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New Men for the New Nation: Examining youth development, sports and masculinity within the post-revolutionary Egyptian state bureaucracy

Dr Carl Rommel

This anthropological research project examines how the Egyptian state mobilises sports to shape young men’s ethics, politics and bodies. Especially the male subsection of the Egyptian ‘youth’ has been a key discursive-political battleground during the last half-a-decade: from the Mubarak era, when they generally were portrayed as troublesome thugs or lazy good-for-nothings, over the revolutionary years, when the revolutionary youth became widely valorised, into the post-coup period, when male and youthful energy ambivalently has been framed as both a promise and a problem. Taking this historical development as a point of departure, my research primarily homes in on Egypt’s current period of revolutionary aftermath: an era of accelerated neoliberal restructuring, riddled by programmes of intervention, designed to appropriately mould the youth into ‘new men for the new nation’.

The project is primarily based on ethnographic fieldwork at a handful of Cairo’s ‘youth centres’ (marakiz al-shabab): a nationwide network of state-run cultural, educational and sporting institutions. Being a section of the Egyptian government explicitly designed to foster ‘the youth’, the centres represent an intriguing point of conflation between state-led youth development through sports and a paternalistic state bureaucracy undergoing neoliberal, post-revolutionary transformation. My ethnography at the centres is supplemented by archive material about the history of Egypt’s youth centres and analyses of contemporary and historical media material about youth, health and sports in the state-owned magazine al-shabab (The Youth).

The project aims to answer the following question: what are the Egyptian government’s policies and priorities vis-à-vis health, sport, youth and gender, and how have these been changing over the last decade? How are such policies implemented on-the-ground through sports activities among the youth? How do young Egyptian men access physical exercise and fun? To what extent do young men accept and/or challenge the government’s aims and ideals?

I am also interested in the challenges that small-scale state institutions, such as the youth centres, are facing in an era of neoliberal restructuring and austerity. How do state employees and coaches interpret and tackle dominant discourses on ‘professionalism’ and ‘corruption’, notions that were further accentuated by the 2011 Revolution, which many Egyptians understood as an uprising against the corrupt state bureaucracy? How does the growing idealisation of ‘fair competition’ and ‘clean capitalism’ shape ethics and ideals of masculinity? And how are these ideals transferred generationally through a magazine like al-shabab and through the centres’ sporting activities?

The research builds on and contributes to the anthropologies of the state, critical events and their aftermath, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, youth development and sport, and masculinity.