Egypt divided: a reading into a crisscrossed map

Hani Shukrallah , Thursday 8 Nov 2012

Triumphant revolutions tend to unite the majority of the population. Not so stalled revolutions. Nearly two years after the great 18-day popular uprising, Egypt is a deeply divided nation

The Egyptian revolution blew the top off a deeply divided society. It did much more, as its creators recreated themselves, the few thousands became hundreds of thousands, and a nation in which political space had all but withered away, found itself politicized in ways and to such a degree, unprecedented for generations, possibly since the birth of politics on the banks of the Nile in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Yet, if anything, the revolution sharpened the schisms already extant in Egyptian society, which had been blunted, controlled, manipulated and hidden away under the all encompassing lid of the Mubarak police state, held tightly and seemingly incontrovertibly for 30 years via the twin instruments of unbridled repression and wide-ranging clientism.

The revolution did so even as it gave birth to new, massive and profound cleavages which not only created new battle lines, but redrew all of the old ones.

Revolutions, by definition, are never made by the whole people; rather by a critical mass of the most aware, most courageous, and most socially and politically conscious members of the society. To succeed at all they need to secure the sympathy, and/or neutrality of a considerable majority of the people.

The Egyptian revolution easily fulfilled these two conditions. An estimated seven million out of Egypt’s population of 82.5 million (a critical mass by any criteria) took an active part in the revolution, while, as Brookings Institution scholar H.A. Hellyer indicated in an article on Ahram Online not long ago, Gallup polls taken multiple times during 2011 showed 8 out of 10 Egyptians supported the revolution.

The Egyptian revolution, nevertheless, was largely an urban phenomenon, not so much different in this respect from the seminal revolution of modern history, the great French Revolution of 1789. Rural Egypt, which accounts for some 42% of the population, stood for the most part on the sidelines during the heroic 18 days of January/February 2011.

Triumphant revolutions, by virtue of their seizure of state power, tend to pull the stragglers along, which in turn enables them to offer the languid peasantry a share of the fruits of revolution, freeing them (to this or that extent) from the yoke of the big landowners, and giving them greater access to what peasants everywhere most desire, ownership, real or de facto, of the land they till. (The French Revolution gave them as well, revolutionary war, foreign conquest, including not least, Egypt, and for a period, empire.)

Not so, a revolution hijacked: First by the military, soon after by a military-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, briefly by the military on its own, and finally by a Muslim Brotherhood-military alliance

The results of the first round of presidential elections in post-revolution Egypt are remarkably revealing of the urban-rural divide, as of many other features of the nation’s political map – in so far as they provided us with our first sense of the real configuration of forces, leanings and inclinations in the country.

Overall, the revolution won the great cities of the country while rural Egypt was split – literally down the middle – between the military’s foloul (Mubarak regime remnant) candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

Non-Islamist revolutionary candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi easily won Cairo, Greater Cairo, Alexandria, and came well ahead in the combined vote of the nation’s coastal cities. If we add his vote to that of the other main revolutionary candidate, democratic Islamist Abdel-Monem Aboul-Fotouh, we are faced with a landslide victory for the revolutionary vote in all these regions, accounting for over 40 percent of the total national vote, compared to 25 percent for Morsi and 23 for Shafiq.

The countryside, including a great many provincial towns went the other way. So glaring was the urban-rural electoral divide that Palestinian political writer Azmi Bishara commented in a tweet at the time, describing the Egyptian elections as evidencing “classical political sociology”, with the great urban centres going for the revolution, while the countryside continued to be held in the grip of both religion and the state.  

No less interesting was the rural divide itself. Give Egypt’s first-round presidential electoral map various colours: say, red for the revolutionary vote, represented by both Sabbahi and Abul-Fotouh, blue for the counter-revolution, represented by Shafiq and green for the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafist vote, represented by Morsi, and you get an amazing picture. Huge deep red circles engulfing Greater Cairo and Alexandria, stretching out to cover the whole Beheira province, a red band running down the Suez Canal coast, a large swath of green covering Upper Egypt, and the Delta in blue.

Retrospectively, it makes a lot of sense. Upper Egypt, socially and culturally conservative, interminably neglected by central governments in Cairo, and administered by bureaucrats who’d much rather be elsewhere, goes for the Brotherhood, while the Delta, an arm’s throw of the central government, continued to be held in the tight grip of state patronage, for decades administered by the erstwhile ruling NDP and associated state bodies.

Notwithstanding the January Revolution, elections in the Egyptian countryside remained fundamentally about patronage, not politics.

Mainstream fundamentalist Islamism as an ideological and political current is unique in that it draws on the destitution, degradation and profound feelings of injustice among the poor, while being in possession of extraordinarily rich organizations, well able to provide extensive patronage networks of their own, including employment in a large array of Islamist owned businesses, a host of social services, more often than not mosque linked, as well as direct bribes to real and potential voters, e.g. the famed “gift” bags of sugar and bottles of cooking oil.

The numbers from the first presidential electoral round reveal a host of other divisions crisscrossing the nation’s political map. Among these is the Islamist/non-Islamist divide. The combined vote for non-Islamist candidates accounted for a surprising 57 percent of the total vote, compared to 43 percent for the Islamist candidates, including Aboul-Fotouh, whose electoral base embraced a great many non-Islamists, who chose him both in his capacity as a revolutionary candidate, and as an Islamist democrat who could unite the nation.

For its part, the second and final round of the presidential election showed a nation split practically down the middle. The mere fact that 48 percent of the electorate voted for a verbally challenged, corruption- tainted “remnant” of the Mubarak regime, who moreover had pledged – if in his own largely garbled vernacular – to stamp out a revolution that 8 out of 10 Egyptians said they supported, was a stark indication of the depth of dread in which nearly half the voters held Brotherhood rule.

Urban versus rural, Upper versus Lower Egypt, revolution versus counter-revolution, the revolutionaries and the families of the martyrs versus the security and military bodies that killed, maimed and tortured thousands among them, Islamists versus non-Islamists, the poor versus the filthy rich, labour versus state and private sector owners, democratic Islamists versus authoritarian Islamists, pragmatic Islamists versus Salafi Islamists, Jihadists versus everybody, patronage versus politics, Muslims versus Copts, the valley versus the outlying Bedouin regions, the profound, revolution-based yearnings for democracy and freedom versus the powerful tendencies towards authoritarianism – the divisions run every which way, and they run deep.

The power structure, for its own part, remains deeply fractured. The military has taken a back-seat, but continues to be a principal, even a paramount partner in the configuration of power in the country. (There is substantial evidence that SCAF’s ouster was much more an internal military “reshuffle” than the ostensibly “brilliant coup” claimed by President Morsi's fan-club.)

Meanwhile, the old oligarchs of the Mubarak regime will continue to vie with the up-and-coming oligarchs of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood itself is increasingly rent with divisions, between the Gama’a and the party, and the party and the president, to name but the most prominent.

And the domestic security bodies remain an unknown quantity, which seems to answer to various mainstays of the power structure at the same time and only to itself a lot of the time. It seems happy to do the president’s bidding when it suits its inherently repressive, vicious inclinations, while all the time playing dirty little games of its own, both upon request (of whichever source) and gratuitously.

A nation so deeply and so extensively divided is a nation that can be saved only through an inclusive democracy. It is only through democracy in the fullest sense of the word (not just the ballot box); only through the widest provision and protection of the civil liberties of all citizens, can the various social, political and cultural orientations and interests crisscrossing the nation peacefully compete, negotiate, build bridges, and ultimately create and recreate new syntheses of social and political order.

Mr Morsi, a word to your ear: authoritarianism simply will not work.




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