Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time: The power of civil disobedience

The eighth century scholar Abdallah Ibn Al-Mokaffa once said, “Government is an ordeal. The ruler has to observe the four pillars of power, which is a good choice, immediate action, utter resolve and harsh retribution.” His advice rings familiar today, for power struggles in the modern world are nothing if not a riff on the same old themes.
The tug-of-war over taxation in Egypt under Ottoman rule, which is described later, is no exception. All the elements of modern politics are present, from street demonstrations, to side-road sit-ins, with the mixing of the religious and the mundane thrown in for good measure.
In 1895, Mohamed Bey Al-Alfi, a powerful army chieftain, imposed excessive taxes on a village near Belbeis. The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Abdallah Al-Sharkawi, owned land in that village, and had to do something about it.
Al-Sharkawi got in touch with the two men who ran Egypt at the time, Ibrahim Bey, the top administrator, and Murad Bey, the army chief. The two ignored his pleas, so he resorted to a form of pressure that is akin to civil obedience in modern terms.
Al-Sharkawi went to Al-Azhar, summoned the top sheikhs to a meeting, and ordered the doors of the mosque shut. This was a signal. When the country’s top mosque shuts down its doors, it means that consequential matters would follow. Criers were sent around to the market place, urging people to close down the shops and gather at the mosque.
Al-Sharkawi and Al-Azhar dignitaries then led an impressive procession, a prototype of today’s millioniyas (million-man marches), to the house of Sheikh Mohamed Al-Sadat, which was only a stone’s throw from the house of Ibrahim Bey, the man for whom this protest was intended.
When Ibrahim Bey saw the crowd, he sent his treasurer, Ayoub Bey Al-Daftardar to talk to the sheikhs. According to the chronicler Al-Jabarti, one of the sheikhs said that all they were asking for was justice. “We want the injustice to end, the law to be observed, and the taxes to be abolished.”
The treasurer tried to reason with the sheikhs, saying that the state’s coffers were empty. His objections were dismissed. “If you don’t have enough money, why are you spending so much on the purchase of slaves? A governor should give, not take.”
Al-Daftardar promised to come back to them with an answer, but didn’t. The next day the crowds got bigger and the situation became quite inflammable.
Ibrahim Bey pretended to relent. He sent a messenger to the sheikhs saying that he sees the fairness of their demands and will do what is needed to satisfy them.
Murad Bey also did the same, sending an emissary and inviting some sheikhs over for coffee at his house in Giza.
On the third day of the crisis, the country’s top politicians — with the exception of Murad Bey — met at the house of Ibrahim Bey to address the situation. Several Azharite scholars were present in this meeting, including Sheikh Al-Sadat, Sheikh Omar Makram, Sheikh Abdallah Al-Sharkawi, Sheikh Khalil Al-Bakri and Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amir.
The Azharites knew they had some leverage, for their supporters were gathered in force around Al-Azhar Mosque. After four hours of talks, the army chieftains promised to meet all the demands of the sheikhs.
According to the deal reached on that day, the army chiefs (who also doubled as local governors) agreed to sell their stores of grain to the public instead of just imposing further taxes to meet public expenses. The chieftains also promised to stop taking money illegally from the revenues of religious endowments, or waqf. And they promised not to confiscate any private property to replenish their coffers, as was customary.
The chief judge wrote a document to this effect and had it stamped with the seals of both Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey.
When the meeting ended, the crowds gave the sheikhs a jubilant welcome. Al-Jabarti reports the scene, and the reverse of fortunes that followed:
“The sheikhs came back (to Al-Azhar), and around them gathered the crowds. The criers shouted that the taxes and duties have all been suspended. The people rejoiced and believed it was all true. The markets reopened and the situation was calm for about a month. Then everything that was agreed was annulled, and worse arrangements were introduced. Soon after that, Murad Bey went to Damietta and levied exorbitant taxes.”
In his book Philosophy of Education Columbia University professor Philip H Phenix says that societies derive their concepts of righteousness from the powerful, the rich or the intelligentsia. But if you teach equality to children at school, they are likely to be more resistant to autocratic rule.

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