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Hope for Reform?
Egypt’s Political CultureHope for Reform? By Dina Abdel-Mageed**Staff Writer- IslamOnline.net  November 01, 2005     An individual who is subjected to constant oppression can never be an active actor on the political level (Photo by Dina Abdel-Mageed).  “Elly ne’rafo ahsan min elly ma ne’rafoosh” [The person we know is bet
Saturday, November 12,2005 00:00
by IslamOnline

Egypt’s Political Culture
Hope for Reform?

By Dina Abdel-Mageed**
Staff Writer- IslamOnline.net
 November 01, 2005 

An individual who is subjected to constant oppression can never be an active actor on the political level (Photo by Dina Abdel-Mageed).

“Elly ne’rafo ahsan min elly ma ne’rafoosh” [The person we know is better than the one we do not know] is a very famous proverb that all Egyptians know. Despite its simplicity, this saying may govern many aspects of an Egyptian’s life and it reflects an attitude towards various ongoing events. You may hear those words from the lips of Egyptians in all kinds of situations, from marriage to elections. Understandably, when it comes to politics, such an attitude creates serious problems and stands as an obstacle in the face of reform.

Such an attitude leads to many consequences in Egyptian political culture that in turn set notable associations between the orientation of Egyptians towards politics and the current stagnation in the political arena. The attitude certainly triggers questions: Is Egyptian political culture characterized by apathy and submission to authority? Are Egyptians ready for substantial changes in their political system? Which aspects of the political culture of Egypt can act as catalysts and which can act as impediments for reform? What are the values that Egyptians hold as supreme? Is it possible to change ideas and attitudes that Egyptians have been adopting for decades and maybe centuries?

In the first place, it is important to explore what the term “political culture” means before talking about it in context of Egypt and the current status quo. Political culture is defined as “the aspects of culture that are related to the distribution and utilization of power in or among societies. These aspects range from very general orientations toward authority to very specific beliefs about particular groups or individuals. These orientations are conveyed to individuals beginning in infancy through the socialization process” (Important Concepts in Global Studies).

In light of this definition, it becomes important to examine various aspects of Egyptian culture in order to understand the political culture of Egypt. The attitudes like the one mentioned earlier push many observers to make the argument that Egyptian political culture is characterized by apathy, abstention from participation, a strong feeling of inability to influence the course of events, and the lack of the spirit of initiative (Ebrahim, 1998).

During an interview with IslamOnline, Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian psychiatrist, he explained, “Egyptians can be divided into three categories. First, there are politicized people who are willing to clash with the government and to suffer the consequences. However, the nature of such a clash—whether violent or not—depends on many factors including the political atmosphere. Second, there is a second group of people who feel resentful, but who are not ready to take the risk of expressing such a feeling. Third, there is a third group that consists of the rest of Egyptians, who prefer to stay away from politics, and when they participate, they tend to ally themselves with the existing political system, preserving the status quo.”

If we use the last Egyptian presidential elections as a case study, we will find that Egyptians fit perfectly into the above-mentioned categorization. On the one hand, there were those who chose either to vote for a candidate other than the incumbent or to go and nullify their vote. In light of the low turnout—the governmental figure is 23 percent— it is quite clear that those were a minority.

The Silent Majority

Bekheet spends most hours of the day struggling along the streets of the ever-crowded Cairo (Photo by Dina Abdel-Mageed).

On the other hand, what we can call “the silent majority” decided to abstain from voting, reflecting an attitude that can be considered as passive opposition at best. “I did not vote. What is the point of voting? I am sure that he will be reelected. I was drafted to the army and I saw how things went. The soldiers have to vote for the incumbent. My vote will make no difference,” said Gom’a, 35, a concierge. According to Abdullah, these groups of people practice what he calls “opposition by boycott.”

The ordinary people, who form the largest group of society, felt more secure by associating themselves with the incumbent rather than trying to make a change by voting for one of the other candidates. “I voted for Mubarak. He was the best candidate because he had experience. The person we know is better than the one we do not know. … Mubarak has been in power for such a long time. We do not know anyone who is more convenient for the position,” said `Ata Bekheet, 59, a taxi driver. “How can we trust anyone else? We have not tried anyone else but him,” exclaimed Bekheet while driving his worn-out car in which he spends most hours of the day, struggling along the streets of the ever-crowded Cairo.

It is important to note that Mubarak has been in power for 24 years since the assassination of President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981. Nowadays, Egypt is witnessing the emergence of new opposition forces in the political arena, which has been stagnant for decades. Those forces are spearheaded by the fledgling Egyptian Movement for Change, known as Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”), and the Muslim Brotherhood.


The state of Egyptian political culture can be attributed to several reasons. Some people argue that the unwillingness of Egyptian people to participate in the political process can be seen within a historical context. For most of their history, Egyptians have been ruled by authoritarian, oppressive rulers. Thus, the Egyptian political experience throughout history has made a strong, centralized political system an essential part of the Egyptians’ life, creating what the famous historian Gamal Himdan called “political pharaonism” (Ebrahim 1998).

Commenting on the historical explanation for Egyptians’ apathy, Heba Raouf Ezzat, a professor of political science at Cairo University, says, “Ours is an agricultural-pharaonic culture that is characterized by submission to the ruler. There is a very few number of revolutions in our history.” The state, according to her, was able to control irrigation and thus control the Egyptian peasant’s source of income, which guaranteed his silence. “And even with the advent of economic liberalization, the state was able to maintain the status quo by controlling the mechanisms of mobilization and recruitment. Through creating a culture of fear, the state has been able to ensure that the developments on the economic level will not spill over into the cultural and political levels,” adds Ezzat.  

