Michael Gasper is an Assistant Professor in the History Department. He studied at Temple University and received his Ph.D from New York University. Gasper specializes in Egypt, Lebanon, and Islam. His forthcoming book, The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt, focuses on tensions in Egyptian society. This semester, Gasper lectured on "The Emergence of the Modern Middle East" and led a seminar on "Religion, Politics, and Society in the Modern Middle East."
Yale Herald: You've spent a great deal of time in Egypt in order to research your new book; what is the current political climate in Egypt?
Michael Gasper: Egypt is a place that has been impoverished tremendously in the past 20 or 25 years. And there's a certain level of tension. But people manage. I saw political tension, but when I was there, it was fairly peaceful.
There are riots. Life is extremely difficult for people. The services that the state provides have been decreased tremendously over the past 20 years. There is great resentment and increased poverty. In some places, people don't have access to drinking-water because the municipalities are so overloaded and under-funded that they are not able to supply basic services. That's caused a lot of resentment and anger, quite understandably. More recently, there have been demands by workers and the poor for improvements. The food riots and labor unrest in industrial towns and the general strike are fairly effective. And with privatization of a lot of industry, there have been profits made by the textile industries that workers feel that they haven't benefited from.
YH: Does religion play a prominent role in Egyptian life?
MG: It does in the sense that there has been an increased religious consciousness and awareness in the public sphere over the last 25 years. It's definitely a grassroots movement in Egypt. It really began when the government began its policies of privatization in the late '70s because there was a lot of opposition to those policies, especially on the left. President Sadat was even forced to leave Cairo because of extremely bad bread riots. People thought the government might fall. There was actually a possibility of a revolution. It was far worse than anything going on today.
One of the things Sadat's government did was to try to support the religious movements, thinking the movement would be less political and more interested in Islamizing society. Of course this was during the Cold War, so the United States facilitated those policies as well, thinking the religious activists were anti-Leftist and less prone to support the Soviet Union. The United States supported Islamists in other places as well to facilitate the battle against the Soviet Union. They ended up engaging in a very violent and low-level civil war in the south of Egypt in the late '80s and early '90s.
The resolution was that the government eventually, through its repressive policies, shut down the insurgency. There were gigantic waves of immigration throughout the whole Arab world.
YH: Egypt is often called the mediator of the Middle East. Is this an accurate assessment?
MG: Egypt was always the fulcrum of the Arab world in the sense that it had the most powerful military and the largest population. It was also a media center; Egypt is the place of greatest production and where one wants to go to make it. Cairo is the Nashville of the Arab world in terms of music, or the Hollywood of the Arab world in terms of movies. It's also literally in the middle of the Arab world. It's played a mediating role in all kinds of disputes.
Egypt became the Arab state that played the greatest role internationally as a kind of facilitator between the Arab world and the outside world. They were involved in negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians on a number of occasions. They were the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, which gave it the ability to act as a mediator between Israel and the Arab world and it has played that role since. They have also been mediators between the Israeli government and Hamas, because Hamas is unrecognized by the Israeli government.
YH: You were recently named a Carnegie Scholar. What do you plan on researching next?
MG: I received a Carnegie Foundation Grant to work on the Lebanese Civil War. Basically, the project interrogates notions of sectarianism and secularism in Lebanon. Lebanese history has always been written as a story of sectarianism and [it has been assumed that] the only way to understand Lebanon is to understand this inter-sectarian struggle. I'm going to look at the war as the most obvious expression of this phenomenon. It seems to me that if I'm going to challenge the concept, the best way to do it will be to attack the most obvious expression.
One of the reasons I was funded for the project is because there are wider implications for the work, with respect to Iraq. Iraq is divided by sectarian groups, [and] people are trying to narrow the history of Iraq based on the Lebanese sectarian model. Some people saying this [comparison] is inevitable based on the sectarian nature of Iraqi society. The work I'm going to do on Lebanon will show that is that not inevitable.
YH: What do you think will happen in Iraq?
MG: With Iraq, who knows what will happen. There's a civil war going on. They're going to continue to fight; the fighting in Iraq might just have begun. The clock to the end of the fighting doesn't start until the Americans leave. That's fairly clear to me. The presence of the Americans creates a kind of artificial distortion to the situation there. You have the most powerful country in the world supporting one militia and that's maintaining the fighting in a certain direction. Until the United States withdraws, there can be no equilibrium reached because we're only supporting one side right now. At some point, we will leave. And at that point, some sort of equilibrium will be reached. It will probably be reached through violence.
YH: Do you have anything that you would like to say to Yale students?
MG: Yale students should study the Midd http://www.peabody.yale.edu/images/exhibits/dailyegypt/dailyegypt01.jpg le East. There's lots of interesting studies; there's a new Middle East major,; and there are several new faculty members that are coming here to give people a fuller range of course choices. It's a good time to study if you're interested in the Middle East. There's going to be a lot more to offer here. We teach a number of languages: Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. Learn as many languages as possible. To study the more "exotic" languages is a really exciting opportunity and I think you should take advantage of that. The facilities are here, the infrastructure is here, and the teacher knowledge is here.