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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 11th, 2015

What Holds Next? The Politics of Disappointment

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 11th, 2015

What Holds Next? The Politics of Disappointment

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by Nermin Allam


This memo was presented at a workshop in Rabat on ‘The Ethics of Political Science Research and Teaching in MENA’, organised by the LSE Middle East Centre and King Mohammed V University in Rabat on 9-11 June 2015.

© Oxfam Novib, 2011.
Women are the first group to experience disappointment following political struggles, © Oxfam Novib, 2011.

For many observers, the return of authoritarian confidence, the changing zeitgeist among activists and the mixed gender outcomes following the Egyptian uprising are signs that the grand visions of the uprising are gone. More dramatically, the ‘Egyptian Spring’ was a false hope in a future that never came and politics are now marked with disappointment. I palpably felt that disappointment was the overarching and bitter emotion that characterised the last round on my field research in Egypt between June and December 2014. In my research, I examined women’s engagement in the 2011 Egyptian uprising that led to the ousting of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Women’s engagement in this initial period of contention, I demonstrate, existed in dialectical relation and sometimes tension with long-standing social relations, institutional forms, and cultural practices. Their activism continued post-uprising under the shadow of the public’s sense that the political system had not changed and that the Egyptian state’s ties to the old regime of Mubarak and its corrupt legacies had not been broken. In their struggles with the regime, and the larger publics, women attempted to authorise their participation and engagement both in terms of and despite these histories and messy realities.

Disappointment is the political reality that emerges as people compare the expectations of the revolution to post-revolutionary realities (Greenberg 2014:8; Gould 2009). It also emerges as people ‘contend with the murkiness and contingency of political agency under such conditions’ (Greenberg 2014:8; Gould 2009). Jessica Greenberg (2014), in her study of the experience of activists in post-uprising Serbia, defines disappointment as ‘a condition of living in contradiction, of persisting in the interstitial spaces of expectation and regret’ (2014:8). In mapping the field in which politics unfolded in Egypt after the uprising, researchers, I argue, should analyse in greater comparative detail the conditions under which the politics of disappointment prevail. Most importantly, this analysis should be carried out with an eye to how actions and activism continue to take place despite a sense of dismay or even perhaps futility.

This is particularly important as disappointment is a common experience for many new – as well as older – democracies. ‘All, all dead…’ Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father, wrote to a friend near the end of his life (Wood 1991: 368). Jefferson’s disillusionment, historian Gordon S.Wood explains in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, resulted not from activism itself, but from the ambitiousness of his vision for America and the revolution’s actual outcome (Wood 1991: 368). The same was true for 1960’s activism in both Europe and the United States. In studying these movements, Sidney Tarrow notes that disappointment following major episodes of contention was experienced in direct proportion to the utopianism of the revolutions’ claims (1992: 165).

Furthermore, studying the politics of disappointment is momentous and meaningful as disappointment is a powerful force with significant influence on political engagement and participation. As a result of being disappointed in the political process, individuals may self-censor their actions and distant themselves from activism and political engagement. Disappointment in the political process and its outcomes following episodes of contention is thus a huge force in curbing – not only inducing – activism and therefore contributes to explaining setbacks following major political transformation.

Finally, and more specifically, in line with the crux of my research, women are largely the first and foremost group to experience disappointment following political struggles and regime change. This seemingly disappointing outcome is evident in the mixed gender outcomes of regime change and democratic transition along history and across different societies in the MENA region and beyond. Underpinning the argument that disappointment is an important aspect in studying post transitional politics is a view of feeling and emotion as fundamental to political life (Ahmed 2004; Gould 2009; Greenberg 2014). They are important not in the sense that they overtake reason and interfere with deliberative processes, but as Gould (2009) eloquently argues in the sense that they are an affective dimension to the processes and practices that make up the political broadly defined. Activism, I contend in line with Gould (2009: 16-19), includes not only expected and common feelings in the realm of activism, like hope, pride, and solidarity, but also those that might be less perceptible, like fear, shame, guilt, desperation, and disappointment.

Attention to the politics of disappointment encourages us to locate not only the causes of disappointment and roots for democratic setbacks, but also to locate agency and actions amidst all the odds. The poignancy of this research area is ignited by participants anguishing over the ugly turn of events after the Arab uprisings, yet their affirmation that their experience during the uprisings had changed them, and that ‘things cannot go back to the old days’(Author’s Interview, Cairo: Egypt, November 2015).


Nermin Allam is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.


Other memos from the workshop


Work Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. The cultural politics of emotion. n.p.: Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Gould, Deborah B. Moving Politics : Emotion and Act Up’s Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Greenberg, Jessica. After the Revolution : Youth, Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.
  • Hirschman, Albert O. Shifting involvements : private interest and public action. n.p.: Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press,1982.
  • Tarrow, Sidney G. Power in movement : social movements and contentious politics. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The radicalism of the American Revolution. n.p.: New York : A.A. Knopf, 1992.
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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

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