Monday, January 31, 2011

Rural activism: reflections on Egypt and some American anticedents

This weekend, the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and the anti-government protests in Egypt seemed to hit a fever pitch. What had largely been neglected by American corporate media finally found an international stage. Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria had bloody clashes with government police, armed with semi-automatic weapons.

This naturally led me to start searching for news articles regarding those Egyptians not located in large metropolitan areas. Unsurprisingly, there does not seem to be a lot of coverage, if any, of the current Egyptian uprising as experienced by rural Egyptians, despite the fact that numerous news reports still assert that over 50% of the Egyptian population remains in rural villages, rather than in the big cities.

Political commentator Adrei Fedyashin wrote an article today comparing the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. He speculated that the difference in the urban-rural population make-up between the two countries was one of the major differences that could explain why Tunisians were more successful in ousting former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali than the Egyptians have in convincing President Mubarak to step aside. "[President Mubarak] is perfectly aware that the anti-government rallies in Cairo and Suez, however massive, are still short of a nation-wide revolt. Indeed, an instant revolution is hard to bring about in a country like Egypt, where rural dwellers form the bulk of the population. Most favor caution and moderation."

Today at 10:30 a.m., Joel Beinin, professor of history and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, posted his own piece on the likelihood of success for the Egyptian protesters on In the article, Beinin discusses how youth have largely been a the driving force behind the protests, using social media like facebook to organize themselves on a larger scale. Internet as an organizing tool has its limitations, especially in Egypt, however, Beinin says. "[The movement's] presence on the Internet has been considerably greater than in urban neighborhoods and rural villages where computer access is limited and illiteracy rates are high."

Whatever the likelihood of success of the Egyptian protests, it seems clear that Egypt's rural population has largely been left out of the media spotlight, if it indeed has been participating in the protests.

Usually when I think of protests, what comes to mind are images similar to those I remember seeing during the Prop 8 aftermath in San Francisco. People gathered in a major metropolitan city-center, using large construction tubes with hand-sized holes drilled in them to create a barricade against traffic (the people put their hands inside the tube and then hand-cuffed themselves together), shutting down a center of commerce and drawing attention to one's cause. But what happens when rural people want to do the same? Are the rural people of the United States similar to those described in Egypt, favoring "caution and moderation" over action?

I have a few pieces of knowledge that came to mind upon pondering these questions. What first came to mind were the protests held in Northern California and Southern Oregon, sometimes referred to as the State of Jefferson, in the early 1940s.

Long complaining of a lack of resources provided by each state to the rural counties, the people of Curry, Josephine, Jackson, and Klamath Counties in Oregon, and of Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Modoc Counties in California proposed that they secede from their respective states to form a new, largely rural state, named after the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. The people of the states of Oregon and California largely ignored the calls for secession from the rural counties. As relayed in an op-ed piece by Tim Hunt in the San Francisco Chronicle dated August 17, 2003, the secession movement was thought up largely to protest the lack of maintenance being done to the major roads and highways. According to, a website in support of secession, after the people in the states decided to secede, they camped out on Highway 99, barricading traffic and distributing pamphlets to travelers declaring their secession.

News crews were there to document the movement, and boasts that
"Hollywood newsreel companies were present to record the events, including the highway barricades. The State of Jefferson was off to a banner start. The newsreels were to air nationally the week of December 8, but tragically on December 7th Pearl Harbor was bombed and the State of Jefferson rebellion of 1941 came to an end. The people of the region went to work for the war effort and good roads were eventually built into the backcountry[(sic)] to access strategic minerals and timber."
Although the State of Jefferson still claims to have seceded in 1941, maps have not been redrawn and the secession has largely been forgotten by everyone except for those people living in the region.

Another fact largely overlooked by those people studying the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is that much of the organizing that occurred of people of color in the South happened in rural schools founded to serve as inspiration to grassroots organizing for equal rights.

Rosa Parks, the infamous African American woman who refused to move to the back of the bus or give her seat up to a White patron, was one of the most famous students of the Highlander Center, located in New Market, Tennessee. A long time veteran of grassroots organizing, Parks spent years learning how to protest and organize from schools and organization which were largely located in the rural south. According to Paul Roget Loeb, who wrote a piece on "The Real Rosa Parks" on,

"Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had been active for twelve years in the local NAACP chapter, serving as its secretary. The summer before her arrest, she'd had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an older generation of civil rights activists, like South Carolina teacher Septima Clark, and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning "separate-but-equal" schools. During this period of involvement and education, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, successfully eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge won limited gains two years before Parks was arrested; and the previous spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to consider a legal challenge until it turned out that she was unmarried and pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol for a campaign."
My knowledge of rural activism is largely limited to these two facts, but I am sure that there are many more examples of rural activism which has led to political change.


Sarah J said...

When Facebook first came out, my roommate at the time and I were taking a class on the effects of globalization on the developing world. I remember having a conversation with her about how great it would be if Facebook became "a tool of the masses," an opportunity for the impoverished, disconnected people of the world to connect with one another in solidarity, and stake their claim in the international dialogue on globalization. Of course, this was based on the assumption that these rural, disenfranchised people had internet access. Thinking about it now, 6 years later, while internet access can be found in many rural areas of the developing world, it is still not integrated well enough into people's daily lives to have that deep, connecting effect. But, if this is what happens in Egypt and Tunisia after an urban social movement, just imagine the strength of a movement that incorporated rural populations, who in many cases have more to lose from government corruption. I'm sure the Egyptian government has considered this fact-- maybe that's why the internet was the first thing to go.

D'Arcy said...

The State of Jefferson movement remains memorialized on the side of a hay barn located just south of Yreka on Interstate 5. Forgotten by the majority of California and perhaps never taken all that seriously, the concept remains a rallying cry for many old timers and a host of interesting characters in Siskiyou County. While not spoken of as a rational possibility, the community still uses Jefferson as a symbol of unity in the protection of Siskiyou's natural resources including timber, water, and beauty.

lauren said...

Great post. I was wondering the same thing when the uprising in Egypt began -- where are those living in the countryside? Do they know what is going on? Now that the demonstrations have grown and lasted over a week, it would be interesting to know whether the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square today are a bigger mix of both Cairenes and residents from more rural locations in Egypt.