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Review of  Democracy in Contemporary Egyptian Political Discourse

Reviewer: Ihab Ahmad Shabana
Book Title: Democracy in Contemporary Egyptian Political Discourse
Book Author: Michele Durocher Dunne
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Egyptian
Book Announcement: 15.410

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Date: Sat, 31 Jan 2004 02:51:51 -0800 (PST)
From: Ihab Shabana <>
Subject: Democracy in Contemporary Egyptian Discourse

AUTHOR: Dunne, Michele Durocher
TITLE: Democracy in Contemporary Egyptian Political Discourse
SERIES: Discourse Approaches To Politics, Society and Culture
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2003

Ihab A. I. Shabana, Visiting Research Student, SOAS, University of London;
Assistant Lecturer, Department Of English, Al-Azhar University, Egypt

Political discourse or the study of politics on the basis of discourse
analysis has taken prominence over the last decade of the 20th.century.
Previous contributions were concerned more with the use of language in
politics. Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classical example which
inspired prominent scholars like Chilton (1988) to approach the use of
political language in the media. Fairclough (1989) and Wilson (1990) are
also among the leading works that contribute to the well establishing of
the study of politics and discourse. Chilton and Schäffner (1997) and
(2002) are also among the building blocks towards establishing an
interdisciplinary area of research that needs more contributions.
Dunne's work in hand is a good step on the way.

This book presents a good introduction to the issue of democracy in Egypt
as one of the most pivotal countries in the Middle East. The motivation
for this topic was the feeling of frustration experienced by the author
at the difficulty American experts find in reading rightly public
discourse on many political issues including democracy. She also admits
that another reason for opting to tackle the issue of democracy is the
variety of different interpretations, which surround the march of
democracy in Egypt, and the different attitudes she came across.

The selected data, although all concerned with the issue of democracy,
vary greatly. They comprise excerpts from presidential speeches of
president Mubarak during the period 1999-2000, a written appeal signed by
leaders of the opposition parties in late August/early September 1999 and
an earlier declaration by Arab human rights activists in a human rights
conference hold in Casablanca issued in April 1999 under the title
"Casablanca Declaration", analyzed by the author for comparison. In
addition there are newspaper reflections from two eminent columnists at
the Al-Ahram daily newspaper, Fahmi Huwaydi and Hala Mustafa, whose
writings focus on democracy but from different perspectives; Huwaydi is
classified as a moderate Islamist intellectual who does not see any
contradiction between democracy and Islam, while Mustafa is perceived as
a liberal intellectual who has wide connections with the government that
may enable her to have access to policy makers in Egypt.

Having introduced the data, in Chapter 2 Dunne presents the theoretical
approach applied in her analysis. First, she reviews the thoughts of some
prominent theorists in discourse like Bakhtin and Goffman. Then, she
introduces Ron Scollon's theory of Mediated Discourse as an approach to
the interpretation of social actions. According to Scollon (1998) all
human actions are interactively mediated and hence our communicative
practices are made via suitable means, either text or talk, to build a
certain image in the mind of the receiver. Dunne also utilizes Critical
Discourse Analysis, as applied by Ruth Wodak who has a special interest
in the use of discursive strategies to build national image. Dunne finds
in Wilson (1990) a model for her analytical work from a pragmatic
perspective: in addition to implicature, presupposition metaphor, and
question use, which are considered as primary linguistic tools for
pragmatic analysis, Dunne, following Wilson, focuses on pronoun use and
self-reference as an effective tool in politics for distancing oneself
from a certain responsibility or even for positioning oneself at the
center of policy making. In the course of her analysis, Dunne is mainly
concerned with probing the purposes sought beyond a given discourse on
democracy, and also how these purposes are realized through the use of

In chapter 3, Dunne reviews the different contexts from which she has
obtained her data. A visit paid to Egypt for fieldwork enabled her to
provide clear and objective contextualization for the different types of
discourse she analyses. In particular, interviews with some of the
closest persons in the presidential circle afford her clear vision of how
the president's speeches are written. In that regard, Mubarak, unlike
his predecessors, does not have only one journalist responsible for
drafting and preparing his speeches; rather they are prepared by a
community of participants around him, depending on the degree of power
each party enjoys. However, the mastermind of the final draft is his
senior aide. This doesn't exclude the fact that Mubarak has the final
say on his speech before delivering it in public.

In the case of the opposition powers' petition, their lack of real power
is apparent, and their constant endeavor to compromise with the
government in exchange for more seats in the People's Assembly. This
reflects, in my belief, the real dilemma of the democratic experience in
Egypt. That is, there is a giant power (i.e. the National Democratic
Party), which has dominated the political scene in Egypt since the return
of the parties in the seventies, whereas all other parties do not hold
any real ground among the people. The Islamic movement, represented in
Muslim Brotherhood Group, and though officially banned by the government,
is more popular than all the other opposition parties. It has seventeen
MPs in the Assembly, elected in 2000 as independents.

As for the intellectual journalists, both Huwaydi and Mustafa reflect
their views on the issue of democracy in their writings. Huwaydi
constantly stresses his belief in democracy but from an Islamic
perspective, whilst Mustafa portrays herself as a democratic liberal who
shows support for Mubarak's notion of gradable democratic reform.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Dunne explores two key strategic functions of the
discourses she analyses. The two prominent functions are "constructing
identity'' and "power relations". The linguistic devices she uses in
her analysis are deixis (focusing on self-reference and the definite
article) and interdiscursivity. She also uses other devices when needed
to serve her purposes.

