Egypt's revolution goes local - The People's Committee of Meet Oqba

Meet Oqba

By Simon Hanna

“The revolution isn’t only in Tahrir; it’s in the places in which we live, in the towns and villages, everywhere”. When Ranaa Salah of the People’s Committee of Meet Oqba says these words she means them, and she can back it up.

Ranaa is part of a group of young volunteers from her neighbourhood – Meet Oqba in Cairo – whose aim is to safeguard the gains of the revolution and to make sure that the push for change is felt at a local level. The committee first came together during the early days of the revolution, when the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak withdrew the police force from the streets while simultaneously opening prison cells, leading to widespread chaos and looting. Ordinary citizens had to act.

“The committee didn’t start with political ideas or the idea of serving the community. It started at the beginning to protect homes” explains Emil Adel from his family shop where he sells home appliances in Meet Oqba. Many of the youth of the town wanted to go to Tahrir to take part in the mass uprising that was underway, but they were afraid of leaving their own area vulnerable. So they began to coordinate. Groups would go to Tahrir while others would stay in the streets of Meet Oqba setting up checkpoints – checking people’s IDs and staying alert to the threat of trouble makers.

But the People’s Committee or ‘lagna shabeyya’ soon started to evolve. After Mubarak’s ouster committees of ordinary people all over Egypt who initially banded together to protect homes began cleaning rubbish and painting the streets, as the country was swept with a wave of nationalism and pride. Emil explains: “The President went and the government went but we are staying, we are the country and we will keep the country beautiful. This is how it started but then after that we realised there were solutions, things we could do”. And in Meet Oqba the People’s Committee has found solutions.

While discussions were taking place nationally and internationally about the deposed president, the interim military council, the cabinet, the constitution, elections – changes at the top – the People’s Committees began working from the bottom. When there were fears of a food shortage at the beginning of the revolution they monitored local bread suppliers where subsidised bread was sold. One of the committee members photographed one of the oven owners stealing flour and putting it in his car. He was arrested and fined.

When there were fears of a gas crisis and prices rocketed, the committee acted. They went to the governorate offices to pick up and distribute gas canisters themselves. They delivered the gas to the people at the government rate - cutting out the middle men who had been profiting from the shortage. Then, Emil says, they took it one step further. “We realised we could solve the problem if residents had piped gas instead of using gas canisters. So a delegation from the committee went to the gas company to inquire and we found out there was already an agreement to supply Meet Oqba with piped gas in 2008. So we told them to get to work and they said ‘ok’. But then they wouldn’t. Only after we kept pestering them did they start to work. We realised that persistence was a tactic we could use. Most of us weren’t involved in politics before – we started to learn.”

The pressure tactics yielded results and the committee didn’t stop there. They went on to push the governorate to solve the rubbish problem. There was no regular collection until the committee’s pressured paid off again – rubbish is now collected from the main streets of Meet Oqba twice daily.

The committee – who also print a small newspaper to help communicate with their community – already have an eye on the upcoming parliamentary elections, due to begin at the end of November. Emil says this will be their next project. “We can’t be a People’s Committee and let the elections get rigged. We will be at the polling stations and monitor fraud, even though we don’t have the power to prevent it… when we go to vote ourselves, none of us will tell the other who to vote for. Although there is one thing we are all agreed on: none of us will vote for any of the criminals of the old NDP.”

The committee though - like the revolution as a whole - is having to contend with pressures that are resisting change. They say that the interim government’s recent decision to replace the local governor was due to the fact that he had been cooperating too closely with the committee. Members also complain that remnants of the old regime continue to have a strong presence in their area and rival People’s Committees have been formed in Meet Oqba with links to the NDP.  

Despite this, and a time when the ruling military council has been seen to be dividing Egypt, particularly along sectarian lines, the committee has vowed to stay united to their cause. “Our committee has Muslims, Christians, Liberals, Secularists, Communists, Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood” said Mustafa Salah Ibrahim, one of the founding members of the group “but we are all under one umbrella: serving Meet Oqba and safeguarding the revolution.”