Egypt’s ‘watermelon democracy’: an interview with Joshua Stacher

Egyptians are in a deathtrap in that political economy. All it does is produce diminishing quality of life and increasing numbers of bodies that want to come out to the street to air their grievances. The Egyptian state is now coming to the point where it treats its citizens that are asking questions as combatants in a war. I think that political economy and state violence, are the enduring cycle that Egyptians have to change. What I can do is bring this to the spotlight and amplify Egyptian voices rather than speak for them.

TM: In your book you are using a lot of transition literature, how are they useful for the Egyptian case?

JS: I think there are severe limitations in the terminology used in the transition literature. I’m not saying that Egypt speaks for every other case, I am saying that there are lessons we can learn from Egyptians to think about these important moments of upheaval in different ways. I was very interested in letting Egypt speak and put a framework so that other academics could understand.

I don’t think that other Egyptians will read my book and be shocked about what I found out because by and large the story emerges from the things that they shared with me. I think that the book’s real impact is for the people who are thinking about moments of upheaval, revolutions, transitions and uprisings. When we look at Sudan, Algeria or Iraq, right now, what did Egypt teach us about these kind of moments? It is clear that Algerians, Sudanese and Iraqis are looking at Egypt, Syria and Libya and also adapting their models. We are living through this experience. My body is never really in danger and I have protections. I have to put something out in the world that amplifies the people who are putting themselves in danger.

TM: There are opinions that the revolution is still not over and it is all a process. What are your thoughts about this?

JS: What we witnessed in 2011 was a historical process. We have to respect and understand this. What we have been watching is one large historic struggle that is more a process than an outcome. Most of the political science that I read wants to look at it as outcome.

I don‘t want to label it as a success or failure, I want to understand it as a process because it’s not over. Somewhere in the book I make the point that what we just watched is setting a historical stage for the next interaction. The one nice thing about history is that we know there is only one rule: nothing stays the same.

TM: There are protests that erupted recently, do you think they are connected to 2011?

JS: I think there are no close relationships with the protests in 2011. This is partially because of violence, and the repression that we have seen over the last eight years, and particularly since 2013, which is the most repressive era in Egyptian history. I am sure these protestors are more cynical, and they are a lot more battle tested. People have gone to prison and to exile. They can’t function in this repressive Egypt. Ultimately, when we are talking about how the protests of 2019 are connected to 2011, the thing that stands out is the overall fragmentation of Egypt‘s state. What Sisi is trying to do is to build a regime on the ashes of the older order that has already been discredited. Sisi’s violent circus act can barely withstand any social pressure. The economy and social repression is going to produce more social revolt but I don’t know what form it will take.

TM: How was Ganzeer involved in the current book?

JS: I had this idea of a picture of Tahrir and then somebody draws a helicopter and drops a watermelon on the crowd. I texted one of my friends and comrades Elliott Colla, and told him that I have this idea about a book cover. He listened, then called me, and told me: “I have a better idea, let Ganzeer do this.”

He put me in touch with Ganzeer, and we had a couple of conversations on the phone and discussed the arguments of the book. He read some of it and we worked together on it. But it was all Ganzeer’s vision and artistic creativity. I had to negotiate the title and the cover with every publisher that I was dealing with. Both the first publisher that I approached and Syracuse were hesitant about the cover and the title, but Syracuse became more comfortable and is now very excited that we called it “Watermelon Democracy.” It’s an honor and privilege that Ganzeer did the cover because it really speaks to keeping Egyptians centered in this research. I wanted it to be grounded in Egyptianness as much as possible. Most non-Egyptians, get a puzzled look when they read the title, but every single Egyptian that I have told the title to immediately does the translation into Arabic in their head and starts to giggle and laugh. The literature behind these topics are an open ended process. I try to keep my analysis open to those possibilities.

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