From the couch to sit-ins: Egypt's silent majority finds its voice

Yasmine Fathi , Friday 14 Dec 2012

Egypt's silent majority also known as the 'Couch Party' joins the revolution after increasing public discontent with President Mohamed Morsi's decisions


For three weeks, Mahmoud Nakhla has been driving frequently from his hometown of Suez, a seaport city on the north coast, to Cairo to join the anti-government protests.

Sometimes he would go to the iconic Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo. Other times he would choose to join the protesters in front of the Itihadiya Presidential Palace.

“What was important for me was to be among the people and to protest the injustices that I saw,” Nakhla, an engineer said.

“I was so angry, I wanted to scream and shout ‘down with the regime' with all my heart,” he added.

Even though the Egyptian revolution will celebrate its second anniversary next month, this was the first time Nakhla joined any protest. In fact, till this point, his main vantage point during the revolution was his couch.

“That is why they say that people like me are members of the 'Couch Party,'” laughs Nakhla.

The term ‘Couch Party,' made its way into Egypt shortly after the 18-day uprising when furious revolutionaries complained about the Egyptians who refused to go to Tahrir Square or join the protests that continued to rock the country in 2011.

'Couch Party': Reasons for joining anti-constitution protests

But, President Mohamed Morsi made a series of decisions which seemed to irk many people, including the 'Couch Party.'

He released a constitutional decree that put his decisions above judicial review and allowed the Constituent Assembly to rush the final draft of the constitution through a 16-hour rushed voting session.

“After I heard these decisions, I felt that I cannot take it anymore,” explained Nakhla.

“I was also furious at the way the Muslim Brotherhood called for their supporters to back the president. I felt that they will burn the country and I need to go and help save Egypt,” he said.

Nakhla is not the only one to feel this way. Nagla Nosseir, a mother and telecommunications manager, also joined the protests for the first time after the constitutional decree.

“I joined the protests when I lost hope, when I could no longer see a better future for my country. I was waiting for things to get better after the transitional period, but they did not," she said.

Karim Mousafa, an employee in the educational sector, pointed out that he joined the protests for the first time, because he felt that the recent decisions gave Morsi exceptional powers.

“President Morsi is now becoming an even bigger dictator than Mubarak. He is playing with the constitution like it is a toy,” Moustafa said.

Gamel Rashed, who also joined the protests for the first time after the constitutional decree, said that many members of the silent majority felt that the political turmoil was starting to hit too close to home.

“The more it gets closer to people’s personal interests, the bigger the protests will get,” he said.

'Couch Party' participation in Egypt's past political turmoil

Rashed pointed out that members of the 'Couch Party' have not always been passive, but have appeared in crucial moments during the past two years.

“They made an appearance during the 19 March referendum. Again, with the parliamentary elections, and then the 'Couch Party' appeared again in the presidential elections because it was really starting to get close,” he said.

When Egypt's Constituent Assembly was formed by the parliament to draft the new constitution, many Egyptians, he said, were not concerned.

“They were sitting at home relaxed because they knew that the Supreme Constitutional Court will dissolve the constituent assembly,” he said. “When this did not happen, it was a shock and they felt that they needed to take action.”

Ahmed Khalil, a capital market expert, also cited the border attacks in Sinai, during the past couple of years, as one of the triggers that made him join the protests.

“There is a lack of national security and an increase in community terrorism,” he said.

Hania Shulkami, Assistant Research Professor at the Social Research Centre in the American University of Cairo, explained that many Egyptians felt snubbed by the current regime.

Shulkami pointed out that the turning point was during the celebrations for the 6th October war in the Cairo Stadium. President Morsi controversially invited an Islamist dominated audience to attend the celebrations and proceeded to address them.

“He behaved as if only the people inside the stadium counted and everyone outside did not. Since that day he proceeded to address only his people and ignored everyone else. Morsi made many people feel alienated in their own country," Shulkami said.

“As a result, the 'Couch Party' began joining street protests as a way of saying we are here and our voice counts,” she said. “This was their Tahrir moment,” Shulkami explained.

Shulkami added that the increasing hate speech used by Islamists against opponents has left a bitter taste among many people. “Calling people heretics, threatening them that they will go to hell has radicalised people, made them furious,” she said.

The arrival of these news faces has earned mixed reviews from long-time revolutionaries, who wondered why they waited so long to join the revolution.

They asked why 'Couch Party' members did not protest against human rights violations that took place in Egypt since the launch of the revolution, referring to the violent attacks and killing of protesters during the clashes with the ruling military council or the trial of thousands of civilians in front of the military court.

However, psychiatrist and human rights activist, Ehab El-Kharrat said that this is because the silent majority were not personally affected by these incidents.

“The indifferent majority did not feel any threat when activists were attacked in protests or tried in front of military courts. Now they feel that their livelihood or lifestyle is in real danger," El-Kharrat said.

El-Kharrat added that many members of the silent majority were also angry because President Morsi did not fulfil any of the promises he made to the public.

Will 'Couch Party' members become permanent political actors in Egypt?

“The deterioration of trust towards the Brotherhood has been remarkably rapid. I think those who are indifferent or mildly opposing Morsi are now staunch opponents of the regime,” he said. “This is not because of ideological reasons, but because of his sense of incompetence, dishonesty and lack of integrity that has manifested itself in a number of situations,” he said.

El-Kharrat also added that the fact that so many previously passive people joined the revolution lately signals a change in Egypt’s political scene, which has long been, dominated by Islamists. “The support to liberals and leftists among the middle class and the farmers is growing rapidly," El-Kharrat explained.

“The aristocrats and Cairo's upper class suburbs of Zamalek, Heliopolis, Maadi and others are also demonstrating in the streets. We are talking about people who earn thousands or are even millions of Egyptian pounds. They are not only opposing but putting themselves in the face of danger in the streets," he further added.

What comes next however is still unclear. Will the silent majority reclaim their places on the couch once the current political turmoil subsides, or have they now become permanent participants in the revolution?

“Right now everybody has been forced through an intense course of political education,” El-Kharrat said. “I am not sure if they will keep protesting in the streets. Yet, I am sure they will vote and join parties and political movements in the future."

For one, Nakhla says he will continue his newly found political activism.

“Once you find your voice, you can never be silenced again,” El-Kharrat said.

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