A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Three Unrelated but Serendipitous Reminders That Egypt is Not Just Cairo

Misr, as perhaps most of my readers know, means Egypt. But because it also means Misr al-Qahira, Cairo, sometimes just called Misr in other parts of Egypt, the capital and the country can be semantically confused or conflated. (The same holds true for Tunis (for the city and for Tunisia), Al-Jaza'ir (Algiers and Algeria), and sometimes Al-Sham (for Damascus and for Syria or the whole Levant). The confusion is not merely semantic. In the world views of many Cairenes, Egypt consists of Cairo, of Alexandria (one does need the sea), perhaps some Red Sea resorts, the rural village your grandfather came from, and the roads in between. If this is true for Cairenes, it is even more true for the Western media. During the Egyptian revolution and all that has happened since, probably 80-90% of the reporting was from Cairo and the rest from Alexandria with occasional, rare, reporting from the Canal cities where, obviously, a vital Western interest is located.

Exceptions remain rare but, intriguingly, three separate and unrelated links came to my attention in the past 24 hours, so I thought I'd use the serendipity to note each of them.
  • At The Christian Science Monitor, Kristen Chick offers a lengthy (8 web pages) tour of Upper Egypt since the coup-or-whatever-it was, "In Egypt, journey down a Nile of discontent." She does start in Aswan so she gets the "down the Nile" part right.
Through a microhistory of a small province in Upper Egypt, this book investigates the history of five world empires that assumed hegemony in Qina province over the last five centuries. Imagined Empires charts modes of subaltern rebellion against the destructive policies of colonial intruders and collaborating local elites in the south of Egypt.
Abul-Magd vividly narrates stories of sabotage, banditry, flight, and massive uprisings of peasants and laborers, to challenge myths of imperial competence. The book depicts forms of subaltern discontent against “imagined empires” that failed in achieving their professed goals and brought about environmental crises to Qina province. As the book deconstructs myths about early modern and modern world hegemons, it reveals that imperial modernity and its market economy altered existing systems of landownership, irrigation, and trade— leading to such destructive occurrences as the plague and cholera epidemics.

The book also deconstructs myths in Egyptian historiography, highlighting the problems of a Cairo-centered idea of the Egyptian nation-state. The book covers the Ottoman, French, Muhammad Ali’s, and the British informal and formal empires. It alludes to the U.S. and its failed market economy in Upper Egypt, which partially resulted in Qina’s participation in the 2011 revolution. Imagined Empires is a timely addition to Middle Eastern and world history.
  •  Lameen Souag's always interesting Jabal al-Lughat blog has a piece on "Siwi Political Slogans" (a specialist on Berber linguistics among others he has studied the dialect of Egypt's Siwa oasis), and apparently they may not be General Sisi's biggest fans:
However, this year's events in Egypt have apparently brought even Siwa to the point of mounting a couple of demonstrations. Egyptians have displayed a seemingly inexhaustible facility for coming up with rhyming couplets for use as slogans in demonstrations, and I woke up this morning and saw an example of the same genre in Siwi:
فل اسيسى فل نشنى نمل لا جندول
fəl a Sisi fəl • nišni nəṃṃəl la ga-nədwəl
Go, Sisi, go! • We have said we won't go back
I asked a few Siwis about the issue, and apart from general points, one reason they gave for supporting Morsi particularly struck me. Since long before the revolution, the Egyptian security forces have viewed the border populations – Bedouins in Matrouh and Sinai, as well as Siwis – with great suspicion; many army/police jobs are closed to them simply for where they come from. As far as the core state is concerned, they're not thought of as real Egyptians, but as clannish minorities under Egyptian control, with undesirable cross-border ties and a predilection for going places the state doesn't want them to be in. Many Siwis felt that Morsi was reversing this situation, attempting to develop the border regions and treating their inhabitants as fellow Egyptians; a resurgence of military rule obviously threatens those gains. 

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