Reading lived social contracts through education: repressive-permissive neoliberalism in Egypt

Hania Sobhy

The classical philosophical notion of the social contract can be operationalized into a comparative tool that provides nuanced and comprehensive analysis of ‘lived’ citizenship in any political system. This project puts forward a new conceptual framework for studying social contracts that brings together insights from citizenship studies with notions of legitimacy and hegemony and the methodologies of educational ethnography. In this framework, the social contract is examined along four key domains of protection, provision, participation and legitimation. The four domains are unpacked by mapping intensive qualitative study of differentiated lived experiences in a particular field unto the corresponding quantitative trends. Giving renewed relevance to the anthropology and sociology of education; the project shows how this framework can be applied to schools as arenas that uniquely capture the transformations in lived experiences along the four domains.

The case study of Egypt demonstrates the workings and insights of this approach, as it modifies earlier propositions about ‘the Arab social contract’. Drawing on a rare ethnography of highly securitized Egyptian schools before and after the 2011 uprising, the project highlights the main features of the new lived social contract and its transformations. These schools show how the transformations along the four domains of the postcolonial social contract are critically shaped by neoliberal privatization, but equally stem from the accompanying destruction of public institutions and the rule of law; and are translated in critical changes in legitimizing narratives in more populist and religious directions. In what can be thought of as repressive-permissive neoliberalism, the emerging lived social contract is underpinned by the withdrawal of a range of protections under the law, the retraction, fragmentation and privatization of provision, the securitization of everyday forms of participation and disinvestment in discourses and rituals of legitimation. Despite the rupture of 2011, the changes reflect the continued disintegration in the four elements of the social contract and their da-facto outsourcing to market, charitable and other non-state—often Islamist—forces.

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