The power of social capital for the unlucky revolutionary

Since Morsy assumed his responsibilities as president, public opinion has gathered across three camps. A supporting camp, another pushing him to fulfill his revolutionary promises and hoping he would fail, and a third confused camp that may have secretly regretted taking to the streets on 25 January 2011, after seeing that Egypt’s political fate ended in a catch-22 between Mubarak’s regime and an Islamist party.

During the revolution, Tahrir Square was the public space that created an Agora-like democracy in which everyone was embraced and tolerated. Egyptians moved their online political debates to that physical anchor point, where they engaged with civil society, and communicated their cause. They also formed new friendships, and bonded emotionally and socially.

In peacetime, political parties thrive using that same building block of the revolution: a cluster of social capital, founded on emotional, social and economic exchange. Anyone who is able to spin off such social clusters could mobilize them towards political action — and rebuild a once-toppled regime.

It is loosely alleged, especially by secular political players, that the dynamics leading us into the regime-Islamist duality of the presidential elections were bread-and-sugar bribes, state-commissioned thuggery, and secret deals between the two sides. While election monitors have proved some of these allegations, I find it quite disconcerting that the secular faction cannot engage in self-criticism that would enable it to recognize its inherent comparative disadvantage in popular mobilization.

To understand the dynamics of mobilization, we need to revert to the Emergency Law, operating, most especially, under Mubarak. Law 10/1914 on Crowding, recycled from the British occupation, prohibits the assembly of five persons or more if the authorities consider it may jeopardize public peace. Law 14/1923 on Meetings and Demonstrations stipulates the necessity for prior notification to the security forces, and grants their right to ban any such meeting in advance, and monitor or disperse it.

Obviously, these laws make it very difficult to mobilize or cultivate any social clusters that would create anything but a puppet opposition. The only space that was able to circumvent these crippling laws was the hall of any mosque (or church). Inside mosques, people were allowed to gather and establish friendship bonds in groups without interruption, albeit with a lot of state infiltration. The Muslim Brotherhood therefore has used and abused this comparative advantage of free access to already-existing social capital in mosque halls that they pay little, if any, overhead expenses for.

Mubarak’s regime had another competitive advantage for political mobilization. Every 10 years, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics spends roughly US$500 million of taxpayers’ money to collect census data on individuals and households. in Egypt. The data is essentially paid for and owned by the Egyptian citizen, but is undisclosed to the public on grounds of national security. The type of data gathered includes information crucial for identifying the electorate’s needs, filling public and private service gaps, and essentially developing a new political discourse that responds to actual citizen needs.

Remnants of Mubarak’s regime, who still have access to the state’s bureaucratic body, by merit of command and not by rule of law, have a strong comparative advantage with this information, as well as the manpower and institutional capacity to use it for election mobilization purposes.

As for the secular faction, there is no emotional or social bonding marker that constitutes what ‘secular’ is; no readily accessible activity, like a Friday prayer, in a space where people can meet and build social capital. There is no access, either, to a bird’s-eye view through census data and maps to gain insight on our communities. This is precisely why Egypt’s civilian and secular groups face huge hurdles when it comes to political mobilization.

These are just some of the challenges that the non-Islamist and non-regime factions have to deal with while they carry the cause of the revolution forward. They should thus be aware of the fact that they need to claim their public space, their right to information, and take their time in building social capital and bonds. Only then will they be able to mobilize.

Sawsan Gad is a co-founder and lead GIS analyst at HarassMap, an initiative that works to end social tolerance for sexual harassment.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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