Cairo: the city vanquished? The Muslim Brotherhood and the ruralisation of Egypt

Hani Shukrallah , Monday 31 Dec 2012

The Egyptian Revolution signified a triumph of the urban; even while the counter-revolution looks to the undefeatable rural for provisions

Cairo, Al-Qahira, is literally The Vanquisher, or the vanquishing city. Max Rodenbook, in the title of his delightful history of the Egyptian capital, rendered it, “Cairo: City Victorious”. And for a great part of its millennium-long history, Egyptians have equated Cairo with the Arabic name of the whole country. Cairo was Misr, and was umm el-donia, or the Mother of the World, which provided the title of yet another marvelous history of the city, the late Desmond Stewart’s “Great Cairo: Mother of the World”. For his part, Andre Raymond titled his outstanding scholarly history of the Egyptian capital: “Cairo: City of History”.

And while Cairo got its current name in 969, under the Fatimids, who also founded Al-Azhar (972), it has been the constant administrative centre of the country, and its commercial and intellectual heart, since the Muslim conquest of Egypt under the command of Amr Ibn al-‘As in 640, and his founding of al-Fustat two years later.

The primacy of the urban in Egypt’s 5000-year long history is generally acknowledged, whether the country’s urban centre lay in Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, or – for the past some 1,400 years – in the urban space we call Cairo. Certainly such primacy has given rise to a lot of nonsense about hydraulic societies, and to one of the more absurd expressions of 19th Century European Orientalism, namely the theory of Asiatic Despotism, or Asiatic Stagnation.

I need also add the reservation that history is invariably written by the more powerful, whether that power is derived from the instruments of knowledge, coercion or both. Inevitably this would tend to bias our modern day perspective of Egyptian social and political history in favour of the urban against the rural. The inherited histories of Egypt, passed on to us by such luminaries as al-Maqrizi (1364 – 1442), Ibn Ayas (1448-1523) and up to al-Jabarti (1753-1825) were fundamentally histories of urban Egypt.

Bias notwithstanding, there’s no going away from the primacy of the urban in Egyptian history, at the very least when contrasted with that of Europe during its centuries-long Dark Ages.

Even when we move from the history of power and coercion to that of resistance and revolution, we find the urban supreme.

In the modern age, Egyptian revolutions and uprisings were fundamentally urban phenomena, though on many occasions the support and/or participation of the peasantry proved crucial to their survival. Stretching from the two Cairo uprisings against the Napoleonic conquest (in 1798 and 1800, respectively) and up to the Egyptian Revolution of January/February 2011, great movements of rebellion by the Egyptian people were invariably launched in the cities, with Cairo at their heart.

And, however nuanced our perspective on Egypt’s modern revolutionary history, there is no going away from the fact that we have not known the kind of peasant revolutions that ultimately triumphed by taking the cities, so familiar in the revolutionary experiences of much of Latin America and Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

And it’s been in this primacy of the urban that both the power and the weakness of the Egyptian Revolution has lain, and continues to lie.

It explains, at least in part, the great paradox of a revolution that is able to put hundreds of thousands onto the streets, over and over again for close on two years after its launch, but fails consistently to translate such preeminence into ballots.

It explains as well the remarkable enlightenment, modernity and creative genius of a revolution that speaks of freedom, democracy and human rights, of tolerance and equality among all Egyptians irrespective of gender or religious persuasion, and of a social justice couched in freedom.

And above all, it has been, and continues to be, a revolution that sanctifies the right of rebellion, glorifies personal courage, holds “obedience” in the deepest contempt (ergo, the designation of Muslim Brotherhood supporters as “sheep”), and hoists the free self-expression of the individual, even before that of the mass, as a supreme value (merely observe the explosions of graffiti and personally tailored placards that have been such a unique and pervasive feature of the Egyptian revolution).

Not only has the Egyptian Revolution been an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon (with the countryside basically standing on the sidelines). But as one ballot after another since the Constitutional Declaration of March 2011 and up to last December’s referendum have shown, the countryside has acted as a bulwark, or strategic reserve for the counter-revolution, with the latter having consistently attempted to pit electoral versus revolutionary “legitimacy”, even as it juggled the two – arbitrarily and capriciously.

