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Beware of Small Cities

[Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Photo by Niqie.] [Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Photo by Niqie.]

The physical spaces of the Arab uprisings emerged as powerful political tools in the course of the revolts for both protesters and regimes. Protestors in streets and squares affirmed that power also exists in real exchanges, in real places between real people. Tahrir Square experienced a metamorphosis from a denied political space to a metonym for revolution, a symbol of the Egyptian and Arab uprisings. The spatial dynamics of the uprisings, however, are not only in the streets and public squares of the major metropolises. Indeed, the protests antedate the move to public squares in capital cities.

Despite urban spaces outside the major metropolises remaining almost invisible in discourses surrounding the Arab uprisings, small cities played a critical role in the revolts in 2011, the year that changed the Middle East. Normatively, it is the spaces of the largest cities that are deemed to produce the region’s history. Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad, and their ilk, do not form the realities for the majority of inhabitants in the Arab region, however. Urban morphologies of small cities, such as Sidi Bouzid, Suez and Dera’a, are closer to the everyday spatial realities of the majority of the regions inhabitants. The Arab uprisings have articulated how the neglect of areas outside the major metropolises hindered our understanding of human patterns of social life.

To differentiate and comprehend the morphologies of small cities, towns, peri-urban areas and villages, and thus engage with the daily spatial realities of the majority of inhabitants in the region, a correction to the under theorizing of areas outside big cities needs to be undertaken. The uprisings have brought to the fore the urgency of establishing a small cities research agenda for the region. Engagement with space beyond the metropolis would not only introduce new avenues to analyze the historical contexts and undetermined futures of the Arab uprisings but also engender an improved understanding of social life in the region more broadly. It took a fruit and vegetable vendor to instigate a region-wide revolution and depose the big men - Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh. It took small cities to awaken the larger metropolis.


Arab Uprisings: Beyond the Metropolis

On 17 December 2010, Muhammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation precipitated protests that spread throughout Tunisia and then the region. Bouazizi’s protest suicide took place over 265 kilometers south of the capital in the small city of Sidi Bouzid. In Kasserine and Thala, the first violent crackdowns occurred and fuelled further protest throughout the country. Before the revolution reached Tunis on 8 January 2011, the protests spread from Sidi Bouzid to Bou Zayen, Jassrine, Thala, Ghafsa, Le Kef and Jendouba.

Jordan experienced the greatest unrest not in Amman, but Dhiban, a small city thirty kilometers south of the capital. The protests in Dhiban on 7 January, the first to occur in the region outside of Tunisia, spread a week later to the capital, Amman. The small city of Dhiban was not only a vector for protests, but provoked the emergence of a vibrant protest movement in the south of the country, a region perceived fiercely loyal to the King.

In Egypt, protests and organized labor strikes by urban social movements in smaller cities, such as Suez, Tanta, Mahalla, el-Dawwar, Ismailiyya, Port Said, Daqhaliyya and Aswan, were critical to the uprising and occurred before both the self-immolation of Bouazizi and the 25 January 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. Even on 25 January, the move to public squares across Egypt did not start in Tahrir Square and emanate out. In the port city of Suez, for example, events developed faster than the rest of the country. Police in Suez used live ammunition against protesters and killed the first person on 25 January. The murderous reaction by police fueled further protest in Suez and around the nation.

The uprising against Qaddafi began not in Libyan capital of Tripoli, but in Benghazi. Yet, neither Benghazi nor Tripoli emerged as the central symbol of defiance against Qaddafi, Rather, it was the small city of Misrata, which during Libya’s eight-month conflict endured the longest and bloodiest battle of the entire war. The fall of the small city of Sirte marked the end of Qaddafi’s regime.

In Bahrain, protests in the hinterland around Manama had a history of demonstrations against the ruling Khalifa regime. Preceding the current uprising in December 2007, significant protests in the neighborhoods and villages around Manama had taken place. The protest in December 2007 resulted in a brutal police crackdown that produced further unrest and violence, and contributed to the march to the Pearl Roundabout in Manama in 2011. Clashes continue in the hinterland of Manama in municipalities such as Sitra and its villages.

