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Beyond depoliticization and resistance: refugees, humanitarianism, and political agency in neoliberal Cairo.

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posted on 2023-06-08, 19:07 authored by Elisa Pascucci
Responding to the call of contemporary political philosophy to locate ‘the political’ beyond the boundaries of formal citizenship (Balibar, 2004; Chatterjee, 2004; Rànciere, 2004), over the last few years researchers across various disciplines have devoted increasing attention to migrant and refugee protests and political mobilization (Tyler and Marciniak, 2013). Research in this area has thoroughly questioned paradigms of biopolitical exception, but also challenged widespread assumptions on the political agency of subaltern subjects as always associated with mundane, silent, and invisible practices. In this context, academic attention has been devoted significantly to Euro-American borderzones and spaces of enforcement, and, in the Global South, to refugee camps. Today however, evidence is growing that the vast majority of refugee and migrant populations are urbanized, and do not live in the West. Based on an 18-month ethnographic fieldwork, this thesis contributes to this growing body of work exploring the contested relations between refugees and humanitarian agencies in Cairo, Egypt. Theoretically, the analysis combines insights from assemblage geographies (De Landa, 2006; McFarlane, 2011) and critical development, refugee, and urban studies (Hyndman, 2001; Simone 2004a, 2004b; Elyachar, 2005; Duffield, 2007, 2011; Bayat, 2010; 2012; Hyndman and Giles, 2011). The empirical sections of the thesis are articulated around two main axes of inquiry. Part B – The Boundaries of Aid – looks at how refugees in Cairo engage with the spatial practices of humanitarian organizations, contesting their growing securitization and the boundaries and hierarchies that separate them from practitioners. Part C – Sociomaterial infrastructures: agency beyond resistance – focuses on the networks – encompassing human and non-human elements – which allow refugees to build relations of support, experience sociality, and organize politically autonomously from aid agencies. The thesis puts forward a two-part argument. Not only do the struggles of refugees in Cairo challenge prevalent understanding of humanitarian aid as a domain of ‘depoliticization’, but they also question the distinction between everyday life and overt manifestations of ‘resistance’, contestation, and protest. Confronted with a complex and often violent system of humanitarian and urban governance, refugees in Cairo, I demonstrate, are able to mobilize a range of practices and position takings which problematize prevalent conceptualizations of resistance, and point to the need for rethinking questions of agency in conditions of structural violence.


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