The Sans-culottes of revolutionary Cairo


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When I studied the French Revolution, I always found it difficult to visualise who the sans-culottes were, what they looked like, where they hung out, what they did on a Friday night after a hectic day of street fighting and bourgeois bashing.

I had this sort of foggy notion of an amorphous segment of poor Parisian society, that was consumed by passionate ideals of radical equality and liberty, but who were a bit rough around the edges.

The sort of person who would sing revolutionary ballads beautifully, but then moments later smashes someone over the head with a rock during a riot.

In my slippery conception, they were the most daring and most radical of the revolutionary leftist vanguard, so radical that they eventually came to believe that even ‘The Incorruptible’ Robespierre himself, was some sort of “sell out”.

That’s pretty radical.

They emerged from the working class districts, wearing their red caps of liberty, ready to shed blood on the streets of the French capital in the cause of revolution. They were the rioters, the barricade constructors, among the poorest members, but yet the biggest dreamers of the revolutionary movement.

They had the most to lose from the revolution’s failure so they pushed the revolution as far as they could.

After watching an excellent new documentary “Bulaq – Among the Ruins Of An Unfinished Revolution” (Trailer link below) it got me thinking about the role of the urban poor in the continuing Egyptian Revolution.

Bulaq is a small, crowded working class district of Cairo (often called “popular neighbourhoods” here). It is situated near downtown Cairo, along the Nile. Indeed it is only a few minutes walk from Tahrir Square.

Prime land for development, the neighbourhood came under increasing pressure from the Mubarak regime over the past decade. People were forcibly removed from the neighbourhood and transferred to a new community built in the middle of the desert.

“The ruins of Bulaq are the dust of paradise,” one elderly resident says.

“The one who goes out of here, dies like a fish out of water.”

The government and its supporters in investment companies wanted to get its greedy hands on Bulaq. But as the Fabio Lucchini and Davide Morandini directed documentary shows, this is a community of strong bonds and pride- and their emerged a resistance to the state’s plans. A campaign began for the people of Bulaq to defend their housing rights.

When the January revolution exploded, the young people of Bulaq poured out of the neighbourhood and joined the protests in Tahrir. Many of them ranked among the most passionate and daring in the peaceful protests and later street fighting that took place during the revolution. Many martyrs came from the district.

There is often a perception in the western media of the Egyptian revolutionary movement as composed entirely of the young, beautiful, fresh Facebook generation- middle class and connected. But this is very reductionist as anyone who has spent time in Tahrir can testify.

The revolutionary movement had, and continues to have, a significant working class content with supporters from the “popular neighbourhoods”.

Improving the lives of the urban poor in neighbourhoods such as Bulaq, remains one of the great tasks of the post revolutionary period.

The documentary is very short and lacks historical perspective; however the viewer gets a very intimate feel for the streets of Bulaq.

Beautifully filmed (cinematography Matteo Keffer) , this exciting social documentary, is a very good introduction to the revolutionary “sans-culottes” of modern Cairo.

‘Bulaq: Among the ruins of an unfinished revolution’ Official Trailer:

Bulaq Official Trailer from Matteo Keffer on Vimeo.

PS. I’m reporting again from Cairo for ‘The Sunday Business Post’ (Ireland) tomorrow- this time on the Egyptian Presidential election, which is heating up, like the weather in Cairo.

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