Friday, January 06, 2012

A view of "Arab spring" in rural Egypt

My students and I have been following affairs in the Middle East with great interest, as it reveals a wholly different image of the Muslim peoples of that region than the Americans have had of them.  That ordinary people will go out on the street day after day to challenge the regimes in power, sometimes in the fact of armed military equipped with live ammunition.  This is what took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria.  And in virtually all of these places the government troops or police killed people for demonstrating on the streets.  How many American young people would do that?  And these demonstrations, in virtually every case, have been animated by calls for democracy and good governance, for governments that would be accountable to the public.  This is what is still going on in Syria:  Now they say the number of those killed has reached 5000.  That is the number killed by the government troops and police when they shot into crowds of unarmed people whose essential demand is the right to choose their own leaders. 
Of all these places the demonstrations in Egypt were no doubt the most significant because Egypt is the most populace of the Arab states and the most strategically located, and the most heavily armed.  It was in last January last year that, owing to the demonstrations President Mubarak resigned from office.  He is now being tried for a long list of crimes while in office.  In recent days, however, the army has become ever more intransigent toward demonstrators.  It looks like there will be another struggle in Egypt, this time between the army and the demonstrators.  Conceivably, this one will be more brutal, more bloody.  We must pray it will not be so.
I have been in correspondence with a recent graduate of American University in Cairo named Keith Whitmire.  What Mr. Whitmire tells me about the situation in Egypt in the last year, especially in the rural areas, is so fascinating that with his permission I reproduce some it here.  I thank him for his help.

[A]side from a few notable exceptions, rural areas were largely left out of coverage [of the Arab Spring activities] during and after the revolution. Hence, very few people seem aware of the ways rural people in Egypt mobilized during the revolution.  [Also,] during and after the revolution, vast amounts of revolution-themed popular culture were created. Moreover, popular culture is something that has always been produced in combination with the countryside.  Singers, poets, actors, and actresses are more often than not from the rural and urban poor.  Yet post-revolution, the interaction between popular culture and popular protest in rural areas in Egypt has gone almost unstudied.  …
It's worth noting that popular culture also has to be defined here, and more importantly defined in a context.  A preliminary working definition for what I am looking at would be music, videos, and chants that are produced by non-elites for the consumption of non-elites.  Such items tend to be distributed by less official channels (i.e., by individuals on youtube, facebook, and twitter instead of via record labels).  In the case of revolution-themed popular culture, the themes tended to be anti-regime, nationalistic, and they tend to emphasize social and economic justice. Needless to say, they also emphasize the downfall of the regime.  The context also has to be located within time, and that time would likely be January 25, 2011 and a few months after.  Mobilization increased in some quarters after Mubarak's resignation and today's poor revolutionary singer could be tomorrow's wealthy friend of the regime, so it is important to view people as they were then, and not as whatever they might be five years from now.

. . . I deeply believe that we cannot begin to understand the world we live in unless we understand not only history, but history as it is seen by other cultures and peoples.  I think the greatest understandings I came to in Egypt were when I could momentarily glimpse history and ordinary life as the Egyptians saw it.  . . . .
The military is much more powerful than most people realized in the beginning.  The military owns a number of factories and a truly shocking amount of land in the countryside, which they farm for their own profits. It's worth noting that my understanding of their ownership is fuzzy.  I don't know where the profits go.  I doubt anybody but the generals themselves know that.  All this is aside of the property, factories, and businesses that high-ranking military officials own privately, which is again, considerable.  Sometimes I think that all the January 25th uprising did was uncover the real power in the country.  Up until now, of course, there have been limitations on the military.

Unlike the police or the central security services, military conscripts in Egypt are drafted by lottery.  Rumor has it you can buy your way out, but that's far beyond the means of most Egyptians.  Central security and police, by contrast, buy their way in with money and connections.  So whereas the central security and the police have a lot invested in the current system, the rank and file conscripts in the military do not. Therefore it's been harder for soldiers to do the same brutal things to citizens because the conscripts are drafted and being ordered, whereas the police and central security are doing things because they're protecting their interests and authority.  You don't wake up one morning torturing people, you lose your humanity by degrees.  Which is of course precisely what's happening with the military right now.  When this started, the military didn't have a lot of people willing to torture, kill, and maim to suppress dissent in the Mubarak fashion.  They had soldiers trained to fight wars.  So they are building a suppressive force by slowly ordering progressive levels of violence and brutality towards protesters.  They couldn't have done this all at once.  Though there are certainly other factors at play, this is part of why violence has been escalating since the military took power.

At any rate, there are more reasons why the military is such a problem right now, . . .  The truth is, some of the things that have happened have shocked even me.  The military plays up the "aww shucks" we're just guardians of the people thing a lot, but it really doesn't hold water.  The grand picture is not one of an inept, well-meaning force trying to right the country (the initial public opinion in Egypt), but rather a focused, ruthless, and very intelligent group trying to consolidate and hold onto power.

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