Class Divisions in Egypt Make a Comeback

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Class has risen to the surface again as many in Egypt see Mohamed Morsi as an ally for lower-income citizens, writes Vivian Salama from Cairo. With Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election now one for the history books, its impact on the social dynamic of the country may have a more lasting effect than the political transition itself.

Moustafa Talaat takes long puffs of his Marlboro cigarette while reminiscing over the impassioned days of the Egyptian revolution. Every afternoon in February 2011, the Egyptian native of Zamalek, an affluent neighborhood in Cairo, would leave his engineering job by noon — no one was working any way — and head to Tahrir Square to join the masses calling for an end to the reign of Hosni Mubarak.

On one particular day in the square, he recalls: “A man asked me for a cigarette. He was uneducated, wore slippers and a galabeya (a traditional ankle-length garment) — a simple man.” He pauses, reflecting deeply on the brief encounter. “We talked for a little bit and it occurred to me that until then, I never really mingled with the lower cl...” He stopped — embarrassed to complete the thought.

The C-word is making a comeback into Egyptian rhetoric, embalmed since the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser when socialism camouflaged class distinctions and set a tone for the empowerment of Egypt’s working class. The experiment was brief, and the existence of significant class divisions never ceased to exist. However, acknowledgement grew increasingly taboo, prompting many in Egypt to shy away from the very realities that may have fueled certain elements of the Arab Spring.

With Egypt’s first free-and-fair presidential election now one for the history books, its impact on the social dynamic of the country may have had a more lasting effect on society than the political transition itself. To many here, Mohamed Morsi, the commoner-turned-president, represents far more than a victory for the revolution. Just as many African-Americans perceived Barack Obama’s win as a milestone for their community, many in Egypt see Morsi as an ally for the lower-income citizens of Egypt. His opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, by contrast, bore an association with the very elitism linked to the Mubarak regime and represented a premature demise of the Egyptian struggle. Even as Morsi rides out his honeymoon period with the Egyptian populace, he has not yet won the hearts and minds of many, particularly those who perceive him as “different,” whether for ideological or socio-economic reasons.

“The choice of the two contenders was so extremely polarizing that it helped reinforce specific representations of the other — that Shafiq supporters are supposed to be middle-upper class, secular, Christian, westernized, etc. and Morsi's supporters as primarily conservative, pious, less-westernized, working class and predominantly Muslim,” notes Adel Iskandar, a lecturer of Arab studies at Georgetown University. “Of course, while these patterns sometimes stand, they can't be farther from the truth if looked at wholesale.”

Ikhwan — or the Muslim Brotherhood, in English — made a name for itself in Egypt and across the Arab world through its grassroots work, providing the poor with many basic services, often filling the void left by the autocratic state. Even as a banned organization, the Egyptian Brotherhood managed to garner support in many provincial towns through its activism and public service. Its ability to carry out widespread public activities and advocacy bolstered its éclat in society in a way unmatched by any secular opposition group in post-colonial Egypt. In February 2006, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood launched an awareness campaign of its own to contain the spread of bird flu and assist Egypt’s dilapidated poultry industry, deploying experts across the country to educate people about the risks and treatment of avian influenza virus.

In the earliest days of the revolution last year, the Muslim Brotherhood drew criticism from many groups, accused of being latecomers to the uprising, then ultimately attempting to take it over. Amr Darrag, a senior official with the group denies this notion. “Immediately when protests began, our senior members were targeted and arrested by Mubarak’s regime,” he said. “Why would they arrest us if we are not involved?”

It is not unusual for elections to create some polarization. However, the once unified goal of toppling Mubarak, and later, ending military rule, evaporated with the presidential run-offs, as many in Egypt linked themselves to a candidate of choice. “It wasn’t just a political choice,” said Ahmed Sweilam, 32, a software designer from Cairo who voted for Shafiq. “The candidate you supported became a symbol of who you are, how you dress, what you stand for in life, not just in politics.”

Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, notes a “sharpening” of class divisions since the run-off. “It is reflected in political choices and voting,” he said. “Urban, upper and middle class and lower delta voters support the civil state while Upper Egypt, North Sinai Bedouins and urban residents of poor squatter settlements support the theocratic state of the Ikhwan.”

In the final days of the Egyptian run-off, Tahrir Square, once an epicenter of the fight against tyranny across the Arab world, evolved to represent an overwhelmingly one-sided battleground for Morsi supporters. Backers of Shafiq relocated from the square, demonstrating across Cairo in Nasr City, dislodging themselves from the unified movement. In and around Tahrir Square, some bystanders were labeled “Shafiq supporters” based on superficial features, such as their clothing: “westernized” or expensive clothing was increasingly associated with Shafiq supporters, as was a woman without a veil. Morsi supporters were linked to more traditional, conservative attire or appearance, particularly with regard to men with beards. The elite, that is, the overtly wealthy, were deemed non-religious and less conservative while many of the country’s lower-income provincial residents were assumed to be religious.

This was highly misguided, experts agree, and many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential members are also among the country’s most affluent,  including former presidential candidate and multi-millionaire Khairat El-Shater, and Malek Group Chairman Hassan Malek — both jailed under the Mubarak regime.  

“Pitting Shafiq against Morsi did bring to the floor the cultural tensions between the more Brotherhood-kind of people and the Suzanne Mubarak-kind of people,” said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. “It wasn’t just about social class because a lot of Muslim Brotherhood people are well-off. It’s not rich or poor. It’s more cultural style that is associated in general terms with the leading social class and the coalition.”

When early forecasts hinted at a Morsi victory, much attention turned to his wife, would-be First Lady Naglaa Ali, after her photos went viral on social media websites, triggering criticism by some that she is an unsuitable representation of Egypt in an international arena. A stark contrast to her predecessor Suzanne Mubarak, Ali wears a khimar, an Islamic veil that completely covers the hair and falls loosely to the waist. Others believe she is the first genuine representative of Egypt’s increasingly conservative culture. “Finally, she is someone I can look to as a role model for what I stand for,” said Alia Mohsen, 21, a student at Al Azhar University. “Fancy clothes and make-up doesn’t make the person.”

While the dust has settled in Tahrir for now, signs of an empowered working class remain across the country. Protests in the Gharbia governorate continue, where thousands of factory workers demand an increase in their share of their company’s annual profits, and the removal of Spinning and Weaving Holding Company Chairman Fouad Abdel-Alim.

The question now remains whether Morsi, and by association, the Muslim Brotherhood, can uplift the disenfranchised of Egypt, many of whom did not support his candidacy or cast a ballot at all.

Economic conditions are at dire levels. Small and medium-size businesses have suffered a significant hit to revenues since the revolution began. While the resurfacing of social class divisions may have been the direct result of the presidential run-off, they have been part of Egypt’s reality for decades. Mohammed Fahmy, a Morsi supporter from the Fayoum governorate who traveled to Tahrir Square to celebrate his candidate’s win said: “At last, we have a president who represents the real people of Egypt.” 

Vivian Salama has spent much of the past decade reporting in the Middle East for Bloomberg News, BusinessWeek, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and USA Today, as well as a number of academic journals. She also has appeared as a commentator on the BBC, France24, Bloomberg TV, TV New Zealand, CBS News, and many more. She covered the recent revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

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Found in: muslim brotherhood, mohamed morsi, elections, egyptian workers, egypt elections, egypt, ahmed shafiq
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