Skip to main content Accessibility help

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

  • Salwa Ismail (a1)

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.

Corresponding author
Hide All
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).
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).
Balanche, Fabrice. 2011. Géographie de la Révolte Syrienne. Outre-Terre 29, 3: 437–58.
Bayat, Asef. 2000. From Dangerous Classes to Class Rebels: Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South. International Sociology 15, 3: 533–57.
Beinin, Joel. 2001. Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beinin, Joel. 2012. The Rise of Egypt's Workers. Carnegie Papers. June. At: (accessed 2 Feb. 2013).
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.
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.
Chatty, Dawn. 2010. The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority. Middle East Journal 64, 1: 2949.
Crovitz, L Gordon. 2011. Egypt's Revolution by Social Media. Wall Street Journal, 14 Feb. At: (accessed 7 Mar. 2011).
El-Ghobashy, Mona. 2011. The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution. Middle East Report 258 (Spring): 2–13.
Elshahed, Mohamed. 2012. A Tale of Tower and Shacks. Al-Masry al-Youm, English ed., 12 Aug. At: (accessed 31 Aug. 2012).
Escobar, Arturo. 2001. Culture Sits in Places: Reflections on Globalism and Subaltern Strategies of Localisation. Political Geography 20, 1: 139–74.
Ezbawy, Yusry Ahmed. 2012. The Role of Youth's New Protest Movement in the January 25 Revolution. IDS Bulletin 43, 1: 2636.
Gelvin, James. 1998. Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ghannam, Farha. 2002. Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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.
Hinnebusch, Raymond. 1990. Authoritarian Power and State Formation in Syria: Army, Party, and Peasant. Boulder: Westview Press.
Hussein, Abdel-Rahman. 2012. Was the Revolution Really Non-Violent? Al-Masry al-Youm, English ed., 24 Jan. At: (accessed 1 Sep. 2012).
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.
Ismail, Salwa. 2006. Political Life in Cairo's New Urban Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ismail, Salwa. 2009. Changing Social Structure, Shifting Alliances and Authoritarianism in Syria. In Lawson, Fred, ed., Demystifying Syria. London: Saqi Books, 1328.
Ismail, Salwa. 2011. The Syrian Uprising: Imagining and Performing the Nation. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11, 3: 538–49.
Ismail, Salwa. 2012. The Egyptian Revolution against the Police. Social Research 79, 2: 435–62.
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).
Kandil, Hazem. 2011. Revolt in Egypt. New Left Review 68. At: (accessed 2 Apr. 2012).
Kandil, Hazem. 2012. Why Did the Egyptian Middle Class March on to Tahrir Square? Mediterranean Politics 17, 2: 197215.
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.
Lal, Vinay. 2001. Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History. Theory and History 40, 1: 135–48.
Levinson, Charles and Coker, Margaret. 2011. The Secret Rally that Sparked an Uprising. Wall Street Journal, 11 Feb. At: (accessed 1 Sept. 2012).
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.
Mallon, Florencia E. 1994. The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History. American Historical Review 99, 5: 1491–515.
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.
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.
Prakash, Gyan. 1992. Can the Subaltern Ride? A Reply to O'Hanlon and Washbrook. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, 1: 168–84.
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).
Roy, Ananya. 2011. Slum Dog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, 2: 223–38.
Singerman, Diane. 1995. Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2005. Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular. Postcolonial Studies 8, 4: 479–86.
Webber, Sara. 1998. Middle East Studies and Subaltern Studies. Middle East Studies Bulletin 31, 1: 1116.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed