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Egypt’s 'Mainstream' may still be too elitist

The new Mainstream movement has spiked interest from the Facebook generation in the wave for a civil state vs an Islamic takeover, but some intellectuals argue to Ahram Online that Mainstream is not inclusive yet

Lina El-Wardani , Tuesday 24 May 2011
Screenshot of Mainstream video
Screenshot of Mainstream video
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"I am a free Egyptian living by and for justice. I am a free Egyptian living by and for dignity. I am a free Egyptian who wants Egypt to rise because of me and for me. I am a free Egyptian who refuses totalitarianism of a minority over a majority or a majority over a minority. I am a free Egyptian who thinks that those who are more qualified should lead, regardless of their religion, gender or age. I believe that every Egyptian is my partner in this land and has the same rights and duties towards their home. I believe that being Egyptian is the core and most important element of my identity. I believe unity that is based on different elements brought together via dialogue and is rich in variety."

This is part of the reading of a document earlier this week at the popular Al-Azhar park by a group of politicians and intellectuals, whom call themselves the Mainstream Community. Is it a reaction to the alarming sectarian events during the past months, such as the Two Saints Church bombing at the beginning of this year, the Imbaba attacks on protesters two weeks ago or the Ain Shams struggles only last week? A defence against a strong, emerging Islamic power? Another grouping of wise men? Or is it merely another intellectuals’ initiative, like the dozens that have emerged since the revolution?

“It is merely a reminder that Egyptians have already built a modern state and have fought hard for a modern and just constitution“answers Samir Morqos, writer, historian and one of the founders of the Egyptian Mainstream Community. “Egyptians put a lot of effort in the 1923 constitution, they fought for independence for years and we cannot just forget history and start anew, post-revolution and surrender to a power that comes with new thoughts,” he continued. Among the founders are also Moataz Bellah Abdel Fatah, political the current PM’s political consultant and Islamic scholar, Mohamed Selim El-Awa and other intellectuals.

Many analysts have expressed their disappointment with the name.

“’Mainstream’ means that I am right and you are wrong: it marginalises those who don’t agree with it. Also, creative writers and thinkers have always been classified as going against the mainstream,” said Mustafa El-Labbad director of Al Sharq Centre (East centre) for regional and strategic studies.

Political activist, Akram Youssef, agrees with El-Labbad that the document especially marginalises politicians and ideologists. “It does appeal to most of the middle class, though, who are not inclined towards politics, political parties or movements and believe the revolution should end here and we should get back to work,” said Youssef who thinks the simplicity of the document’s language is meant to appeal to a middle class scared of Islamists and extreme ideologies.

Others don’t see the mainstream as exclusionary, but on the contrary, they see it as aiming to create an all-encompassing movement that subsumes everyone. “Nationalism is almost always problematic because of its ability to entrench exclusion by drawing lines separating the adherent and the outcast. Degrees of commitment, loyalty, and sacrifice to the nation become a way of undermining the contributions of many who choose to be unaffiliated. While nationalism tends to be grounded in a delusional, hyperbolic, grandiose infatuation with either self-worth or self-victimisation, this campaign appears to have steered clear of this kind of language. One cannot and should not compare this mainstream movement to the top-down nationalist projects that birthed neo-fascism. Its self-worth at the end of the day will have to be determined by its ability to respect those who do not support it,” said Adel Iskander media professor at Georgetown University.

Iskander believes the mainstream community is unlike the disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP) and other pre-revolution parties, which tend to derive their loyalty from exclusionary, rather than inclusive political and ideological views: “the mainstream campaign is a simple and embracing grassroots approach. However, it does lack the substantive details that would make it effective. While speaking of the goals that everyone agrees on, it rarely articulates on these or on the mechanisms to accomplish them beyond the municipal matters, such as road safety, street cleaning, etc. As they say: ‘the devil is in the details’ and it is these complications that make unity and agreement a precarious matter,” added Iskander.

But what is wrong with political parties and ideologies: Why does the mainstream movement avoid mentioning them?

The only thing the document persistently focused on is freedom. The word “free” appears 17 times in the one-page document. It appears in every line. However, it says nothing on class or equality.

Nevertheless, around 10 thousand people already “liked” the few days-old Facebook page; over 10 thousand people “like” the Youtube video featuring more than 10 random people from various socio-economical backgrounds that state they are for the mainstream and around five thousand actually signed the document, making it an apparent success.

The choice of people who spoke in the video is notable. The target audience clearly seems to be the man on the street: mainly those in  the middle-class who have no interest in ideologies and politics. They all say something along the lines of: “I am against Islamism or political ideologies, I am for the mainstream.”

Iskander speaks on this apparent range with a caveat: “While it seems to emit a universal message, it appears the target audience is politically-conscience urban youth...The incorporation of persons whose appearance and manner of expression are representative of a particular community is a very strategic part of the campaign. For instance, they interviewed veiled women, or men with beards or a prayer bumps on the forehead [from intensive Muslim prayers, which include prostrating the forehead to the floor] as well as those dressed in Western attire. All these indicators in one video communicate the applicability and outreach of the message to the pious and non-religious, the liberal and the Islamist, the Christian and the Muslim, the male and the female, etc....however, the campaign is heavily urban, young and middle-upper class. It does not feature upper Egyptians, non-Cairene accents and dialects, rural farming communities, middle-aged and elderly,” said Iskander.

The stress against religious fanaticism is the main objective behind the campaign. One wonders after the January 25 Revolution that pushed mainly for freedom, overruled a 30-year dictatorship and called for a modern civil state, do people really need to be reminded of the basics?

Morqos believes that many need to be reminded of what he calls the main Egyptian values that were created over the years. “Egyptians are moderate in nature: they don’t like fanaticism. We need to remind people to accept one another and that freedom and quality are values that should be cherished and practiced by whoever runs the country. Not every parliament should put in place a new constitution, nor every president create his own rules and overrule precedence and a consensus between Egyptians on certain values,” elaborated Morqos.

Mainstream is not the only initiative pushing for a secular state; there is also a group on Facebook called “Towards a secular state.” It has 2,000 members and they all agree on
the following:

1. All Egyptians are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
2. All Egyptians have the right to free thought and religion.
3. All Egyptians are equal before the law.
4. Any Egyptian is entitled to all rights and freedoms without distinction such as race, gender, religion or origin.
5. An Egyptian Secular (civil) state is the only way to achieve these objectives.
Also, in former statements in April, presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baradei has asked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to include an article in the constitution protecting Egypt’s status as a secular state.

The mainstream community has caused some confusion, and yet, gave many a reason to be optimistic. However, the coming weeks will prove how active the group is and whether it is just another movement in the long list of coalitions and movements or if it is really a pressure tool.

“The success of Tahrir was a result of a common objective, which everyone united behind, irrespective of ideology, creed, vision, affiliation, socioeconomic background, etc. The Mainstream movement's ability to consolidate a following will be determined by their articulation of a clear set of broad, tangible, believable and achievable goals that the majority can rally behind. That is their most challenging task,” said Iskander.

The Egypt mainstream facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/egyptmainstream and the document could be found on  http://www.alshaabyoreed.com/agreement.aspx

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