Bread, freedom and social justice! A slogan and a statement that simply explains why Egyptians had to head to Tahrir Square on 25 January, 2011 and what their aspirations were. But have they reached what they sacrificed for? Or has the revolution crashed?
There are two difficult questions for observers to provide consistent and quick answers to. In order to understand the complications of immediate fulfillment of the above mentioned revolutionary goal, we first have to analyse Mubarak’s pro-wealthy economic model with a focus on the extreme transformation under the economic legacy of his son Gamal, in contrast to all relative achievements under Nasser’s authoritarian state in the 1950s and 60s.
The model of Mubarak and Gamal was and still is a model that made Egypt intolerable in the eyes of the majority, and made a popular explosion an unavoidable necessity. But how did the country reach this furious status?
This is the beginning of a series of articles that attempts to put Mubarak’s economic practices in a socio-economic context, adding details to the picture of popular frustration and the feeling of social injustice, which both still exist despite today’s euphoria of celebrating the military’s “return” as the nation’s saviours.
We have to admit that economic injustice still prevails, with no serious pro-poor economic changes have yet been made. Lives of the average Egyptians were the same under the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and continue to be under the military again. Simply because Mubarak’s economic mentality remains the only common knowledge the political elite possesses. However, the difference between the present and the past is that now the people have tasted the feeling of power from heading to the streets expressing their frustration, whenever necessary.
In 1982, a few months after Mubarak became president following Sadat’s assassination, no one ever imagined that the special pan-Arab socialist model of Nasser founded in the 1950s would come to such a tragic end. It was already being transformed into a neoliberal one under Sadat’s Infitah – openness – policy in the 1970s, but the steps taken by him can be easily considered shy in comparison to Mubarak’s, especially in the 1990s.
Galal Amin in his book Whatever happened to the Egyptian revolution, touches upon this issue and reflects on the long life he had witnessing a long period of socio-economic transformation from Nasser’s Egypt to Sadat’s and Mubarak’s as he wrote, “A few years after the defeat of 1967, Egypt entered a miserable phase of its history, where the country was not managed for the interests of Egyptians (nor the Arabs). It was for a coalition of American and Israeli interests from a side, and for the interests of a very limited group of Egyptian businessmen and related politicians from the other side. This group saw its own benefit in serving the American and the Israeli interests. This period remained for more than a third of a century, where nothing in this regard has changed when President Mubarak replaced President Sadat.”
No one imagined in the beginning of Mubarak’s term that the gap between the rich and the poor would return to, and even exceeds, how it was under the Egyptian monarchy overthrown by the July military coup in 1952, where the aristocrats and the business elite were almost enslaving the poor in a colonialist economic model protected by the British. Mubarak simply embodied an unprecedented historical level of financial and political corruption deeply engraved in the very structure of his state that actually still prevails until today.
It was an intentional decision, whether by Mubarak or enforced by the Bretton Woods organisations – IMF and the World Bank – to deconstruct the socialist state established by Nasser (1954 – 1970). The state that was meant to be the people’s representative in achieving industrial development as a social necessity, and to build a solid basis for a locally tailored growth and modernity model. Even if it was a nationalist project that did not do very well, and introduced a culture of military and police governance, no one can deny that it was a pro-poor project to which Mubarak represented nothing but the opposite, with the exception of some dictatorial similarities.
Given the tired-but-true saying “Life is not only black and white”, Nasser’s state, which I am definitely not a fan of, had some pro-poor achievements that the anti-Nasserists should not deny or undermine.
A free public educational programme was extended to cover all phases of education including universities. The government initiated other programmes for public health, where it committed itself to providing free healthcare to all those who cannot afford private treatment. It also subsidised a system for basic food commodities, especially bread, where low prices of most produced food commodities were made fixed. The regime also committed itself to employ all graduates of vocational schools and universities. Minimum wages and generous labour laws were granted for securing workers’ economic rights. All of these strategies participated in narrowing down the forms of income inequality. The ratio of poor families fell from 35% in 1958 to 27% in 1964 for rural families, and from 30% to 27.8% for urban families over the same years. In addition to this, the ratio of wages to national income increased from 38% in 1950 to 50% in 1967. (Farah 2009)
Several positive and negative characteristics of Nasser’s state were inherited by Sadat and Mubarak, however both engaged in a systematic process of selectively deconstructing some and leaving others for the sake of maintain power and satisfying new allies.
… To be continued!