A girl with her face painted in the colours of the Egyptian flag and the number “25” joins the tens of thousands as they gather for a mass rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, 2012, marking the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak as a debate raged over whether the rally was a celebration or a second push for change.
I was in Cairo when the Egyptian uprising began. On Jan. 24, 2011, I thought the Tunisian revolution was a fluke, and that if anything happened in Egypt, it would be crushed mercilessly. As the first anniversary of the uprising’s arrives, it is clear that while Egyptians are skeptical about the completion of the revolution, they refused to be crushed. They continue to believe in their own ability to create change.
Recent Gallup surveys reveal that in the past year, many Egyptians went from being politically unsure, to expressing political support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi political parties in the weeks and months prior to the parliamentary elections in December and January. The Freedom and Justice Party, the official political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, found support among 50 percent of Egyptians in December. Thirty-one percent expressed support for the Nour Party, the Salafi political party. The new levels of public political support, which rose suddenly after consistent low support, do not necessarily suggest an increase in support for either party’s ideology.
The same Gallup surveys in which Egyptians shifted toward these parties find Egyptians’ opinions largely unchanged in terms of their views on key issues. Egyptians most often mentioned inflation/lack or shortage of money, lack of jobs/unemployment, and safety issues as the most important problem facing their families in multiple surveys through 2011, including in December. Few – 1 percent or less – mentioned ‘moral decay.’ Further, despite the increase in support for the Salafi party, 95 percent of Egyptians in the December survey said they have confidence in the Azhar University, an institution that is openly and historically hostile to the Salafi movement. When asked what are the most important challenges or issues that the next government should address when it takes office, respondents in December referred primarily to employment/employing youth, the economy/cost of living increase, and security/stability – essentially the same top issues they said were facing their families.
The December/January parliamentary election results in Egypt provide many lessons for Egyptian political forces. Large numbers of previously undecided Egyptians decided to vote for Islamist political parties, even though the most important problems that Egyptians cited did not involve the implementation of Islamic law or other political demands of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi groups. Rather, they cited more day-to-day issues, such as inflation and employment. That pragmatism indicates that the country’s next elections could equally be surprising – if Egyptians believe that other political forces can address their problems more effectively, it is likely many of them will not refrain from switching their votes from one party to another. That practical approach also suggests that political forces in Egypt in general need to consider the grassroots relevance of their campaigns. At this early stage in Egyptian democracy, the public is looking for parties that will deliver on promises to address the key concerns of the Egyptian people, and not necessarily ideology. Political parties of nearly any ideology – Islamist, liberal, secular, leftist or other – have a chance to succeed, if they convince Egyptians they can actually address the major concerns of the public.
A year ago, when the uprising broke out in Cairo, Egyptian civil society spontaneously and organically showed the world what was possible for human beings who believed in themselves. They provided volunteer medical care for injured protesters; they formed neighborhood committees to protect their neighborhoods; their instincts led them to fill many of the voids that the state evacuated overnight. This January 25, Egyptians still believe in themselves — if anything, they believe in themselves more than they did during the Mubarak era, and just as much as they did at the onset of the revolution. This belief may bring hope and optimism to those who think Egypt has yet to succeed in its revolution. The country has not yet succeeded in reaching all of the revolution’s stated goals. But among its population Egypt has the tools to accomplish a great deal and teach the world something yet again.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is Senior Practice Consultant and Senior Analyst at the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center. For more information on the data and analysis mentioned in this article, please visit gallup.com.