Zaynab El Bernoussi, Dignity in the Egyptian Revolution: Protest and Demand during the Arab Uprisings (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Zaynab El Bernoussi (ZE): In a nutshell, I wanted to write this book because I wanted to convey what I felt to be a resonance of the demand of dignity in the Arab Uprisings, particularly as a student of postcolonial theory and as an Arab person with keen interests in Nasserism and political development. 

In the book I talk about “karama,” which means “dignity” in Arabic, and it was one of the main slogans for the 2011 revolution in Egypt. To me what was very salient was the upsurge in Arab solidarity that I experienced while being in the United States, specifically in New York City and more specifically in Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood known for its Arab community and hookah cafes. I was there from 2009 to 2012 and went back to Morocco, my home country, in February 2011, which was the month of the “February 20” movement protests.

Prior to 2011, I had already cultivated a keen interest in Egypt for its centrality to the Arab world and what was then an almost clearly deceased pan-Arabism. I need to also say here that in the United States I met more Arabs than when I was in the Arab world, particularly because of the difficulties of traveling for Arab citizens inside the region. So, my research on Egypt started in the United States and I am much grateful to the Fulbright program, among other US cultural programs for that. I then got the chance to go to Egypt, which only confirmed my desire to write about Egypt.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ZE: For my research in the book, I was first interested in the crisis of “Third World internationalism” (which included the waning “pan-Arabism”) that was rocked by 2011 for me. I was also trying to think about development issues beyond poverty, governance, human rights, and security. What stood out for me were accounts of exacerbating experiences of continuous belittling and humiliation in multiple sources (novels, scholarly work, popular culture).

I also wanted to address the concept of dignity in a postcolonial political study. Dignity as a concept is often studied in ethics and there is lack of a clear discussion of dignity as a powerful social and personal concept in political study because there is more attention to institutions, structures, and procedures. In economics, on the other hand, we see increasing attention given to non-material dimensions of development, which already include the concept of dignity.

To respond to this gap, I surveyed various studies looking at a politicization of dignity. In historical studies of postcolonial Egyptian society and politics, the use of the concept of dignity benefitted from a context of feelings of humiliation and backwardness, and a sense of helplessness spread among the local population since the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952. This negative mood was exacerbated by the increasing number of Egyptians in poverty (Khaled Fahmy, 1997Derek Hopwood, 1991Tarek Osman, 2013Steven Cook, 2011). In sociology, Barrington Moore talked about the importance of the bourgeoisie class in triggering revolutions and that they lead protest demands, whereas Asef Bayat talked about the importance of “moral outrage.” There is also the recent collaborative work of Michèle Lamont on the recognition gap that is useful to provide evidence that marginalization is damaging and could be tackled via inclusive policies. In development studies, Martha Nussbaum talked about capacity building and non-material dimensions of wellbeing, while Pheng Cheah (2007) talked about an incompatibility between globalizing capitalist contexts and a genuine expansion of a society of rights. In political study, David Kertzer’s work on how different issues and agendas can bring several political movements to intermingle in a form of “solidarity without consensus” and strengthen the momentum of a political opposition was key to my analysis. George Kateb (2014) was more explicit on the claim of human dignity to strengthen demands for human rights and democracy. Sami Zemni (2013), who wrote about the Arab Uprisings, brought an important insight on the need for what he calls a moral economy, in the context of predatory practices in business and even in public administration that we find in many Arab countries and that leads to those demands for karama. In psychology, there is the groundbreaking work of Donna Hicks (2021), who, as a conflict resolution expert, noticed the damaging power of dignity wounds, particularly when dignity is not honored. Also, studies have shown that assaulting dignity triggers the same parts of the brain as those stimulated by physical pain.

Surveying these different studies allowed me to confirm the resonance of demands of dignity in different intellectual approaches and I wanted in the book to contrast those scholarly works with the meanings of dignity for people in action.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ZE: My interest in Egypt went back to Nasser as a personification of karama and a leader of Third World internationalism defying the imperialist world. My work before this book was a comparative study of the 1956 nationalization of Suez and the 2011 Egyptian revolution as two moments of political demands for dignity. The comparison showed that Arab people have voiced their problem with karama in the two cases, even if the contexts are very different. So, when the Arab Uprisings started in Egypt, I was struck by the sight of young people brandishing photos of Nasser as a personification of dignity and defiance, when he was also an authoritarian leader with a regime to a certain extent inherited by Mubarak. This time, instead of targeting foreign imperial powers as the enemy, the enemy seemed to be from within, in the form of local leadership that abused its powers and oppressed and humiliated all kinds of people. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ZE: I hope that readers interested in a postcolonial political and social study of the Arab world in particular and the global South at large read this book. I am proposing with this book to look at cornerstone concepts of social study in practice and in the field and to take the meanings from those concerned, instead of going into the field with our “academic” understandings. I hope that this proposition of starting from the practice and the field, which is what we have with grounded theory, contributes to more methodological and epistemological diversity and impacts processes of knowledge production so we expand our understanding of the world around us. I also hope that more people in the Arab region study other parts of their region.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

ZE: I am now looking at more understandings of dignity beyond the Arab world through a global survey, and it is again fascinating to find so many differences in the understanding of the concept. My hope is to use the data to think about a dignity index.

I am also looking at the 2014 constitution in Tunisia as one of the constitutions that mentions human dignity the most. My working thesis is that understandings of dignity in drafting the 2014 constitution of Tunisia produced both conflict and consensus among competing interest groups in Tunisian society.

