Sunday 3 February 2013

In the secret capital

“Our village? If the revolution ever reaches our village, then there really is a revolution in Egypt.”

These are the words of Mahrus, a supporter of the revolution from the village of Minyat al-Murshid who participated in “The Secret Capital,” a documentary film Mukhtar Shehata and I made about the Egyptian revolution from the point of view of Mukhtar's home village Minyat al-Murshid.

I have spent the last three days in that village, showing the film to friends, relatives, and the people who participated in the events shown in the film. At the same time, a new uprising against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood has erupted in the streets of the cities. Tens have died (most in the canal cities Port Said and Suez where the police used live ammunition against protesters, but deadly shots have also been fired at the police) and hundreds have been injured, and an urgent political crisis has evolved. There is an escalation of violence that hasn't been seen since 28 January 2011 when nearly a thousand people were killed. The Muslim Brotherhood has become politically increasingly isolated after their only major ally, the Salafi Nour Party abandoned them and changed to the side of opposition. However, they continue to insist on their election-based legitimacy to rule the country, and resort to language and policies very similar to those of the Mubarak regime in its last days. On Thursday, all major political movements signed a document prepared by al-Azhar against violence by any party involved. At the same time, an increasing split between a radical and a pragmatic current in the opposition has become visible. On Friday 1 February, new protest marches went out in the streets of the country. Everything remained peaceful until in the evening clashes evolved between protesters and and the security forces. It began with water cannons against stone-throwing, and later the police resorted to birdshot and live ammunition. One protester was killed by live ammunition fired by the police. Live television images showed policemen pulling an arrested person naked on the street and beating and kicking him. A speaker of the president's office called on Friday night all political movements to refrain from violence, and declared that they will protect institutions of the state “with utter consequence.” In this blog post I will not get into details of the events in the cities, however, but will tell the story of the revolutionaries of the village. Did the revolution reach this village? Has there really been a revolution in Egypt?

I already wrote about the village revolutionaries in three blog posts in March 2011 (The village revolutionaries, What is to be done?, Anamazing success and a spectacular failure) when a campaign initiated by a group of mostly young leftist men was still active trying to change local politics and to spread a new political consciousness in the village. They failed. Local politics remained the same. The village revolutionaries were for a large part made of people who worked or studied in the cities, and those who lived in the village found remained relatively isolated and unable to accomplish the radical change. In autumn 2011 and spring 2012, when we made interviews to accompany footage Mukhat and Mahrus had filmed earlier during the actions of the village activists, there was a state of frustration among the village revolutionaries, and a sense of confusion and uncertainty among people who had not been active in the events. There was a big hope, however, that the presidential elections would be a point of resolution and a step from the conflicts and confusion of the revolution towards a better future. al-Hagg Muhammad, an elder fisherman, declared: “The revolution is not over yet. The revolution won't be over until the new president of the republic enters office. With the new president the revolution will be over, for better or worse.” Another fisherman declared, however: “God willing, the revolution will come to Minyat al-Murshid, when there is a new president and he doesn't do what we want from him. Then the revolution will come to Minyat al-Murshid and everywhere, and bigger than the last time!”

This is where the story of the film ends. The story of the village revolutionaries does not end here, however. Since last spring, they have become active several times, and despite the sense of frustration and isolation that keeps haunting them, they have proven themselves capable of doing some things.

