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Shape up or ship out

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer: Shape up or ship out

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Five months into a Muslim Brotherhood presidency, they have managed to squander a huge portion of their support base. In that, there are lessons for both the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the opposition. Of course, it is not clear whether either will be paying much attention, or take the necessary steps.

Prior to the 25 January revolution, there were certainly people active in civil society in Egypt. There were not, however, very many. Hosni Mubarak’s lasting achievement in Egypt was to enforce a regime that systematically relegated civil society to the extreme sidelines – an achievement that, incidentally, has much to do with the incredible instability of Egyptian society today.

Recently, I was with one of those few, rare examples who was deeply active in civil society organisations prior to the revolution. He was not particularly enamoured with Brotherhood-style political Islamism – he was more of a secular leftist, by his own appellation, although not anti-religion by any means. Like many, if not most, civil society activists in the days before the 25 January revolution, his stance vis-a-vis the Brotherhood in those days was quite straightforward.

Their ideology was not particularly his cup of tea, but he defended their civil and political rights to the hilt, and was vigorously opposed to Mubarak’s repression of them. In the aftermath of the uprising, he was sure that the Brotherhood represented a “moderate understanding of political Islam”, even if it was not quite what he thought Islam was all about, and would be a welcome, positive force on the Egyptian political stage.

He’s not anti-Muslim (he’s Muslim). He’s not feloul (he’s a leftist who was deeply against Mubarak before the revolution). He’s not anti-Islamist even (he defended them, and encouraged their participation in the National Association for Change, that ElBaradei lead, and which once upon a time, the Brotherhood were a part of. How long ago those days seem…).

Today, that same civil society activist confided in me that he received an incredible amount of satisfaction by throwing rocks at Brotherhood forces in the confrontation in front of the presidential palace. The level of animosity towards the Brotherhood that he now has might be matched only by his disgust with Mubarak’s regime: and perhaps exceeds that.

That’s one demographic: the demographic of people who actually knew anything really about the Brotherhood before the revolution, and essentially campaigned for their rights, even while they were not a part of the Brotherhood.

Here is another demographic. In the early months after the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood polled around 15 per cent in terms of support in Egypt. In the first parliamentary elections, they managed to gather 50 per cent of the popular vote.

In the first presidential elections, they got 25 per cent of the popular vote in the first round of the presidential elections. Anyone could have told the Brotherhood that they might need to consider their overall political strategy, having converted a core support base of 15 per cent into a voting vase of 50 per cent, only to lose half of that a few months later.

President Mohamed Morsy urged the Egyptian people to pass the constitution in this referendum – the first stage of which happened on Saturday, and the second stage will happen next week. In the first round, at least 65 per cent of registered voters could not be bothered to even respond to the president’s call – they didn’t even vote. Out of the rest, just over half acquiesced to the president’s request.

That means that in the first round of voting, more than 81 per cent of registered voters in the areas covered by the first round either ignored the referendum, voted no, or boycotted. For a movement that claimed they spoke for the majority of Egyptians, it seems the majority of Egyptians didn’t come out on their side, even when their supporters used Islam as a rallying cry. Peculiar, that.

Both of these things, it seems, indicates a particular trend. The first is that the country’s support base for the Muslim Brotherhood has shrunk – fairly tremendously. It is probably back to what it was in the early weeks after the uprising: ie, no more than 15 per cent.

No opposition movement could have done that to them. No amount of work from any anti- Brotherhood campaign could have accomplished that, particularly in such a short amount of time. Rather, the Brotherhood managed to do it to themselves.

Will the Brotherhood learn from this? It is hard to say, particularly while it views the current political dynamic as an existential threat. Or at least, a possible kidnapping of Mr Morsy, according to some of its supporters on TV.

Will the opposition learn from this? Will they learn that just as the overwhelming majority of voters couldn’t be bothered to follow the president’s lead in the constitutional referendum, they also couldn’t be bothered to follow the opposition’s? Will they learn that out there, the “silent majority”, really is the overwhelming majority, and that this leadership on all sides, just is not cutting it?

Well, that’s also kind of hard to say. After all, it is not completely beyond belief that the opposition might miss out on an opportunity: it wouldn’t be the first, second, third, fourth, fifth… umm, time.

In the meantime, the majority of Egyptians have sent a message to all political leaders in this country: we’re not interested in what you’re selling. And the revolution, perhaps, sends another message: the revolution continues, and if you lot want to be a part of it, you’d best shape up.

Follow Dr Hellyer on Twitter @hahellyer

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .

  • Dr. Reda Sobky

    They won’t learn inclusion because by definition they only believe that their path is the only correct path and everybody else is either trying to stop them (because they are antiislamic) or deluded. It is a core source of cohesion within the group. Compromise and negotiation is not in the agenda. The arrogance of this approach is alienating the voters, understandably many have lost interest and others are in opposition. As with Iran, the next step is exclusive access to power, the suppression of opposition and the amassing of Rafsanjani type fortunes and in the process give religion a blemished name by claiming its mantel. I think it might be too late to change as the leadership is too old and set in its ways to change its old Mubarak era type tricks. I wonder!

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