

Egyptian Flag during the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photo courtesy Jonathan Rashad and Wikicommons

The removal of Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt has generated a frenzy of talking head punditry that shows little sign of abeyance, at least until another Middle Eastern leader bites the dust.  Was it a coup?  Was it yet another people’s revolution?  Was it a failure of democracy?  Did the Obama administration support the ouster?  Was Morsi trying to make himself into a modern day Pharaoh?  Tut, tut, sings the chorus of pundits.

Beyond the rhetoric back and forth, here is a reality check.  The military has always been in charge of Egypt since Nasser took power in a well-recognized coup in 1952 that toppled a puppet king.  Sadat and Mubarak came from the military, no matter what the status of their election. The military owns Egypt, quite literally, and is its main economic player.  Morsi was not elected over the objection of Egypt’s top brass, but his attempt to weaken the power of the military is probably the main reason for his downfall.

In one sense of course it is a coup.  It was the military, not the protesters, who really stormed the Bastille.  It is the military who is keeping charge of Morsi and pushing for legal action against him.  But in another sense it can hardly be called a coup when the military never gave up its power.  Morsi was given slack, perhaps to let him fail on his own, but he never had any real power. Despite the official rhetoric, the leaders of most, if not all, Western nations are quite happy to see Morsi out of the way.  At least a bloody corpse was not posted on state television, as happened at times in old-style army coups in the region. No American or European policy makers wanted to work with the Muslim Brotherhood any more than they do with Hamas in Gaza or with the militants calling for a new caliphate in Syria.

But here is the dilemma for scholars who study Egypt and have lived there.  Egypt’s history, ancient, post-Arab conquest and modern, is a gold mine for researchers in a number of disciplines.  Archaeologists have always had the upper hand, helping to enhance the appeal of Egypt’s past to beckon the tourists.  Cheops may have used only 100,000 slaves to build his pyramid, but Egypt’s economic well-being depends on millions, not thousands, of tourists and their cash. Historians flock to Egypt, where there are many important manuscripts and a rich architectural heritage.  Ethnographers have slipped in an out, but not with much government encouragement.  Nevertheless, Egypt is a magnet for research.  Scratch any American or European scholar deep enough, beyond the occasional liberal shock, and you will find the bottom line is not about what is good for Egyptians, but what keeps Egypt open for research.

It is not my place to argue if Egypt is better off with Morsi in office or with the new government that will be formed with the blessing of the military.  I have worked in Egypt as a historian, spending many blissful hours in the Egyptian National Library manuscript collection when it was still possible to actually handle the manuscripts.  I also worked in Egypt for my first development job, back in 1981 as I was finishing the writing of my dissertation.  While Egypt has not been the focus of my anthropological or historical research, I maintain a strong interest in most things Egyptian.  But the level of political punditry outside Egypt, with the same points being raised over and over again, has reached circus proportions.  The Egyptian army is not about to lose its grip, no matter how much complaining is made about the reversal of democracy.  Meanwhile there are daily killings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, serious protests against the government in Turkey and a fragile transition toward unity in Yemen.  These issues deserve equal time, but the media recently has been a one-ring circus. And we certainly need more than pundits clowning around between acts.

Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra U in Hempstead, NY. His most recent book is Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. He is editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient, the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir - See more at:


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