Before starting to tell their story, it is necessary to make a clarification: Who is a revolutionary in Egypt? Almost all political movements in Egypt today make claims to revolutionary legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular sees itself as the legitimate and true force representing Egypt's revolution. „Revolutionaries,“ however, has become an established term of a wide oppositional current that has been variously described as liberal, left, secular, or a combination of the three (although there are also some Islamists among the revolutionaries). Their opponents prefer to call them idle kids, communists, or godless liberals. What does it mean, then, to count oneself to the revolutionaries?  I asked H., a self-learned computer technician living from odd jobs how he would locate himself in the ideological spectrum. H.: „Im neither for the bad nor for the worse. I'm against the Brotherhood and against the National Democratic Party (Mubarak's now dissolved ruling party).” I asked:  But what do you stand for, what do you support? H.: “I would want one those who started the revolution on 25 January to lead us.” I asked: But what ideas do you support? H.: „I would like to see one like Nasser, one who cares for the poor. That's why I support Hamdeen Sabbahi.“ I asked him if this would make him a socialist. H. agreed, but without emphasis. In a coffee house round some days later, I asked the same question from others from the same circle of friends. B., a teacher, explained: “We may personally agree with one or the other of these titles. Most of us are leftists, but there is one of who us sees himself as a liberal and not as a leftist. But in the end the difference of liberal, left, or secular is not important. What unites us is that we all want the good of the country, whatever the title you give it – unlike the Ikhwan and Salafis, or anybody from the Islamist current who reiterate whatever their leaders tell you. You can have a good discussion with one of them today but tomorrow he says again what his sheikh says, and it may be completely different from what his sheikh said yesterday. I know somebody on Facebook who is a Salafi. Three days ago, he would be fiercely attacking ElBaradei. Yesterday his tone got softer. And now that Hizb al-Nur has allied with the National Salvation Front, he is suddenly all friendly with ElBaradei.” B. emphatically draws a distinction between people who want the good of the country and do so out of their own accord and by using their own mind, and people who in his view only want the good of a specific group and divide the country into Muslims and Christians, believers and infidels. F., another young man in the group seconds: „Rather than leftist, secular, or liberal, I see myself as somebody who wants to change the society.” S. explains:  “In the village, parallel titles are used according to the actual political conflict line and one's position in it: from our side it's 'the youth' or 'the revolutionaries' against 'the beards', from the Islamists' point of view it's the  Islamic current against communists, liberals, idle kids – which for them is all essentially the same: infidels and enemies of Islam.”

The village revolutionaries (very much like their peers in the cities) are ideologically ecumenical, and what marks being a revolutionary is not a fixed ideology, but rather an affect of rejection (a double rejection in fact, aimed at the old system and Islamist politics alike), combined with a belief in rather diffusely defined ideals of social change and the common good, and an outspoken celebration of free and independent thought. It is an attitude that is oppositional not just by the circumstance of their party not being in power, but oppositional in essence: prioritising critique, change, and difference.

The village revolutionaries are usually young, but there are some older men among them. They are mostly well-educated, but not all of them are. Some come from families with a history of communist activism (communism was quite influential in the area until the 1980's). Some of the older village revolutionaries were or still are members of the Egyptian Communist Party, but the younger generation tend to support (if they support any party at all –  there is big distrust towards political parties among them) the newly established Constitution and Popular Current parties of Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdin Sabbahi, respectively. Although actual communists are extremely few among the young generation, the communist heritage and the older men who carry it are an important source of inspiration for the new generation of revolutionaries. The most striking thing about the village revolutionaries, however, is that their overwhelming majority comes from families of fishermen. In a village that is approximately equally divided into families of fishermen and farmers (although most young people no longer work in these trades except seasonally), there seems to be something about the structure of fishermen's livelihood that makes them more likely to pursue oppositional paths.

And now back to their story.

In the first round of the presidential elections in May 2012, the province of Kafr el-Sheikh (where the village of is located) made headlines by being the only rural province won by the Nasserist socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (he won in many big cities, but was otherwise very weak in the countryside). Sabbahi won Kafr el-Sheikh with an overwhelming 62% of the vote. In Minyat al-Murshid, I've been told, he won even bigger. How was that possible?

