Mahalla — The “Independent Republic of Greater Mahalla” was declared by thousands of angry locals on 7 December, following bloody clashes in the city’s center on 27 November between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsy.
This newly “independent city” does not have its own national flag and it maintains the national anthem. While it opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and its sponsored draft constitution, the “Republic of Mahalla” does not have its own constitution either — at least not yet.
The so-called republic is not a secessionist movement from Egypt, but rather a gesture expressing opposition to Morsy’s regime and the Brotherhood from which he hails. The declaration took place amid mounting opposition in Egypt to Morsy’s rule following a series of decisions that were perceived as an attempt by Islamists to hegemonize power in the country.
While it was born in a town where dissidence is customary, the move also further crystallized how dominant local politics has become.
Rising opposition to Morsy
The “new republic” was declared by a few thousand unionized workers, along with opposition and independent activists who unilaterally announced their independence outside the Mahalla City Council late last week.
The move was prompted following violent clashes last week between Brotherhood supporters and their opposition.
Sayed Habib, a labor-rights activist at the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services in Mahalla city, explained that “workers became interested in the idea of independence after Morsy granted himself wide-reaching powers through his ‘constitutional declaration’,” which he issued on 22 November, “followed by his interventionist labor decree,” which was issued three days later.
The decree was criticized for pushing for Brotherhood hegemony over trade unions, by removing members over the age of 60 from the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and replacing them with appointed members.
Habib explained that about 5,000 workers who had finished their evening shift at the massive Misr Spinning and Weaving Company marched on to Shon Square, protesting at what they perceived to be Morsy’s power grab.
Habib said that when they arrived at the square, they found hundreds of Morsy supporters waiting for them — primarily Brotherhood members and their sympathizers.
“While we outnumbered them, a number of these pro-Morsy thugs were carrying shotguns and Molotov [cocktails], which they used against us,” he said.
Other workers and activists who had participated in this march said birdshot, firebombs, rocks and fireworks were used against them.
Videos taken around Shon Square appear to verify the use of these weapons. The videos also show anti-Morsy protesters fighting back with rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks. These clashes left more than 350 injured, with some putting that number at more than 700 on 27 November.
Further polarizing the two camps was the issuing of the new draft constitution on 30 November, which opponents claim was hastily prepared and rushed through the Constituent Assembly, dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists.
The fatal clashes around the presidential palace in Cairo on 5 – 6 December between Brotherhood loyalists and opposition protesters also influenced Mahalla’s move toward independence. Those clashes left at least eight dead and more than 700 others injured.
Speaking at Shon Square in honor of this “newly autonomous” city on 9 December, Ahmed Hassan al-Borai, ex-minister of manpower, announced Mahallans would “not be terrorized by the Brotherhood’s militias.” Borai added that the draft constitution “deprives women of their constitutional rights. It serves to deny 50 percent of Egyptian society their basic rights.”
Alaa al-Bahlawan of the liberal opposition Constitution Party also declared Mahalla’s independence from Morsy’s “corrupt rule.”
“We support this declaration of independence and aspire to see Mahalla leading and safeguarding the 25 January revolution,” he announced.
Addressing an audience of more than 1,000 city residents who had congregated in the square, Fathy Abdel Hamid of the Independent Federation of Pensioners joined the declaration.
“We are not here to merely denounce the Muslim Brotherhood and their draft constitution,” he announced. “We are here to declare that we will not tolerate rulers who bleed us in order to remain in power.”
Angry chants shook the square, with protesters shouting slogans such as “Down with the rule of the supreme guide,” referring to the Brotherhood’s leader, and “Raise your head high, you are a Mahallan!”
Anti-Morsy Mahallans spray-painted graffiti on walls across the city reading “Mahalla is a Brotherhood-free zone,” while other street art and murals denounced the “Muslim Brotherhood’s draft constitution.”
