Delta Blooz

Oh snap, the New York Times is reporting from Baheira! Baheira, a mostly rural mostly poor governorate in the Nile Delta, is one of the obscure locales where Doom Spirals was stationed during the parliamentary elections. Verdant agricultural expanses spangled with charmless urban clusters. The capital, Damanhour, a city of several million, though claiming a fond place in my heart, is not exactly bursting with culture: Doom Spirals once asked the governor to recommend the best restaurant in town; the governor asked his deputy to draw up a map; the map led us straight to KFC.

As part of coverage of the Egyptian presidential campaign, the NYT article follows the candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh at a rally in Abo Hummos, Baheira. Fatouh defected from the Muslim Brotherhood last year to run as an independent and has emerged in recent weeks as the front-runner (along with the revered ageing diplomat, Amr Moussa). Fatouh is running as a liberal Islamist, and the NYT article reports on a surprising development in the race: Fatouh has received the endorsement of Al Nour, the primary party of the salafis (the dudes with the Amish beards).

On one level this should surprise us because the salafis are seen as the most conservative wing of the Egyptian political spectrum and there are several candidates further to the right of Fatouh. But the endorsement brings to light an important point about the salafi movement that I’m just starting to grasp: the allure of the movement is diverse, and many are drawn to it as a political option that is independent of the various entrenched political machines (be they liberal, secular, Islamist, whatever).

As recorded here during the parliamentary election, we used to have a more simplistic view of salafis; they were of two kinds: (1) scary dudes with tinted beards with esoteric/totalitarian/shitty religious views, and (2) innocent normal people duped into following the tinted beardos because of the new parties’ heavy street-level campaigning. Our main complaint was that the freaky beardos were not Egyptian—in their manner, dress, humor, countenance, etc.

[So condescending of outsiders to think of voters as being duped—as if cosmopolitans (who also tend to be scared of their vote!) understand their local interests better than they! This attitude should have raised a red flag!]

First of all [and, as usual, we are still a few paragraphs away from our main point—apologies!], in the rush to understand the movement as it swiftly emerged from Mubarak-era suppression into the public square* our attention latched onto the loudest, zaniest persons/opinions. Thus, spiral-eyed freaks (sometimes quite prominent freaks!) ranting on youtube were taken to be representative of the movement in toto. It’s true that some salafis probably do want to throw your mom in a trashcan for listening to Celine Dion on her discman, but the more of the political leadership I met the more I encountered mild-mannered, thoughtful gents who mostly wanted culture to quit wilin’ out and a society that could take care of its own.

But key here is the perceived (un)importance of this political leadership. More & more people I meet view the salafi movement as representing independence & a certain stripe of individual freedom. I was in a taxi two days ago and the young driver voiced a sentiment you hear more & more: “Well, we are all salafis”. Opposite from the outsider conception of salafism as ultraconservative/doctrinaire, many see salafism as the identity of any “real” muslim (i.e. everybody). And, crucially, the salafi movement hasn’t a hierarchy that can impose behaviors/opinions on everyday people. This clean-shaven, chain-smoking, Ray Ban wearing driver is not how you might imagine someone who self-identifies as salafi: glued to his dashboard was a mongo ashtray showpiece: a 7inch plastic Rastafarian figurine with long, drooping arms cupping a hollowed half of a coconut shell. [Also led me to the realization: because Egyptians smoke joints, headshops here are stocked with wacky ashtrays, whereas Americans invest their paraphernalia energies into kooky pipes. SOMEONE GIVE ME AN HONORARY SOCIOLOGY PhD FROM JAH STATE UNIVERSITY ASAP.] The point being: homeboy stoner does not perceive a conflict between his Jordan Perry lifestyle and salafism.

Of course, political choices do not occur in a vacuum and salafism in contemporary Egypt has been adopted (and shaped) in response to the Muslim Brotherhood. The NYT article briefly alludes to this point: “Although the Salafis are more conservative on many cultural issues, they also typically disapprove of the Muslim Brotherhood’s emphasis on internal obedience and orthodoxy.”

This important aspect is elaborated in an excellent/original article published last month by Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, “Who do Egypt’s villagers vote for? And why?” The article is culled from field research in rural Egypt during parliamentary elections as part of her PhD dissertation.

Though religiosity is the most prominent marker of Islamist parties, Ahmed argues that voters’ choice is based on a “complex web of relations with power, authority and indeed, religiosity”. In the countryside, there are essentially only two choices, both Islamist: the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Nour, the salafist party. [Why provincials don’t vote for liberal/secular parties is a moot question—to date, these parties have next to zero operational presence outside of Cairo.] Ahmed’s article shines light on why citizens support the salafis over the Ikhwan (Brotherhood). Her main argument is that the Ikhwan comprise the rural elite, and have engendered resentment for misusing this privileged position and enforcing their will.

Freedom of thought. Salafis are perceived as more religiously flexible, laid-back, open to local circumstance.

Despite the common perception that Salafis are strict followers of Sharia compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, many of my research participants often talked about Salafis as religiously less strict than the Ikhwan. From the work of Ikwani leaders in the village, the villagers have noticed the strict hierarchy that informs the work of the Brotherhood members on the ground. In other words, the villagers understood the Brotherhood’s adherence to the dictates of the Guidance Bureau, or the Murshid, as an orthodoxy that made the Brotherhood stricter than the Salafis. They often said to me: “How come Ikhwan grassroot leaders all agree on the same things?” An incident that they often referred to is the insistence of Muslim Brotherhood members to force people to pray outside of a mosque, not build by the Brotherhood, during the Eid al-Fitr prayer last September.

