In 1947, after the Second World War had drawn to a close, Elizabeth Noel Newman established a public opinion research center in West Germany. One of Newman’s greatest accomplishments was the publication of her book in 1984 in which she presented her theory, the “Spiral of Silence.” She outlined the process of public opinion formation, and elucidated the causes and consequences of public opinion by way of the majority, as a result of a sort of herd mentality. Her theory explains the process of public opinion formation concerning a particular topic as being driven, initially, by the idea having both supporters and opponents. The insistence of the supporters, if met with failure from detractors to refute the idea, leads to the gradual increase in effect of the idea. This forces detractors into the difficult position of being embarrassed to put forth their opinion, resulting in the gradual muffling of their voices until the idea becomes established as one without opposition, perhaps the result of a form of social conformity.
The spiral of silence then spreads into comprehensive systems and applies itself to our contemporary political life in myriad situations. A case in point is the High Dam project, which undoubtedly changed life in Egypt, from the system of irrigation, tied to the lives of approximately half of the Egypt’s population, to securing of water, the primary necessity for survival. Opposition voices—disapproving of the dam project on the grounds that it might produce negative repercussions like a depletion of Nile silt or an increased risk of earthquakes—were weak at the initiation of the project. Criticism was thus relegated to silence in the face of a media machine that promoted the project as a historic achievement for which all Egyptians could be proud. A number of years later, when the green light was given to attack Gamal Abdel Nasser, opposition to the High Dam project swelled. In parallel, voices supporting the project’s development schemes and efforts to eliminate poverty in rural areas faded away.
The same thing occurred in the sixties following the decision to nationalize the centers of industrial production. Consider what happened in the wake of numerous national and ministerial decisions in the past few decades, such as the housing laws, the laws regulating and deregulating the rent of agricultural land, and the decisions to first eliminate, and then reinstate the sixth year of primary education. In each of these cases the loudest voice was the state, which relentlessly strangled opposition voices, leaving no room for society to reflect on the outcome of these decisions. There was no space to weigh the positive and negative consequences against one another, or understand the necessities of implementation. Over the decades, this context has robbed Egyptian society of the opportunity to rationally align itself behind a national project if its positive attributes outweigh the negative.
The spiral of silence also appears in societies facing crises, be they democratic or authoritarian societies. American history is full of such cases. Among them: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the promotion of invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; the many undulations of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latter case shows how citizens in the Western community fall into the clutches of the spiral of silence, notwithstanding a few exceptions.
The reader might well wonder why I raise this issue in such a tumultuous period wherein we see Egypt teetering on the brink of collapse. The reason is my fear that the current political scene might gradually lead to the Egyptian public falling victim to this vicious spiral.
One of the January 25th revolution’s outcomes has certainly been the creation of a sharp multi-dimensional polarization (remnants versus revolutionaries, Islamists versus liberals, pro- versus anti-Muslim Brotherhood). Polarization has extended to include class and geographical dimensions, which could negatively affect the cohesiveness of Egyptian society in the future. Such multi-dimensional polarization creates a context of tension and continuous conflict. Given the tendency toward extremism and unwillingness to accept the other, the consequence is a state of in fighting, which could lead to the destruction of a nation that has been united for thousands of years. That being said, multi-dimensional polarization presents a number of positive attributes that allow for the expression of a modicum of diversity that enriches political and cultural life.
The current political situation is so complex, though, that it encourages observers to point to a one-dimensional fault line, the focus of which is the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a perspective underestimates the factors involved in the multidimensional polarization that Egyptian society has experienced over the last three months. Reducing the conflict to “pro-Brotherhood” or “anti-Brotherhood” muddles the picture. To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood has committed a number of grievous mistakes and lost the trust bestowed upon them by the majority of the Egyptian electorate by entering into a number of unnecessary political conflicts. However, we must pause in the face of the content produced by most media institutions in the last few weeks in terms of their evaluation of the Muslim Brotherhood, its role and history. The content has been characterized by a significant degree of generalization. It has failed to differentiate between the Brotherhood’s leadership— which may well have committed crimes against the Egyptian public—and a faction of the Egyptian populace that belongs to or sympathizes with the Brotherhood, but was not responsible for the leadership’s actions. This oversimplification reduces the likelihood that Brotherhood members might revise their positions, making it all but impossible for them to re-examine their assumptions, and leaving the resort to radicalism and martyrdom as the only available alternatives.
The mistake we appear to have fallen into—in the wake of Brotherhood rule—is the search for an enemy to whom we can assign all blame for previous mistakes thereby justifying otherwise unjustifiable exceptional procedures. Such a situation will doubtless lead to mistakes being committed that are just as grievous as those perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whether it be the adoption of unnecessary decisions or the failure to implement necessary policies.
Given the fragility of the current situation and the necessity of avoiding violence, the greatest danger is that the current political struggle be transformed into a struggle that brings Egypt back to the paradigm of the sixties: “No voice should be louder than the war’s voice.” This comfortable paradigm lends itself to a lack of accountability and transparency, and is usually accompanied by the widening of the spiral of silence to include within its grasp all citizens responding to social conformity. If such a situation should occur, the hands of time would be pulled backwards to the detriment of the nation.
Magued Osman is the CEO and managing director of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, Baseera. This article originally appeared in Al-Shorouk.