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: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.