After Tahrir Square?
Wednesday 09 February 2011
By Adel Al Toraifi
There can be no doubt that the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have proved their point regarding the departure of President Mubarak. However, those who have followed the situation in Egypt for years realize that the departure of the President may not change the conditions in Egypt; in fact living conditions could perhaps get worse. My aim here is not to diminish the importance of what happened, the protests have forced the President to step down from power [at the next elections], and the presidency will not be passed down to his son or one of his associates, whilst constitutional reforms and the establishment of fair elections have also been promised. However, for those waiting for Egypt to transform into a Western-style democratic country, or for the establishment of a prosperous middle class, or for the economic conditions of millions of poor people to improve; these are hopes that are becoming increasingly difficult [to achieve] day by day.
Today, many could say that the primary aim of the protests was to eradicate oppression and political tyranny, and enable Egyptians to make their own decisions, with dignity. However, these people may have forgotten, as their opposition reaches greater heights, that the rises in food prices and unemployment over the last three years – which are two global phenomena – have had a direct impact upon the direction of events [in Egypt]. Social networking websites – such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – provided the necessary arena for the demonstrators to mobilize, plan, and communicate, away from the interference of the authorities. However, what happened in Egypt – at least what can be observed, as of now – was not the “Facebook Revolution” or the “Twitter Revolution”, nor did it only consist of “democratic” protests or demands for “freedom”. True, the recent demonstrations may have raised banners such as “poverty”, “despotism”, “justice”, and many others, but the variety of slogans, as well as the diversity of participants, both ideologically and politically, means only one thing: this was “rage” against the ruling regime. The majority of key players in the initial protests were lower middle class youths who suffer from unemployment, or who work in modest jobs, even though they are educated to a university standard. This demographic, whose numbers are officially estimated at 5 million, were able to communicate via the internet and organize themselves. The chances of their success increased with the general air of popular resentment and rage at the situation in the country, and the events in Tunisia which represented the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Today it is difficult to review and assess the regime of President Mubarak in a rational and balanced manner because of the state of popular upheaval that we are witnessing. However if we can say anything today, it is that President Mubarak should have stepped down in a dignified manner a long time ago. His era has witnessed successes, and many significant mistakes, but over the last ten years in particular, there have been signs of old age and senility at the top levels of Egyptian power. Subsequently, the country sank into a debate surrounding the possibility of hereditary rule, and different wings of the National Democratic Party competed to monopolize money and power, amidst poverty and [popular] discontent, with some state institutes – most notably the security agencies – becoming mere instruments of the regime, rife with corruption and authoritarianism.
Despite all this, Mubarak’s era being solely held responsible for the deteriorating conditions in Egypt will not help to resolve this crisis, in fact the problems afflicting Egyptian society will likely get worse, before they improve in the long run.
Within a few months, Egyptians will be able to elect a new president, amend the constitution, and achieve an elected parliament; yet solving the problems of the Egyptian state may take decades. 700,000 Egyptians enter the job market each year; 417,000 of whom are high school or university graduates, whilst only 18 percent of this figure will have graduated from technical or medical departments. These statistics are compounded by the declining overall level of education in Egypt, which is now globally classified as ranking 106 out of 130 countries. Not only this, but the Egyptian state is considered one of the most bloated states in the world, in terms of government apparatus, in other words the state and the public sector employ more people than is strictly required. The state has also financed projects to support services and basic needs in a manner that is beyond the country’s economic capacity to meet, in a bid to buy the silence of the poor. This is not to mention Egypt’s population explosion, which means that for decades, Egyptian state institutions will be unable to find solutions to housing or health problems, or rectify poverty levels in the country.
The Egyptian government is dependent on six major sources to achieve economic growth: tourism, oil and gas revenue, the Suez Canal, foreign investment, remittance for expatriate employment, and foreign aid. Any future government must protect the three sources that have been affected by the current crisis: tourism, foreign investment, and foreign aid. David Mack has warned against rushing to applaud the events in Egypt because the challenges of economic and structural reform will perhaps be too much for any one or two generations to overcome, especially if food prices and unemployment continue to rise, not to mention a decline in tourism, and shrinking foreign aid and investment in general. In this case, “the U.S. media and armchair theoreticians of democracy in the United States will be able to walk away at the end of the day. The Tunisians and Egyptians will not”. (David Mack, Hold the Applause, Foreign Policy, 3rd February 2011)
Currently, many fear the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and this fear is justified, yet it is not likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to form the next Egyptian government on its own, either due to their inability to acquire sufficient votes, or for fear of international reaction. As a result, we are likely to witness short-term coalition governments. Today, Egyptian expectations are higher [than before], their criticisms will be greater now that they are aware that they possess the power to force [political] change at any time; if this were to occur Egypt may cease to function internally, amidst partisan and political conflicts that could last for decades.
As you can see, the problems in Egypt cannot be solely blamed upon the president – or corruption during his presidency. This is because, according to international reports, there is a widespread culture of corruption and bribery, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability in all aspects of society. Thus the coming days may pose greater challenges, because the stability that Egypt lived through for three decades – albeit in a non-democratic manner – ensured tremendous growth in tourism, and foreign investment. Assuming that tourism will continue and develop, foreign investment may not grow to the same extent, because investors have become unsettled by the magnitude of changes that Egypt may undergo in the coming phase with regards to its legislative and economic framework.
In his important book “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”, Samuel Huntington said that: “Judging on past experience, the two most influential factors in the stability and expansion of democracy are economic development and political leadership”. Any researcher who knows the political reality in Egypt is aware that there are many social and traditional obstacles preventing this.
The Tahrir Square youth have been able to make their voices heard by the world, but the crucial matter here is not one of objection and protest – for others have tried this in many other countries – but rather in transforming these protests into political and economic gains…that is true success.