The surprising force behind change in Cairo
Iman BibarsIn the space of two years, ordinary Egyptian citizens have organized and led two revolutions that caused two distinct dictatorial regimes to fall. These were street-led revolutions against autocratic regimes that had the support of the U.S. and were thus seen to be invincible.
Although a large majority of Egyptians regard the two events as movements within a single revolution, they were very different in motive and structure, just as the two regimes differed radically from one another. The 2011 revolution, which brought down Hosni Mubarak, was led by the upper-middle class, who recognized the need for large-scale social change to address widespread unemployment, an ailing economy, and rampant political corruption. The more recent revolution was a movement for all, brought about by Mohamed Morsi’s government and its inability to address the root causes of discontent — poverty, inequality, the decline of living standards — and their focus, instead, on securing their own grip on power.
This distinction has been lost on many observers. In the month leading up to the June 30th demonstrations, I was amazed by how a great many of my friends and colleagues outside Egypt regarded events within the country. Most of them believed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of the poor and marginalized, and that the only people calling for change were the young, ideological revolutionaries or middle-class Egyptians who had been educated overseas.
The reality is much more complicated. A considerable number of people from small villages participated in the June 30th movement. Urban squatters and people from conservative Upper Egypt — the southern part of the country, home to the majority of Egypt’s poorest citizens — were among the first demonstrators. Unlike the middle class, which demonstrated because of ideological convictions, low-income Egyptians had more practical reasons for taking to the streets: hungry families, shuttered schools and no prospects of employment.
For context, consider that a quarter of Egypt’s citizens now live below the poverty line. Living conditions for many low-income families have worsened since 2008, compounded by issues such as high unemployment and a rapidly growing population. These problems have been further aggravated by the political instability that has characterized the post-2011 revolution period, with security diminishing, foreign investment and tourism dwindling and the economy stagnating. The official unemployment rate increased from 9.6 percent prior to the revolution to over 13 percent last year.
The goals of the 2011 revolution have not come even close to being met. The socioeconomic and regional disparities in income have in fact grown, contrary to expectations. In the year after the January 2011 revolution, economic growth fell to 2 percent — a startling drop from its 7 percent rate before the revolution.
Morsi’s presidential campaign promised — but never delivered — jobs, better economic opportunities and an end to corruption. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood used sectarian tension and divisions as a means of control, labeling detractors as members of the old regime and inciting hatred against Christians and Shi’ite Muslims. By supporting Hamas terrorists above Egyptian army soldiers, they incensed the lower-middle class — whose sons, brothers and fathers comprise the military. For this group, military service is sometimes the only opportunity for upward social mobility.
What we succeeded in doing in 2011 was extraordinary, but in the aftermath and euphoria of this achievement we allowed the revolution to be hijacked by a group that sought only to secure its own interests.
We must be smarter this time. Our new interim government has been formed in consultation with many different stakeholders — including Islamists — in order to promote inclusivity. Those who have assumed leading roles are more educated and open to the wider world than Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They know that improving food and social security and economic opportunities for all is crucial if they are to remain in power. Increased political participation from the urban and rural poor is a crucial first step for more just and effective political representation, where our leaders feel accountable to all sectors of society. Western commentators viewing the events in Egypt have every right to raise concerns about the military takeover, but they should avoid drawing conclusions based on easy classifications. They must recognize that in some ways the situation here is very fluid, but at the same time there are long-standing loyalties and allegiances that are deep and enduring.
The revolution that we saw on June 30th had its roots not only in a well-organized ampaign by the youth of the Tamarod movement, but by collective participation from people of all ages, backgrounds and income brackets. It worked because it appealed to legitimate grievances felt by a majority of Egyptian citizens who were once again prepared to take to the streets to defend our right to speak and to resist authoritarian rule. Within this larger movement, the role played by the poor and marginalized cannot be overestimated; their reasons for disillusionment with Morsi were manifold and their actions were a response to increased poverty, increased exclusion and cumulative fury at the arrogance of the Muslim Brotherhood and their cronies and their betrayal of this country.
Iman Bibars is the co-founder of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, an NGO that supports low-income women in Egypt. This piece was published by Reuters.