My findings so far are that demands for dignity work as a diagnosis for something else, and they have the power to propel a demand to the forefront. For example, if I say “I want to marry,” I would not draw much attention, but if I say “to allow me to marry is to give me my dignity,” then I make my demand much more important, because this tying to dignity legitimizes my expressed need more.

J: In your book you propose a new term for such calls for dignity in protests – what is it about?

ZE: In the book I propose the term “dignition”, a portmanteau of dignity and recognition to show how the demand of dignity can be tied to recognition. This amplifies how such calls for dignity in protests attract attention because they scream “I AM HERE” and they have the ability to signify many things to many and different people without the need to explain what one means by dignity. This proposition is in line with the argument that politics of dignity is a “catch-all” political demand that can serve varied interests simultaneously.

It is important to remember that in this study I was first particularly interested in the claim of karama, why it becomes important, and why there were global connections among these dignity demands. My former comparison of the 2011 revolution with the 1956 Suez Canal nationalization tried to disprove that it is only now, and the context of increasing global connections in our societies matters greatly to the resonance of such demands. 

The idea with this study was to look at dignity per context and show that karama has a meaning in context. For instance, for one worried father that I interviewed, his dignity was linked to raising a good son. Dignity as a concept can be a moment or a feeling and, therefore, it is important to reinstitute the term in a form of life.


Excerpt from the book (from the Foreword by Donna Hicks, pp. xi-xiii)

In the two decades that I have been researching and working with dignity as an approach to understanding and resolving conflict, I have never encountered such a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the concept as this book by Professor Zaynab provides. Her goal was to ask people who were involved in the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011, their understanding of dignity (karama in Arabic) and how it factored into the reasons for the revolution.

She did not assume a universal, shared understanding of the concept. Instead, she relied on the lived experience of the people she interviewed. She listened carefully to the stories her respondents told. She was mindful not to impose her preconceived ideas about the relationship between dignity and the uprisings. Her approach to the research, in itself, was an honoring of the respondents’ dignity. She created the space for them to be seen, heard, listened to and understood.

The book is filled with insight about how complex a role dignity played in Egypt in 2011. She challenged the idea that there was a coherent role that it played. She revealed that it was a multifaceted word that could mean different things to different people. For some, it was associated with human rights and the universalist idea that all human beings had value and worth. One young man said about karama: Dignity is a crown over one’s head. For others, it was related to economic deprivation, unemployment, and poverty. The respondents who held these views felt that the humiliation that resulted from a lack of resources robbed people of their dignity. One response that I particularly liked was an interview with a man who lived on the streets with his wife and children who told her: I want my three-year-old child to grow up with dignity and to find a job just like the President. Others made connections with Islam and the belief that karama is a gift from God. Another common theme centered on karama as an “Arabs’ problem.” Arabs suffer from a perceived lack of dignity and identity confusion, largely because of their colonial history.

All of the examples point to the necessity of understanding the deep cultural historical, economic, social and religious factors that influenced Zaynab’s respondents’ understanding of what lead to the 2011 protests. To be sure, she will convince the reader that the role karama played in the Arab Spring, in Egypt and elsewhere, was complex and nuanced.

Zaynab referred to the “emotional” dimension of dignity, particularly as it connects to Egyptian identity. The emotional toll of being treated as “less than” or inferior to others because of some aspect of one’s identity is immense. My research (from neuroscience) shows that when peoples’ dignity is violated, no matter how one understands it, it is experienced in the brain in the same area as a physical wound. It is traumatic to have one’s dignity violated even once. Humans react strongly to it. The anger and resentment are a normal reaction to being treated badly. Add to it the repeated and chronic denial of dignity, day after day, and the anger and resentment turn into protests and even revolutions. The way we treat one another matters. It behooves anyone in a leadership position, especially political leadership, to be sure that all citizens are treated with the dignity they deserve. There are serious consequences for not doing so, and Zaynab has so beautifully chronicled the lived experience of her interviewees, giving voice to the voiceless.

More generally, the price states pay for the failure to recognize the role karama plays in the lives of its people, no matter how one chooses to explain it or experience it, shows the powerful relationship between failed neoliberal postcolonial policies and the oppression that is felt along with economic deprivation. These political failures to deliver dignity are not unique to the uprisings in Egypt in 2011. Zaynab shows that these are global concerns. Indeed, her argument holds up in explaining the recent politics in the United States. Many argue that unemployment and economic hardship for a large number of people who felt humiliated and ignored by the political elite gave rise to a wave of populist sentiment among many angered citizens. Add to it the protests against racism that filled the streets of every American city, even during a pandemic, and it is clear that people will put their lives on the line to preserve and protect their dignity.

The price that any government pays for trampling on people’s dignity is not one to be ignored. Dignity matters and it matters that we understand it, protect it and promote it if democracy is going to survive. There is no democracy without dignity.

It is with great clarity, conviction and keen scholarship that Zaynab presents the results of her profound research to the world. I am proud to be able to contribute this foreword to the book. No matter whether you are a scholar or someone curious about how dignity was experienced during the Arab Spring, this book will not disappoint. As the champion of karama that I know her to be, this book will likely lead the way to future explorations of the concept. Thank you, Zaynab, for your commitment to raising our consciousness about the one thing all of us want: To experience the political, cultural, social and psychological conditions that promote and protect dignity so that we can all live together in peace and harmony.”