Thursday, June 09, 2005

Debunking the myth that won't die

Nasser Ibrahim, ed., Dissent and Protest in Egyptian Society during the Ottoman Era (2004)

It is a standard truism that Egyptians are “apathetic,” “politically stagnant,” “quiescent” and all the other well-worn adjectives said to capture both Egyptian history and contemporary Egyptian politics. Such claims have acquired the status of self-evident truths, oh-so-wisely invoked to explain anything and everything about the Egyptians. So it’s doubly entertaining to now see journalists and analysts tripping over themselves as they jettison the “stagnation” trope after current events have exposed it for what it is. One day, I’d like to hear how they explain the shift from “stagnation” to the social action we’re seeing all around us. But right now, I’m more interested in going beyond conventional and/or suspect ideas to knowledgeable insights.

Wednesday’s memorable candlelight vigil outside of Saad Zaghlul’s mausoleum merged innovative tactics (candles, relative silence) with Egyptian protest staples from the 1970s: street theater, poetry reading, music, earthy signs. The scene recalled the 1920s, when Beit al-Umma (Saad Zaghlul’s villa-turned-national refuge) was the site of frequent, vigilant throngs. The day in black protest of 1 June featured the same mixture of old and new, reclaiming the slick and grandiose steps of the Press Syndicate as the pivotal protest site of 2005. The Tahrir Square vigil of 20 March 2003 recalled the student sit-in of January 1972 in the same locale, when area housewives walked over food and blankets to the protesting students. This wonderful new book goes back much further than the last 35 years, offering an in-depth look at Egyptian social protest in from the 17th-19th centuries. My point is not to draw a seamless link between the past and events of today. My point is that social protest in general, and state-oriented protest in particular, is an undeniable feature of this country’s history. The myth of Egyptian quietude has always been a lie. Can we lay it to rest once and for all?

The edited volume is the outcome of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies’ annual seminar during 2002-03, ably supervised by the dean of Egyptian social historians, the great Ra’uf Abbas. Abbas pens a pithy preface rightly taking to task “the theorists of Egyptians’ passiveness” as he calls them, outlining a research agenda to test their claims against incontrovertible, inconvenient facts. The 18 contributors, historians all, are a mix of established academics such as Latifa Salem and Asem al-Desouqi and masters’ and doctoral students at various Egyptian universities. All essays are in Arabic save for one in French on Cairene revolts during the French occupation, as seen by French writers Jean-Joseph Marcel and Alexandre Dumas.

As with any edited volume, the quality is uneven. Some essays are nothing more than pages of unstructured rumination that add little information or insight, but most are carefully constructed historical accounts, copiously footnoted and tightly written. I am particularly struck by the genuine intellectual modesty instilled by the historian’s craft. After presenting detailed evidence culled from primary sources, many authors enumerate what they still cannot explain, or where the evidence contradicted their impulses and biases, or where nothing more than a tentative hypothesis can be ventured. How refreshing to see such scholarly honesty and humility, and what a contrast to the ignorance and arrogance of those who pontificate and proclaim from the safety of their armchairs and underwhelming brains.

Despite the generally starchy language used by historians, and the no-nonsense layout style making absolutely no concessions to design, there’s a wealth of fascinating detail in these pages. The essays review the gamut of protest modalities, from individual resistance to aesthetic expression to armed rebellion to acts of foot-dragging, sabotage, and simply: flight. Nasrah Abd al-Mutagalli’s essay mines court records in Daqahliyya, Damietta, Rosetta, and Mansoura for clues about why individual fellahin and sometimes whole rural communities fled their home villages and settled elsewhere. With the caveat that court records are an inherently tendentious source, since those who filed the reports of flight were often irate multazims (tax farmers), the author shows that exorbitant taxation and abusive state power were the two main propellants of peasant flight. To those who shrug off flight as a “passive” form of resistance, al-Mutagalli effectively demonstrates the extent to which the Ottoman administration in Istanbul was perturbed by Egyptian peasants’ flight, fearing copycat actions and the disruption of agricultural production. They went so far as to circulate written guarantees (waraqat amaan) to the peasants promising that their grievances would be addressed by the administration if they returned.

Additional essays survey the black slave revolt in Mameluk Cairo in 1445, the forms of protest by ulama in the 17th century, and Sinai Bedouins and state power in the 19th century. Our friend Sayed Ashmawi contributes a rambling essay on “Resistance by Stratagem in Ottoman Egypt”. It’s mostly an entertaining collection of proverbs attesting to Egyptians’ arts of subterfuge, dissimulation, humour, satire, rumour-mongering, and that quintessential Egyptian word used to describe all manner of corner-cutting street smarts and subversion of established rules: fahlawa. While these traits have now become something of a composite national character, Ashmawi makes a fleeting, almost accidental reference to a point I wish to underline: these are not cornerstones of “the Egyptian personality” (whatever that is), but as the proverb has it: “necessity breeds stratagem” (al-haga tiftiq al-heela). There are always tangible reasons for the way behaviours and habits develop, it’s never some mystical “essential condition.” Perhaps it’s pedantic to repeat this, but given how blithely traits of “national character” are marshaled to shore up all sorts of bankrupt claims with transparent political aims, it bears repeating. Material conditions determine culture, not the other way around.

