Who Sets The Agenda?

Who Sets The Agenda?

In Egypt, something remarkable happened on Thursday. On Labour Day (May 1st), just ahead of a strike scheduled to take place on his birthday tomorrow (May 4th), President Mubarak announced a 30% pay increase for government employees. Of course, the pay increase is unremarkable in itself: in the absence of genuine economic progress, it cannot be expected to serve as anything but a temporary respite from the current economic hardship. Rather, what has to give us pause is the fact that the increase was ordered at all at this time.

In the past several months, even the past few years, large and organized protests have been taking place in Egypt at an accelerated rate. People have taken to the streets to protest infringements on their rights and the rule of law, including the moves the government continues to take against the judiciary, the press, the constitution, and the opposition. What often characterized these earlier protests is that they were in response to the government”s actions. And these protests were often organized by opposition groups such as the more energetic Kefaya or the more established Muslim Brotherhood.

What has been happening more recently, though, strikes me as very different. The people demanding cleaner water, safer working conditions, better representation, and higher wages, among other things, do not seem to be part of a clear political agenda. Nor are they responding to the government”s actions. Instead, they are stepping up and making their own demands. And the government, along with the country”s other institutions, are the ones being forced to respond.

Prior to the previous strike on April 6th, the government made a lot of noise in an attempt to discourage people from participating, even going so far as to get the country”s religious institutions to pronounce it un-Islamic to abandon one”s workstation. Now we see that the President himself is having to act to try to head off the upcoming strike. The country”s main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly to blame for the country”s troubles in comparison to the government, is nonetheless similarly trying to play catch-up. The Brotherhood refused to endorse the April 6th strike, choosing instead to focus on upcoming elections. Now they have chosen to support the May 4th strike. With or without their support, though, the strikes and protests continue.

In short, the public agenda is now, at least in part, being set by the people. Where can this lead?

One possibility is that some group will simply find an opportune moment to capitalize on the public”s discontentment with current conditions to gain power for its own purposes, without actually addressing the people”s demands. This could be the opposition, or some other still unknown group. The other possibility, the one for which I would hope, would be that the pressure on the government would be sustained, such that the country”s institutions are gradually forced to adopt the terms of debate set by the public, and make more economic and political concessions to the people. With enough momentum, and some time, this growing Egyptian movement can develop a greater political consciousness, putting forth its own leaders and representatives into the media and even the government.

It may be that all of this is still a far way down a difficult road. But I would dare to hope that, now that the people have the government worried, the country may be headed for a positive change.