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
Photo: Poppy McPherson
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“We have lost our birth place”: the long, slow persecution of the Rohingya Muslims

Mohammed Ilias was a school teacher. Then the government dismissed Muslims from their posts. 

The first time the Myanmar army came to his door to ask about the militants, in early August, Mohammed Ilias, a softly-spoken Rohingya teacher in his mid-forties, invited them in. “My little child welcomed them into the house,” he said. “They said: ‘The teacher’s child is very good. Very nice. He’s welcoming us! How well-behaved he is!’”

Maybe it was the kindness of his son. Maybe it was luck. But that day, Ilias wasn’t among the hundreds he said were rounded up in the village of Doe Tan in Maungdaw township, for interrogation about the new Rohingya insurgency. “At least 400 of them they took to the schools and tortured very badly,” he said.

The next time the soldiers came to Doe Tan, they were on a rampage. Insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked dozens of police posts two days earlier, on 25 August. In response, homes were set alight and shots fired indiscriminately, Ilias said.

His eyes welled up with tears. “In that gunfire, one of my elder sisters – 75 years old – died in her home,” he said. “I decided: ‘They killed my sister. They may kill us.’” That day, he left the village with his wife and six children, carrying only a piece of plastic to use as shelter on the road.

The chaos that has engulfed Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state over the past three weeks, pushing an estimated 400,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, has awoken the world to the plight of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around one million.

Soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists are accused of slaughtering civilians and razing villages in a campaign of indiscriminate violence, terrifying in its intensity. But to Rohingya like Ilias, this is the culmination of a lifetime of persecution. It is only the latest brutal chapter in a story of oppression that has deprived an entire people of freedom, education and opportunities over the course of generations.

“They have been torturing us for years,” say many of the Rohingya now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The events of August were the final straw.

In the muddy, cramped camp outside the port town of Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi fishing port close to Myanmar, where many of the Rohingya have sought refuge, Ilias sat with his hands folded on his lap. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a brown checked longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men. “My name is Mohammed Ilias. I am 46,” he said quietly, beginning his story.

He was born in 1972 to a well-known and respected family, he said. His grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was an influential local leader who had been decorated by the British for fighting alongside them in World War II. During the colonial era, the British had encouraged migration into Rakhine from neighbouring Bengal, supplementing the existing Muslim population.

At the time of Myanmar’s independence, in 1948, the first Prime Minister, U Nu, recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Families who had lived in the country for at least two generations could apply for a green card granting them full citizenship. Abdul Aziz was among them. “My grandfather had a card which was green,” said Ilias. “Green like the colour of leaves.”

But in 1962, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup and introduced sweeping new rules governing national identity. The 1982 Citizenship Act, which excludes Rohingya from a set of accepted races, effectively rendered them stateless.

The junta began issuing Rohingya with temporary registration certificates, or “white cards” that made them “residents” rather than citizens. “My family had so much status, so much honour,” said Ilias. “My grandfather was like a king. He helped the British. He got a green card from the Myanmar government, so why would we take the white card?”

Before Ilias’s father died, when his son was still small, he expressed a wish that at least one of his children follow in his footsteps. But it was becoming more difficult for Rohingya to access decent jobs. They were barred from higher education. “He told my sister: ‘Somehow, please make a teacher from my family,’” Ilias recalled.

Ilias couldn’t go to university, but he managed to get a job at a state-run school, teaching maths and science. It didn’t last long. “After that Myanmar decided not to take Muslim teachers,” he said. “They forced us to resign and took lots of Rakhine people into the schools for teaching.”

He continued teaching informally, he said, sometimes taking payment from parents but more often working for free. But few Rohingya in the village could see the benefits of sending their children for an education rather than to work as farmers or labourers, he said. “Our children were getting an education but they can’t do anything,” said Ilias. “They can’t get a government job. If you are an educated man, but you can’t do anything to earn money, how can you cover the expenses for your family?”

To make ends meet, Ilias ran a small shop in the village. But getting supplies required hiring Rakhines to bring them. Even farmers relied on Rakhines to bring fertiliser for their fields. Relations between the two communities had been tense for years but worsened dramatically after outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.

And then, in 2015, voting rights for Rohingya were withdrawn ahead of the anticipated election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. But it was quickly apparent that advocating for Rohingya was not on her agenda. In late 2016, ARSA militants launched their first attack on police posts.

The ensuing months in northern Rakhine, the center of the new insurgency, were fraught. Imams – accused of lending religious legitimacy to the violence – and community leaders like Ilias were suspect.

In early August, the military called a meeting with educated Rohingya in Doe Tan, Ilias said. They were told to sign a paper promising the tackle the insurgency. “It was a paper given by the military, like a peace contract,” he said.

But the militants attacked again on 25 August and soldiers were soon back in Ilias’s house. They saw bottles of medicine – used to stock his shop, he said – and accused him of treating ARSA fighters. “You are not a teacher, you are a doctor for ARSA,” they told him.

“There were four or five of them,” recalled Ilias. “They pushed me to the ground, then with the pliers they took away my nails. They beat me with a bamboo stick.” 

He was saved when a commander recognised him and reprimanded the soldiers. “I saw you, you are a teacher in the school, you are not a bad man,” Ilias recalled the commander saying. “He was just trying to convince me to give information about ARSA. But actually I don’t know about ARSA. How can I give him any information without knowing?”

After fleeing the village, leaving behind the body of his sister Basuma, who he described as a pious and well-liked widow, Ilias heard the whole area had been looted and razed. “The wealth was gone, the houses empty, no people... Then they started to burn from the outside part of the village. They were burning our houses for three days at least,” he said.

The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the recent violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Auu Kyi, on the other hand, has attracted international condemnation for failing to speak out. She decided not to attend the UN General Assembly this week, and has limited her comments to saying she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict. 

“You start systematically weakening a maligned group in order to make their existence either so fragile that they leave of their own accord, or to ensure they fail to put up much of a struggle when a military operation such as this gets underway,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

Like many Rohingya, Ilias spent years finding ways to work within a system that ground him down. Now in Bangladesh, which has reluctantly accepted the new arrivals but has said it plans to keep them in camps, he is staring into an uncertain future (he was photographed for this article, but from behind, as he did not want to show his face for fear of retribution). “We have lost our homeland. Our birth place,” he said. “We are now here in Bangladesh but we don’t want to make any trouble. We don’t want to be destroyed, like waste.”

Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist reporting on South East Asia, mainly Myanmar