Yemen’s independent youth movement in Sana’a was critical to the uprising, but it did not act autonomously. Continued tensions between the north and south of Yemen, since reunification in 1990 was also pivotal. Protest movements, such as al-Hiraak al-Janoubi, in the small cities of the south have been critical to the emergence of the Yemeni uprising. The Houthi rebellion in the north and the northern small city of Saada also proved significant. Taiz, an important city in the central highlands of the country that had been persistently marginalized during Ali Abdullah Saleh’s reign, was the first to rise in organized protest and struggled through the most violent counterrevolutionary measures of the uprising. While most of the spaces and narratives of the anti-regime uprising had been co-opted by the end of 2011, Taiz’s independent movement sustained its nonviolent rebellion.

It was high school children’s graffiti in the small Syrian city of Dera’a that provoked a violent reaction by the Syrian military, marking the start of the uprising there. Amal Hanano, in Outside the Walls, noted that the protests surged, “from the cities, Daraa, Hama, Homs, Deir al-Zor; the towns, al-Rastan, Jisr al-Shughour, al-Rakka, al-Qamishli; the villages, beautiful al-Jassem, witty Kafar Nubbul, and brave Anadan right outside Aleppo.” Protestors in Syria started from everywhere, it seems, except the two central metropolises of Aleppo and Damascus.

The Arab uprisings powerfully demonstrate that history is not only shaped by the capital cities of the region, but also by highly complex and diverse set of spaces and actors, of which small cities make up a central, not peripheral, part. The connections of small cities, and the spaces outside the major metropolises more broadly, through bodies, (im)material flows and resources to metropolises and beyond need to taken seriously.


On Size

Size matters, but not in the ways some may think. Existing small city definitions around the globe vary greatly from country to country, and even within nation-states. The current lack of epistemological approaches and engagement with areas outside metropolises, however, by social scientists (among others), makes even a definition for small cities in the Arab region tenuous. Further, critical in thinking about urban space, large and small, is to be able to interrogate small cities both within and beyond the confines of size and Cartesian frameworks.

Urbanists David Bell and Mark Jayne argue, in thinking about how small is small, that size should not be absolute: “Smallness can be more productively thought of in terms of influence and reach, rather than population size, density or growth.” Interrogating small cities is as much about the flows into and out of these spaces, especially with regard to exchanges with the center, than the physical space small cities occupy.

In much of the existing work on small cities both in the Arab region and globally, small cities are frequently defined in opposition to the big city. Government officials, but also many researchers, journalists and academics, suffer from an edifice complex in which the small city is defined as “other than” the big city. Small cities are rarely allowed to represent themselves. Subsequently, a small cities research agenda in the region should understand small cities within more horizontal frameworks and as important nodes in the networks between places of different scales.

Political scientist Janine Clark, offers a rare example of a more horizontal engagement with small cities, arguing that “[t]here is emerging evidence…that university students moving between Tunis and their hometowns in the periphery during their January vacation played an important role in the spreading of the protests.” Intrinsic analogous structures and movements in small cities, rather than any perceived lack, must also be engaged with in researching and analyzing small cities.

Could, for example, the very “provincial” habits, customs and environments that have not been swept away and melted down into the image of the regime, and for which small cities are so often derided or condemned, be the very reason for their rise? As Lewis Mumford wrote in The City in History, “To rule merely by coercion, without affectionate consent, one must have the appropriate urban background.” Could the space(s) of small cities, away from the major metropolises and symbolic sovereign power, enable residents to see, think and act upon the crevices of the regime?

No longer should it be possible for small cities to be brushed off as marked by conservatism and provincialism, immaterial to the events and discourses of the central metropolises and the Arab region. Ordinary cities and ordinary citizens matter and are ignored at the peril of those in power. The forces of history are likely smaller than we think.

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