Another guest speaker, veteran opposition organizer George Ishaq, described Mahalla as “a citadel of freedom” and added that he would be honored to be a citizen of this independent entity.
“[The Brothers] are leading us toward a fascist state,” he said. “We cannot and will not accept fascism.”
Yet another guest speaker, Kamal Abbas, chief of the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, shouted, “They want us to be slaves, not free men and women. Their draft constitution seeks to impose child labor and forced labor, and also seeks to outlaw independent trade unions.
“Mahalla is now leading the Egyptian revolution,” he concluded. “Mahalla has been liberated.”
Mahalla’s nominal act of independence, however, is largely symbolic, and has no real administrative effect severing it from the Egyptian state. Many residents do not recognize the act, while others openly reject such calls.
Mohamed Youssef, a teacher passing by Shon Square during the rally on 9 December, commented, “I don’t support these insane calls for independence. This is merely an effort organized by a few thugs aimed at weakening Egypt’s national unity.”
Following the rally, hundreds of protesters marched to the Mahalla City Council and again declared their independence. Dozens of veiled women led chants against “Morsy’s subjugation of women” and “Muslim Brotherhood rule.”
Upon arriving at Mahalla City Council, the protesters began chanting “Long live Egypt,” and then sang the national anthem.
Parking his Vespa to inspect the scene, a passer-by commented, “I thought these people had broken off from Egypt. Why are they singing the national anthem?
“I assume we still don’t have our own currency and passports here?” he added.
A history of dissidence
Referred to as the “Industrial Citadel of the Nile Delta,” Mahalla al-Kubra is located some 120 kilometers north of Cairo, in Gharbiya Governorate.
“The Autonomous City of Mahalla” or “the Republic of Mahalla” is not the first of its sort. “The Republic of Zefta,” a town also located in Gharbiya, emerged during the 1919 Revolution against Britain’s protectorate over Egypt.
However, unlike Zefta, the “Independent Republic of Mahalla” does not have a central revolutionary council or any real administrative autonomy from the Egyptian state.
“This is not the same as the Zefta republic,” Mahalla cab driver Wael Noaman said. “We are not under occupation or colonization, like we were under the British. This is a dangerous precedent that could lead to other Egyptian peoples and cities declaring independence from Egypt.”
Noaman went on to say that as the country was under Brotherhood occupation, their occupiers would still be Egyptian.
“If Morsy or his men mess up, then we can oppose them or even overthrow them, like [former President Hosni] Mubarak.”
In more recent history following the 25 January revolution, the village of Tahseen declared administrative autonomy in September. Located in the Nile Delta governorate of Daqahlia, Tahseen residents responded to a water utilities crisis by not paying taxes or utility bills and embarking on a localized civil disobedience campaign.
Activists in the “Independent Republic of Mahalla” have said they will also embark on campaigns of civil disobedience, like the residents of Tahseen. But other than briefly blocking the Tanta-Mahalla highway and a railroad leading to the city on 7 December, not much has been seen here in terms of civil disobedience.
Mahalla’s significance as a city of resistance predates this experimental “Independent Republic.” In December 2006, Mahalla’s publicly owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company — Egypt’s largest, with a workforce of some 20,000 — launched an historic strike that resulted in an unprecedented wave of strikes throughout Egypt from 2007 to 2008.
Another strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, planned for 6 April 2008, was thwarted by state security, which arrested strike leaders and threatened workers back into production.
Nevertheless, a localized popular uprising erupted throughout the city on 6 and 7 April of that year. Portraits of the then-President Hosni Mubarak were smashed and the local headquarters of his National Democratic Party was attacked as throngs of protesters chanted anti-regime slogans.
That anti-Mubarak uprising in Mahalla is commonly seen as one of the precursors to the 25 January revolution.
“This city resisted and confronted the previous dictatorship. It helped to bring down Mubarak,” said independent youth activist Mohamed Abdel Azim. “We are now refusing Morsy’s dictatorship, and we will topple him if necessary.”
*This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.