Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5c569c448b-ckh7h Total loading time: 0.279 Render date: 2022-07-01T16:30:40.027Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2013

Salwa Ismail*
SOAS, University of London


This paper investigates the role of urban subalterns both as participatory agents in the Arab revolutions and as mediating forces against revolutionary action. It argues that during revolutionary periods the positioning of subalterns as a political force should be understood in relation to their socio-spatial location in the urban political configuration. Looking at the protest movements in Cairo and Damascus, the paper examines the differentiated locations of subaltern actors in each to demonstrate how their positioning in relation to state and government has shaped their engagement in the revolutions. In Cairo, the mobilization of subaltern forces was anchored in spatialized forms of everyday interaction between popular forces and agents of government. These interactions were formative of urban subjectivities that entered into the making of “the people” as the subject of the Revolution. In Damascus, the configuration of the urban space and the Syrian regime's modes of control made it difficult for subaltern forces to mobilize on the same scale as in Cairo or to form a unified opposition. The regime instrumentalized socio-spatial fragmentation among subalterns, in effect turning some segments, as buffers for the regime, against others. In analytical terms, the paper underscores the common conceptual ground between the categories of “urban popular forces” and “urban subalterns.” This ground covers their socio-spatial positionality, their bases of action, and the factors shaping their political subjectivities.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Abo el-Gheit, Mohamed. 2011. Al-Fuqara awlan ya Awlad al-Kalb. (The poor come first oh progeny of a dog), Gedarea Blog, 17 June. At: (accessed 4 Sept. 2012).Google Scholar
Al-Hay'a al-‘Ama lil-Isti‘lamat, (General Organization for Information). 2011. Yawmiyyat Thawrat 25 Yanayir (Diary of the 25 January revolution). At: (accessed 25 Jan. 2012).Google Scholar
Balanche, Fabrice. 2011. Géographie de la Révolte Syrienne. Outre-Terre 29, 3: 437–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bayat, Asef. 2000. From Dangerous Classes to Class Rebels: Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South. International Sociology 15, 3: 533–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beinin, Joel. 2001. Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beinin, Joel. 2012. The Rise of Egypt's Workers. Carnegie Papers. June. At: (accessed 2 Feb. 2013).Google Scholar
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1992. Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for Indian Pasts? In “Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories,” special issue of Representations 37: 126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chalcraft, John. 2008. Question: What Are the Fruitful New Directions in Subaltern Studies and How Can Those Working on the Middle East Benefit from Them? International Journal of Middle East Studies 40, 3: 376–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chatty, Dawn. 2010. The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority. Middle East Journal 64, 1: 2949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Crovitz, L Gordon. 2011. Egypt's Revolution by Social Media. Wall Street Journal, 14 Feb. At: (accessed 7 Mar. 2011).Google Scholar
El-Ghobashy, Mona. 2011. The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution. Middle East Report 258 (Spring): 2–13.Google Scholar
Elshahed, Mohamed. 2012. A Tale of Tower and Shacks. Al-Masry al-Youm, English ed., 12 Aug. At: (accessed 31 Aug. 2012).Google Scholar
Escobar, Arturo. 2001. Culture Sits in Places: Reflections on Globalism and Subaltern Strategies of Localisation. Political Geography 20, 1: 139–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ezbawy, Yusry Ahmed. 2012. The Role of Youth's New Protest Movement in the January 25 Revolution. IDS Bulletin 43, 1: 2636.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gelvin, James. 1998. Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Ghannam, Farha. 2002. Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Guha, Ranajit. 1988. On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India. In Guha, Ranajit and Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, eds., Selected Subaltern Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3744.Google Scholar
Hinnebusch, Raymond. 1990. Authoritarian Power and State Formation in Syria: Army, Party, and Peasant. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Hussein, Abdel-Rahman. 2012. Was the Revolution Really Non-Violent? Al-Masry al-Youm, English ed., 24 Jan. At: (accessed 1 Sep. 2012).Google Scholar
Ismail, Salwa. 2000. The Popular Movement Dimensions of Contemporary Militant Islamism: Socio-Spatial Determinants in the Cairo Urban Setting. Comparative Studies in Society and History 42, 2: 263–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ismail, Salwa. 2006. Political Life in Cairo's New Urban Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Ismail, Salwa. 2009. Changing Social Structure, Shifting Alliances and Authoritarianism in Syria. In Lawson, Fred, ed., Demystifying Syria. London: Saqi Books, 1328.Google Scholar
Ismail, Salwa. 2011. The Syrian Uprising: Imagining and Performing the Nation. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11, 3: 538–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ismail, Salwa. 2012. The Egyptian Revolution against the Police. Social Research 79, 2: 435–62.Google Scholar
Izzat, Mahmoud. 2012. Kutayyib Ta‘limat al-Thawra: Hal Yahraq “al-Tha'ir al-Haq” Qism al-Shurta?” (Manual of the revolution: does “the true revolutionary” burn the police station?). al-Masry al-Youm, 4 Mar. At: (accessed 1 Sept. 2012).Google Scholar
Kandil, Hazem. 2011. Revolt in Egypt. New Left Review 68. At: (accessed 2 Apr. 2012).Google Scholar
Kandil, Hazem. 2012. Why Did the Egyptian Middle Class March on to Tahrir Square? Mediterranean Politics 17, 2: 197215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Khoury, Philip. 1984. Syrian Urban Politics in Transition: The Quarters of Damascus during the French Mandate. International Journal of Middle East Studies 16, 4: 507–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lal, Vinay. 2001. Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History. Theory and History 40, 1: 135–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levinson, Charles and Coker, Margaret. 2011. The Secret Rally that Sparked an Uprising. Wall Street Journal, 11 Feb. At: (accessed 1 Sept. 2012).Google Scholar
Luccini, Fabio and Morandini, Davide, directors. 2011. Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution. Documentary film (available on video). Access courtesy of the directors.Google Scholar
Mallon, Florencia E. 1994. The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History. American Historical Review 99, 5: 1491–515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Hanlon, Rosalind and Washbrook, David. 1992. After Orientalism: Culture, Criticism, and Politics of the Third World. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, 1: 141–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pithouse, Richard. 2012. Political Agency in South Africa's Shack Settlements. Paper presented to Conference on Urban Revolutions in the Age of Global Urbanism, Jakarta, Indonesia, 12–16 Mar.Google Scholar
Prakash, Gyan. 1992. Can the Subaltern Ride? A Reply to O'Hanlon and Washbrook. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, 1: 168–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rasas, Sayyid. 2011. Kharita Ijtima'iyya, Siyyasiyya, Iqtisadiyya lil-Ihtijaj fi Suriyya” (A social, political, and economic map for protests in Syria). Al-Hayat, 30 July. At: (accessed 15 Aug. 2011).Google Scholar
Roy, Ananya. 2011. Slum Dog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, 2: 223–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Singerman, Diane. 1995. Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2005. Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular. Postcolonial Studies 8, 4: 479–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Webber, Sara. 1998. Middle East Studies and Subaltern Studies. Middle East Studies Bulletin 31, 1: 1116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *