Egypt’s Identity Crisis

From millions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square two years ago, revolting against Hosni Mubarak’s repressive rule and chanting “Silmiyya, silmiyya” (peaceful, peaceful), to a bloody Wednesday, with hundreds dead and many more wounded as security forces stormed sit-ins by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. From a mostly peaceful transition to a violent crackdown. From calls for democracy to a state of emergency.

How did Egypt turn so dark?

Much of Egypt’s crisis comes down to a battle over identity. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood overestimated the extent to which Egyptians identify with Islam. And now, with their violent repression of the Brotherhood, the generals who ousted Morsi risk underestimating it.

Over the past decade, I’ve conducted opinion polls in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and have found two consistent trends. First, citizens identify less and less with their countries and identify more and more with Islam and as Arabs. Second, Egyptians see themselves as the most religious people in the world.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which began the post-Mubarak era with justified confidence in its superior political organization, surely must have interpreted such trends as great support for its cause. (This belief was expressed by the group’s former murshed, or guide, as early as 2006 when he said, “Tuz fi Misr,” roughly, “To hell with Egypt.”) But the group drew the wrong lessons from these trends.

Arabs, like most people, have many contending collective identities, and the weight of each shifts over time; there is rarely a lasting equilibrium. Over the past decade, the rise in people identifying primarily as Muslim was not all or even mostly due to expanding Islamist aspirations. Instead, it resulted mainly from declining identification with the state, thanks to government failings on domestic and foreign policy. Also, the extraordinarily long tenures of individual leaders — Moammar Gaddafi ruled for 42 years and Mubarak for 30 — made it difficult for people to separate state from unpopular ruler. But a vote against something is not the same as a vote in favor of something else.

Moreover, when Islam itself appears under assault from external forces — as Muslims overwhelmingly perceived it to be in the decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — it becomes especially difficult to separate religious identity from popular defiance. You are what you have to defend. For some Egyptians, claiming Islamic identity is about faith, but for many others it is merely about asserting the right to be Muslim and to accept sharia law in the face of Western assault. Muslims do not want to apologize for who they are, for their faith and for all it entails.

Even attitudes about sharia are easily misunderstood. In my May 2012 poll, two-thirds of respondents said they supported making sharia the basis of Egyptian law. But when I probed more deeply, things became less clear: Of those who supported sharia as the basis of law, only 17 percent said they preferred applying it literally, while 83 percent said they favored applying the spirit of sharia but adapted to modern times. Little surprise that Egyptian commentator Muhammad Hassanein Heikal describes Egypt as a “civil-secular country that loves religion.”

For the overwhelming majority of Arabs, as for any broadly defined group, collective aspirations help determine the relative power of identities. When Pan Arabism seemed a more effective vehicle for the attainment of dignity at home and abroad in the 1950s, for instance, a shift toward an Arab identity became evident. Similarly, when Islam appeared to be the better vehicle, a shift occurred in that direction. The moves from one identity to another, from Arab to Egyptian to Muslim, reflect citizens’ assessment of their chances to reach their goals. And if there was anything clear after Morsi’s first year in office, it was that the public’s aspirations were dashed by the government’s domestic and international failures.

Islamists may have also misunderstood Arab attitudes about democracy. When Egyptians are asked which country they would want their own nation to look like, their top choice has been Turkey, a democratic Islamic nation ruled by an Islamist party. And in 2011 and 2012, Egyptians and other Arabs identified Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the leader they most admired outside their own country.

It is easy to misinterpret such admiration as Arabs seeking only the right mix of Islam and democracy. But the reasons are far more complex, as I found in my polling results. Arabs want a combination of many things that Turkey’s model offered: a country that balances democracy and culture, but also a stable, strong, prosperous nation, and one that makes them feel proud on the world stage. Erdogan, who personally symbolized the mix of Islam and democracy in many Arab minds — at least until the recent upheavals in Turkey — was not selected by Arabs as the favorite leader until he was seen as standing up to Israel on the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Overall, the resonance of political Islam in the Arab world — and in Egypt in particular — has been exaggerated. To win the presidency last year, the Muslim Brotherhood could rely on its political machinery and the disarray of its opponents; it didn’t need to win the hearts of most Egyptians. But as Morsi learned too late, it couldn’t govern without broader public support.

However, if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood overestimated the Islamists’ appeal, Egypt’s transitional rulers seem ready to dismiss it too easily. Public rejection of the Brotherhood does not translate into an embrace of the generals. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s popularity could be fleeting: Despite the Egyptian public’s long-held admiration of the military as an institution, especially immediately after the revolution, their opinion of the generals changed within months, with only 18 percent of Egyptians polled saying they had advanced the goals of the revolution by May 2012.

It is too early to measure the impact of the bloodshed on the generals’ public support, but the coalition around them has conflicting aims and values, even if they were united against Morsi — and it is beginning to fracture, most notably with the departure of Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei.

It was easy enough to use public disenchantment with Morsi and the muscle of the military to gain power. But in an era of heightened expectations and free-flowing information, a Mubarak-style regime cannot return. It is now impossible to govern Egypt by repressing the Brotherhood and its supporters, who have become indispensable parts of an empowered citizenry.

The bloody path chosen this past week takes Egypt into the unknown. What we do know is that all Egyptians are prepared to pay a price to have their voices heard. If that can no longer happen peacefully, Egypt must brace itself for the violent radicalization that makes democracy impossible.