When the Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it found a reliable ally among the ranks of the urban middle class. Four years into the coup and two years into Sisi’s presidency, the alliance still holds, acting as the backbone of the current military regime, even though large segments of the Mubarak era crony capitalist elites have been alienated.
Undeterred by the regime's actions that have steadily pushed the Egyptian economy to the brink – through massive spending on economically dubious infrastructure projects, which has contributed to a spiraling fiscal crisis, a devaluation of the pound, and soaring inflation, all of which has greatly eroded the living standard of the mass of Egyptians – the middle class still seem intent on supporting the military, even though this aggressive expansion has crowded out the private sector and reduced job prospects for their young.
Some might argue that this support stems from fear of Islamist rule and/or large-scale social upheaval. This is true to an extent, but there is an important explanatory dimension missing, namely the historical development of this class within a colonial context and the lingering effects of Nasserisim, which have laid down the foundations for their reactionary nature. All of these factors intermixed create the 'consciousness' of this class, which affects their behaviors as well as the position they hold within Egyptian polity.
The genesis of the Egyptian intelligentsia dates back to the modernization project initiated by Mohamed Ali, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, at the start of the nineteenth century. As an ambitious Ottoman reformer, he started to establish the foundations of the modern Egyptian state. A large number of clerks, bookkeepers, and public employees were needed to oversee the functions of the state and rapid growth of its military. This allowed for the growth of a number of educational institutions, including the first Egyptian modern medical school, El Qasr El Aini, promoting a new elite who would later form the basis of a new middle class - the Effendi.
Numerous scholarships to Europe were issued, sending the sons of middle ranking rural elites, namely the heads of villages, to be educated abroad only to return to Egypt bringing back “modernity”. This practice continued well into the twentieth century, with almost all notable Egyptian intellectuals following the same trajectory. Rifa'a al-Tahtawi was sent to Paris in 1826 by Mohamed Ali, leaders of the independent movement such as Mustafa Kamil and pioneers of Egypt’s liberal age, such as Taha Hussein, were also among them. This created a distinctly European imprint on the fledgling urban middle class.
This European imprint was a cause for the strong disconnect between this class and the rest of the, mostly, peasant country at the time – a disconnect that only helped to ensure the conservative nature of this class in terms of issues of social change, as it held an orientalist view of the peasantry and, as such, feared the consequences of mass social upheaval.
This was reflected in the nature of the struggle for independence led by the Wafd Party. Even though the party was led by large landowners, its backbone was the urban middle class. The party struggled for independence but it was socially conservative in its fear of popular mobilization. The Wafd Party offered little on social issues, such as labor or land reform.
It is not surprising that a party led by large landowners would be conservative, however, it is the support it received from the urban middle class that is indicative of this class’ conservative position. This does not mean that there were no radical wings within the urban middle class. On the contrary, there was the Wafd vanguard, the left wing of the party, and a budding communist movement. But their role was relatively weak and shortlived within the context of national struggle.
The second major phase of the development of the urban middle class was the coup of 1952 that brought Nasser to power, paving the way for the ideological hegemony of Nasserism, which still dominates many aspects of Egyptian political life today.
The Nasser regime allied itself with the urban middle class through the provision of social as well as economic benefits, which were mainly centered on the expansion of the public sector; laying the foundations of the corporatist relationship between the state and the urban middle class. This was all in exchange for political obedience.
This support, however, was not only based on the social contract of economic benefits. The military regime also followed a progressive policy closely rooted in European traditions of modernity, namely secularism and socialism. As such, there was an ideological affinity between the urban middle class and Nasserism.
The other aspect of this affinity is the role the state played against radical social upheavals. Even though the Nasserist regime initiated a large number of reforms, which coopted the peasantry and working class, they were all top down initiatives. The regime was willing to use relentless force where any indications of radicalism became apparent. For example, it was not only the Muslim Brotherhood that was subjected to relentless repression, the communist movement shared the same fate, even though it was initially supportive of the reforms initiated by the regime.
The regime acted as a bulwark against what the urban middle class feared the most: mass popular upheaval by a “backward” peasantry and the popular classes. Thus, during the Nasserist era, the military and by extension the state, were the only ones holding the enemy back at the gates.
This helps to explain the enduring alliance between the military and the urban middle class today, even though the Nasserist social contract collapsed decades ago. Some might argue that the urban middle class played an integral part during the 2011 mass protest movement, and that the youth protest movement is rooted within this class.
This, however, ignores three main issues. First, the demands raised in 2011 mainly revolved around moderate political reform rather than radical social transformation, which means that the demands of the popular classes were not adopted by the protest movement. This moderation helps to explain the inability of the urban middle class to build an alliance with the popular classes to overthrow the regime.
Second, the Mubarak regime was not perceived as a military regime as such. On the contrary, the military was seen as “apolitical”. Thus the revolt was not against the military elites, but the crony capitalist civilian elites who were systematically eroding the privileges of the middle class.
Finally, once a semblance of democracy was established and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a significant rural base – especially in the south – won, the fear of the backward peasantry quickly returned. This prompted the reaffirmation of the alliance with the military as the bulwark against the popular classes. This despite the fact that the military are pursuing policies against the material interests of the middle class..
The “consciousness” of the middle class dictates its hostile view towards the popular classes and cements its alliance with the military. This alliance is deeply rooted, which means that it will very likely continue for a long period of time. It is based on fear of the common enemy, the masses of poverty-stricken, peasants, workers, and the urban poor.
Any opposition emanating from this class will be limited to moderate political reform, which will ensure that the masses remain outside the realm of power. Fear is the foundation for the strongest of alliances.
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