A much more focused and analytically astute piece than Ashmawi’s is Ibrahim Sha’lan’s “Dissent and Protest in Proverbs”, which shows the push-and-pull between ordinary people and their rulers through a survey of proverbs that alternately preach quiescence and resistance. Sha’lan is to be commended for his clear demonstration that for every proverb exhorting passivity, there’s one preaching defense of honour and resistance. Why is it that we only focus on the former and pretend that the latter don’t exist? One that stands out: “Live like a rooster for a day, never like a chicken for a year.”

Two other strong essays are case studies of peasant responses to military conscription between 1820-1882 and ordinary people’s resistance to 19th century shingles immunization efforts. The first essay in particular is an excellent elaboration on what every Egyptian schoolchild is taught in primary school about peasants gouging their eyes out to escape conscription; this fearsome fact still haunts me as an adult. Autor Niveen ‘Alwan not only details the myriad additional self-mutilation techniques and how they were reflected in moving sorrow songs, but how the state responded, from holding family members hostage until fugitive would-be conscripts gave themselves up, to creating domestic passports without which peasants could not leave their home villages, to publicly crucifying mothers who had intentionally ruined their sons’ eyes. It is not an exaggeration that the modern state is premised on blood and tragedy.

By far the most empirically rich, lucidly written, and carefully organised essay is Emad Ahmad Hilal’s “The Petition: The Voice of the Protesting Egyptian Peasant in the Second Half of the 19th Century.” I love Hilal’s opening lines: “The petition (‘ard hal) is the most important document for studying the development of the modern state in the 19th century, for examining how the idea of rights and obligations—the basis of the modern state—spread among the most significant productive sector: the fellahin.” The historian reveals that the National Archives (Dar al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya) house approximately 1 million petitions from Egyptians of all walks of life: peasants, craftsmen, civil servants, military conscripts, men & women, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He argues that the rise in petitions is correlated with the rise of Mehmet Ali’s interventionist bureaucratic state; the administration cut out middlemen and regional bosses and sought direct contact with fellahin through an elaborate hierarchical system of state functionaries who were, remarkably, accountable.

The 1843 edict establishing this direct intercourse penalised state employees with up to three months’ imprisonment if they lost or ignored popular petitions. Relish the paradox: the violent state also puts in place formal grievance mechanisms that are then energetically deployed by those it seeks to discipline and control. The fellah “encircled the state with its own weapons,” writes Hilal.

Hilal’s account shows how fellahin quickly and resourcefully resorted to the petition to file their grievances against state agents: ‘umda, police chief, and even mudiriyya head. They filed so many petitions, some of them false, that an 1855 law stipulated a light prison sentence for petitioners who falsely accuse public functionaries. As to outcome, out of 196 petitions between the years 1849-1864, 94 were found in favour of peasants and 82 in favour of the administration. Hilal concludes with an intriguing hypothesis: the ‘Urabi revolt of 1881-82 was partly a response to the narrowing of petitioning opportunities, for when peasant petitioning was at its height, revolt and collective action were rare.

The lack of an editor’s introduction tying together the very different contributions and/or proposing a specific research program is an annoying lacuna that leaves the reader adrift in trying to make sense of the tons of empirical information scattered throughout the essays. Another obvious oversight comes in the penultimate essay, where the author focuses on a pivotal reform manifesto by the polyglot Alexandrian Misr al-Fatah society in 1879 but fails to reproduce the actual manifesto in an appendix nor even adequately quotes portions of it to give readers a sense of its style or the wording of demands (mostly having to do with checking despotism, the separation of powers, equal rights under the law, and an end to the strangling of peasants by excessive taxation).

As with all thought-provoking works, this volume raises but does not answer some tantalising questions. Can a theory of state-society relations be developed out of the available evidence, one that rebuts the passivity theory that all the authors are correctly very much against? How did the various forms of protest surveyed in this volume mutate into the more modern, organised forms that debuted in the 20th century, beginning with the law school students’ strike of 1906? If Egyptians have been protesting and sparring with their public authorities for so long, why haven’t they succeeded in achieving representative self-rule and democracy? Why does the myth of passive, politically apathetic Egyptians refuse to die?

I have no answers to the first three questions, and a strong hunch about the last. Stupid and false mantras, parroted often enough and by ostensibly learned people, will stick and spread like thick algae over a deep pond. Fortunately, however, algae have no roots, leaves, or stems. So even if they spread and multiply, they can always be easily brushed aside to reveal the crystal-clear water underneath. As Egypt’s streets are once again enlivened and energised by collective action and protest, and a thousand reform manifestos bloom, and people demand unconditional democracy, the algae-peddlers and hawkers will work overtime to spread their concealing, falsifying fare. Brush them aside.