By Hafsa Halawa.
The stage seems all too familiar. Angry, disenfranchised Egyptians filling Tahrir to protest the rulers of the country; ready to sacrifice everything for democracy. Only this is not January 25th, 2011 but January 25th, 2013. Two years later, this revolution looks starkly different than the movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Protesters at the heart of the revolution’s beginning in Tahrir may declare, “the revolution continues” – having directed their anger first at Hosni Mubarak, they turned to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Their struggle in that regard is ongoing, and many might agree that such agitation against the status quo ought to continue to exist. Nevertheless, beyond Tahrir Square, many, if not most Egyptians do not quite look at the current situation in that manner. On the contrary, they will focus on the fact that over the past two years, a more open political system has resulted in parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as two constitutional referendums.
In all of those expressions of political will, to varying degrees, Islamist groups led by the MB have won. Some of the protest movement, and the non-Islamist political opposition, may argue that those votes were fraudulent to begin with. As an election observer myself, I covered the first parliamentary elections, observing over 100 ballot boxes over three rounds of elections in Upper Egypt – my organization confirmed the legitimacy of the vote.
This is not to say the process has been perfect. Voter turnout has dwindled consistently with every vote, which may indicate the public’s decreasing confidence in the process. Incidents during voting across the country, reported by different civil rights organisations and observer groups, certainly damaged the process. Yet, millions upon millions of Egyptians participated in those votes – they obviously did not see the process as being so undemocratic that it should not be engaged with. Whilst opposition movements have staked out their claim to Tahrir, Islamists have arguably laid claim to the rest of the country.
Many argue that the failure of the opposition at large lies in its inability to effectively organize, provide a coherent message and galvanise the public. I would go further, and stipulate that much of the opposition membership, at least at present, is unwilling to put in the hard work that results in political advancement. Far too many members of the opposition are willing to prioritise their own aims and political goals, without relating them to the needs and priorities of ordinary Egyptians. Finally, the opposition is perceived by the wider public as more prone to boycotting the political process, rather than engaging with it.
My own particular experience in this regard relates particularly to Upper Egypt. That region, so often ignored by analysts, is where the vote is lost, or won – a pattern which began strongly in the parliamentary elections holds up today, following results from the recent constitutional referendum. After all, according to World Bank figures, the rural population of Egypt accounts for over 57% of Egypt’s total population. In those areas, Islamist groups have been relatively successful, at least in comparison to the opposition political parties.
Much of the opposition political elite will blame the gains made by Islamists in these areas on the large amount of illiteracy, implicitly questioning their ability and right to participate in the democratic process. Alaa el-Aswany, for example, a prominent opposition writer, went so far as to voice his opinion that illiterate Egyptians should not have the right to vote in Egypt’s constitutional referendum. Of course, levels of poverty and illiteracy are, indeed, highest within Upper Egypt – in this, the opposition is correct. El-Aswany’s statement, however, while disavowed and criticised by much of the opposition, nevertheless highlights the continued disconnect between the opposition and the wider public.
As a result of that disconnect, the opposition has been virtually absent from the ‘unknown waters’ of Upper Egypt. Instead, it has tended to prefer focusing on the governorates of Suez, Sharqiya, Cairo and Alexandria, where their popularity has already been established. During pre-election periods, the opposition’s campaign was virtually absent in Upper Egypt. Moreover, while Islamist parties tended to be active and accessible across all southern governorates, opposition parties chose to house their coordination activities through one office in one governorate. Their impact, predictably, was negligible across the region.
Even when such opposition parties do attempt their appeal geographically, their rhetoric continues to revolve around the rule of law, the constitutional process and the revolution. In contrast, the MB has continued to focus on the regular plight, and everyday hardships, of regular Egyptians. While the opposition’s ideals may be lofty ones, and pertinent for the opposition’s political ideological basis, the opposition’s political rhetoric can only succeed among the wider public when it relates those ideals to the everyday needs of the wider public. Consequentially, Islamists continue to enjoy relatively uncontested support in Upper Egypt – and by extension, enjoy a monopoly over success at the ballot box.
The revolution, or the transition, is not over: Egypt’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy is still a work-in-progress. Since President Mohamed Morsi of the MB came to power in the summer of 2012, his roster of achievements has been less than sterling. He has introduced a constitutional decree in November 2012, which gave him sweeping powers, contrary to the ideals of the revolution. He has engaged in a crippling stand-off with the judiciary, which lessened the wider public’s respect for that institution. Mr Morsi fast tracked the completion of the writing of Egypt first post-Mubarak constitution, and rushed through a referendum to pass it, which resulted in dangerous polarization in Egypt.
Egyptians must do all they can to resist the Islamist trend’s hegemony over political life, which threatens the stability and depth of Egypt’s democracy. Yet, the opposition will never be able to properly contest such power if they do not radically reassess their inability to be relevant to the wider Egyptian population: instead, they will remain on the periphery of Egyptian politics. They cannot substitute this for protests – if Tahrir Square is a symbol of Egypt’s youth mobilisation, a recent World Bank report shows that more than half the population of Upper Egypt is under the age of 29, and one third are between the ages of 15 and 29. They are still not flocking to the forces of the opposition, as repeated votes make clear.
It is vitally important, particularly during this transition, to raise awareness of the appropriate constitutional identity of the new Egypt, the need for the rule of law, and the freedom of all Egyptians. At the same time, such principles have to be made directly, and immediately relevant to the average Egyptian in all campaign efforts. If they can do so, the opposition forces may be able to gain a seat at the top table to realise their own demands and create a pluralistic path of democratic politics.
Democracy begins at the ballot box. The key to success in that arena for the opposition lies not in Tahrir Square and protests: it lies in Upper Egypt.
Hafsa Halawa is an Egyptian lawyer; formerly an employee of the National Democratic Institute, she is currently one of the defendants in the NGO trial in Egypt. Follow her on twitter @hhafoos
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