Dispatch from Cairo: Is Egypt ready for a return to normalcy?

Islamist President Mohamed Morsi succeeded in getting his new constitution passed by popular vote. But will the secular opposition back down?

CAIRO, EGYPT — Finally, Egypt has its first post-revolution constitution. The document was written by the Islamist government here, and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, along with the majority of the country that approved Egypt's new governing document, surely have occasion to celebrate this victory.

However, despite the solid majority of 64 percent that backed Morsi's constitution, on the streets of Cairo it is clear political stability is a long way off. 

Troublingly, experts estimate that this election had the worst voter turnout of any since the revolution, suggesting growing disillusionment with the democratic process. Furthermore, the referendum was almost derailed, first by ugly parliamentary wrangling, and then by uglier, deadly street clashes. Both the political drama and mob violence seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

This bitter conflict underscores the fact that a large, angry, and powerful minority of Egyptians oppose the new document, and seem unwilling to accept the Islamists' clear democratic mandate — or even enter dialogue with them.

Long before the 2011 revolution, observers both here and abroad had taken it for granted that Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have massive public support in Egypt. A big part of the MB's popularity is rooted in the deeply religious nature of Egyptian society, but its more complicated than simple social conservatism. Among the keys to the Islamists' popularity: The MB has long provided extensive and efficient charity and social services, building schools and hospitals across Egypt. In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line, there are a lot of Egyptians who need this help — assistance that the corrupt, inefficient government has long failed to provide.

These social services have made the Muslim Brotherhood extremely beloved in the poorer, less educated communities where most Egyptians live. These people have seen firsthand the benevolence and competence of the MB and generally support their Freedom and Justice Party.

My wealthy, liberal Egyptian friends, not to mention opposition leaders, often mock the MB as being a party of an illiterate, ignorant underclass, suggesting that the masses here do not deserve the representation that they fought and died for. This is, of course, undemocratic to say the least.

And remember, the Islamists also have considerable support among more well educated, middle-class people who are simply fed up with decades of corruption, authoritarianism, and mismanagement on the part of successive secular dictatorships. The fact that most of the major secular parties here have significant ideological and operational links to the former regime makes them all the more suspect.

The elitist nature of the opposition rhetoric, along with their increasing insistence on not recognizing the results of flawed, but probably representative elections, shows a liberal opposition movement that isn't necessarily committed to or prepared for democracy.

This is not to say that the opposition has no support. The social conservatism that makes the Islamists popular in some circles makes them despised and feared by many Egyptians, especially educated secularists living in major cities.

Despite the fact that officials from the Muslim Brotherhood and their Freedom and Justice Party have repeatedly promised not to enforce the hijab or crack down on freedom of expression, many people here simply do not believe them.

This is issue of trust is paramount. The vast majority of Egyptians I know who opposed the constitution did not take issue with specifics in the document itself, but rather wanted to say no to a government they see as duplicitous and dangerous.

Morsi's government also has trouble with what is referred to here as the "the deep state." While the revolutionary mandate for change makes the Islamists popular among the majority of Egyptians who were failed by the old regime, a large percentage of the middle class and virtually all of the upper class here actually owe their status to the patronage system put in place by ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. Until the revolution, everything from high-paying government contracts to middle-class civil service jobs were reserved for people who were at least publicly loyal to Mubarak.

The system of patronage and nepotism contributed to the gross inequality that is painfully apparent here, but a significant group of the richest and most powerful Egyptians, especially in the big cities, benefited from it, and now fear the reforms democracy will likely bring.

These people form the rank-and-file and leadership of vital institutions like the mainstream press, judiciary, and security forces, which all supported Mubarak and now oppose Morsi, ostensibly in the name of democracy.

However, despite the many challenges Morsi and his supporters face from entrenched elites and Egyptians genuinely concerned about their rights, this latest referendum proves once again that most Egyptian voters trust their new president.

The main opposition group, meanwhile, has announced that they do not consider the referendum legitimate, and it seems they will continue their strategy of disruptive street demonstrations and violent attacks on Islamist offices, tactics that the Islamists seem increasingly willing to copy.

On the eve of the referendum here in Cairo, I was enjoying dinner at a sandwich joint in a middle-class neighborhood of Cairo. I asked the young man sitting next to me whether he voted in the referendum. He had, and he voted to approve it. He said he did it to hasten a return to "stability." This echoes what I've heard over the last few weeks here in Cairo, where average people seem to care less about abstract debates between Islamists and secularists and simply want employment, security, and a return to normalcy.

Jake Lippincott earned a degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College. He worked in Tunis during the popular uprising there, and is now based in Cairo.


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