She believes that the value that Egyptians hold as supreme is security. Making a change means taking risks, she argues, and Egyptians are not ready to take any. According to her, proverbs such as “el-wahed yemshy ganb el-heit ahsan” [one should mind his own business in order to be able to live peacefully] reflect such a passive attitude.

“What can we do? We can only complain to God,” said Umm Waleed (Photo by Dina Abdel-Mageed).

“There is nothing we can do. If we criticize the president, we will get arrested and those who get arrested never get out of prison.… I heard people in the bus saying that they did not want to vote for him, but they were afraid,” said Umm Waleed, 43, a housekeeper. Responding to a question about how to deal with an unjust ruler, Umm Waleed, who raises a family of five, added, “What can we do? We can only complain to God. We cannot express our disapproval of the president.” Hence, the widespread disillusionment and apathy can be seen as a result of the suppressive practices of the government. Egyptians feel helpless in relation to their government. They feel that by speaking their minds, they will either be ignored or be punished.

“A large group of Egyptians is facing the dilemma of how to express themselves and translate their resentment into actions without being humiliated or dehumanized,” says Abdullah. There are considerable numbers of “half-active” dissidents, he argues, and the government tends to crack down ruthlessly on the already active ones in order to strike fear in the hearts of those half-active elements. “Out of each ten people willing to demonstrate, only four people actually go to a demonstration, and three of those four [might] change their mind on the way,” he says sarcastically. He argues that those who are already active are “the tip of the iceberg.” When and how those “sleepers” will wake up is still unclear, but the ongoing developments in the Egyptian political arena increase the possibility of them turning into fully active dissidents soon.  

Also, the argument that there is a social aspect for the problem is frequently made. When we examine how the process of political socialization—a process of political learning that happens directly and indirectly—we can easily understand why values such as freedom, justice, equality, and respect for the other have not taken root in the political culture of Egypt.

A quick look at the various aspects of Egyptian life can reveal the kind of ideas Egyptians are being fed. The various contributors to the process of political socialization, which include schools, families, universities, professional syndicates, and political parties, send the same messages: They encourage blind obedience, submission to authority, and acceptance of orders without questioning (Ebrahim, 1998).

An individual who cannot express his opinion freely at home or at school and who is subjected to constant oppression from his managers at work can never be an active actor on the political level. In other words, authoritarianism and suppression are entrenched in all aspects of Egyptian life, not only on the political level, which helps to preserve the status quo.

In national schools, for instance, everything around students, from the president’s picture hung on the wall to the oppressive educational methods, teach them to submit blindly to whoever has authority. During a panel on civic education, Elham Abdel-Hameed, head of the Center of Educational Studies in the Cairo University, described how even the schools that decided to adopt civic education curricula used all kinds of punishment to force the students to study those curricula, using the same traditional methods that entrenched authoritarianism, such as beating.

A Patriarchal Society?


“Part of the problem,” argues Sami Omar, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, “lies in the fact that ours is a patriarchal society. The ruler here deals with his people the same way a patriarch deals with his family; he has an absolute power that he frequently uses for his own advantage. We have a long history of male dominance that is still being abused by men.”

According to the Egyptian psychiatrist Abdullah, the most important means of political socialization for Egyptian people is social learning. Egyptians learn through experience: humiliation during demonstrations, detention of friends and relatives, etc.

People’s responses to questions about the forthcoming parliamentary elections highlighted many of the above-mentioned points. “Parliament is for those who own money or land because electoral campaigns need so much money. A poor candidate cannot make it to parliament. Once a candidate is elected, he or she ignores our needs and demands. They pay us 20 or 50 pounds to elect them, and afterward they turn a blind eye to the injustices of the government,” said Umm Waleed. Whenever you ask people, you get to hear about how uninterested they are in voting in parliamentary elections. “The candidates promise people that they will do this and do that, but they never fulfill their promises,” said Bekheet.

Ironically, those who have the intention to participate in the electoral process have their own reasons, which have nothing to do with their awareness of the importance of parliament as a body that represents them. “I will vote. Things in the countryside are different from here; elections there are seen as competitions between families, and the family that wins the seat gains respect and prestige,” explained Gom’a, a building doorman.

Abdullah believes that the solution lies in changing the whole culture, not only its political aspects. Such a change requires a long-term training that aims at building a new Egyptian character. “Egyptians need to learn how to form an opinion, how to express it, how to take a stand and how to coordinate with others. These are social talents before being political ones. Culture can be altered, but such an alteration needs some time,” he explains.

With the advent of parliamentary elections, many people express their optimism regarding the possibility of positive developments in the Egyptian political arena. But for those who are skeptical, the question still poses itself: Is any substantial political change possible with the existence of such an immobile mass political culture?  


Ebrahim, Hasaneen Tawfiq. Prospects of Political and Democratic Development in Egypt. The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. June 1998. Accessed 20 October 2005.

Important Concepts in Global Studies. Global Studies. Ripon College. Accessed on 22 October 2005.

Stacher, Joshua A. A Democracy With Fangs and Claws and Its Effects on Egyptian Political Culture. Arab Studies Quarterly. Summer 2001. Accessed on 7 October 2005.


** Dina Abdel-Mageed is staff writer for the Muslim Affairs section of IslamOnline.net. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, she holds a BA in political science with a specialization in public and international law.


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