Hope for Reform in Egypt…?

Is Egyptian political culture characterized by apathy and submission to authority? Are Egyptians ready for substantial changes in their political system? Which aspects of the political culture of Egypt can act as catalysts and which can act as impediments for reform? What are the values that Egyptians hold as supreme? Is it possible to change ideas and attitudes that Egyptians have been adopting for decades and maybe centuries? These questions arise because the most often heard adage across Egypt is “Elly ne’rafo ahsan min elly ma ne’rafoosh” – the person we know is better than the one we do not know.

Leading Egyptian psychiatrist Ahmed Abdullah brackets Egyptians into three categories. First group is politicised people who are willing to clash with the government and to suffer the consequences. However, the nature of such a clash—whether violent or not—depends on many factors including the political atmosphere. Second group is people who feel resentful, but who are not ready to take the risk of expressing such a feeling. Third group consists of the rest of Egyptians, who prefer to stay away from politics, and when they participate, they tend to ally themselves with the existing political system, preserving the status quo.”

If we use the last Egyptian presidential elections as a case study, we will find that Egyptians fit perfectly into the above-mentioned categorization. The turn out was low—the governmental figure is 23 percent.

The ordinary people, who form the largest group of society, felt more secure by associating themselves with the incumbent rather than trying to make a change by voting for one of the other candidates.

“I voted for Mubarak. He was the best candidate because he had experience. The person we know is better than the one we do not know. … Mubarak has been in power for such a long time. We do not know anyone who is more convenient for the position,” said `Ata Bekheet, 59, a taxi driver. “How can we trust anyone else? We have not tried anyone else but him,” exclaimed Bekheet while driving his worn-out car in which he spends most hours of the day, struggling along the streets of the ever-crowded Cairo.

It is important to note that Mubarak has been in power for 24 years since the assassination of President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981. Nowadays, Egypt is witnessing the emergence of new opposition forces in the political arena, which has been stagnant for decades. Those forces are spearheaded by the fledgling Egyptian Movement for Change, known as Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”), and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The state of Egyptian political culture can be attributed to several factors. Some people argue that the unwillingness of Egyptian people to participate in the political process can be seen within a historical context. For most of their history, Egyptians have been ruled by authoritarian, oppressive rulers. Thus, the Egyptian political experience throughout history has made a strong, centralized political system an essential part of the Egyptians’ life, creating what the famous historian Gamal Himdan called “political pharaonism”

Says Heba Raouf Ezzat, a professor of political science at Cairo University, ‘the value that Egyptians hold as supreme is security’. Making a change means taking risks, she argues, and Egyptians are not ready to take any. According to her, proverbs such as “el-wahed yemshy ganb el-heit ahsan” [one should mind his own business in order to be able to live peacefully] reflect such a passive attitude.

“A large group of Egyptians is facing the dilemma of how to express themselves and translate their resentment into actions without being humiliated or dehumanized,” says Abdullah. There are considerable numbers of “half-active” dissidents, he argues; “Out of each ten people willing to demonstrate, only four people actually go to a demonstration, and three of those four [might] change their mind on the way,” he says sarcastically. He argues that those who are already active are “the tip of the iceberg.” When and how those “sleepers” will wake up is still unclear, but the ongoing developments in the Egyptian political arena increase the possibility of them turning into fully active dissidents soon.

Also, the argument that there is a social aspect for the problem is frequently made. The various contributors to the process of political socialization, which include schools, families, universities, professional syndicates, and political parties, send the same messages: blind obedience, submission to authority, and acceptance of orders without questioning.

An individual, who cannot express his opinion freely at home or at school, and who is subjected to constant oppression from his managers at work, can never be an active actor on the political level. In other words, authoritarianism and suppression are entrenched in all aspects of Egyptian life, not only on the political level, which helps to preserve the status quo.

In national schools, for instance, everything around students, from the president’s picture hung on the wall to the oppressive educational methods teach them to submit blindly to whoever has authority. Elham Abdel-Hameed, head of the Center of Educational Studies in the Cairo University, says even the schools that decided to adopt civic education curricula used all kinds of punishment to force the students to study those curricula, using the same traditional methods that entrenched authoritarianism, such as beating.

‘Part of the problem’ argues Sami Omar, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, ‘lies in the fact that ours is a patriarchal society. The ruler here deals with his people the same way a patriarch deals with his family; he has an absolute power that he frequently uses for his own advantage. We have a long history of male dominance that is still being abused by men’.

People’s responses to questions about the forthcoming parliamentary elections highlighted many of the above-mentioned points. Whenever you ask people, you get to hear about how uninterested they are in voting in parliamentary elections. “The candidates promise people that they will do this and do that, but they never fulfil their promises,” said Bekheet.

Ironically, those who have the intention to participate in the electoral process have their own reasons, which have nothing to do with their awareness of the importance of parliament as a body that represents them. “I will vote. Things in the countryside are different from here; elections there are seen as competitions between families, and the family that wins the seat gains respect and prestige,” explained Gom’a, a building doorman.

Abdullah believes that the solution lies in changing the whole culture, not only its political aspects. Such a change requires a long-term training that aims at building a new Egyptian character. “Egyptians need to learn how to form an opinion, how to express it, how to take a stand and how to coordinate with others. These are social talents before being political ones. Culture can be altered, but such an alteration needs some time,” he explains.

With the advent of parliamentary elections, many people express their optimism regarding the possibility of positive developments in the Egyptian political arena. But for those who are skeptical, the question still poses itself: Is any substantial political change possible with the existence of such an immobile mass political culture?