The People's Republic: the rise of civil disobedience in Egypt

As Egypt celebrates the second anniversary of the 25 January revolution, cities are threatening to declare independence from central government.

On the second anniversary of Egypt's 25 January Revolution, thousands are expected to gather on Tahrir Square, Cairo's firmly established protest space.

The haphazard village of demonstration tents and vendors, which has been walled in by security barricades, has become a permanent fixture. 

Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who famously bared his chest to the square during his first speech as president in July 2012, now appears to be largely ignoring the rallying point. 

It has become a permissible area to demonstrate, critics say rendering it ineffective.

"Egypt's political and social movement has realised that dissent isn't just through a presence in a square. We've seen more and more attempts at organisation on a community, university and factory level," says Hisham Fouad, a labour expert and founder of the Children of the Land research centre.

The struggle for social and political rights has expanded across different sectors and entered different venues, he adds, highlighting in particular calls in December and January for civil disobedience.

"The recent battle over the constitution was waged across governorates and wasn't concentrated in Cairo – pockets of dissent fought this battle throughout Egypt's cities."

Vote of no confidence

In December, against the backdrop of a deepening political crisis, several of Egypt's major cities including Alexandria, Mahalla – the country's industrial capital – and Suez declared independence from Morsi's government.

Even Cairo's Moqattam district, which houses the central headquarters of the Brotherhood, announced they would withdraw from the state.

These recent collective actions were precipitated by the president's decision to push through a controversial constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, after granting himself unfettered authorities.

With little change two years on from the ouster of Mubarak, there are plans to repeat these calls for independence in 2013.

Influential activist Mamdouh Amir, one of the seven authors of Mahalla's 7 December independence declaration, explains that the industrial city's independence was not a direct withdrawal from the Egyptian state "flag and all".

Rather it was an expression of defiance against the "lawlessness of the state that is buttressed by the ruling political elite."

"It was a symbolic action to encourage people to strive for a more comprehensive civil disobedience on a nationwide scale in the future," adds Alaa Bahlaan, founding member of Mahalla's local branch of Mohamed ElBaradei's Constitution Party, who were signatories to the city's declaration of independence.

Activists in Alexandria, Egypt's “second city”, inspired by events in Mahalla immediately followed suit.

"People looked at Mahalla as a role model," explains Mahienour El-Massry, from Alexandria's Revolutionary Socialists, who saw the symbolic act as a creative means of delivering a warning shot to the regime.

Alexandria had initially attempted to declare independence during 2011's 18-day uprising, including selecting an alternate governor (a well-respected local judge) and securing the support of "state officials, governorate employees and tax collectors," who agreed to defect. 

But it was never made public, as the day chosen to oust Mubarak's government officials from the coastal city coincided with 11 February when Mubarak stepped down.

Over the past year, the failure of national and local government to interact with their constituencies, to empower the populace and to delegate authorities in a democratic and transparent manner continues to mean that power in Egypt has been concentrated into the hands of a privileged, political clique.

"We want to put forward a model government that is built on popular legitimacy and a respect of the law by creating an alternative or shadow council," explains Amir.

"We, as the nation's youth, want a lawful state. At the moment, the president of Egypt has completely deviated from the rule of law. This is apparent by his appropriation of judicial authorities in December."

Local decay and political alienation

The centralisation of Egypt's political structure has meant that outside of Cairo many citizens feel marginalised and alienated. On a local level, the public receive little or no services, seriously impacting their daily lives.

This is because deep-seated corruption in local governance remains rife on a nationwide level even after the uprising, claims Muhammed Abushaqra, a leading member of Alexandria's branch of the Constitution Party that joined the coastal city's bid for independence.

The problem is, Abushaqra continues, there has been no structural change: the system of local governance was directly inherited from the Mubarak regime.

The presidency appoints governors and their deputies, he explains, who in turn exercise complete control of the budget's purse strings and thus manipulate all local policies ranging from education to health to transportation.

"The governor is the only one running the show."

This also allows Morsi to place pro-government officials in these influential posts, El-Massry claims.

In Alexandria, she explains, the "much-hated deputy-governor" Hassan El-Brince is "one of the main public figures of the Muslim Brotherhood" who she says adopts the agenda of the Islamist group at every turn, not the people's.

At the moment in Egypt, the only elected body are the municipal councils, which are solely advisory boards. They have yet to be re-elected since their dissolution following the 25 January uprising.

Power is therefore concentrated exclusively in the governor's hands, leaving policymaking and budgetary decisions arguably the sole prerogative of the presidency and its local representative.

Favouritism and political calculations, not community needs, activists say, are the driving modus operandi.

"If the minister of finance favours a governor, he can put a couple of million pounds more in the budget…there is no transparency," Abushaqra says, adding that the people cannot, therefore, guarantee the money is going where it is most needed.

One example is the lack of investment in the country's public transport – dozens have died in multiple governorates over the past two months on Egypt's decrepit railways.

