Bread, Dignity, and Justice (2.0)

by andrewcagle

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(Protestors in Egypt hold signs of ousted President Mohammed Morsi that read “Irhal” or “get out” in Arabic. Photo: AP)

In following the June 30th protests, and the subsequent ouster of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, it seems that everyone is trying to make sense out of the fast paced chaos occurring up and down the Nile . Tracking political developments in the Arab world from the West is a challenge. There are more questions than answers in the minds of most people. Everyone has strong opinions about what many are calling a coup, and others are calling a popular uprising. The inadequacy of each term to accurately describe the event has led to the adoption of the phrase “coupvolution” by some. This is not a post to advocate a particular side, but to work towards gaining an accurate understanding of societal opinion as a whole in regards to civil governance.

While trying to gain a picture of the future through the window of the present, a major struggle arises: How accurately do the events we are witnessing reflect the reality of public opinion? Are the Egyptian people are getting what they really want?

The Reality of Social Media and Narrative Formation

For those of us in the West, it is important to be aware of certain limitations put on media to give a complete picture of unfolding events. I want to mainly focus on the internet and social media as a source. 

In regards to Egypt and the touted role of social media in the Arab uprisings, there are some critical caveats. It is important to note that Twitter and Facebook are not as important to influencing what happened and happens inside Egypt, as changing the ability of the West to follow the events in real time. The majority of political organizing in Egypt is still done on foot. Twitter is an indispensable tool for gathering information, but is largely skewed when it comes to gathering public opinion.

In Egypt, less than 1% of the population uses Twitter. Social media tends to exclude the lower classes, anyone without regular internet access, a computer, or smart phone. Furthermore, most Egyptians post in Arabic, creating a large language barrier for 99% of Westerners. Those that tweet in English are dominated by individuals that belong to secular and more liberal political spheres. Geographically, news coverage and social media gravitate towards what is happening in Cairo. While the massive city is the focal point of the country, the outlying governorates do not receive equal coverage. These areas also tend to be more conservative. Cairo represents roughly 19 million of Egypt’s population of 84 million.

For these reasons, the secular and liberal constituency in Egypt has an amplified voice to those of us listening in the West. This is not to diminish the importance of their views, but to bring awareness to how our perceptions of Egyptian opinion may be formed from the narratives we are exposed to.

Polling Public Opinion on Religion and Government

On to the question of how to gain the most accurate picture of reality from incomplete information. First off, saying what will or will not happen with any certainty, in my opinion, is an exercise in futility. What we can do, however, is do our best to understand what motivates the current and future actions of individuals and constituent groups. To do this, we must pair information gained from the news with historical context and the most up-to-date public opinion available.

The past week has witnessed a large popular movement against Egypt’s president, supported by the Egyptian military. It is important to remember that Mohammed Morsi was voted into office by elections that were deemed free and fair by independent monitoring agencies. Leading up to the June 30th protests, the opposition’s Tamarod campaign collected 22 million signatures expressing a vote of no-confidence in Morsi and calling for early elections. That number indicates that the movement goes beyond being exclusively secular. It also displays a commitment to the ballot box. Movements of the street are an essential element of a free society, but also a difficult metric. How do we correlate the number in the streets with the overall sentiments of the people? 

Gallup and Pew have done some of the most extensive public opinion polling of the Arab and Muslim world. I will mainly use Pew here, but also recommend the book Who Speaks for Islam? published by Gallup. By seeking out the foundations of Egyptians’ beliefs and philosophy of civil government, we can gauge how the citizenry will react to developments during the transition period. 

Here are a group of key questions accompanied with data from Egypt produced by Pew Research. 

Pew Global Attitudes Project: Egypt (2010-2012)

What is the view of Islam’s role in politics?

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The Quran as a source of legal code.

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Who do Egyptians look to as a governing model?

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The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society (2013)

Religious Freedom

Among Egyptians, 77% of Muslims “say it is good that others are very free to practice their faith.”

View of Islamic political parties

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Even among Egyptians dissatisfied with the direction of the country, the vast majority prefer Islamist parties.

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In the West, there is a tendency to frame the narrative as a fight between Islamism and secularism. That tension definitely exists, but misses the core of what is driving current opposition movements and counter protests. The data shows that the June 30th protests and Tamarod movement were less about opposition to Islamist leadership and more about the failure of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to reform institutions, improve the economy, and strengthen inclusive politics. While the perception of Islam’s role in politics at any given time is more subject to current events, Egyptians see Islam as having an important part to play in the guidance of civil society.

The Tipping Point

As with the the January 25 protests of 2011 that ousted former President Mubarak, the tipping point leading to Morsi’s fall is the same. The economy. The battle cry of the Egyptian uprisings for the past two years have been “bread, dignity, and social justice.” The protests hold long-time frustrations of longing for freedom, but are brought to the streets by the insufferable daily struggle for a decent life. Morsi was asked to “meet the demands of the people.” That demand was jobs and a better economy. Here is an overview of the economic state of Egypt during Morsi’s year in office. (Stats from Rebel Economy)

The Egyptian pound lost 15% of it’s value against the dollar.

Unemployment increased from 12.6% to 13.2%. (It was 8.9% before the 2011 uprisings)

The budget deficit has widened from 11% of GDP to 14%

Last summer, before Morsi came into office, Egyptians were clear in the emphasis they put on the economy as a political priority. A Gallup study conducted in June 2012 found that across political parties, Egyptians listed the economy as the number one issue the government should address. The report discovered that 95% of Egyptians said food prices were too high, and 88% expressed that “it is a bad time to find a job in the city or area in which they live.” Meaningful work and a home free of hunger are essential to securing “bread” and “dignity.” If the next leaders of Egypt fail to make progress on the nation’s economic state, we may see history repeat itself Summer 2014.