Patriotism is a natural feeling, but can the same be said about the dislike of government?
There can be no doubt that all Egyptians love their country with a passion and are incensed when any slight is directed at it. While it may be true that each of us has his or her way of exercising that love, it is also true that some love kills. Undoubtedly Egyptians’ feelings towards their country are positive. At times, though, their actions closely resemble those of a bear who spots a fly perched on its face and hurls a rock at it, only for the insect to take flight unharmed; the bear, of course, never awakens from its slumber.
Egyptians’ sentiments toward the government, on the other hand, are entirely negative. By government I do not mean the current cabinet, or any other in particular, but rather that feeling of disdain that recurs at, every cabinet reshuffle and every newly formed government. The resentment has clearly accumulated continuously for as far back as Egypt’s collective memory goes, since Egyptian genes began to store the negative experiences they underwent in government-population relations. This begs the question of whether or not the relationship of patriotism and hate for government is a causal one. That is, do people’s love for their country push them, necessarily, to hate the government? And is it fair to do so? These questions are not limited to the Egyptian context, but extend, instead, to many other societies. But it is a question that is especially pertinent in Egypt’s case, which is characterized by a level of extreme complexity wherein much of the terminology used is ambiguous. It is important then to ask, before we get carried away with the matter, whether citizens can differentiate between the nation and government. If so, what do they see as being the difference between the two?
It is possible that citizens’ perception of the exact difference between the government and nation does not correspond to formal definitions of political science and public administration texts. Citizens may simply reduce the government to an unjust mayor, extortionate traffic officer, bribed health inspector, manipulative agricultural co-operative official, graft accepting district engineer, or a bureaucrat who makes citizens’ lives a living hell. On the other hand, one’s grasp of the government can extend to include other institutions of the state, such as the judiciary, parties (especially the majority party), parliament and perhaps even the National Football Association. In both cases, the government shares responsibility with others for failure, but fails to share responsibility for success.
Despite the variations in understanding the essence of government, citizens usually don’t differentiate between the institute of the presidency and that of the parliament. In bygone eras, the prime minister was primarily a scapegoat. When he did well, it was attributed to the wisdom of the president and his sound guidance, and when he did badly, he was held accountable, despite the president’s having endorsed, or even ordered those actions. The media machine has cleverly patronized citizens’ intelligence and would—if it sensed public discontent— portray the president as being engaged in a struggle to correct the mistakes made by the prime minister or ministers.
The heavy price paid by the government in terms of its popularity is often due to the absence of transparency and a systematic failure to disclose information. Some of that information is concealed unintentionally by virtue of habit, and could reveal government achievements that are not communicated to citizens. Meanwhile, information that demonstrates government failure is intentionally concealed. This too carries a heavy price, as it is sometimes subject to amplification and exaggeration, which only serves to heighten citizens’ awareness of that failure.
This negative energy directed at government—in the broader sense, in the minds of most citizens—has an effect that cannot be underestimated with regard to elections. There are plenty of examples of punitive voting, among which are the Student Union elections conducted in Egyptian Universities, that were exposed to government and security interference prior to the January 2011 revolution. In the early nineties, the security apparatus would eliminate leftist candidates from these elections, before concentrating on the elimination of candidates aligned with political Islam. Nevertheless, Islamist groups would win these elections with a comfortable share of the seats. Worthy of note here is the fact that the results of elections held last year, during the tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government, were unfavorable for Islamist candidates. Muslim Brotherhood candidates who ran during the elections without security interference, failed to achieve the kind of success they had attained as victims of the “government”— seemingly an attempt by voters to lend their support to those who opposed the government, rather than a show of support for any particular ideology.
Similarly, in a number of Union elections, the Islamist factions were victorious when they occupied the role of victim, and unsuccessful when they occupied the opposite position. This complicated environment places an imperative on the current government to achieve a greater level of effective communication with its citizens. The communication strategy required for that should take into consideration the following:
1) The citizen places upon the government before him the burden of the problems it inherited from previous governments, and is now quick to anger and unlikely to accept government’s excuses.
2) A communication strategy ought to be varied, whether it be in the content of messages that are appropriate for reaching different age demographics and educational and economic strata, or in the manner in which the message is delivered, given people’s different cognitive patterns. Moreover, the utilization of rapidly developing technology and means of communication, cannot be overlooked.
3) The political struggle currently underway in Egypt has acquired a class dimension, which the communication strategy must address, and requires the use of means and messages that avoid portraying government officials as patronizing, if even unintentionally. It must also avoid consecrating the position of elites in a society wherein the rates of illiteracy and poverty are increasing (Only 15 percent of those eligible to vote are college graduates).
The failure of government to communicate effectively with the citizen— a plague that Egyptian governments have been unable to avoid in many years— leaves open the floodgates of declining government popularity, especially in light of a climate teeming with elites that are experts at one-upmanship. Media highlights bad news as a tool to combat corruption, thereby activating a sort of absent accountability.
The drafting of a new national constitution might be an important opportunity for citizens to become familiar with the authorities and responsibilities of government, and understand the space within which government can operate without impacting other authorities. Societal awareness in this regard is extremely limited, and I would argue that the government has a direct interest in raising awareness among citizens of the limits of its authority and responsibilities, so that it is not blamed for wrongs it did not commit, and so that it is not burdened by expectations it cannot meet.
Magued Osman is the CEO and managing director of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, Baseera. This article originally appeared in Al-Shorouk.