In July 2013, a military coup removed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from office. Since then, protests have been held across Egypt on an almost daily basis. The anti-coup protesters are organized by a loose coalition of anti-coup groups under the umbrella of the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, and spearheaded by the Muslim Brothers. They have been the targets of a wave of repression that has killed more than 3,000 people and seen tens of thousands arrested. Security forces routinely use live ammunition and birdshot to disperse protesters, and human rights groups have also reported the widespread use of torture against detainees.
In March, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 anti-coup protesters to death for killing a single police officer (a retrial has been ordered). Unsurprisingly, the number of protesters has thinned as a result of the repression. While in the summer of 2013 anti-coup organizers could marshal rallies comprising tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of protesters, today even the largest rallies – commonly those staged after Friday prayers – rarely command more than a thousand participants.
And yet protests continue. Hoping to get a clearer sense of who these protesters are and why they still take to the streets in the face of extreme danger, we recently conducted an online survey of the Egyptian anti-coup movement. With the help of page administrators and several prominent anti-coup figures, an anonymous 27-question survey, conducted in Arabic, was posted in the closed Facebook groups and social media forums used by the anti-coup movement to coordinate protest strategy. Nearly 300 anti-coup supporters completed the survey: More than a third self-identified as belonging to the Muslim Brothers (or Muslim Sisters).
The results are surprising. To measure religiosity, we asked respondents whether they prayed daily. Any question on religion will elicit exaggerated levels of piety, of course. The point was to compare the same question asked in the Arab Barometer’s most recent survey of Egypt. Undertaken in 2011, this survey also asked respondents whether they took part in the protests that overthrew the Mubarak regime. As the graph shows, anti-coup protesters are no more religious than either the anti-Mubarak protesters or the general population. (They actually seem less so, but this difference is not statistically significant). Respondents that self-identified as Muslim Brothers or Muslim Sisters, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the most religious, but only marginally. Given that our online survey was biased toward the most highly educated, we can restrict the comparison to college graduates only. The result doesn’t change.
To gauge the motivations of the anti-coup protesters, we asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with five statements shown on the graph. From this we calculated which motivations scored highest. We separated Muslim Brothers from the other anti-coup protesters. To our surprise, support for Morsi ranked near the bottom, along with economic grievances, which have barely featured in the demands of the anti-coup movement.
While Morsi retains the sympathy of the anti-coup protesters, this is not a primary motivating factor for those who continue to take to the streets. Instead, protest is fueled by anger at the military-backed government’s repression against the movement. Over 90 percent of respondents said that a close friend or relative had been arrested since the coup and nearly 75 percent said that a close friend or relative had been killed while protesting. This explains why expressing solidarity with those who have been killed or arrested features so prominently in motivations for protest, along with a desire to continue the Jan. 25 revolution against Mubarak-era regime figures, many of whom have returned to power since the coup. Even for Muslim Brothers, these motivations trump showing support for Morsi and rank on par with religious obligation. Taken together, this suggests that protests will not stop because of the election of a new president, most likely to be former Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Our findings have other interesting implications. While the Muslim Brothers’ leadership continues to hold out for Morsi’s reinstatement as a pre-condition for a political solution to a conflict that has deeply divided Egyptian society, this is no longer a priority for the protesters themselves – and it will surely continue to decline in importance with the passing of time. This could remove one obstacle for a possible alliance with Egypt’s other opposition groups, who rounded on Morsi during his brief tenure in office, citing his government’s autocratic tendencies and what they perceived as the Muslim Brothers’ betrayal of the goals of the 25th January Revolution. Reconciling with those largely secular forces has been an aspiration of the Islamist-dominated anti-coup movement since fall 2013. Dropping Morsi’s reinstatement from their list of demands, while focusing on their other grievances, such as justice for the killed, the release of the tens of thousands of detainees and the removal of Mubarak-era figures from office, could go some way toward helping achieve that goal. However, with the level of distrust felt by Egypt’s secular opposition toward the Brothers, this still remains a distant prospect.
Identification by the anti-coup protesters with the January 25 revolution is also a timely corrective to portrayals of the revolution as a predominantly secular and liberal affair, from which Islamists were noticeable by their absence. In fact, anti-coup protesters today appear no more religious than those who took to Egypt’s squares in early 2011. This is not to paint the Muslim Brothers or their supporters as the singular heirs to those events. Rather, it suggests that for many outside the familiar cast of liberal activists and revolutionary personalities, the spirit of 2011 lives on and is still worth mobilizing (and dying) for.
Neil Ketchley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Michael Biggs is a university lecturer in sociology at the University of Oxford.