Egyptian Popular Opinion and Continuing Protests

Nov 28

A facebook friend posted an article today which provided polling data in support of the conclusion that Egyptians overwhelmingly believe that continued protests are damaging Egypt’s future prospects by the shocking margin of 84% (against) to 13% (in favor).  I don’t doubt the accuracy of these numbers; I just doubt their normative significance as a guide for future political action.  I then engaged in a lengthy discussion with a couple of friends on this point, and another facebook friend suggested I post this on my blog to give it wider distribution.  So, here it goes:

I said in response to the claim that this data proves conclusively that the demonstrations in Tahrir should stop:

I disagree with the relevance of polling data to this question. The median Egyptian, to put it mildly, is not very politically sophisticated, and is suffering extreme economic hardship. Moreover, the median Egyptian has a very simplistic understanding of the relationship between governance and economic prosperity.

The analogy I like to make about Egypt is that it is like a very long train that was hurtling toward a cliff. The only thing the Revolution did was keep the train from hurtling over the cliff by stopping it. Those in the back of the train, the majority of the passengers, don’t even realize there is a cliff; they only know that the train is dirty and uncomfortable. The train can only resume its journey after new track is laid, and the train is removed from its old track and re-positioned so that it can proceed safely down the new track. This will take time, a long time, but you have to get rid of the conductor to have any hope of success. The conductor, after all, because he sees the impending disaster, is betting that he will be able to jump off in a timely fashion before everything is destroyed. SCAF, if you will, is the conductor, and so far has shown no sign that it is willing to build a new track.

The continued demonstrations so far have been the only way to hold SCAF accountable. I am not, by any means, a supporter of demonizing the MB or any other group in Egyptian politics, e.g., labor; what I want to see is the establishment of governing institutions that are accountable to the Egyptian people. The SCAF has thus far not shown any evidence that they share such a desire; instead, they persistently trot out paternalistic arguments about their superior patriotism, etc., which, above all, indicates a refusal to permit the people to hold them accountable. I am fine with the election going forward, and indeed I voted myself, but only on the expectation that the Parliament will become a nascent source of resistance to SCAF and not a group of sycophants applauding at each and every action of the Mushir, much as the NDP did during Mubarak’s reign. It is highly likely, given the absurd rules governing this election (my votes might very well be nullified, for example, even though I followed the directions precisely and voted for two candidates from the fi’at), that a sycophantic parliament will be elected. In that case, demonstrations will have to resume, and in fact, I think they should continue prophylactically to prevent backsliding.

Another friend responded by saying:

The relevance of the data, which is what I think will be painful for a lot of people, is that the demonstrations are *not* popular with a majority of Egyptians. So all this talk that has been going on of how Tahrir really speaks for the silent majority is frankly ridiculous. More pertinent for me is that it handicaps Tahrir from identifying serious challenges and obstacles to ensuring change for Egypt. 

We cannot expect to consider Tahrir as a mechanism for holding SCAF accountable quite so simply if the majority of Egyptians continue to consider Tahrir as a problem. So far, and I’m sure you saw this the last time you were in Egypt, Tahriris (and I consider myself one of them) simply would not take serious measures to engage with the masses at large. Many would not even consider that the masses needed to be engaged with — that they were already onside, because the country had supported Tahrir for Jan25-Feb11. 

We desperately need Tahrir to be relevant, for all the reasons you cite above. And we simply will not have that if the harsh truth of lack of popular support is not taken very seriously.

To this I responded:

If what you are saying is that it is necessary to mobilize hizb al-kanaba [the couch poatatoes], I am with you. Most of the criticisms I’ve seen of continued demonstrations, however, is based on the assumption that they are bad for the country. I disagree with that latter. Obviously, and I have been saying this from the beginning, what is needed is to raise the level of the people’s political sophistication, but the problem is that the SCAF is manipulating (i) divisions among the politically active segments of the Egyptian population, which I agree is a minority of Egyptians, (ii) fears of the average person that the country will collapse without “security,” and (iii) the prestige of the Army as one of the few truly national institutions that is semi-functional. It is not clear if there is sufficient time both to raise consciousness of the depth of the problems before us and prevent the SCAF from attempting to reestablish military dictatorship. That’s why I see a two-track process: continued street demonstrations and labor strikes combined with building new institutions. Of course, God knows best. What is clear to me is that the “plan” of the SCAF is doomed to fail, because the Tahriris, whether “secular” or “Islamist,” represent the tiny portion of Egypt that is actually productive in terms of human capital. The purpose of the continued demonstrations is to prevent the return of a sycophantic civilian political class. That is why I think they are right to refuse legitimacy to someone like Ganzuri. The SCAF cannot govern without such sycophants’ assistance. The demonstrations have been extremely effective in preventing the return of such fools to positions of authority, and for that reason alone, should continue.

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