Missing the pulse of Egypt’s citizens?

Mariz TadrosMariz Tadros photo mini

The representation of the revolution in Egypt as simply a military coup shows how disconnected western media and political analysts are from the citizens’ pulse- after all this was the largest ever political gathering in human history.

Up to the 30th of June, 2013, the prevalent story was that the Islamists ‘owned’ the streets – they were considered most capable of mobilizing the masses through their mosques, welfare providing associations and charismatic religious leaders. However, when an estimated 17 million out of a 90 million population took to the street to press the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi to step down, this signalled that the people are revolting against their system of governance and their leaders. It is a fact that the Egyptian regime and the West refuse to come to grips with how citizens – en masse- have rejected the Brotherhood, whose supporters are now a minority of the demonstrators. The Muslim Brotherhood sought to vilify the protestors as remnants of the former regime, thugs and Christians. However, a cross-section of the protests suggests that the millions of demonstrators come from a broad cross-section of Egyptian society, far broader even than the citizens who participated in the 25th of January revolts in 2011.

The instigators of the 25th of January revolution were a relatively small number of citizens who belonged to youth networks and coalitions and who co-ordinated with some political forces and parties. Yet on the 30th of June, citizens – en masse took to the streets – even though many had no prior political affiliation nor party membership. The fear barrier was broken in the 25th of January revolution, releasing political energy that has been vent up for fifty years. Also, in the aftermath of the ousting of Mubarak there emerged a citizenry who gave up watching soap operas and movies for political talk shows and news programmes.

Conventional wisdom had it that the Muslim Brotherhood ‘spoke’ the language of the people, worked on a grassroots level and were the most connected with the masses. However, as the Muslim Brotherhood assumed political power and its leaders became immersed in political processes, they too became disconnected from the citizenry. According to the Egyptian Center for economic and social rights, there were no less than 3814 protests in 2012 alone, most around bread and butter issues and many of these protests were led by civil servants, government employees and ordinary citizens suffering from the absence of security, the increase in the prices of basic goods and the dwindling quality of life. The severe shortage of petrol, electricity and water shut-outs did not help either.

During the 18 days of revolt against Mubarak in 2011, the protests were by and large encapsulated in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. This time, citizens have gone out in their thousands in at least 15 of the major governorates of Egypt. Citizens living in the  governorates of Upper Egypt (with the highest levels of poverty and political exclusion) had minimal participation in the 2011 revolution. Yet on the 30th of June, the squares of Asiut, Minya, Sohag, Qena and Aswan were packed with ordinary citizens. The better off governorates of the Delta that had not participated in the 2011 revolts had joined in the protests in their hundreds of thousands.

Moreover, rural populations that have historically not participated in uprisings and who represented the core constituency for the Muslim Brotherhood rose against the regime this time, women and men from all backgrounds, all pouring into the urban squares to join in the chants of ‘leave’. A year after President Morsi came to power, the farmers have become deprived of fuel to work their machinery, water to irrigate the land. As crops have failed, their basic livelihoods and that of their families has been devastated.

The revolt this time round is not only political- against the authoritarian status quo, it is also ideological, against the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood have sought to use religion to demonize and vilify citizens who dared hold them accountable for poor economic performance and infringements on basic rights. One of the slogans of this revolt has been ‘We are revolutionaries, not infidels’ (‘Ehna Thouwar mesh koufar’). It is noteworthy however,  that this is not a political struggle between Islamism and secularism. The majority of millions who rose against the regime are deeply religious Muslims and they are demonstrating not against their religion but against the Brotherhood as the guardians of Islam. For many, it is a revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood imams, sheikhs and political leaders who sought to represent any expression of dissent against the President as a rejection of Islam.

The police who was the arch enemy of the revolutionaries in the 25th of January revolt was reconciled with the people in this round of revolts. Whole batches of police officers in official uniform joined the revolutionaries on the streets (in particular in Alexandria) to express their endorsement of the people against the regime. For the past month, there have been several police revolts against the regime, in particular against what they saw as the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the apparatus by instating loyalists in positions of power over the apparatus, and the deployment of security personnel to attack the anti-regime protestors.

What is happening on the ground in Egypt is turning upside down the deeply entrenched idea that the Muslim Brotherhood represent the majority of the people and everyone else is a minority. Yet some of the coverage of these events speaks of western media bias and a disconnect with the pulse of Egypt’s citizens. This is not to suggest that this revolution will necessarily pave the way to a smooth democracy, there is still a possibility of its hijack by the ultra-radical Islamists, the Salafis. However, to represent this as simply a military coup is to be blind to the voices of the millions who dared dream of bread, freedom and dignity.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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