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Understanding the Elements of Nationalism in Egypt

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Egyptian activists clash with riot police in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, January 28, 2011.

CREDIT: AP / Ben Curtis

With developments unfolding in Egypt at breakneck speed, taking a step back to consider some of the more overarching features of the Arab country’s seemingly spontaneous urban dissent is in order.

Interestingly, most of the media reports tracking the popular movement in Egypt focus on two major cities, Cairo and Alexandria. And while these urban centers account for a significant number of the population’s commercial and intellectual rungs, the majority of Egyptians live in a rural environment. World Bank indicators show roughly 57 percent of the country is non-urban.

Richard Engel, reporting for MSNBC this week, noted he couldn’t get a read on the mood of this truly silent majority. Unlike the military, their silence in response to the events in Cairo and Alexandria shouldn’t be interpreted as ambivalence.

The rise of food prices hit Egypt particularly hard in 2008, a result of speculative futures trading that saw financial firms place bets on more food commodities than existed in the world. The consequence was predictable; prices shot up by 87 percent by some estimates, causing food riots across many developing countries. Egypt, one of the largest importers of wheat globally, was not unscathed. Last year’s spike in food prices also created unrest. To combat the food bubble, the Egyptian government increased food subsidies to counter the cost of bread. While this aided needy families in the cities, farmers in the country saw the value of their crops decline, hurting already marginal returns. Mubarak supported the large agribusinesses, but not the small-scale farmers.

Popular uprisings tend to live and die by the support of the rural class. The imagery they command as the under-appreciated purveyors of food and traditional custom is magnified during periods of national unrest. How the rural class perceives the movement can either dislodge or offer more clout to anti Mubarak factions. Ultimately, what we’re witnessing is a form of civic nationalism, an attempt by a large portion of the population to restore Egypt as a proud secular state with open democratic systems. Linking that post-colonial sentiment to the themes of bread and land is very potent.

One thing that is certain is that Hosni Mubarak’s legitimacy is gone. Even if the international community alienates him, leaving him with nothing to lose and thus selecting to hold on to power selfishly, it will be a regime based on force alone. From the scope of a liberal democracy, it may seem he held onto power by force since 1981. But his popularity only began to wane in the last decade, a result of rising food prices and growing frustration with Interior Ministry abuses. Fragile secular countries sometimes require a strongman, but only if the masses permit it.

As Weber once wrote, a central force can lead just by the threat of a loaded gun. Using its force, however, is like watching a supernova: it becomes incendiary because it’s destined to disappear.

Such was the case in Czechoslovakia and Poland. After liberal reforms opened up the conservative communist governments to more relaxed rule, socialism with a friendly face as Czech reformer Alexander Dupcek called it, the ruling elite recoiled. In Prague, that meant a fierce crackdown and an intolerant regime set up by a wary Moscow. In Warsaw, the Solidarity movement reached its natural conclusion. It proposed reforms within the context of a closed communist state. They were honored, but then the Polish military stepped in and reversed the movement’s gains, either fearing Soviet retribution or its own solvency. By that point, Wojciech Jaruzelski, the reluctant military hero and appointed leader of the country knew his regime’s days were numbered. The collapse of communism wasn’t Solidarity’s intention; quite the contrary, it was to instill a more democratic communism following the precepts of its socialist beginnings.

Egypt isn’t beholden politically to greater powers. Mubarak is largely autonomous, and to Egyptians, only he is responsible, and not the marionette of a distant capital’s machinations. And while some of the chanting from the aggrieved throngs says, “عميل الأميركان” (“ameel al amreekan”)—puppet of the US—It was Mubarak’s foreign policy initiative to link up with Washington. One should acknowledge that Egyptians hold many people responsible, but the focus of their broad anger happens to be a narrow target. It is likely his regime will fall much faster.

Mikhail Zinshteyn is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can e-mail him at mzinshteyn@googlemail.com.

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