CAIRO - While still both recognizing the ongoing struggle for freedom and social justice, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party on one side and the opposition on the other will mark the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 Egyptian revolution in two very different ways.
As the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party launch a service campaign to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution, opposition groups are calling for nationwide protests against the “Brotherhoodization” of the state, among other demands.
In a news conference Tuesday, the Brotherhood and the FJP launched a campaign titled “Together We Build Egypt,” which entails offering free healthcare services, renovating around 2,000 schools and attempting to alleviate economic burdens by setting up markets that will sell goods at wholesale prices.
Campaign official Mostafa Ghoneim called on “all sons and daughters of Egypt, who were together as one in the revolution, to start building Egypt — working together again — so this homeland may take its rightful place among the countries of the world, and to provide a great model of civilization building.”
He also urged businessmen and civil institutions to participate in the campaign.
On the other hand, opposition groups have called for nationwide protests to mark the revolution’s second anniversary, reiterating demands for bread, freedom and social justice, as well as fighting the “Brotherhoodization” of the state.
At a news conference last week at the Journalists Syndicate, 16 political groups said they would participate, including the Dostour Party, the Popular Current, the Kefaya movement, the April 6 Youth Movement Democratic Front and the Free Egyptians Party.
The National Salvation Front also announced plans to participate, listing a set of demands including the drafting a constitution that guarantees a democratic system for a civil state, retribution for the revolution’s injured and martyrs, as well as the achievement of economic development by better managing national wealth and natural resources. They call for realizing the concept of “citizenship” and eradicating discrimination based on gender, religion, color or race, and achieving equality by respecting women’s rights as well as guaranteeing free and fair elections.
In a statement earlier this week, the NSF said that two years in, the Muslim Brotherhood’s mistakes and limitations have accumulated, leading to the deterioration of the economy and amplifying people’s suffering, and affected national and internal security and curtailed freedom.
Said Sadek, commentator and political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, forecasts that Friday will be a “cocktail of reactions.”
With the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign and the opposition planning on taking to the streets, and others planning on just staying put, Sadek explains that it remains unclear which side will prevail.
“The day can pass peacefully or it can turn violent, but we still don’t know because revolutions are unpredictable,” he explains. “It is still not over in Egypt, it’s like an earthquake with an aftershock.”
Under tyranny, “you know what to expect, but with revolutions, it is hard to tell,” he adds.
Only days before the verdicts in the Port Said football violence and Jan. 25, President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree to consider the massacre’s victims among the revolution's martyred and injured.
Sadek says this was a strategic decision in attempt to absorb the ultras’ anger before the verdict and the anniversary.
On Feb. 1 2012, at least 79 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured after violence erupted following an Egyptian premier league match at the Port Said stadium. A major factor in the violence was the involvement of extremist soccer fans known as ultras, who were also involved in clashes in Tahrir square during the Egyptian revolution.
Ultras organized a roving protest around Cairo Wednesday and threatened to escalate if justice is not served.
According to Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood’s English-language website, Ghoneim explained that the campaign extends until Feb. 22 and will be followed by similar initiatives.
“We have focused our efforts on three major projects, including healthcare for a large number of citizens. They begin with providing service to approximately one million patients during the first month,” Ghoneim said at the news conference.
“In the first phase, we are also targeting maintenance, restoration and beautification of about 2,000 schools. There is also a project entitled ‘Easing the burden on Egyptian households,’ which focuses on setting up big flea markets with the help of various charitable organizations and major malls, selling goods at wholesale prices,” he said.
Improving the Brotherhood’s image
Sadek says the Muslim Brotherhood is playing the stability card with their campaign, juxtaposing that with the protests scheduled for Friday to improve its image.
“They want a split screen on the TVs, one side showing protests and the other showing them offering services only to say ‘see, we want stability and development and they want chaos’,” Sadek says.
He explains that Islamism depends largely on social, political and economic conservatism, making its main base the countryside and squatter settlements.
“This is what their campaign revolves around development, because they target these people,” he says. “Why did they choose to launch this campaign now? Why not a month ago?”
The Brotherhood, however, says it recognizes that the revolution has a long way ahead, with the campaign paving the way.
“Two years in, some of the revolution’s objectives have been achieved, but there is still a lot yet to be achieved. The Brotherhood and the FJP, together with patriotic groups and movements are endeavoring to accomplish all these goals,” Mahmoud Hussein, secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, said at the news conference.
Ammar Fayed, Brotherhood member and political researcher, agrees, but says the group is avoiding confrontation at all costs on Jan. 25.
“The anniversary of the revolution calls for taking to the streets since its objectives are not yet fully achieved; however, the Muslim Brotherhood is choosing not to do that to avoid any kind of confrontation with opposition forces,” he explains.
Fayed says the group has no problem with the scheduled protests on Friday, and that if it weren’t for the congestion and the risk of altercations, the Brotherhood would have been in the squares too.
He says that while the group respects the right to protest, he dismisses calls for bringing down Morsi.
“Morsi was elected by a legitimate vote. If we call for ousting anyone we don’t like, we will reach a vicious cycle,” he says. “If Morsi leaves, another president will come and others will object to him too.”
He maintains, however, that even though there might be streets presence in the form of medical convoys, for example, they will avoid any places where protests are held.
One thing is certain though, Sadek says, no matter what happens, Jan. 25 2013 will ring in a turbulent year for Egypt on the economic, social and political levels.
“Even if Friday passes peacefully, Egypt won’t live happily ever after,” he said.
The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.
The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.
This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.
Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.
Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."
The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.
Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.
Governing under threat
As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.
Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:
There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.
Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:
I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.
Another, this time in South Africa, said:
What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.
In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.
Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.
It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.
New Zealand's parliament in Wellington
Compassion and education
While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.
Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.
A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.
Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.
Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.
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