Cairo, Al-Qahira, is literally The Vanquisher, or the vanquishing city. Max Rodenbook, in the title of his delightful history of the Egyptian capital, rendered it, “Cairo: City Victorious”. And for a great part of its millennium-long history, Egyptians have equated Cairo with the Arabic name of the whole country. Cairo was Misr, and was umm el-donia, or the Mother of the World, which provided the title of yet another marvelous history of the city, the late Desmond Stewart’s “Great Cairo: Mother of the World”. For his part, Andre Raymond titled his outstanding scholarly history of the Egyptian capital: “Cairo: City of History”.
And while Cairo got its current name in 969, under the Fatimids, who also founded Al-Azhar (972), it has been the constant administrative center of the country, and its commercial and intellectual heart, since the Muslim conquest of Egypt under the command of Amr Ibn al-‘As in 640, and his founding of al-Fustat two years later.
The primacy of the urban in Egypt’s 5000-year long history is generally acknowledged, whether the country’s urban center lay in Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, or – for the past some 1,400 years – in the urban space we call Cairo. Certainly such primacy has given rise to a lot of nonsense about hydraulic societies, and to one of the more absurd expressions of 19th Century European Orientalism, namely the theory of Asiatic Despotism, or Asiatic Stagnation.
I need also add the reservation that history is invariably written by the more powerful, whether that power is derived from the instruments of knowledge, coercion or both. Inevitably this would tend to bias our modern day perspective of Egyptian social and political history in favor of the urban against the rural. The inherited histories of Egypt, passed on to us by such luminaries as al-Maqrizi (1364 – 1442), Ibn Ayas (1448-1523) and up to al-Jabarti (1753-1825) were fundamentally histories of urban Egypt.
Bias notwithstanding, there’s no going away from the primacy of the urban in Egyptian history, at the very least when contrasted with that of Europe during its centuries-long Dark Ages.
Even when we move from the history of power and coercion to that of resistance and revolution, we find the urban supreme.
In the modern age, Egyptian revolutions and uprisings were fundamentally urban phenomena, though on many occasions the support and/or participation of the peasantry proved crucial to their survival. Stretching from the two Cairo uprisings against the Napoleonic conquest (in 1798 and 1800, respectively) and up to the Egyptian Revolution of January/February 2011, great movements of rebellion by the Egyptian people were invariably launched in the cities, with Cairo at their heart.
And, however nuanced our perspective on Egypt’s modern revolutionary history, there is no going away from the fact that we have not known the kind of peasant revolutions that ultimately triumphed by taking the cities, so familiar in the revolutionary experiences of much of Latin America and Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.
And it’s been in this primacy of the urban that both the power and the weakness of the Egyptian Revolution has lain, and continues to lie.
It explains, at least in part, the great paradox of a revolution that is able to put hundreds of thousands onto the streets, over and over again for close on two years after its launch, but fails consistently to translate such preeminence into ballots.
It explains as well the remarkable enlightenment, modernity and creative genius of a revolution that speaks of freedom, democracy and human rights, of tolerance and equality among all Egyptians irrespective of gender or religious persuasion, and of a social justice couched in freedom.
Separate the latest ballot in the main urban centres of the country from their rural, or ruralised environs and almost invariably you’ll find a clear “No” vote in the cities, a “Yes” vote in the countryside.
Constitution or not, the Brotherhood and their Salafi allies are not able to bring their authoritarian project to fruitionHani Shukrallah
Yet, and for the time being, the balance of forces in the country is too evenly balanced. Egypt remains a deeply divided nation. Constitution or not, the Brotherhood and their Salafi allies are not able to bring their authoritarian project to fruition.
Egypt in 2012/3 is a largely urban society (with the urban-rural ratio around 60 to 40%). The fact that this is yet to express itself in the ballot box is a function of a number of factors, including big pro-democracy majorities in the cities as opposed to overwhelming pro-authoritarian majorities in the countryside; the bussing or rather half-trucking of rural voters – en masse – to the voting stations as opposed to the individual, rather moody, at their own steam, and easy to lose faith voting patterns of urban citizens.
Indeed, the Constitution was passed not only by virtue of an overwhelming “Yes” in the countryside, but also because a great many of the urban potential “No” voters did not turn out. Add some rigging, intimidation and ballot station-barring against potential opponents, and the 64-36% result would seem inevitable.