How will the Egyptian political spectrum look if a more democratic system takes hold in the coming period? Some say it’s too early to tell. But the sphere of political competition that develops in the long run will be shaped by the rules and procedures set in the next few months. With Mubarak’s departure, the political consensus among a mass of Egyptians is slowly beginning to unravel. Egypt’s moment of widespread solidarity is ending and the coming period will see a rise in the politics of representation and bargaining.
The Egyptian uprising has shown the typical features of a massive broad-based protest movement. It was sparked by middle-class cyber activists who took to the streets on 25 January. By the 28 January, the movement expanded considerably as hundreds of thousands joined demonstrations across Northern Egypt. Calls for political freedom and the respect for human rights were soon accompanied by the voicing of socio-economic grievances. Unemployment, poverty, and corruption slowly came to dominate many demonstrators’ chants. Several days before Mubarak’s resignation, the protests in Tahrir Square were being eclipsed by labor strikes and sit-ins threatening full-fledged civil disobedience across the country.
Now, the revolution may be leaning to the right, revealing its middle-class bias that threatens a more conservative outcome. It’s easier, in such a multi-faceted upheaval, for the military to promise political rather than economic rights. The military has shown less patience towards labor strikes as they’re interrupting efforts at economic recovery and they are much harder to quell. The army’s’s fears have been shared by many young protesters in Tahrir, who pleaded with demonstrators to leave the square just one day after Mubarak stepped down. The dialogue between the army and the opposition is now purely political, dealing mainly with constitutional amendments to allow free and fair elections. This dialogue may be of less interest to strikers who are calling for job security, higher wages and better pension schemes.
Economic redistribution, health care and public education reform are all long-term priorities that can helps ease the burdens of socio-economic exclusion. Regime change may offer an institutional path to address these priorities. However, it’s unlikely that short-term fixes will solve big and old questions. Moving forward, one of the critical questions is whether political freedoms will include the freedom for labor to unionize. The Egyptian military in collaboration with the emerging civic “middle-class” may choose to forgo labor rights while extending other political rights. Turkey is a case in point, where democratization was confined to free and fair elections dominated by centre-right parties, while the Turkish labor unions remained severely constrained.
Whether the Egyptian revolution leans to the right or to the left will determine the extent of political and economic rights that Egyptians acquire. If political rights include the freedom for labor to organize, this may pave the way for a polarization between right and left wing political forces in the coming years. In such a scenario, Egypt’s political spectrum will be divide between a conservative right that resists any serious redistribution of income and a leftist bloc made up of social democrats and labor unionists. Conversely, if a leftist bloc is not allowed to emerge, then political divisions are more likely to be drawn along identitarian lines. The spectrum will then likely shift to the right, where a liberal bloc will be pitted an Islamist-leaning one. Polarization on the basis of identity may reproduce the very divisions that dominated the public sphere during Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, the only difference being that such divisions will operate in a more open and vibrant political atmosphere. Instead of debating about taxation and wealth distribution, politicians will vigorously debate the place of Islamic shari’ah, family-law and the status of non-Muslims in Egyptian society. Small steps in the coming few months will decide the path taken by the Egyptian revolution.