Class. On the local level, the Ikhwan represent the elite. “Due to being the most educated cluster, Ikhwani leaders are strongly present in professional occupations in village-level bureaucracies; they are the teachers, the lawyers, [and] the engineers.”

Charity and dependence. In the area where Ahmad conducted her research, the Ikhwan also make up the personnel of the most funded NGO, Al-Jam’eya al-Shar’eya.

Ikhwan leaders often use their positions, particularly in the NGO, to promote the Freedom and Justice party through coercing the poorest of the village into long-term charity and debt relations; they fund kidney dialysis operations, pay monthly stipends for orphan children, and distribute money and goods for ad-hoc lists that they prepare once they get orders from their leaders in Cairo. Although these services seem necessary in the absence of a state-service provider, many rural dwellers (even ones who receive support from the NGO) see this relationship of indebtedness to the NGO as unhealthy. This informs why many villagers are weary of voting for the Ikhwan’s party. “We need a government that recognizes our rights as citizens, not as recipients of aid! We need people that would help us get our stolen rights. If the Muslim Brotherhood come to power, they will be both the mediators and the government.”

Beside the NGO work, Ikhwani leaders in the village often come up with magical solutions to solve problems that the state fails to address through utilizing the resources available through the intricate web of Ikhwani followers in the village and elsewhere, besides using their official positions in the state to process paperwork. For example, they have introduced tap water to the village’s preparatory school, and have provided after school lessons to students who fail to read and write, even after several years of formal schooling. Coming up with solutions is a plus for party leaders, yet puts them under suspicion. Many of my research participants became quite aware that the country is resourceful, so what they actually want is a fair distribution of resources, rather than unsustainable solutions offered by the Ikhwan leaders, in this case the elites of the village, when and if they want.

Very interesting material! Because the salafi political movement entered the public stage so recently it is still open to definition–from within & without. What will be very interesting in the coming elections is if the salafi leadership recognizes their broader appeal as deriving from a desire for new, independent, popular solutions to old problems, and not as simply a vote for more religion. Aboul Fatouh seems to understands this; and his current popularity reflects it.


*Literally & figuratively. People bop Habermas on the noggin saying there is no public square/sphere, but in Egypt the physical city squares are still a place of exchange.


On the original topic of Baheira and its capital city, Damanhour, let’s take a plez stroll thru some photos!

I don’t endorse the expression “BFE”, but if there were to be a place that fits the description, Damanhour is probably it. Thus, twas a tad humorous to see this ad for “B.F.E. Filters” in Damanhour

Dudes in leather jackets working on engines. The world is still as it should be… or becoming a Kenneth Anger film.

Auto parts.

Colleague Ong on a whirl in a Damanhour carnival ride. (Funky cryptic background graffiti reads: “I’m not into”.) Egyptians flocked to Ong, perhaps mistaking him for the Malaysian brother of the infamous ubiquitous Colonel, that fryer (friar?) of Kentucky chicken.

Counting Center in Damanhour, after an all-night tally. Gotta admire these election workers’ dedication protecting the secrecy of the ballot! Spooning for democracy.

Napping on the road to Kafr Dawar.

And, since this post is already overlong, let’s add an aside about mu’fucking Napoleon! I’m reading an account of Napoleon’s invasion/(mis)adventure in Egypt and was tickled to find mention of the little brute stomping through Baheira! After coming ashore in and subduing Alexandria, Napoleon marched his troops through Baheira to Cairo to fulfill his imperial ambitions (and “liberate” the Egyptian people). The excruciating march crossed desert expanses in the July heat. And, because Napoleon had wished to keep the mission’s objective a secret before he set sail, he did not bring canteens for the soldiers, fearing it would be a tell-tale sign they were headed toward desert climes. Either that, or he simply forgot (like when you forget your phone charger at Gary’s house). Either way, thousands of French troops under heavy packs & stuffy uniforms had to march full days for days with no shade, completely parched. Cole, da author, records that many soldiers committed suicide out of thirst (mon dieu!), and when the troops finally reached the fresh water of the Nile they desperately rushed in… only to be eaten by crocodiles! Probably should have stayed home, u imperial buttheads! While it’s totally trippy to peep Napoleon’s diary entries about Damanhour (no KFC yet), the author’s writing style (as Tristan warned) is not the most winning, and his tone can be a bit off. When talking about the soldiers driven to suicide out of thirst and other such terrible ends, the author uses the same same slangy/lurid/unnecessary/graphic expression three times in a dozen pages.

“Mireur, recognizing that his career was over, rode out into the desert and blew his brains out”; “Upon receiving the answer, the Bedoin, not wishing to feed and take care of their captive, blew out his brains in full view of the French”; “’One saw many soldiers’, Moiret says, ‘fall dead of hunger and fatigue, and many others blew out their brains from despair’.”

Dang man, it’s bad enough with your own sentences, but I doubt Captain Joseph-Marie Moiret of Toulon, writing in 1790s French, actually used that expression—why you gotta bring his memoirs into English w/ dat Tarantino imagery??


One Response to “Delta Blooz”

  1. Ke$ha Cole « Doom Spirals Says:

    […] we last left Juan Cole scribblin’ ‘bout Napoleon in Egypt, he was in Tarantino-mode, incessantly describing “brains” being “blown out”. Now, several […]

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