And make no bones about it. The Muslim Brotherhood’s project is nothing less than a full scale counter-revolution. If in any doubt, just go through the constitution drafted exclusively by them and their Salafi allies, or better yet watch Salafi leader Yasser Borhami on YouTube reassuring his followers that the freedoms and civil liberties articles in the constitution were no more than window dressing, pointing them to the relevant articles deliberately designed to emasculate them.

Meanwhile, we are promised a new piece of legislation, to be enacted by the electorally “legitimate” Shura Council, even if a mere 5% of the electorate took part in the vote of its “elected” members, while the president appointed another third of its members, packing it even further with droves of his Islamist supporters, and with a single Coptic woman sprinkled as dubious sweetener.

The promised piece of legislation is designed to effectively ban demonstrations and strikes (it includes the uniquely bizarre stipulation that a strike should not halt production). These two basic instruments of protest are, needless to say, basic rights seized by the revolution, let alone that it was thanks to them that Mubarak was overthrown, Mr Morsi let out of prison, and set on his way to the presidential palace in Heliopolis, graffiti adorned as it might be.  

Ruralisation, admittedly, is an unfamiliar term, and something of a tongue twister to boot. But – and this for the benefit of my MB e-militia haranguers, fingers no doubt already itching to learnedly inform me that there is no such word – it is a proper noun, to be found in most contemporary dictionaries.

(The MB English-language e-militia, who seem to have a preference for using European pseudonyms, recently set about correcting my reference, in a recent article, to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by learnedly informing me that it was in fact The Rise and Fall of said empire, testimony to both laziness and most probably an American education, since I doubt there is a British high school graduate who is unfamiliar with the famous work.)

The Arabic, taryeef, has been with us for some time. More often than not, it has been used to refer to the process of haphazard urbanization that followed on the heels of the defeat of June 1967, and has been full-blown since the seventies. As the Egyptian state relinquished, one after another, its basic functions save for plunder and repression, rural migration to the urban centres of the country was creating everywhere new sprawling urban settlements that physically, culturally and in terms of life-styles appeared as hugely bloated villages transplanted onto an urban landscape.

It was such settlements that provided the stomping grounds of the Jihadists of the ‘90s, and continue to act as breeding grounds for Salafists and other of the more regressive and extreme tendencies of Egyptian Islamism.

Neither is pitting rural against urban Egypt terribly new. President Sadat, faced with the increasingly potent challenge of leftist-led students and workers movements, styled himself “the faithful president”, called for a return to “village values” and even had his flunkies trump up a new piece of repressive legislation which he called “the law of shame”. Sartorially conscious, the late president’s multifarious wardrobe prominently included the magnificently tailored robes of a (very) rich Egyptian peasant.

In electoral terms, rigging notwithstanding, the Egyptian countryside has been for decades an extraordinarily pliant tool of those in power. Almost invariably voting in considerably higher ratios than their urban counterparts, with rural women remarkably voting in even higher ratios than men, the electorate of the Egyptian country-side is literally herded to the balloting box, and invariably casts its ballots on the basis of patronage rather than politics.

This pattern remains as true after the revolution of 2011 as it was before it. I’ve noted before that triumphant revolutions tend to pull the stragglers along. More specifically, urban revolutions such as the Egyptian variety are obliged to win the peasantry if they are to survive, and they do so by acting to meet their most urgent needs, namely greater and fairer access to, and nominal or effective ownership of the land they till.

The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, having itself become ruralised, seems fully aware of the sharp rural urban dichotomy that has come to its fullest crystallisation following the triumph of the urban embodied in the Egyptian Revolution. Even before the revolution, the reformist trend within the Brotherhood had been warning of the ruralisation of their movement, which they were convinced was fundamentally urban and modern. It was such ruralisation, they argued, that ultimately enabled the full takeover of the movement by its most regressive sections, the Qutbis and the Salafists.

In a 2008 article (which appeared in the English translation quoted below, in Al-Ahram Weekly of 23 October, 2008), the late Hossam Tammam writes:

“The Muslim Brotherhood used to be an urban group in its membership and style of management. Now its cultural patterns and loyalties are taking on a rural garb… Over the past few years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been infused with rural elements. Its tone is becoming more and more patriarchal, and its members are showing their superiors the kind of deference associated with countryside traditions. You hear them referring to their top officials as the "uncle hajj", "the big hajj", "our blessed one", "the blessed man of our circle", "the crown on our heads", etc. Occasionally, they even kiss the hands and heads of the top leaders.”