B., a teacher living in the village and active in the Sabbahi campaign tells that the key event was when supporters of Sabbahi invited him for the Friday prayer here in the village on his way to a campaign trip to a nearby city. At the Friday prayer in the main mosque of the village, a senior local leftist policician gave him a good introduction speech, he went around the village with his supporters, and he spoke to the people in an accessible way, as a man of the people. The way he spoke reminded the old people of Nasser, which brought him a lot of sympathy. He also declared his engagement for the concerns of fishermen. All this brought him a lot of support beyond the leftist revolutionary circles that were supportive of him anyway (although not unconditionally – many of the village revolutionaries heed a fundamental distrust towards politicians of any colouring). The Sabbahi campaign in the village recruited its activists from a number of families of leftist and Nasserist leanings and from cricles of friends with revolutionary and leftist sympathies. They gained a lot of credibility because the people in the campaign paid the costs from their own pocket, printed posters and went to campaign events all around the district. The campaign events were simple and modest, in contrast to Morsy's who gathered the Muslim Brothers of the province in the stadium in Kafr el-Sheikh City. However, B. adds, this is only a part of the story: There was also the very important factor of regional affiliation: Sabbahi comes from the city of Baltim on the Mediterranean coast, not far from the village. Lots of people voted Sabbahi because he was “from here”, “one of us” not only in a populist sense, but also from the same region. This played a major role in a rural society that thinks more in terms of concrete issues and family relations than ideology. It compelled AA., a long-standing Marxist, to change his mind: “I wanted to vote Khaled Ali but then somebody insulted Sabbahi and claimed that a guy from Kafr el-Sheikh cannot be a president, I felt insulted aswell and decided to vote Sabbahi.”

Although regional affiliation was instrumental for Sabbahi's success in Kafr el-Sheikh, it only worked in combination with existing networks in the cities of the villages of the region, some of which predated the revolution, while others had formed only in 2011. This was a battle where the village revolutionaries certainly were successful, even if Sabbahi remained third in the national vote.

Following the first round of elections, there was a renewed sense of activism, and when Hosni Mubarak received a life sentence and his sons were released, the village revolutionaries (who, like many others, would not be satisfied with anything less than death penalty) together with their peers from the nearby town organised two demonstrations in the town which gained approximately one hundred participants. It was a big success, and there was a sense that the village revolutionaries were capable of moving things after all. But then, nothing happened. Morsy won the second round of the elections and the revolutionaries could find sympathy for neither, although some voted for Morsy or, more precisely, against Shafiq. Summer vacations began, people who lived in the city were back in the village again, but with no urgent issues at hand, no new actions took place, and life took its normal course again.

Some things had changed, however. Hagg L., brother-in-law of my host S., participated in the formation of the village branch of the independent union of fishermen on lake Burullus, which after a year-long struggle managed to get registered and organised. The material possibilities of the independent union are very limited, and they have faced a lot of resistance from both the old guards of the state-affiliated fishermen's association as well as the Muslim Brothers who tried to form their own association to compete with the independent one. But the very existence of the independent union tells that a significant part of the fishermen – who suffer heavily from land-winning projects, pollution, and the illegal planting of water hyacinth to attract fish – put their hopes in neither the old nor the new political powers.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood's rise into power began to quite quickly erode the image of a religious uprightness it enjoyed especially in the countryside. The village revolutionaries, however, continued their ordinary lives, expressing their visions of life and politics mainly on social media and in coffee house rounds in their evening. Only after the crisis caused by Morsy's constitutional declaration that granted him immunity against the judicative, did things start to happen again. Some of the young men from the village travelled to Cairo or Alexandria to participate in protests. And when the constitutional referendum was announced, they became visibly active in the village again. A campaign to vote “No” was launched by people who had been active in the actions in spring 2011 and in the Sabbahi campaign. On Friday 10 December, a large protest march started from the village and joined other protesters in the nearby town. Graffiti against the constitution and the Muslim Brotherhood was sprayed around the village. L., a shopkeeper from the leftist revolutionary circle printed loads of leaflets at his own expense, and the village revolutionaries went campaigning. However, B. adds: „it was somewhat chaotic and unorganised. There was not a clear idea about who was doing what and who was responsible for what. In the end, we reached only half of the people.” “Only half of the people” means that in the end the no-vote reached 47% (but the figure includes the surrounded hamlets where the Yes-vote prevailed, so that probably in the village itself there was even a slight majority of the No-vote). On rural standards, it was a huge success of oppositional politics, and although many of those who voted No did so out of anti-revolutionary dislike for the Muslim Brotherhood rather than support for the leftist revolutionaries, it proved that there is some solid sympathy for a revolutionary opposition among a big part of the villagers.