According to Chilton and Schäffner (1997:212), the language of the elite
in power reflects not only their thoughts but also their actions, for
either those who govern or even those who are classified as opposition.
This is highly recognizable in the language of the presidential excerpts.
The speeches of the president are carefully prepared by his community of
practice in order to enhance, center and stabilize the image of the
president as the real holder of power in the country. However, the
speeches also reflect the strong belief of the president in democracy as
the ultimate option for the country. Similarly we can observe at which
points the community of practice seem to use the definite article to
distance the president from issues which may draw criticism from the
audience. Such issues, from which the president is meant to be distant,
include unfair previous elections and the credibility of the
democratization process. This, in my view, reflects the power and
centralization enjoyed by the presidential institution in Egypt as the
real holder of power.

In contrast, fragmentation, disunity and lack of coordination are fully
apparent in the language used by opposition parties and those involved in
the September 1999 petition. Their use of the pronoun "they" reflects a
deep sense of depersonalization, and distancing from the content of the
petition. This may of course show their fear of the potential
consequences of the petition. In addition, they want to maintain space
for negotiation with the government in attempt to secure seats in the new
parliament. Unfortunately such negotiations may take place simply because
the government is interested in having the opposition represented in the
parliament, despite the fact that the opposition may not have enough
support in their constituencies. This fact was discovered by the author
in one of her interviews: a member told Dunne that the weak and
disorganized situation reflects the lack of "ideological commitment"
suffered by the opposition parties in their negotiations with the
government for real democratic reform. The strategic function of
"identity construction" therefore, on the part of the opposition
parties, is affected by their fragile attitude towards the issue of
democracy in Egypt.

In the case of the two prominent columnists, Dunne notices that their
endeavor to build their identity is largely shaped by the background of
each. Here, things are more personalized, as each author attempts to
persevere with the issue of democracy in his writings, but from their two
different perspectives. Huwaydi usually positions himself as a defender
of democracy, but from the Islamic point of view, while Mustafa presents
herself as a 'think tank' with affiliation to the government (she
writes for Al-Ahram newspaper, one of the main state institutions).
However, both are similar in using the technique of interdiscursivity to
express their commitment to president Mubarak's thoughts on democracy.
It is also interesting that Dunne demonstrates Huwaydi's tendency to
portray himself as an independent from Islamic movements, given that his
father used to be a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, and
despite the fact that he is widely perceived as an Islamist writer.

In relation to power relations in the discourses of the different
parties, it is clear that the community of practice in the presidential
discourse aim at boosting the pro-democratic image of the president. At
the same time however, "framing" the other and "hidden polemic"
techniques are used in the president's speeches to reinforce the
centralized power enjoyed by the presidential institution. Similar
techniques are used for example to portray NGOs as a potential danger
whose loyalty to the country is questionable.

Power relations in the discourse of the September 1999 petition are again
in the domain of keeping space for compromise with the government. This
also reflects to what extent the opposition parties in the Egyptian
political arena are weak and dependent on the government for gaining
ground, even on a crucial issue like democracy.

In respect of the discourses of Huwaydi and Mustafa on democracy, power
relations are shown in the form of challenges to the other power groups.
Each one uses interdiscursivity in his/her own interest; Mustafa presents
herself as a pro-democrat to enhance her image as a prominent liberal
intellectual, while Huwaydi uses his literary competence to show how far
he is independent from the Islamists and also to negotiate power with the
censors at the state-controlled press who may ban some of his weekly
articles for different (or no) reasons.

Chapter six assesses the findings Dunne revealed in her research. It is
remarkable that there is no difference between the discourse of the
presidential speeches on democracy and on practice. This reflects the
top-down gradable democracy that is meant to be applied in Egypt by the
ruling group, and which, in their view, will give the government the
chance to qualify the people for further adaptation to democracy. Dunne
considers that the use of the terms "democracy" and "civil society"
was really an appeal to different communities during the pre-presidential
election in 1999 as a sign of a new period for the president. However,
she also demonstrated via interviews that democracy has become a
well-established concept in Egyptian public discourse, in response to the
global discourse in which Egyptians need to participate.

In sum, the book in hand presents a thorough and objective study of the
discourse of democracy in Egypt in different domains.

It presents an analytical study of the production and processing of
discourse in politics from pragmatic, ethnographic, sociolinguistic
approach. It is considered as a useful source for students of linguistics
in general, and of discourse and politics in particular. It is also a
good case study on a contemporary issue for students of Near and Middle
East studies.

Chilton, Paul (1988) Orwellian Language and the Media, London: Pluto

Chilton, P. and Schäffner, C. (1997), Discourse and Politics, in Teun van
Dijk (ed.) Discourse as Social Interaction, London: Sage Publications pp.

Chilton, P. and Schäffner, C. (2002) Politics as Text and Talk, Amsterdam
and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Fairclough, Norman (1989), Language and Power, London: Longman

Scollon, Ron (1998) Mediated Discourse as Social Interaction, London and
New York: Longman

Wilson, John (1990), Politically Speaking, Oxford: Basil Blackwell
Ihab A. Shabana is a Ph.D. candidate at Al-Azhar, Egypt & SOAS, London.
She is Assistant Lecturer of Linguistics, Al-Azhar, and Visiting Research
Student at SOAS in 2002-2004. Her areas of interest include: Pragmatics,
Political Discourse, Sociolinguistics and Translation studies.