One hundred days of alienation
A sense of powerlessness has found its way among many Egyptians who do not identify themselves with the ruling troika of president, Freedom and Justice Party and Muslim Brotherhood, writes Ahmed El-Tonsi
Signs of popular disenchantment have become explicit recently, as manifested by the demonstration of 24 September, described by the media as led by fulul, or remnants, of the previous regime, and by that of 31 August with its predominantly leftist orientation. The same thing can be said about the demonstrations that took place in front of the US embassy in Cairo, during which some Islamists became disillusioned with the official stand of the government and even of the Muslim Brotherhood. Much the same has been the case with the current surge of sit-ins and strikes.
There has been growing dissatisfaction with the political system, and there has been the increasing visibility of the so-called "ultras" and their disruptive actions. Such developments have illustrated that some sectors in society are in a state of varying apprehension, if not anxiety, regarding the present situation and that this apprehension can be easily triggered. Evidently, the receptivity of the masses to calls for forms of collective contestation has not waned.
The persistence of this as a distinctive form of political behaviour points to the fact that there is at least a portion of the masses that is alienated from the evolving political system with its various actors, orientations and institutions. In other words, there are sections among the masses that feel distant from the newly established political system. A growing sense of powerlessness has found its way among some Egyptians who do not identify themselves with the ruling troika of the president, the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. This alienation has been reflected in the abstentionism, as well as the spoilt votes, experienced in the legislative and presidential elections.
Much the same could be said about the sense of meaninglessness that could be argued to be spreading among many sectors of the body politic, which have questioned the responsiveness or receptivity of the newly established political institutions and whether these represent all individuals in society. Political apathy is not the only consequence of political alienation, however. Some researchers like US political scientist David C. Schwartz have used a psychological approach when analysing political alienation and its link to political behaviour and have concluded that political alienation often precedes revolutionary outbursts, with the people shifting from "passive" to "active" alienation.
Moreover, Schwartz has highlighted that "empirical research has found political alienation to be significantly associated with a wide range of political behaviours, including revolutionary behaviour, reformism, support for demagogues, non-voting, protest voting, participation in radical political movements and the vicarious use of the mass media."
Many reasons can be advanced to explain the growing alienation experienced in Egypt as reflected in the different kinds of protests mentioned above. Such reasons lie, on the one hand, in the electoral dynamics of the run-off presidential elections and on the other in the practices of the troika since it assumed executive power.
Firstly, President Mohamed Morsi won the elections with an incoherent, transient and narrow majority. Many people have claimed that narrow majorities have been the rule in many democracies, citing the French and US presidential elections as examples. However, Morsi's majority was largely based on his rival having been a former member of the ousted Mubarak regime. His narrow majority was a conditional and provisional yes that reflected a big no to former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik. This narrow majority has been a temporary one, and it has been in question since the second day after Morsi's election.
The dissolution of such an ad hoc majority was inevitable, particularly given the loud voices of some in the Brotherhood that were likely to alienate non-Islamist sectors from Morsi's volatile voting bloc. Moreover, the nature of Morsi's camp should be seen as a precarious amalgamation of too many forces with very diverse demands. Electoral bills will soon become overdue within Morsi's shaky coalition, with the Salafis becoming alienated from the troika since it represents what some Salafis perceive as an Islamist current that is too moderated by the realities of political life.
For some Salafis, Islamisation is not synonymous with ikhwanisation, in other words, the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that Yasser Burhami and others met with Shafik has been depicted as showing the precariousness of such a fragile and exceptionally pragmatic coalition.
Patronage and appointees to public offices may become another thorny issue that may lead to further dissatisfaction within Morsi's camp, if not within the core party and Brotherhood association. The current disarray within the Salafist Nour Party has not been far from such hidden conflicts within Morsi's camp, and other radical factions inside the Islamists, such as the jihadists, have expressed some disappointment with the performance of the troika in office. Though Morsi's retirement of top military leaders in August to some extent added to the solidarity of elements within his constituency, the fact remains that his popular power base has not been a monolithic body except on the run-off elections day.
Secondly, Egyptian elections have been peculiar as they have reflected deep political polarisation over the role of religion in the new state. The two run-off elections candidates, Morsi and Shafik, represented two mutually exclusive political options. According to political commentator Marc Lynch, "the political polarisation of the last year and a half, fuelled by all too many political and rhetorical mistakes on all sides, has left profound scars. The Shafik voters in the presidential elections have hardly reconciled themselves to Morsi, and most activists and revolutionaries remain as alienated as ever from a political struggle dominated by the military and the Brotherhood."
The coalition formed out of necessity behind Shafik was soon to be shattered, with half of the voters rendered mere offshoots of a losing and deserted political trend. Many of these offshoots, of varying sizes and relevance, have become alienated from the evolving political scene dominated by the viscerally exclusionist Muslim Brotherhood. Some sectors of society, such as the Copts, have had an increasing sense of anxiety over the future of citizenship in Egypt, both in theory and in practice. For some, the victory of political Islam has been a sea-change that has made Egypt a different country and one in which they cannot imagine themselves living. Accordingly, some political trends, disillusioned with the outcome of the presidential elections, may have been acting as resistors to such radical change rather than merely decorative political opponents of the new order.
Thirdly, despite the peculiarities of its electoral victory the Brotherhood and its political party and affiliates have been arrogantly investing almost the entire political scene with nearly all its actors and institutions. Such an unfounded sense of accomplishment on the Brotherhood's part looks irresponsible, as the power politics favoured by the troika cannot substitute for policy formulation aiming at concrete deliverables here on earth. Indulging in the consolidation of their power, the Brotherhood and its political party have not made a politically impressive debut that could have amassed popular support, or that at minimum could have shown a positive start to the new era and reflected sincere efforts in pursuing national consensus.
Moreover, the practices of the troika have intensified the sense of powerlessness felt by many political forces. For example, the troika has turned aside from its legal, constitutional and political obligations and continued on its own march towards drafting the new constitution, leading to a growing sense of powerlessness among those who have been excluded. Many political figures have rejected joining the presidential institutions, feeling that the troika would not be receptive to their input, a conclusion that has been reflected the sense of meaninglessness and normlessness characteristic of political alienation.
Fourthly, in the economic sphere little has been done while the troika has been active in pursuing its own political objective of power consolidation. Save for the writing off of farmers' debts, it could be argued that the troika has not even begun addressing the serious economic conditions suffered by the vast majority of Egyptians. Such an ambivalent approach towards economic recovery could be problematic in terms of its impact on the impoverished masses, let alone its political costs in terms of rising instability, particularly as a result of any imposed conditionality from the IMF that might add to the day-to-day economic woes felt by the mass of the population, including the still-excluded youth.
The real, as well as the most serious, bill that is overdue has been the need to address the drastic socioeconomic situation that, inter alia, gave rise to the 25 January Revolution and still casts dark shadows in terms of political instability and social upheaval. Thus far, Morsi has been addressing the economic situation as being a process rather than pursuing tangible reforms.
The ongoing protests should have carried this news to the troika. A qualitative dimension can be identified within the demonstrations, and the slogans used have been serious in terms of their political implications, reflecting not just an erroneous lack of tolerance of the electoral results but also a challenging anti-establishment rhetoric. Solitude is not the only outcome of political alienation.
The writer is a political analyst.