By H.A. Hellyer
Egyptian public opinion finally counts for something. But it’s being sorely underestimated by the activists who came from Tahrir. Therein lies a great challenge as Egypt strives to move forward.
The lessons were there from almost day one. The no-vote in the constitutional referendum a year ago was the first sign. Most, if not all, of the revolutionary forces advocated a no-vote — and for legitimate and well-intentioned reasons. They lost the vote, by a magnificent landslide — 78% voted in favour of the constitutional amendments. What was more, it was clear from the voting patterns that those who voted ‘no’ were focused in very small parts of the population — which should have provided open, and key intelligence to the revolutionary forces about where their power base is, and where it wasn’t. That didn’t happen.
Over the past year, the revolutionary forces have been generally against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — the exception being parts of the liberal and secular establishment that sometimes backed SCAF in order to avoid what they saw as the greater threat (the Islamists). At the very least, scepticism vis-à-vis SCAF is warranted. Yet, the revolutionary forces underestimated, and continue to underestimate, the confidence that the broader Egyptian public has in SCAF. In December 2011, Gallup polls showed that 9 out of 10 Egyptians expressed confidence in SCAF. That number does not mean that SCAF are right — the #NOSCAF movement, morally and ethically, is far more right about many things. But the wider public is, as yet, in support of SCAF — and no amount of denial will change that.
For months, the revolutionaries supported continued protests in Tahrir and elsewhere — again, often for reasons that were in support of Egypt, and laudable. Yet, just as often, many of them refused to recognise that Egyptians at large did not support the protests. Over the course of 2011, since Mubarak fell in February, anything from 8 to 9 out of 10 Egyptians (based on multiple Gallup polls in 2011) thought that protests were a bad thing for Egypt. Again, denying this very blatant fact serves little to advance the agenda of the revolutionaries.
One more example to further elaborate the point: the parliamentary elections. The revolutionaries, by and large, past the constitutional referendum, essentially divorced from the MB — who, to be fair, were the initiators of such a separation. The non-Islamist parties that were linked to the protest movement of the revolutionaries, were completely unprepared to stand against the MB and the Salafis — and they wanted a delay of elections to better prepare. The reality was, however, that the MB and the Salafis did not have an unfair advantage. Their advantage was built on the fact that they had built up social, if not political, capital and they had started to do so decades ago. Their activities in Egypt did not begin on January 25 — they began decades ago (particularly for the MB, less so the Salafis). Not in political in social terms, when it came time for elections, it was only natural that the Egyptian public would give their votes to parties based on movements they had known for years and trusted. The idea of a boycott, which occupied the minds of many of activists, was ineffectual, in a country where most people believed that the elections would be honest.
It has now been a year since the post-uprising period of the revolution began and the revolutionaries must take a good look at themselves. They do have an incredible amount to give to Egypt and Egypt deserves their contribution. But there are some lessons that must be learnt once and for all.
The first is to destroy the ‘bubble-thinking’ that characterises so many within the movement. Their eventual aims and objectives are not for their own benefit — but for the benefit of Egyptians at large, which makes those aims and objectives worthy and noble. But their discourse exists within a bubble, and simply does not take into account the massive disconnect that exists between their discourse, which is rightly concerned with accountability, rights and justice, and the priorities of the average Egyptian. When Egyptians were asked in December what were the top priorities a new government should consider, the top three were: employment, the economy and security. Yet, these priorities have barely been mentioned by the revolutionaries — and in comparison to the other items on their agenda, they are but a whisper amidst shouting around other issues. Those other issues are important — indeed, vital — but they need to articulated about in ways that link to the priorities of the average Egyptian. Otherwise, they become consigned to irrelevance — something that would signal the eventual death of the revolution.
Secondly, the revolutionaries must realise why the MB and the Salafis did so well in parliamentary elections. It was not because the MB and the Salafis had a deal with SCAF — it was because the FJP and the Nour Party came out of movements that had established social capital. The non-religious parties did not have the ability to say they came out of other movements that had established social capital across the country in the same way — and they need to start building it. The support for the MB and the Salafis is not set in stone — it’s conditional on their ability to actually deliver. If they fail (and they probably will), then the Egyptian people can choose differently next time round — and the revolution need to produce evidence that they can deliver better than the alternatives. Particularly if the revolution proves to have more integrity, honesty and keeps its word — something that the leadership of certain political forces are increasingly unknown for.
Finally, the revolution must reject the notion that electoral politics is the game in town. Yes, it is important, insofar as the institutions of the state have an influence on how the country functions (and frankly, a boycott of the presidential election would probably be ineffective and ineffectual). But if Tahrir proved anything, it proved that civil society can do a far better job than the state, and that a healthy society is one where the state’s legitimacy flows from reflecting civil society not the other way around. There is much that needs to happen in Egypt with regards to welfare, social justice, and education — that will never come from the state. But it can come from the type of Egyptian that stood in Tahrir and around Egypt between January 25 and February 11 — and proclaimed to the world: “Enough. Freedom is our birthright, and we reclaim it — whether you like it or not.”
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an expert on the MENA region with senior level experience at Warwick University, Gallup and the Brookings Institution. He writes here in a personal capacity. www.hahellyer.com