The rhetoric used by the Brotherhood and its Salafist allies against their opponents is equally revealing of a deliberate, conscious manipulation of the rural urban divide. The leaders of the National Salvation Front are portrayed as belonging to a prosperous, even licentious urban “elite”, more concerned with safeguarding their “loose” life-styles, their bars and clubs, than with the lot of the common man, the latter invariably portrayed as socially conservative, culturally-backward, God-fearing, and obedient, i.e. an archetypal villager.  

Most remarkable of all has been the clearly observable fact that in order to put into effect their more pernicious, more fascistic plans, such as thug militia attacks on peaceful protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership could not count on its urban membership, but invariably had to bus in these would-be Hitler Jugend from the surrounding provinces.

In the presidential elections, as in the last constitutional referendum, the great cities of the nation, with Cairo at their forefront, voted for democracy and the revolution; the countryside for the counter-revolution. This was glaringly apparent in the presidential elections, and is no less true, even if less readily observable in the recent constitutional referendum.

Separate the latest ballot in the main urban centres of the country from their rural, or ruralised environs and almost invariably you’ll find a clear “No” vote in the cities, a “Yes” vote in the countryside.

Yet, and for the time being, the configuration of forces in the country is too evenly balanced. Egypt remains a deeply divided nation. Constitution or not, the Brotherhood and their Salafi allies are not able to bring their authoritarian project to fruition.

Egypt in 2012/3 is a largely urban society (with the urban-rural ratio around 60 to 40%). The fact that this is yet to express itself in the ballot box is a function of a number of factors, including big pro-democracy majorities in the cities as opposed to overwhelming pro-authoritarian majorities in the countryside; the bussing or rather half-trucking of rural voters – en masse – to the voting stations as opposed to the individual, rather moody, at their own steam, and easy to lose faith voting patterns of urban citizens.

Indeed, the Constitution was passed not only by virtue of an overwhelming “Yes” in the countryside, but also because a great many of the urban potential “No” voters did not turn out. Add some rigging, intimidation and ballot station-barring against potential opponents, and the 64-36% result would seem inevitable.

For its part, the power structure remains deeply fractured. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood do not have control of either the army or the police. And, not for want of trying, they are yet to succeed in their concerted attempt to bring the judiciary to heel.

Yet, equally, so are the revolution and the cause of democracy in Egypt incapable of realisation; the revolution remains stalled and hijacked, and a genuine Egyptian democracy continues to be an unreachable dream.

And it will continue to be so if rural Egypt remains a counter-revolutionary reservoir. Talk shows and press conferences will not do it, and neither will putting tens, even hundreds of thousands of protesters on urban streets, over and over again.

Peasants are a suspicious lot. As they should be. They’ve been oppressed, neglected and tricked too many times and for far too long by urban masters of all kinds. To win their trust, to break through the monopoly of state and religious patronage over their political will, you need to go to their very doorsteps. And you need to make the revolution and its democratic aims relevant to their lives.

Thirty years of Mubarak’s eradication of political space in the country can no longer serve as a pretext for persistent political amateurishness by the revolutionary and democratic forces. When the National Salvation Front finally came to the position of calling on the people to go to the ballot and vote “No”, they did so as if surprised by the failure of their initial, legitimate attempt at preventing the blatantly illegitimate draft from being put to the vote.

Yet, this should have been a contingency, even the most likely contingency, for which they should have been well prepared all along.

And it is high time to shatter the distortive lens of “civic” versus Islamist forces, which by the time it reaches Upper Egypt is translated into atheists and Copts against Islam. Revolutionary times are equally a time of the primacy of politics, certainly not of ideology. The fact that from within Egyptian Islamism, indeed from the very heart of the Brotherhood, a growingly potent democratic trend is emerging is something to be welcomed and cherished, not neglected and side-lined.

And revolution is not merely about protesting, as brilliant and courageous as this has been and continues to be. It is equally about political savvy and organizational skill. It’s about the ability to translate the aims of the revolution into strategy and tactics, and the many forms of political and popular organization able to put these into practice.

And as we approach the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, is it not also high time the revolution’s objectives were put into concrete programmatical proposals and demands, staggered as urgent, middle- and long term?

Social Justice is not merely a noble sentiment to be realised in the repetition. It must, and should mean a concrete set of proposals for the here and now, for the poor and dispossessed, both urban and rural.

In short, it is high time the revolution and the democratic forces in the country put their act together.

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