The Egyptian Revolution signified a triumph of the urban; even while the counter-revolution looks to the undefeatable rural for provisions
ANOTHER EXCELLENT ANALYSIS
By Hani Shukrallah , Monday 31 Dec 2012
".......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
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
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
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
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
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 depend 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 balance 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
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 their the failure of their initial, legitimate
attempt at preventing the blatantly illegitimate draft from being put to the
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
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."