About Benjamin MacQueen

Senior Lecturer in Politics and Middle Eastern Studies at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

A Harsh Economic Reality in Egypt

The sitting of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak Parliament is reason to celebrate. The ability of Egyptians to take control of their political destiny, considering the constraints imposed by the SCAF and the complex electoral procedure, is a remarkable outcome.

Despite this, the economic state of ‘post-Tahrir’ Egypt is dire. Certainly, the deterioration of the Egyptian economy since 2008 contributed to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, perhaps not so much in Tahrir Square but in the broader lack of enthusiasm for the status quo. But the uncertainty of the last 12 months has compounded this, and leaves economic issues rather than questions of, for instance, the peace treaty with Israel, as the central concern the new FJP-led government must deal with.

This was the overwhelming sentiment on visiting Cairo one year after the historic uprising. Despite sporadic protests, Tahrir is all but empty as Egyptians look forward with equal amounts of hope and trepidation.

Before January 25, 2010, the Egyptian GDP had stagnated despite some years of growth up to 2008. In addition, estimates put unemployment at 20%, with the vast majority of those unemployed aged between 16 to 25. Inflation sat in excess of 12%, probably closer to 20% on basic foodstuffs, whilst corruption was rampant.

This is a situation that has worsened in the past 12 months. In other words, a teetering economy is close to falling over into a deep recession that will be tough to emerge from. Tourism, always a key barometer of Egypt’s economic performance, has dropped by more than one-third whilst local and foreign investment is leaking out of the country, seeing its currency reserves drop by more than one-half and raising the spectre of a currency crisis that could further fuel inflation.

Whilst coverage of Egypt’s on-going transformation is transfixed on Islamist electoral success and what this means for regional stability or ‘shari’ah-isation’, these economic realities are not lost on Egyptians or their new political elites. Indeed, worries of impending food shortages and inflation have been the hottest topic in Egypt, both on the street and in the local media.

It appears that this economic question is likely to be a driver of the shifting political landscape in the coming years. Egypt needs foreign investment, but will be forced to conform to global financial regulations to ensure this, resulting in a cut to food subsidies and other services. In an environment where more than 40% of the population live in poverty, food prices and unemployment are rising, it will be the party or parties that present the most feasible and reassuring economic plan who will gain the most.

It is a set of issues that is also likely to divide parties as much as, for instance, debates over religious and personal status law or the relative powers of the new chambers of Parliament. The FJP penchant for a service-based economy will certainly resonate amongst Egypt’s poorer classes, but may also be used by international organisations as rationale for hesitating on investment. An-Nour’s economic plan is similar to that of the FJP, however with much greater ambiguity and reliance on populist language.

On the other hand, it is unclear whether the smaller ‘liberal bloc’ of parties will articulate a coherent economic policy in contrast to this, for fear of alienating themselves from the majority of the Egyptian population.

This is a rather bleak picture, to be sure, but one more reflective of the concerns of most Egyptians at the moment. It is one that also helps moderate the hysteria around an FJP-led government. Turkey’s AKP are constantly held up as an example for the FJP and an-Nour of an Islamically-oreinted party enhaincing a democratic system.

However, whilst the AKP represent the conservative sentiment dominant in Turkey, as it is in Egypt, it has been that party’s economic success that has really buttressed its popularity. Should the FJP repeat this, it will leave a fundamental imprint on this new political system for the benefit of all.

No-one will Mourn the Brother Leader

The Arab Uprisings continue to produce momentous symbols of change. However, even with the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the confronting scenes of his capture and the final parade of his body, the direction of this change remains unclear.

It can be safe to say that this is the end of the major military campaign against the former Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi and his son Mutassim are dead. Another son, Saif Islam, is on the run but will no doubt be captured in the coming days. The pro-regime stronghold of Sirte has fallen, leaving no resistance to the rule of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Saying this, the legacy of the Gaddafi regime will leave its imprint in North Africa for decades to come.

Gaddafi’s style of rule, largely personalised and backed by an extensive patronage network and unrelenting use of state security services to suppress dissent leaves little in the way of political institutions for the new government to build on. More than the systematic dismantling of political and economic institutions in Iraq under US tutelage, Libya is in many ways an institutional blank canvas now, needing to be built anew.

In this regard, there are some promising signs. The nominal head of the NTC and interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has promised to step down once a new transitional government is elected. However, the momentum for change may accelerate this process, potentially displacing Jibril in the process due to his ties to the former regime where he managed the privatisation and liberalisation reform process from 2007.

