How the urbanism of small cities helped shape the Arab uprisings
Often neglected by political dictators as well as by urban theorists, small cities played a role in sparking the Arab uprisings in several countries. The lack of attention paid to them allowed growing unrest to go unnoticed, but also means that we still know little about the forces that allow small cities to change the course of history.
Thinking on cities often gravitates to the largest urban magnates around the world. Urban theorists, and social scientists more broadly, do not appear to deem small cities significant forms to articulate patterns of human living. In the Middle East, for example, research overwhelmingly focuses on cities such as Cairo, Beirut, Tunis or Dubai. This is despite, as urbanists David Bell and Mark Jayne point out, more than half of the world's urban dwellers living in cities of less than half a million people.
During the course of the Arab uprisings images of the agglomeration of people in public squares in capitals across the region filled our television and computer screens. The crowds in the public squares in the capitals Cairo, Manama, Tripoli, Sana'a and Tunis ostensibly confirmed the importance of the central metropolis for socioeconomic and political change. However, the Arab uprisings antedate the move to public squares in capital cities and it is significant to note that the initial sparks for the uprisings did not occur in the global cities or the capitals, but in the smaller cities.
Bouazizi's protest suicide took place not in Tunis but four hours further south in the small city of Sidi Bouzid. The subsequent protest spread first to another small city, Menzel Bouzayane; demonstrations in Tunis did not start until a week later.
On the 17th of December 2010 Muhammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and precipitated protests that spread throughout Tunisia and then the region. Bouazizi's protest suicide took place not in Tunis but four hours further south in the small city of Sidi Bouzid. The subsequent protest spread first to another small city, Menzel Bouzayane; demonstrations in Tunis did not start until a week later.
In Egypt, protests and organised labour strikes by urban social movements in smaller cities across the country critical to the Egyptian uprising were occurring before Bouazizi's self-immolation and before the gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square on the 25th of January 2011. Indeed, Alexandria rather than Cairo was the site of two of the most critical events that spurred the move to Tahrir Square: the police killing in June 2010 of Khaled Said and the bombing of the Saints Church in January 2011.
The gatherings in public squares across Egypt on the 25th of January did not start from Tahrir Square; they began in Suez before spreading across the country. Police and protesters clashed in this heavily militarised port town resulting in the deaths of the first anti-regime protestorrs — murdered by police firing live ammunition at protestors — and the destruction of the first police station.
It goes on. In Syria, protests and conflict coalesced not around the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo but in small cities. The Syrian uprising was sparked by high school children's graffiti in the agricultural city of Dera'a and provoked a ferocious reaction by state forces. In Libya, the uprising against Qaddafi began not in Tripoli byt in the small city of Benghazi. In Yemen, the uprising first emerged in the southern city of Aden before gravitating to Sana'a and its Change Square.
How do small cities foment political change?
Cities away from the central metropolis nevertheless emerged as central vectors and sites for the Arab uprisings. The lack of state control or attention could be one reason for this phenomenon. In Libya, Benghazi was a deliberate recipient of de-development by Qaddafi due to its history of defiance against rule from Tripoli. In Yemen, President Ali Abduallah Saleh imposed a regime of neglect upon the southern town of Aden in response to the calls for Southern independence and rule away from Sana'a.
However the process of neglect aimed at a specific region or city is not so easily delineated in Syria, Tunisia or Egypt — and even in Libya and Yemen a more complex picture of small cities emerges on further examination. Bouazizi enacted his protest suicide in the face of state oppression rather than inattention. In Suez, the state produced a ferocious crack down on protestors.
We have little theory on the specific social, economic, political, cultural and spatial formations of small cities, and this is especially so for the small cities of the global south. The Arab uprisings powerfully illustrate the importance and urgency of coming to terms with urban areas and processes beyond the capital cities of the region. Filling the theoretical and analytical gap on small cities could greatly enhance not only our understanding of the Arab uprisings but also of the story of urbanism more broadly in the Arab region and beyond.
In an era that focuses on the spectacle and the iconic, the rise of the small city into history may signal an important shift in the importance of the margins. The forces of history are likely smaller than we think.
Indeed, the central narrative of the Arab uprisings is the ability of small events to spark big change. it took a fruit and vegetable vendor to spark a region-wide revolution and depose the big men like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh. Concomitantly, it took a small city to awaken the larger metropolis and prompt the march to public squares. In an era that focuses on the spectacle and the iconic, the rise of the small city into history may signal an important shift in the importance of the margins. The forces of history are likely smaller than we think.