"Because of these inadequate services, citizens feel that the government treats them without any dignity," Bahlaan states. "Consequently, the idea of civil disobedience has progressed into calls to not pay electricity, sanitation, water and gas bills."

December's constitutional decree and the forced referendum represented a further affront to their dignity, he adds, spurring people to seek alternative means of protest. 

With the government further alienating itself from the people and Morsi set on staging the referendum at any cost, on 7 December, thousands in Mahalla marched on the city council.

One day later in Alexandria, revolutionaries were met with civilians "armed with swords and a machine gun" and then later security forces as they attempted to lay siege on the temporary offices of the governor, El-Massry explains.

Suez, and other cities followed.

"The new constitution supports the same arbitrary delegation of power," Abushaqra stresses, as the new national charter failed to stipulate that governors will be elected – a key demand of the 25 January Revolution.

"Everyone in Egypt is continuing to suffer from local corruption."

The most telling example of the state's complete failure on a local level is found in the villages.

The Republic of Tahsin

Tahsin, a Nile Delta village, last year declared complete independence from the state after two decades of neglect.

"The village doesn't have any services, no hospitals, no school; only half the village has electricity, not even a road," explains Wael Ghaly, a lawyer from the All Egyptians organisation that has been working on the village's case.

Following the 25 January uprising, villagers attempted to make contact with the newly appointed government, sending a delegation first to the governorate offices and eventually to Cairo. They even staged a protest outside the presidential palace but to no avail.

"Finally, the worst happened, a child fell ill with a fever and is now paralysed because they couldn’t get him to hospital in time; they couldn't drive a car down the dirt track to get him there in time," Ghaly explains.

It was the last straw, he continues, the final resort was declaring independence.

The village collectively decided to not pay taxes and have since become self-sufficient – bringing in generators to power the neighbourhood themselves.

"Another village in Sharqiya followed suit. But so far, even after making both public, there has been no response from the government."

History repeats itself

Civil disobedience is nothing new in Egypt, maintains Dr Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco who specialises in Middle Eastern politics and strategic non-violent action. The UK has much to do with this particular manifestation of dissent.

In 1919, Zunes explains, the Egyptian fight against British occupation, "largely consisted of general strikes, boycotts, resignations of officials. There is that legacy."

The historic "Republic of Zifta" was created in 1919, when the Nile Delta town, declared independence from the crown following the expulsion of leading Wafd member Saad Zaghloul Pasha. 

Even Gandhi himself, Zunes continues, was inspired by events in Egypt for his subsequent campaigns in India. "When he pioneered a lot of his ideas, like resistance of colonialism and pro-independent struggle, he spoke of Egypt as a model."

Certainly calls for the independence of Mahalla have been around since the 90s, when the city declared independence from the Gharbiya governorate.

The idea of a shadow council existed before the revolution and had Muslim Brothers in its ranks, says Amir, Mubarak's response was to say "let them entertain themselves'."

A way forward?

The moves towards independence have not been without controversy. 

Abushaqra admits that the average Egyptian "doesn't understand this movement very well and conversely thinks that such a revolutionary outrage is against stability."

Critics also say it divides vital national unity, at a time when there is significant political unrest across the country.

Alexandria deputy governor El-Brince was unavailable for comment about the calls for independence.

However, Mamdouh El-Munir, spokesperson for the ruling Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party in the Gharbiya governorate where Mahalla is located, maintains:

"[The moves for independence] are indicative of an ideological bankruptcy. Either it is a weakness in political thought or an inability to present ideas to people, in turn the opposition has resorted to mere media spectacle."

El-Munir slammed the actions as overhyped.

"I believe if you were enter the city of Mahalla you would not be asked for your passport or an entrance visa. All that happened was that a group of youth published a statement online declaring independence for their own town.  In essence, a load of hot air."

Bahlaan however, believes that Islamists and government supporters do not understand the symbolism of the move, that he says, was a preliminary step to familiarise people with the concept of civil disobedience.

Abushaqra agrees "We must make an effort in translating and interpreting these high principals into local and developmental terms."

"People in the past have dealt with calls for a general strike or civil disobedience lightly, not knowing the rules of the game and what is really needed to actualise such forms of dissent," Fouad states.

Just last week, he continues, Mahalla community leaders and activists managed to force the head of the city council to discuss their grievances with the city's public services and begin negotiations.

In addition, on 22 January, as part of the lead up to the 25 January anniversary celebrations, separate revolutionary forces staged a "stop for an hour" act of disobedience.

Price hikes on basic amenities, worsening economic conditions as well as recurring water and electricity outages will ensure continued political opposition on the ground.

All of those involved in the calls for independence say they will wield this revolutionary weapon again in 2013. More are joining.

Currently in the pipeline, the restive city of Port Said has threatened to declare independence next week – in addition to women's movements using Facebook to express a vote of no confidence in Morsi's administration.

"The collective consciousness of the people is moving towards a realisation of a new tool to push President Morsi to change his policies," Abushaqra concludes, "Innovation is going to take place – local independence is just one way."

 

Egyptians carry a wounded protestor during clashes with riot police in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt