A tale of two Egypts

Ibrahim Nawar , Thursday 10 Jan 2013

Well-heeled and educated, or poor and religious: Egypt must make room for both

There have always been two Egypts. One belongs to the deprived, the needy and illiterate. It is the Egypt of the countryside and the big-city slums. This Egypt lives at the bottom, protected from the rulers by what may be termed the survival economy. With the benefit of strong religious beliefs, it has survived centuries of tyranny and occupation; it has always been suspicious of the outside world. The second Egypt belongs to the wealthy, the educated and the cultured who are open to the outside world. It lives closer to the top, in the big cities; it has always been able to smoothly reshape its culture and attitudes to stay in that position, making peace with tyranny, even occupation.


Between those two Egypts grew a severe divide that few have recognised and no one could bridge. Yet if the Egypts do not come closer together, all the worse for everyone involved. The political elite from both camps is mistaken to blame the other for what went wrong during the transitional period following the 25 January revolution. And the us-or-them approach to politics is a vicious circle. Islamsts and civil forces must both realise that under a free, democratic, multi-party system, power can change hands to the benefit of everyone. Together the two camps form the fabric of Egyptian society, and only by working together in harmony will Egyptian society improve.


It was in the wake of the revolution that this divide became clearer than ever before, reflected in the 75 to 25 percent vote on the 19 March 2011 referendum as much as the elections-first vs. constitution-first disagreement. It was geographically delineated in the parliamentary elections and, most recently, the referendum on the new constitution (with roughly the same ratio), with Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta as well as the slum areas in Cairo and Alexandria supporting the Islamists and the urban population voting against them. And politicians have been trying to exploit the gulf that separates Egyptians, pusuing their interests at the expense of a country in political confusion since the fall of Hosny Mubarak.


Poor Egypt voted for the Islamists in order to deny representatives of Rich Egypt the right to rule -- an act of politic revenge in which rigging can only have played a minor part -- also reflecting the absence of the civil forces in many constituencies. Political awareness will prevent rigging anyway, and the liberal elite must find ways of connecting with the masses to counter Islamist methods. For Islamists, for example, the mosque is a place of recruitment, mobilisation, fundraising and propaganda. Islamists have also recruited teachers working at schools, including primary schools located all over the countryside; they carry the message of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. How will the Islamists' opponents compete?

The divide between the two Egypts will persist, but bridging it is an urgent responsibility for the political elite. I believe that this task will be carried out successfully through the forthcoming parliamentary elections and beyond, as I expect to see dramatic change in the political landscape. Part of this change will affect the elite themselves. Those who emerged in the opposition as byproduct of the old regime will soon die away, while another structure will emerge and grow stronger on the basis of the new order.


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