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2012 Spring Issue 6 (May 11, 2012)

Alum Provides New Perspective of the Arab Spring

May 11, 2012
By Jonathan Lin

Last Friday, Lila Abu-Lughod ’74, Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, delivered a convocation on the 2011 uprising in Egypt. As an anthropologist, she grappled with “how this event was lived” by not only the people in Tahrir Square, but elsewhere in Egypt.

In her talk, titled “Taking Back the Village: Egyptian Youth in Revolution,” Abu-Lughod shared stories of rural Egyptians living what they called “the Revolution.”

In January 2011, she said, the world was completely fixated on the events in Tahrir Square, when what would quickly be known as the Arab Spring began gathering momentum in the streets of Cairo.

There was a “common vantage point on screens around the world: the reporter would be on the balcony, with the crowd below in Tahrir Square,” said Abu-Loghod, who arrived in the city ten days after the revolution.

She was also struck by what was missing: “What was going on elsewhere in Egypt?”

Her research took her to rural villages away from the capital, since “a significant number of the eighty-million people in Egypt don’t live near Tahrir Square and in fact do not even identify with Cairo.”

In the village setting, Abu-Lughod noted recent trends of more men, women and children moving away to the capital.
“However, Cairo was also coming directly to the villages,” she said, “and there would be sleek cars parked in the villages, with well-dressed people talking loudly on cell phones who came to witness ‘their roots.’

“They were completely oblivious of the villagers.” 

Abu-Lughod described how some of her friends in the villages showed disdain for these citizens from the capital, who looked down on the rural residents.

The villagers had strong memories of the state and government.

One young man she had known for the majority of his life said, “I grew up for 23 years knowing nothing but Hosni Mubarak and the arbitrary power of the police state.”

Abu-Lughod recalled the story of a local house cafe that was forced to close by a police officer, who was not served because the waiter had attended another customer who had been waiting first. Such recollections of constant harassment by security were ubiquitous among the villagers.

The events in Tahrir Square “emboldened the villagers – especially young men – to take responsibility for community issues,” she said.

Popular committees were established to tackle priorities such as rising meat prices or the collection of neglected garbage.
“Their rhetoric was that of moral responsibility, rather than human rights and democracy,” Abu-Lughod said.

They faced many obstacles, such as the village council who were regarded as corrupt and associated with the Mubarak era. But as of January, when Abu-Lughod last visited the villages, things seem to be different.

“Some people were thrilled for personal reasons,” she said, “as there was the complete breakdown of government bureaucracy. Villagers took advantage to build and upgrade their houses, since there were very tight restrictions enforced by the government.”
But not everything was so bright either: “Everyone was also hurting; the lack of work and tourism, and a general uncertainty of the future.”

Nonetheless, the most noticeable shift was the huge engagement in politics.

“There was dialogue between men, women and young adults,” she said. “Before people couldn’t talk, and now everyone feels like they can.”

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