A president who has governed with an iron fist for 29 years, an election where only a quarter of eligible voters turned up, a fraudulent election hailed as a great victory for the ruling regime, then an illegal parliament that gloats all the way to the house – this is Egypt 2010.
Mubarak’s regime is authoritarian and secular. It has an opposition that stands in its way and refuses to budge. This time round the Muslim Brotherhood has not been able to take control of the People’s Assembly, but it has deep community roots, eloquent and spiritual leadership, and patience. The MB gives Egyptians something the regime can never give; a social context for political deliberation.
With the Emergency Law still in force after decades and despite US warnings to abolish it, Egypt does little to provide public spaces for political dialogue. Any kind of dissent is stamped out harshly and quickly but the Brotherhood keeps re-emerging, giving people open political dialogue; an outlet for heightening frustrations and unrest.
With the Muslim Brotherhood entrenched in Egyptian society and other opposition groups losing momentum, Mubarak’s arch enemies right now are tech-savvy activists and wired civic groups. The role of tea shops, cafes and meeting houses as places of political dialogue are dying out, as the internet becomes the primary incubator of democratic political conversation. Working through the internet and accessing the masses through forums, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to provide a voice in Egypt ’s political arena.
The regime does shut down television stations and radio stations and it does so at will, but the internet is beyond its reach, especially when the servers that host political conversations are located overseas and the internet service providers and mobile phone operators are privately held businesses.
The 2010 elections showed that the ruling elites do not bother to contribute to political conversations online. Research by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam shows that unlicensed political parties use digital media the most, connecting to Egyptian bloggers and Western media. With internet use becoming more and more widespread, the average Egyptian is having much greater access to international news than it ever has before.
The regime blunders in and arrests and punishes ‘online offenders’ but persecuting bloggers will not solve one of Egypt ’s greatest problems; the absence of a sensible system for talking about politics.
Mubarak and his National Democratic Party are trying to maintain control of a large public sphere, but the regime is also sensitive - even during their rigged elections - because they know all too well that because of the digital revolution, the international community knows exactly what is going on. And, with abuse from state security forces being documented and people openly discussing the election fraud online, it is like trying to hide an elephant. Egypt ’s dodgy elections are no surprise but the way Egyptians talk politics is definitely changing.