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Egypt has to learn the lesson

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

It’s almost boring. Earlier this week, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, three veteran activists, were each sentenced to three years in jail and fined EGP 50,000. Two thoughts occurred to me: one, if the fine was multiplied by 10,000, then that would be the only way such sentences could possibly have any sort of stabilising effect on Egypt. And two, this government continues to treat the current political and economic situation as sustainable. The reality is, it isn’t. That’s a lesson that Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi all failed to learn – and each time, the costs of learning the lesson just increase. The first time, one gets a sense of wanting to urge the powers that be to take notice;  the second time, one demands that they do so out of righteousness; the third time, to avert disaster. When you get to the fourth time, it’s almost boring, and one thinks: “Maybe they really do need to hit rock bottom before they realise – this just doesn’t work.”

On 25 January 2011, the key motivating factors for bringing people out on the street were (a) a rejection of the security apparatus that so humiliated Egyptians and (b) a demand for a better life in terms of economic prosperity for a larger swathe of the population, as opposed to an elite minority. The economy was actually growing under Hosni Mubarak – but the effects of that growth did not filter down to the average Egyptian. Indeed, while the GDP of Egypt was actually increasing, Egyptians on average were becoming more despondent about their futures – repeated Gallup surveys in 2010 showed that clearly. As for the security services, they were singlehandedly responsible for the degradation of the average Egyptian’s concept of dignity.

Had the army that removed Mubarak been interested in responding to the legitimate demands of the protesters, it would have established a roadmap to begin addressing those two issues. Indeed, should have been the military – because it was the military that could claim widespread support in February 2011; and in order to tackle those problems, it would have required a front of massive consensus. Otherwise, any effort to reform the economy or the security sector would be met with rejection. Of course, the military didn’t have any interest in addressing either of those issues, and it began an abysmal roadmap instead. The two fundamental flaws of the Egyptian state were left more or less untouched. The lesson was not learnt, a chance was lost, and any effort to address those issues was just bound to become even harder the next time it became necessary to do so.

Fast-forward to the presidential elections of June 2012, a year and a half later, and it comes down to Ahmed Shafiq (Mubarak’s last prime minister, and who is likely to come back to Cairo any day now) and Mohamed Morsi – the back-up candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi scrapes through – and the first thing he needed to do was to lay out a full programme to tackle those two pre-eminent problems that brought people to the streets in 2011. He was in an even weaker position to address those two issues – because while he was elected, his mandate (based on his election result) was far less secure than Tantawi’s was in February 2011. Confidence in the military in 2011 was over 90% nationwide – Morsi, against a representative of the former regime, just barely acquired more than the 50% majority vote. Fast forward to June 2013; barely anything had been done for the economy or the security sector. Indeed, with the economy plummeting even further, Egyptians’ patience became even more strained – and Morsi’s governance (or lack thereof) did not help matters. A chance had been missed again, the clock kept ticking, and the lesson remained unlearned. But the issues didn’t go away.

Mubarak didn’t do it; Tantawi didn’t do it; Morsi didn’t do it – and it does not seem as though this government wants to take on the challenge either. But ironically, it is in a far more difficult situation than Mubarak, Tantawi or Morsi were.  On the one hand, it is being bailed out, tremendously, by funds from the Gulf – funds that were not available before. So, in that respect, the Egyptian economy has something of a charitable stay of execution. But it is not sustainable. The funds cannot continue indefinitely – and support that comes with no conditions now, does not necessarily continue to flow without conditions later. Secondly, the demographic challenge that faces Egypt is both short term and long term in its challenge for the Egyptian state. The Egyptian population is getting younger and younger – they will want more opportunities than this current economic settlement can provide. To put it another way: this is a demographic time-bomb. For years, Egyptians have been willing to tolerate a certain amount – but not all of these issues put together, which have only been aggravated post 2011, and not with this society’s dynamic. Finally, the increase in insecurity, generated by radical Islamists opposed to Morsi’s ouster, also has a destabilising effect – it is unlikely to result in a civil war, but a low-level insurgency that just makes the challenge even harder.

There is a final element here, and that relates to the continuation of the deepening of the security state. It’s not a ‘return’ of that state, because it never went anywhere. But it now feels far more empowered, and is probably backed by a majority of the Egyptian population to lay down an environment which the population imagines will result in economic prosperity. The problem is: that is an illusion. For one thing, a heavy-handed approach (or, as one commentator on Egypt recently put it, “a security establishment out of control”) hits Egypt at its weakest point: in its ability to attract tourism and international investment. Tourism will not return while the international community continues to see Egypt as a country where protesters get either killed or three year sentences for protesting. If Egypt wasn’t a country that relies so heavily on tourism, that might not matter as much – but it is, and it does.

Beyond the international, there is the national: the court cases against activists and other non-violent dissenters do not lay down an environment for economic prosperity. They simply increase the number of people in Egypt who feel that the security state will go after anyone who expresses dissent. Now, that is actually a price that many of them will be willing to pay – but only if the state actually delivers. The hard truth is that many will indeed trade progressive governance for economic progress – but if that trade does not pay off, then this state is back to the same challenge that Mubarak’s regime was under in 2010. Actually, a far more difficult challenge – because the impatience level continues to rise, particularly for a generation that has lived through the last three years, and is unwilling to settle. One can look at the university campuses for the impatience that young Egyptians may express – and what they are likely to be like in the months and years to come.

It is not that the revolutionary ideals are becoming more popular – that would be far too charitable. It’s that this situation remains unstable, and unsustainable – and if the state wishes to avoid yet more unrest and instability, it would be well advised to focus its efforts on tackling these core issues that continue to plague Egypt. The longer the state avoids addressing these issues, the more inevitable it becomes that there will be very few choices left. The most enduring choice, frankly, would be to build a more enduring political settlement that will be established in the form of a second Egyptian republic – a republic based on respect of the Egyptian citizen. Not the holder of an Egyptian ID – but the Egyptian citizen. There is a difference. But if the state chooses to learn the hard way, then so be it – it’s getting almost boring reminding it that this kind of course simply isn’t sustainable. The question is – what price will Egyptians pay? But pay it, they are sure to.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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