Professor Walter Armbrust is a Hourani Fellow and Professor in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He is a cultural anthropologist, and author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (1996); Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution (2019); and various other works focusing on popular culture, politics and mass media in Egypt. He is editor of Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond (2000).
When the Covid-19 pandemic began many people thought that a virus-induced apocalypse, while painful, provided a chance to rethink and fix everything from school funding to global warming. Yet as the initial effervescence of our entry into the liminality of lockdown dragged into a dreary limbo, darker possibilities emerged. The rich grew richer; once laughable conspiracy theories became politically weaponized; the environment became less important than economic recovery; and in this country, Covid-induced economic distress has provided perfect cover for getting the hardest of Brexits done. A crisis, real or perceived, produces real change—just not the sort of change progressive activists may have envisioned, as the Egyptian revolutionaries I wrote about in Martyrs and Tricksters discovered to their dismay. Indeed, crisis provides ideal conditions for the flourishing of tricksters in mainstream politics, and many a trickster politician harbours the kernel of an authoritarian. My talk explores links between crisis and authoritarianism in the Middle East, but also more widely, and not only in the context of Covid (though it provides an excellent point of entry to my topic), but also in longer historical and social contexts. There may well be a “dictatorship syndrome,” as Dr al-Aswany’s book suggests, but the institutionalization of dictators and the habituation of populations to their rule is only part of the story. Dictators are often born from crisis as tricksters. Hitler started as a trickster. Donald Trump is perhaps the clearest instantiation of a trickster politician in history. Some crises are unforeseeable—earthquakes, pandemics, revolutions for example. Others are increasingly structured, economically and by communication technologies. We tend not to think of the economy as intrinsically crisis-prone, though perhaps we should, given the dominance of capitalism and its requirement for constant disruptive change and expansion. The crisis potential of media technologies is easier to imagine when we have so close at hand the wreckage of whiplashing from hopeful “Facebook Revolutions” to propagandistic “Fake News” in the space of a decade. In the end the notion of a dictatorship syndrome in the Middle East perhaps distracts us from the much greater danger of an authoritarian virus spreading throughout the world.