Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

Egypt's yawning social divides are now exposed

Egypt needs an organised political force that can make the case for social justice to the wider public and allay its fear of chaos. That may be the first step in the transformation from activists to politicians.

After Egypt held its constitutional referendum on March 19, the country's political forces, that had splintered over whether to back proposed changes or demand a new constitution altogether, began to turn their attention to long-term politics.

The referendum was easily won, with 77.2 per cent voting "yes" in favour of amendments. But the "yes" vote was also implicitly endorsed by Egypt's military - and explicitly so by several political parties and most Islamist movements. It revealed several trends about Egypt's new political landscape.

One factor to emerge was a split over the role of religion, an issue that could easily be manipulated for political gain. For some Egyptians, backing the referendum became an endorsement of a central role for Islam in the constitution that since 1980 has placed the Shariah as only one source among others of legislation, rather than at its heart. But the split ensued even though the relevant article was not actually up for discussion in the vote. Some Christians saw the rejection of the amendments as a necessary counterweight to the new visibility and political freedom of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. The dominant role religion played in the debate around the referendum, even if to a large extent exaggerated by the media, worried many secularists that Islamists exploiting social conservatism and religious chauvinism would crush them come election time.

Religion will play an inevitable role in Egyptian politics either way. During the referendum, some Islamists assured voters in some districts that backing the amendments would guarantee them a place in heaven. But that was less important than other factors, and secularist complaints about the campaign tactics of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are disingenuous. After all, wealthy businessmen associated with secularist movements paid for slick newspaper and television advertisements opposed to the "yes" vote.

That some religious figures, notably Salafist sheikhs, backed the amendments on questionable religious pretexts is not necessarily worse than the Coptic Orthodox Church's mobilisation of its flock in opposition. What is worrying is that the mobilisation of voters around largely manufactured religious concerns will further inflame Egypt's already frayed sectarian relations.

The question of security and the public's desire for normality after the 18 days of unrest that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak's regime was a much more relevant factor in the referendum's outcome. The old regime, for all its many ills, got citizens accustomed to a stability that was remarkable by Middle Eastern standards. Nearby Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq were often used as cautionary examples of dire alternatives by regime officials. But the fear of instability is not simply based on prospects for violence or state collapse. It has a direct economic underpinning. Experts say that over 50 per cent of Egypt's economy is informal and that a large proportion of the population depends on day-to-day wages. Unlike civil servants and salaried private sector workers, informal workers don't get paid during national unrest. Their income has dropped dramatically due to disruptions to the economy caused by strikes. When 40 per cent of the population hover on the poverty line and have little or no savings, not being able to work can mean not being able to feed your own family.

The referendum also showed a yawning social divide. This went beyond expectations that wealthy neighbourhoods where the educated middle and upper class turned out the most "no" votes during the poll, with central Cairo leading the dissent. This trend garnered the most focus among despondent elite liberal secularists, who are acutely aware of their inability to connect with a wider Egyptian public.

Closer analysis of the results, when compared with census data, show there are multiple fractures. Urban areas tended to vote "no" and rural ones "yes". Illiteracy rates closely correlated with the degree of "yes" votes, as did the percentage of the population that had attended university. Areas such as the northeast, near the Libyan border, probably showed the highest percentage of "yes" votes because of the tribal makeup of the population and the ability of local sheikhs to mobilise large numbers of their kin. Resort towns such as Sharm al-Sheikh, Luxor or Hurghada may have leaned more towards "no" because they're also home to a large number of university-educated, multi-lingual tourism workers.

When elections are held in September, political parties of all stripes will have to arrive at a better understanding of their country. Having contested elections since 1984, the Muslim Brotherhood may benefit from a more finely-tuned electoral machine than any existing party. But its real advantage is that, although it's mainly a movement of middle class professionals, it has reached out to an Egyptian underclass long taken for granted. To do the same, other parties will have to marshall the discipline, resources and talent the Brotherhood has, and find a message that resonates just as much as religion can. There is every indication that social justice, including addressing inhumane poverty levels and stalled social mobility, is that message.

The key instigators of the January 25 revolution were mostly drawn from the secular middle class. These groups remain torn between their previous vanguard role and preparing for the upcoming electoral deadlines. This split has become increasingly obvious, culminating in the re-occupation of Tahrir Square by activists who now seek to confront the military. Their cause may be just, and they have learned that continuous pressure can achieve extraordinary results. But their actions and tactics have been divisive, even among the most dedicated of revolutionaries.

Egypt needs a better, more transparent transition process than it has had so far. But even more so, it needs an organised political force that can make this case to the wider public and allay its fear of chaos. That may be the first step in the transformation from activists to politicians.


Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net

Updated: April 20, 2011 04:00 AM

Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email