Today's post is by Abdeslam Maghraoui, Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke University, and author of Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922–1936.
The mass protests across Egypt this week seem to be coalescing into an unwavering movement intent on toppling Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime. The magnitude, momentum, and direction of the protests are similar to the movement that forced president Ben Ali to flee Tunisia in January. Despite significant social and cultural differences, the movements in both countries are fueled by apprehension about endemic social problems and decades of oppressive, authoritarian rule. Mubarak’s external support and domestic pockets of resistance may delay and influence change, but a revolutionary outcome seems to be already in the making.
For one, Egypt’s social problems are in many ways worse than Tunisia’s. Regardless of the scope and speed of unfolding events, Mubarak’s regime is unlikely to survive the challenge. Thirty million out of Egypt’s 81 million inhabitants live on less than two dollars a day. Seventy-five percent of the population is under the age of 30 and many are jobless college graduates. Increasing inflation, high food prices, and stagnant salaries during the last decade have battered middle class families. Millions of poor and middle class Egyptians juggle two or three different jobs to make ends meet. According to recent World Bank figures, one-fifth of Egyptians live bellow the poverty line. In the meantime, the country’s top political and economic elites, associated with the inner circles of power, lead luxurious life styles. Cairo’s chic, Beverly Hills’ like neighborhoods stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the country.
Hosni Mubarak has presided over a thirty-year old autocracy that maintained tight control over Egypt’s political life through repression and cooptation. The country has been under emergency law since Mubarak came to power in 1981, when radical Islamists assassinated Anwar Sadat. Although the media and civil society in Egypt are less restricted than in Tunisia, the emergency law gives the executive sweeping powers: the government can violate basic rights and freedoms and convict political opponents through summary trials. Mubarak’s government used the Muslim Brotherhood - the main political opposition in Egypt - as a justification to maintain the emergency law and crush all forms of political opposition, regardless of ideological orientation. Local and international human rights organization have documented massive cases of torture, unfair trial, and unlawful imprisonment of peaceful Islamic activists, human rights leaders, and pro-democracy advocates.
But indiscriminate repression in Mubarak’s Egypt is more than a security mechanism. It is a political tool to silence any credible alternative to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). While the government allowed a semblance of political pluralism and competition, formal elections were used essentially to buy out political elites and expand its power base through fixed ballots. With the support of the NDP’s national and provincial bosses, and thanks to the backing of the army, the country’s most powerful institution, Mubarak secured five consecutive six-year terms presidential victories since 1981. In fraudulent elections, where Mubarak was generally the only running candidate, he won each time by more than 80% of the cast votes. At age 82 and ailing, he had not appointed a vice-president to replace him and made it clear that he was planning to serve for life. In 2005, with the support of the NDP, Mubarak began to groom his 47 year-old son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him when he leaves. The prospect of a “dynastic” succession was widely opposed in the country and has become a pressing, divisive issue as the 2011 presidential election was approaching.
In sum, anger about deteriorating social conditions and Mubarak’s iron-fist rule has been smoldering for decades. What distinguishes the current social and political upheaval from past ones is a changing political psychology. The walls of fear that in the past prevented sustained, collective action seem to have crumbled with Tunisia’s successful revolution. While it is too early to speak of a domino effect in the Middle East like in Eastern Europe in 1989, for the first time since independence, the region’s people, not army officers or outside powers, are driving political change.
Still, ultimately the outcome of the unfolding events in Egypt will depend on the behavior of three main actors. The army, the most powerful institution in the country, is keen on preventing the regime’s downfall to protect its interests. Unlike in Tunisia, the Egyptian army has been associated directly with the country’s politics and has influence over key sectors of the economy. But there is already strong resistance among junior officers to save the regime at all cost. The second most important actors are the protestors themselves. The protestors’ ability to maintain cohesion and momentum is crucial. Despite the heterogeneity of the movement and the chaotic situation in the streets, opposition leaders, democracy advocates, and various independent groups involved in the demonstrations have agreed on five key points: Mubarak’s resignation, the abrogation of emergency law, the dissolution of the current parliament, the release of all political prisoners, and the formation of a unity government that will be responsible for holding free national elections. The protestors chose Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Agency and pro-democracy advocate, to represent them in negotiating Mubarak’s departure. Finally, prospects for democratic change will depend on the inclusion or exclusion of the country’s oldest and strongest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. In Tunisia, the Islamists were conspicuous by their absence and low profile in the protest movement. This is not the case in Egypt. Thus far, however, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be coordinating the marches and demonstrations with secular groups. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence, moderated its ideological stand, and accepted to participate in the political process years ago. They have also backed the choice of ElBaradei to represent the “Egyptian people” in negotiations with the army and the government.
None of this suggests that the protests in Egypt will inevitably turn into a coherent revolutionary movement that will bring about democracy. But the days of the old authoritarian system that has prevailed in Egypt for the past three decades are over.