Severe social not political divides are behind Egypt’s current crisis as warring factions see different Egypts; only a representative and competitive political milieu will ultimately diminish polarising ideologies

Three variables will determine the outcome of Egypt’s current crisis: whether the liberal forces will manage to continue to mobilise hundreds of thousands, or more, supporters to give credibility to their threat of civil disobedience; whether the military, and not just its leadership, will remain on the side-lines between the ruling political Islamists and the liberal opposition; and whether a compromise could be achieved on the constitution, leaving the decision to the people.

But these three variables will not pave the way for a smooth political transition.

Egyptian Islamists believe that they represent the majority in the Egyptian society (a huge constituency of conservative Muslims), that they have reached out to the other camp searching for a compromise, that their project – the constitution being one of its main manifestations – will be approved by the people, and that they will win the next parliamentary election, and as such cement their mandate with an irrefutable legitimacy.

Egyptian liberals believe that the Islamists are aggrandising power, that one or two elections cannot be the basis for concentrating authority at a moment of a major transformation, that Egyptian heritage is much richer than the Islamist movement’s project, and that Egyptian intellectuals, artists, Christians, and different cultural niches should have a clear say in the country’s political transition, especially given that the country has an effective illiteracy rate above 40 per cent.

The problem is hardly political but a symptom of the severe social divide that Egypt is currently experiencing. Egyptian society is polarised regarding its frames of reference, the shape of the future, its view of its heritage, and crucially its own identity. Is Egypt a purely Islamic country, or is the country’s rich and unique history that blended different religions, cultures, outlooks and ways of life, a given that must be respected irrespective of which political force has the largest mandate at this moment in time?

Egypt’s main political forces today will not reach an agreement on these questions, for there was never an agreement on them before.

In the two major social experiences that Egyptian society has witnessed in the past century – liberalism and Arab nationalism – decision making on all socio-political issues came from the top.

Egyptian liberalism, the period from the mid 19th to mid-20th centuries, created the modern Egyptian state and ushered in major advances in administration, agriculture, manufacturing, education, as well as in media, and arts and culture (from theatre, to literature, to film and music).

Its leaders believed that Egypt was pulled towards Europe’s ways of thinking, lifestyles, and values.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Arab nationalism leveraged on Cairo’s and Alexandria’s, then, established status as the region’s cultural, economic, educational, and entertainment hubs, and tried to turn Egypt into the base of a regional political avalanche empowering the poor and lower middle classes against the elites (that had pioneered and led the liberal wave).

Both projects were impositions from the top. Both projects espoused national projects that inspired and roused wide social segments, especially in the middle classes. Egyptian liberalism was at heart an Egyptian attempt to embrace modernity and transform an agricultural, lagging society into a modern one trying to catch up with the advanced world (especially Europe). The nationalist era started with fighting foreign interests in the country, and later embraced the struggle for independence and Arab nationalism.

And in both projects, very powerful institutions provided the support and momentum to enforce the imposition from the top. In the liberal experiment, it was Egypt’s socio-economic elite, the top 5 per cent of the Egyptian population that had controlled over 80 per cent of all landownership and tangible assets; in nationalism, it was the sprawling military establishment.

Charisma also played a major role. Al-Wafd’s leaders (from Saad Zaaghloul to Mustapha Al-Nahas), and an array of innovators in literature, cinema, theatre – and theology – imbued Egyptian liberalism with a huge power to attract major social constituencies. Nationalism had Nasser, arguably the most popular Egyptian and Arab leader in several centuries.

Today, no Egyptian political force has a credible national project or really charismatic leaders who can rally major segments of the middle – and lower middle – classes behind them. There is no Egyptian institution with the credence and weight to provide any serious support for an imposition from the top – unless the military decides to intervene by force. And the most important development that the 2011 uprising has given rise to – and represented – was the empowerment of huge social masses.

Bottom up power is on a rapid rise.

Yet, as no agreement materialises, Egypt’s political forces should realise that, despite the current chaos, a historical opportunity is unfolding. The 2011 uprising, at its core, was a tsunami of anger against immense political and economic failure, a rejection of predominant feelings of lethargy and weariness; the uprising signifies powerful desires for, not just change, but complete overhaul of the political-economy structure.

The problem lies with the direction of the immense momentum that the 2011 uprising has unleashed. Confrontations, whether through constitutional declarations, demonstrations, propaganda, or violence, will never result in a decisive victory for either side on the current socio-political divide.

Sound policy will. The fact that almost 50-million Egyptians are under 35 years old, having lived only through former president Mubarak’s years without any experience of a national project to fire up their energies and with a very significant percentage of effective unemployment amongst that group, means that socioeconomic conditions should be the priority of all political forces – especially those with serious ambitions for sizable representation in the legislature.

Political ideology will follow. Undertaking free and fair elections will enshrine genuine representation as a given in Egypt’s political life.

The different electoral manifestos and the political-economy programmes that will materialise and become the policies and positions of the different parties will gradually separate the serious and rigorous political actors from the insignificant and flippant. An open, representative, competitive political milieu will empower non-governmental organisations – professional syndicates, universities, feminist groups, labour and trading associations, free media – to put forward their ideas.

People will vote for the groups and parties that espouse policies that will benefit them. Gradually, polarising ideologies will fade in the background, and the ability to come up with – and implement – strategies and policies that support growth and improvement of socioeconomic conditions, will become the key criteria for gaining people’s support and votes – as is the case in the vast majority of democracies.

The confrontations between forces representing vastly different standpoints, based on deeply held convictions at a moment of immense fluidity will inevitably result in struggles. Attempting to force another imposition from the top – from either side of the political elite – will exacerbate the political crisis, and crucially, offer no solution to the societal dilemma about the frame of reference and identity.

The energy – and anger – of masses of young Egyptians could herald a period of, at best disorientation, at worst serious civil unrest. Young Egyptians, the largest and most active segment in the society, need to absorb the lessons of Egypt’s rich modern history.

Giving the society – and especially young Egyptians – time to figure out for themselves their own preferences regarding the nature of their state and the shape of their society will not only pull the country out of the impasse it has been in now for months but also vitally allow the country to make these critical choices in more relaxed political and economic circumstances.

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