Hostname: page-component-588bc86c8c-schgg Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-11-30T17:08:56.136Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

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.Google 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.Google Scholar
Beinin, Joel. 2001. Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google 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.Google 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.Google Scholar
Chatty, Dawn. 2010. The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority. Middle East Journal 64, 1: 2949.Google 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.Google Scholar
Ezbawy, Yusry Ahmed. 2012. The Role of Youth's New Protest Movement in the January 25 Revolution. IDS Bulletin 43, 1: 2636.Google 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.Google 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.Google 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.Google 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.Google Scholar
Lal, Vinay. 2001. Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History. Theory and History 40, 1: 135–48.Google 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.Google 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.Google 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.Google 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.Google 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.Google Scholar
Webber, Sara. 1998. Middle East Studies and Subaltern Studies. Middle East Studies Bulletin 31, 1: 1116.Google Scholar