Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Social Diversity and the Arab Spring: Egypt a year after

Reflecting about the passing of a year since Egypt’s popular uprising that eventually led to the end of the rule of the Mubarak political dynasty one can read signs that are typical of the trajectory of the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is commonplace to say that the loosening of Mubarak’s hold to power has been largely symbolic as the military and several forces inextricably linked to the ancien régime continue to dominate the political system of the country. True, voices that had only no or limited political expression before January 2011 have been propelled to the political arena: The Muslim Brotherhood is gently flexing its newly found political muscles as is the new Salafist Party. Other secular and liberal forces have also found expression in a polyphonic and complex political arena.
However, the expression of the considerable social and cultural diversity of this complex society has brought with it numerous challenges. The Islamic political forces are treading carefully when it comes to issues such as women’s rights but, still, have often articulated their social conservatism within a discourse of women’s rights. “Empowering” women in this context is often construed by party cadres and activists as “liberating” women from “alien” habits and compulsions. This is becoming visible in the domestic sphere as recent debates on female circumcision indicate.
Another area that has been affected by the transition relates to the relations between Egypt’s majority Sunni Muslim community and its sizeable Coptic Christian minority. Already in the early days of the uprising, the regime saw in intercommunal conflict  a potent destabilizing factor. Although many commentators hurried to dismiss the tensions, the fact remains that the coexistence between the two communities has always been premised on fine and precarious balancing. As new social and political forces will strive for popular support they are likely to turn “difference” into “antagonism” and diversity into threat.     
Another challenge that will increasingly need addressing is the urgent need to integrate an increasingly vocipherous younger generation into the political system and the economic fabric of the country. Affected by both disenfranchisement and chronic unemployment, Egypt’s youth has been at the forefront of the country’s incomplete political transition and has invested a lot in change, a transformation of Egyptian society that has yet to come. From the barricades and the demonstrations to the realm of the social media, this highly diverse demographic group is increasingly gaining a voice and expressing its frustration. What is also interesting is that the visions of a new Egypt and the voice of this new generation of citizens have been largely articulated and taken shape through the use of the new media.
Despite socioeconomic disparities young people of diverse backgrounds have proved literate in the use of new media: the majority resorted to cellular phones while many used very effectively social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs against a disproportionately advantaged political class and the state apparatuses. Similarly, in addition to its impressive internet presence of old, there are indications that the Muslim Brotherhood is getting very adept in harnessing the networking potential of the new media to mobilise its own supporters.
Without underestimating the older, infotainment-oriented media, it is clear that political mobilization and the expression of social diversity in Egypt, is conducted and will be so, in public spaces partly shaped by the new media.

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