Monday, April 11, 2011

The specter of Egypt's colonial interior

by Aaron Jakes -- Monday, 11 April, 2011

In the spring of 1896, the British Consul-General and de facto colonial overlord of Egypt, Lord Cromer, submitted his annual report to Parliament on the "Progress of Reforms" in the preceding year. Among the proudest accomplishments he sought to advertise was a wholesale reorganization of the Ministry of the Interior. A streamlined administrative hierarchy extending from the Minister in Cairo down to the 'umdas and shaykhs of individual villages would thereafter ensure swift and consistent enforcement of the law across the Egyptian countryside.

In claiming success for these changes, Cromer boasted that "the peace and tranquility of the village population--that is to say, of the great mass of inhabitants of Egypt, have greatly increased." He continued: "Village life is no longer to so great an extent troubled by political dissensions, the result, generally, of some Cairo complication which has been misunderstood and misinterpreted." According to the logic of Egypt's colonial administrators, politics did not belong in the countryside. Those who farmed Egypt's rich alluvial soil possessed neither the will nor the mental capacity to grapple with debates and struggles taking shape in the far-away capital. The colonial state, then, would operate as a vast "machine" for delivering security and prosperity to a voiceless population of ignorant, if industrious, peasants.

This calculated erasure of politics from the lives of Egypt's rural majority enjoyed a troubling afterlife throughout the Mubarak era. Though strident debates about land, water, and agricultural productivity again filled the pages of the Egyptian press, the arguments on all sides were similarly framed in a technocratic language that ignored or worse rejected the opinions and experiences of those most immediately affected by these issues. It was this continuous act of silencing that the British political scientist Ray Bush described over a decade ago as "An Agricultural Strategy without Farmers."

As Bush and other critics of the regime's agrarian policies demonstrated, Egypt's supposedly docile and ignorant fellahin in fact had plenty to say about the wave of neoliberal policies that proved so threatening to their livelihoods. The aggressive withdrawal of Nasserist-era farm subsidies, tenancy protections, and restrictions on agricultural landholding since the 1980s elicited an array of hard-fought responses ranging from rural protests to challenges in the courts. But as was true in the colonial era, the fine-tuned security apparatus of the Interior Ministry proved a brutally effective instrument for ensuring the "tranquility of the village population."

At the same time, official discourse on Egypt's agrarian question succeeded in presenting all the answers in terms of foreign affairs and geopolitics. The past few years, for example, witnessed repeated diplomatic escalations over regional claims to the waters of the Nile Basin. But nationalist proclamations about protecting Egypt's water rights against the encroachments of neighbors to the south tended to drown out any discussion of how this scarce resource is distributed for very different uses by the country's urban and rural populations.

As Egypt nears the two-month mark since Mubarak's removal from power, a host of new political forces are emerging to announce pointed critiques of the old regime and positive visions of a way forward. But for all the excitement and creativity of this national dialogue, the dominant players have so far preferred to sidestep, if not actively reinforce, the historic under-representation of the countryside. The overwhelming urban bias of virtually all groups claiming the mantle of revolution threatens to forestall some of the most transformative possibilities of the present moment.

To be fair, the ongoing campaign to document and prosecute corruption at the highest levels of the old regime has led to a string of startling, high-profile revelations about shady deals in which top officials either acquired vast landholdings for themselves or profited handsomely by selling the country's agricultural patrimony to foreigners. But while critics rail against these misdeeds with dramatic accusations of "rape" and "looting," they tend to describe the victim of such crimes as the nation as a whole. The focus on corruption thereby leaves intact the agricultural policies of the past two decades that underwrote the re-production of rural inequality on a scale not seen since the 1940s.

On the level of political organizing as well, the past two months have borne a discouraging resemblance to the past. In the lead-up to the 19 March referendum on constitutional amendments, the array of liberal and left-leaning political forces that sought to test the waters by mobilizing for a "no" vote seemed to concentrate their attentions almost entirely on constituencies in Cairo and Alexandria. Key organizers of the campaign like the long-time activist George Ishaq later described this urban focus as a conscious strategy given limited time and resources. But such frank admissions did not prevent a host of self-proclaimed progressive commentators from reading the referendum as a sign of irremediable backwardness, herd mentality, or traditionalism in the countryside.

The fact remains that Egypt's rural majority will be a powerful force in all future elections. And like voters anywhere else in the world, they are unlikely to embrace political movements that approach them with such undisguised condescension and disdain. These attitudes, which condemn millions of Egyptians as undeserving of real participation in the democratic process, constitute one of the most insidious legacies of Egypt's colonial past. To be worthy of its name, the revolution that claims Tahrir as its symbol must at last offer liberation for those long denied a politics of their own.

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Aaron Jakes is a PhD candidate in the departments of History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is currently working on a dissertation about the agrarian policies of the Egyptian government under the British occupation