Mona El-Ghobashy’s friends have a joke about her relationship with Columbia. “They say I’ll have to be dragged out of Morningside Heights in a stretcher,” says the 35-year-old assistant professor, who graduated from Columbia College in 1995, received her PhD in political science from Columbia in 2006 and became an assistant professor in Barnard’s political science department that same year. “I even work at the same study carrel I used as an undergrad,” she deadpans.
Born in Cairo, but raised in New York City from the age of 8, El-Ghobashy currently teaches “Introduction to Comparative Politics,” and “Politics of the Middle East and North Africa,” in addition to a colloquium on social movements, and a senior thesis research seminar. Her research has focused on the current-day politics of the country of her birth.
“Egypt,” explains El-Ghobashy, “is one of these strange ‘hybrid regimes’ where they are authoritarian, but they are also democratic. Elections are held, but they are not free and fair. In Egypt, the top job, president, is hand picked by the predecessor.” Her dissertation, “Taming Leviathan: Constitutionalist Contention in Contemporary Egypt,” focused on the ways “counter-elites” like human rights and feminist lawyers get their voices heard.
Recently named a Carnegie Scholar and awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to work on her book, tentatively titled Petition and Protest in Authoritarian Egypt, El-Ghobashy sums up its theme with a seemingly simple question: How do ordinary people in Egypt without any links to government get things done?
“Elections exist for legislative bodies like Parliament, or at the municipal level,” she explains, “but they are often subject to rigging and intimidation. Ordinary people trying to elect someone other than the government incumbent are routinely subjected to violence, sometimes even death.” So how do ordinary Egyptians get things done?
According to El-Ghobashy, there are two main ways: protest and petition. Protests, she says, typically consist of 50 to 500 people taking to the streets “literally yelling,” insisting on accountable government and demanding rights like clean water, safe housing (collapsing buildings have been a problem), and stronger traffic regulations to curb frequent road accidents. “You wake up in Cairo,” says El-Ghobashy, “and it’s not a question of if there’s a protest, but where are the protests today?”
“Petition,” she explains, “is one of the oldest ways people make demands on their government.” El-Ghobashy cites the ancient Egyptian narrative/poem “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” thought to date from c. 1800 B.C.E., it is, she says, “essentially a petition asking for justice from the rulers.” Petitions in today’s Egypt, she explains, go through administrative courts—there is even a court designed to look at complaints against the government. Which begs the question: If people have official channels through which to express themselves, then what’s so authoritarian?
For El-Ghobashy, such questions are what make her field so exciting. “Political science has moved from thinking, ‘Oh, your elections aren’t free and fair, you’re not a democracy,’ to realizing that a majority of the world operates in these sort-of gray areas.”
As for teaching at Barnard, which she describes as “her dream job,” El-Ghobashy expresses equal enthusiasm. “I’m teaching in classrooms I sat in as a student. It’s surreal, but in a good way.” She pauses a moment, “I’m normally a loquacious person,” she says, “but I can’t find the words.”
-by Karen Schwatrz, photograph by Mark Mahaney