But the circle of friends who told me about the campaign were not quite happy of the outcome. It could have beenmuch better, if it hadn't been for the women.

H. volunteered at the ballot box in a local school, and told that there had been three distinct waves of voters: Muslim Brothers and Salafis arrived with their families in the morning, all voting Yes. Then at noon came students and civil servants voting mainly No. Then towards the evening came a wave of uneducated people, mainly many women who voted Yes because the Muslim Brothers had told them that it would please God, and because they were not used to saying no. H.:  „Our problem in the village is that we don't have girls among the revolutionaries. We are only guys, and we don't reach the women in the village. In the village society, I cannot and talk with women who are not my relatives.“ The Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast, masterfully mobilised the female vote. Wives and daughters of Brotherhood families went from house to house on the pretext of a friendly visit, and then took up the issue of the constitutional referendum, typically in a religious context arguing that voting yes for the constitution was voting yes for Islam. The revolutionaries, in contrast, have a huge problem to to mobilise and to reach women. B.: “Name three leftist women in the village!” S. names his wife and the mother and sister of one of the village revolutionaries. B. points out that they are from the village, but they all live in Alexandria. Fathi: “Here, the women are simply not allowed to.” B. points at the paradox that while women are the most oppressed part of the society, they are also the most conservative part of it, least allowed to develop their own visions and paths. Men enjoy an entirely different freedom of movement that also opens the paths of developing a revolutionary consciousness. The key gathering space of the village revolutionaries are cafés, which are strictly off-limits for women. And although families that share a strong revolutionary attitude have brought out some women (way more than three, by the way) with an outspoken oppositional consciousness, even the women in revolutionary families are usually quite apart from the men's gatherings and discussions. Furthermore, while coming from or marrying into a revolutionary family seems to a key condition for being a revolutionary woman in the village, leftist families do not excert an ideological power of conformity on their female members – partly because it is against their ideals, but perhaps for the bigger part because in their domestic lives leftist men still act very much according to the logic of patriarchal family, let women take care of the household, and reinforce conventional female roles of domesticity and invisibility. In the big cities of Egypt, women (usually from middle class or bourgeois background) make up a very important part of the revolutionary movement. In the village, it is very difficult for women to develop the revolutionary ethos of rejection and critique, and almost impossible to express it in public (with the exception of those few families which actively encourage their female members to do so).

Also among the male population of the village, the village revolutionaries remain somewhat isolated in their community because their topics of discussion, their outlook at the world, and their expectations do not click with that of most of their neighbours. And many if not most of them sooner or later migrate to Cairo, Alexandria or abroad, and only return on holidays. Add to that the notoriously disorganised nature of the revolutionary movement. The Hamdeen Sabbahi campaign was the closest to an organisation that the village revolutionaries ever had, and it is still functional as a network of friends who are well connected both locally and nation-wide. Otherwise, however, the village revolutionaries meet at cafés and guest rooms, spend a lot of time talking, and most of the time do little more. When tempers rise, when there is a sense of urgency, then a wave of collective enthusiasm overcomes them. Newsletters are printed and distributed, debates and marches organised, neighbours and relatives convinced, even if in a disorganised and chaotic manner. But such enthusiasm also recedes quickly, and it is difficult to regain it. There is no leadership, and in fact there is no desire for leadership. There are certain key persons who are able to motivate others and get things done, but the shared revolutionary ethos of thinking for oneself and acting out of one's own accord does not go well with hierarchical leadership or relations of command and obedience.

