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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ms Karin Ahlberg

MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies (SOAS), MSc in Social Engineering in Sociotechnical System Engineering (Uppsala University), BA in History (Uppsala University)


Karin Ahlberg
Ms Karin Ahlberg
Email address:
Thesis title:
Mediating the nation, making markets – productions and circulations of Egypt along international networks
Internal Supervisors

PhD Research

In my research, I investigate a number of networks that mediate (conceptualize, communicate and circulate) different versions of ‘Egypt’ to visiting foreigners, imagined foreign audiences and on the so called ‘world stage’. Based on ethnographic research and participant observation during a 20 months stay in Cairo, I aim to describe the networks, work and recourses put into making and circulating different mediations of Egypt in news media and tourism marketing. I also aspire to shed light on how the Egyptian nation and Egyptian nationhood is imagined and enacted (or rejected) by Egyptians working within tourism and foreign journalism.

Egypt’s entanglements to the outside world are complicated and contradictory; some of them are more or less unique, others shared predicaments of the wider ‘postcolony’. Egypt’s long dependency on foreign aid and tourism create frictions with widespread fear of foreign interventions, nurtured and natured by state rhetoric, the region’s geopolitical situation as well as through the living memory of the older members of the population who fought successive wars for independence and against Israel. I ask how Egyptians imagined the nation and Egypt’s role in the world when the nation and mediations of Egypt are not only conceptualized and circulated for an ‘imagined Egyptian community’ (Anderson, 1991) or in relation to an ‘other’ (cf. Bhabha, 1994), but also explicitly for this ‘other’?

I base my thesis on theoretical works on issues of mediations and imaginaries, enframing and production of culture and knowledge in a global world (through journalism, tourism and marketing), nation branding, neoliberal citizenship and nationalism.

I build my research on ethnographic material that I collected during my 20 months in Cairo among various actors located along these networks. I have conducted participant observations and interviews with state employees, tourism pundits, marketing people, journalists, journalist fixers, tourist guides, tourists and tourist workers in order to sketch out a larger picture of how these networks produce, shape and circulate different mediations of ‘Egypt’, as well as how these are understood and enacted by different actors.

Since the 1980s, Egypt’s economy has been described to be in crisis, and the country’s economic reliance on the outside world has indeed been remarkable; in the form of international aid (Egypt is the second biggest US aid receiver after Israel) and in the form of restructuring programs and loans from the World Bank and the IMF. Tourism has been presented as the solution to Egypt’s economical problems; “tourism leads the way”, as it is stated in one of the state reports on human development published in the 1990s. According to estimates from the Ministry of Tourism, 16 million of Egypt’s more than 80 million inhabitants lived out of tourism before the popular uprisings started in 2011. This means that the tourism industry feeds almost a fifth of the population. In order to attract – and secure - visitors, aid and investors, Egypt has been and still is largely dependent on the outside world’s imagination of the country. Whereas significant scholarly attention has been given to the ways Ancient Egypt has been and is imagined outside Egypt, little research has been conducted about and along the networks that produce present day ‘Egypt’ on the global arena. Through my research, I aim to shed light on these complicated processes, by thoroughly exploring the networks that are ‘working out’ stories and images that eventually end up as news stories and destination marketing outside the Egyptian borders.

That the image of Egypt is of utter importance has long been acknowledged by Egyptian leaders and people in power. This can be illustrated by the Egyptian government’s contracting of foreign PR bureaus to ‘brush up’ politicians’ and the public’s image of Egypt in the UK and the US. In a similar way, the Egyptian Tourism Authority commissions international marketing bureaus to produce and place international marketing campaign with the aim of promoting Egypt as a tourism destination. Yet, in contrast to these controlled and ‘groomed’ versions of Egypt, circulations of news and feature stories about Egypt in international press have in recent years often reported on violence, demonstration and authoritarian practices. All these different mediations are out there, and potentially, they have tangible affects of how Egypt is imagined and understood, as they enter ordinary people’s life-worlds. 

In my PhD thesis I ask: How do different versions of ‘Egypt’ as they appear on the international arena come into their present-day commonly known forms or tones? What sorts of work lie behind these versions, and in whose interests (e.g. state power, commercial or political) are these narratives and images produced and circulated? How do actors, as part of their professional or private life along these networks of mediation, produce and understand different stories of Egypt, as they are themselves enmeshed in and influenced by various historical and contemporary circulations of Egypt? What happen, in a globally connected world, when conceptualization and circulation of a ‘country’ are in the hands of professional ‘cultural brokers’?

The general awareness of the importance of the ‘image of Egypt’ or ‘reputation of Egypt’ that can be found among state officials but also among ordinary Egyptians poses important questions in relation to theorizations and understandings of nationhood and imaginaries of the nation and of how to be a ‘good’ citizen. Scholarship on nation branding in post-soviet Eastern Europe has shown how marketing campaigns of a nation have influenced how citizens of that very country have come to imagine their country’s identity, their duties to the country and the country’s relation to the outside world. In the context of post-socialist Latvia and following a Foucauldian line of enquiry, Dzenovska (2005) has e.g. asked “how is nation branding thinkable as a response to a particular problematisation of nation and self in the new Europe?” Such realizations have interesting implications for anthropological enquiry, and I progress along and across similar but also somewhat different lines of thinking in order to investigate how my Egyptians interlocutors imagined and practice nationhood in Post-Mubarak Cairo, shaped as it is by postcolonial genealogies, anti-colonial or nationalist sentiments and foreign dependency.

PhD Conferences

  • Ahlberg, Karin (2013) ‘Branding Egypt Islamic; the (non-)latitude for new directions within tourism in post-revolutionary Egypt’ Conference: 'Tourism and the Shifting Values of Cultural Heritage: Visiting Pasts, Developing Futures' 5-9 April, 2012 Taipei
  • Ahlberg, Karin. ‘On the present tense, when the present is tense’, presentation at Cairo Based Research Consortium ‘Egypt Research Exchange: Asking Questions in Revolutionary Times’, Cairo October 2012.
  • Ahlberg, Karin, Rabo, Annika, and Rommel, Carl (convenors of panel) (2012) W015. Living uncertainty: navigating gray-zones of unreliable realities in the Middle East. Panel, EASA 2012: Uncertainty and disquiet. Nanterre, France.
  • Ahlberg, Karin & Rommel, Carl (2012) ‘Uncertainties, subjectivities and the (non-)production of truth’, presented at EASA 2012: Uncertainty and disquiet. Nanterre, France.


  • SOAS Research Scholarship 2010-2013
  • Visiting Fellow without Stipend, American University in Cairo 2011-2012