Egypt’s experiences in the past two years have driven home the fact that the revolution’s most important challenges were not just to bring down the old regime and its chief figures but also to sustain itself and realize its goals. The revolution’s values of freedom, human dignity and social justice can only take root in society when there exists a cultural, social and political climate conducive to these values and conducive to the decline of the culture of despotism in both its religious and political forms. Recent developments testify to this. Once the Muslim Brothers reached power through democratic mechanisms they spent the following months turning against them, as could be seen in their monopolization of the processes of selecting a Constituent Assembly and drafting the constitution. This and similar antidemocratic behavior culminated in President Mursi’s constitutional declaration, which woke the middle class from its slumber and galvanized it into active opposition to what is widely perceived as a bid to pave the way for the destruction of the institutions of the modern state.
The last two years of the revolution cast into relief two spheres of interaction: the world of the revolution and the world of power connected with the reins of government. The first is populated by the revolutionaries and revolutionary youth who remained true to their ideals and succeeded in sustaining the revolutionary impetus in spite of many difficulties and hardships. In particular, they undertook a battle with the injustices of military rule, as embodied by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed power following the fall of the Mubarak regime, and then they confronted the betrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood which, in league with a large segment of Salafis, entered the interim phase not as partners but as monopolizers bent on “Islamizing” the revolution.
It was at this juncture that the second world began to loom to the fore. It took the form of orchestrated Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist mass demonstrations aimed at imposing an Islamist character on the revolution that, in form and substance, was both antithetical to the core values of the revolution and antagonistic to the original architects and leaders of the revolution, as a revolution for all Egyptians. It also took the form of a legal framework that strongly favored the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. It was the constitutional declaration of March 2011, which called for parliamentary elections to be held before a constitution was drafted, that laid the skewed foundations for a constitutional drafting assembly selected by a parliamentary majority. The parliamentary electoral law and a presidential electoral law also formed part of the warped framework. The former, later annulled by the Supreme Constitutional Court, helped generate the Islamist-controlled parliament that handpicked the members of the Constituent Assembly primarily from their own ranks.
The various components of these two worlds continued to act and impact on events, as one side continued to press for the original revolutionary ideals and goals and the other side increasingly revealed its true face, especially after having reached power. The tug-of-war between the two played out most visibly in repeated rounds of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and other flashpoints. However, Mursi’s constitutional declaration ushered in something new: another revolutionary wave. This was made up primarily of a large swathe of the middle class that had wavered in its support of the revolution, however strongly it disapproved of the old regime. Although this portion of society furnished many of the young people who had taken part in the initial phase of the revolution, for the past two years it had remained largely on the sidelines. Now it has come out in force when it realized the magnitude of the threat the Muslim Brotherhood regime was posing to its sets of values and ways of life.
The past five months of Mursi rule did not bode well for the middle class, which is by no means small, especially in a metropolis of some 20 million people such as Cairo. To large segments of this class, the political insularism, the lack of knowledge and know-how, and general incompetence among the newcomers to power in the capital made their predecessors — as bad as they were — seem like virtual angels in comparison. In addition, many were particularly stunned by statements or policies that betrayed the power holders’ true intentions towards the media, culture, education and other such vital sectors that the Muslim Brotherhood is eager to dominate so that it can control the instruments for influencing young people’s minds and press the Egyptian character into a mold shaped by their own particular creed and mindset. Apart from its insidiousness, the strategy flies in the face of the realities that have lifted the frameworks for the formation of the individual out of narrower conventional modes and into the globalized world of satellite television and electronic media. With the Mursi declaration, it became palpably evident that those now in government were targeting the foundations of the state that are associated with the middle class, most notably the judiciary. In addition, Brotherhood policies threatened to further jeopardize an already troubled tourist industry, in which many members of this class have invested or are employed, while a large segment of the business community has lost whatever confidence it might have had in the current government’s ability to salvage the economy, to which testifies the LE30 billion plunge in the Egyptian stock market in a single day following that constitutional declaration.
Anyone who watched the million-man marches in Tahrir and other Egyptian cities on 23, 27 and 30 November (which is to say three huge mass protest demonstrations in a single week) can easily observe the change in the composition of the revolutionary crowds. The middle class, which is generally more moderate and less activist than the revolutionary youth, added their numbers to Tahrir and other major squares in the country. Their anxieties as to where the Muslim Brotherhood is leading the country galvanised them into staging huge marches from various parts of the capital to the epicentre of the revolution, lending a strong backing to the youth who had remained steadfast in their defence of the principles of the revolution from the outset.
In a tangential development, that is also a new phenomenon, the diverse segments of the middle class have taken other forms of concrete action through political parties and professional syndicates. Of particular note, is the historic stance of the judiciary, which not only proclaimed its opposition to the Mursi declaration, but also suspended work in all courts. With these acts, one of the three branches of government has implicitly joined the ranks of the revolution. Such a phenomena did not exist in the first wave of the revolution. But have the newcomers to power taken note of the changes or do they only see reality through their own lens?
(Azmi Ashour is the managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram. This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly on Dec. 5, 2012.)