Last Thursday, when Mukhtar and I showed the film to a group of the village revolutionaries in his home, one theme of debate was a demonstration was announced to take the following day in the nearby town. Since a week, fierce protests and clashes had been going on in the province capital, and there was a sense that it would be good to do something here again as well. One of the persons present suggested that it was about time to go and occupy the city council, following the example of stormings (some attempted, some successful) of provincial administrations in several cities. Another countered: What's the point of occupying the city council on a Friday? (Friday is the first day of weekend in Egypt). Do you want to sit there and wait until Sunday when the civil servants come to work? A third argued that he was against the storming of public buildings in general. As people left, it was agreed that people would go to the town after Friday prayer, and would coordinate themselves on the phone. But there was no enthusiasm, no furor. And in the night a seasonal storm covered the village in pouring rain and cold wind that continued for two days. The next day, people I met did not even talk about it. It was forgotten. There was no spirit. Some people may have gone to the town and there may have been a protest, but most people stayed in the village, and no news from the town reached me. This was not the first non-action by the village revolutionaries. Small as their numbers are, they cannot rely on an active core group keeping up the spirit even when others are unmotivated. They are themselves the active group, and few (some dozens) as they are, there has to be enough energy for everybody to move, otherwise nobody does anything.

So, to return to the question raised by Mahrus in the beginning of this note: Has the revolution reached the village? I think that it certainly has. There exists a small oppositional core group that is able to attract like-minded people and sometimes to make punctual actions. More importantly, there is a wide-spread sense of discontent that is much more specific in regard to its direction and possible paths of action than the discontent that prevailed before 2010. Right now, in the extremely agitated atmosphere that evolved since 25 January last week, it is expressed in very outright anger towards the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. A barber in his late twenties (not a member of the circles of the revolutionaries) told to me: „The revolution had to break out again. The revolution originally broke out because of the prices. But after Morsy came in power the prices have gone up even more. Now why did we have a revolution if it's just like before? I hope there will be big demonstrations and a fight on Friday, and the rain will only do it good.“ I have heard such comments from others as well. But what marks the arrival of the revolution more than anything else, is a sense of political polarisation in a place where political stances have historically been of little importance in people's interaction. This blog note reflects that polarisation. It is an extremely partial one, telling the story of those who think that revolution was the solution to Mubarak, and will be the solution to the Muslim Brotherhood. The views of those, in contrast, who think that the Islamic current is the legitimate heir of the revolution and the liberals and secularists up to no good (as well as the views of those who long back to the old system) are missing in my account because political polarisation has reached such a point that even in a village, revolutionaries and Brotherhood supporters prefer to go out of each others' way, or change the topic when it comes to politics. However, while the polarisation is doing some terrible things to Egypt right now, and also limiting my vision of many of the different things going on, it is part of a process that as such is not so terrible at all.

 Polarisation is for a big part the outcome of a shift in political roles on the societal (and not just on the governmental) level. The problems the village revolutionaries face are the same problems which the revolutionary opposition faces also in the big cities, only graver and more evident. But before 2011 they did not even exist as a political force in the village. Their success does not lie in a capacity to transform society as a whole and to seize power - at least not yet. Instead, they act as constant catalysts of their visions of life, attracting young people to their circles, and influencing the atmosphere in their families. Rather than the society around them, they are busy transforming themselves and those who find sympathy with their doing so. And occasionally, when big and urgent things happen, they get active, march and campaign. Even if punctual, such activist events leave traces. Until last year, the only political graffiti in the village has been by the Muslim Brotherhood, focussed on women's veiling and liberating Jerusalem. This winter, the walls of the village are covered with oppositional graffiti that marks a presence of a revolutionary current just like the Brotherhood graffiti (which interestingly has been discontinued since the revolution) marked the presence of  an Islamist current. The leftist revolutionaries have occupied the position of moral opposition that once belonged to the Brotherhood. For better or worse, there really is a revolution in Egypt.


You can watch the trailer of The Secret Capital here:
The film will have its first screening in Cairo on Monday, 4 February at 7 pm. in Medrar, 7 Gamal El Din Abou El Mahasen St. Garden City, Cairo, and more screenings in Cairo will follow. The European premiere will take place at the Arabiske Filmdager in Oslo sometime between 19-21 April. An untranslated version will be available on the internet in a few weeks. If you want to buy a copy with subtitles or to organise screening, let us know via