The removal of Jibril is dangerous in that there is little holding the NTC together outside the enthusiasm for opposition to Gaddafi and the effervescence of fighting the pro-Gaddafi forces. As the fighting subsides, and the hard work of reconstruction beings, the fragile authority of the NTC leadership will be put to the test. Without a recognised leader, there is the very real possibility of renewed violence in a contest for power, one that counter-revolutionary elements may take advantage of in order to foster disunity.

The international community has rejoiced at the demise of Gaddafi and an end to his often surreal antics on the world stage. However, this may not cover the duplicitous efforts of particularly the UK government in seeking to bring Libya in from the cold over the past 5 years. Arms deals, questionable legal manoeuvres, and a desire to open up access to Libya’s reserves of light sweet crude saw both Labour and Conservative governments in London court Libya’s Brother Leader.

The NTC has promised that it will look favourably on participants in the NATO-led support campaign in the development of future government contracts, but it is going to be a tough sell for Prime Minister Cameron and, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy and Berlusconi to overcome deep seated suspicion as to their motives.

The combination of political uncertainty, lack of institutional support and continued suspicion of international intentions with heady feelings of triumph is a volatile mix. Here, the capture of Saif Islam may serve as an important factor in the short term. Where Muammir Gaddafi has ‘escaped’ trial either in Libya or The Hague, his son may not be so lucky. The process of charge and trial can serve two purposes, in providing a precedent for dealing with the remnants of the former regime in a manner that strengthens and validates new institutional arrangements as well as providing a rallying point that could hold the NTC together over the vital coming months.

After this, Libya is going to need a great deal of international support, not in terms of aid, but in terms of a calibrated measure of advisory support in how it will build the new state. Managing the innate suspicion of international intentions with the desire to re-engage with the world will be a difficult process, but one that is hopefully done, as much as possible, on Libya’s own terms.

Breaking the Fear Barrier

Being an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs, one endeavours to avoid the ever-present clichés that collapse the complexities of regional issues into sound bites. However, in thinking through the question of what led to the outbreak of unrest in Tunisia in December 2010 and the broader unrest in the region, I hope I may be forgiven for relying on a cliché as an explanatory tool. For me, this picture* says far more than a thousand words. It shows, in such real, visceral terms, what changed in the months leading up to the fall of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and helps explain why unrest occurred now rather than any other time over the last 20 years.

Specifically, I see this image as showing the difficult to quantify issues of regime detachment and evidence of a redundant mode of regime legitimation. This is not to discount the well-documented importance of demographic changes, removals of food subsidies, changing geo-strategic patterns, and other forces that all contributed to the uprisings across the region. However, these have been relevant issues for the region since the late 1980s. The added factor of social media has also contributed to opposition mobilisation, but the lack of internet penetration in the states that have witnessed the most serious unrest (particularly Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen) counts against this as a catalytic factor in causing the outbreak of unrest.

The increasing detachment of regimes from popular concerns is obviously connected to failing non-coercive means of compliance. However, it is the congruence of these factors alongside the aforementioned issues of demographic changes and the mobilisational tools provided by social media that can fully help to illustrate the network of issues underlying the unrest.

This image shows former President Ben Ali visiting Muhammad Bouazizi after his self-immolation on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi’s story is well documented, but his brief journey after his hospitalisation and tragic death on January 4, 2011 is worth reflection. Moved through several intensive care units, it was only after the regime came under pressure did he finally arrive at the Burn and Trauma Centre in Ben Arous, the sole facility in the country equipped to deal with the scale of his injuries. It is here that Ben Ali is pictured in Bouazizi’s ward on December 27.

Ben Ali’s visit was an effort to show that the regime and Ben Ali himself was responsive to the needs of the people. However, the symbolism of a detached ruler exploiting the helpless figure of someone driven to such a desperate act because of the regime’s own dysfunctionality reaffirmed and solidified the view that not only was this regime out of touch, detached from the needs of society, but mercenary beyond reform.

It is this detachment and the exploitation of Bouazizi’s desperation that lead to what is even more significant about this image, the open show of utter contempt and disgust by those around the President. In particular, the three doctors attending Bouazizi make no effort to hide their repulsion toward Ben Ali. Whilst this may seem a flippant observation, it is an important representation of how the symbolic dynamic of authoritarian rule and legitimation in the Arab world based largely on fear, what Lisa Wedeen captures so well in her outline of the ambiguities of domination, was broken.

No longer would people willingly participate in the ceremony of the cult of leadership backed by the threat of force, a process that enabled Ben Ali, Mubarak, Assad, Saleh, and others to regulate public political behaviour and promote division. This was not a dependence on coercive means of compliance, but the threat of personal and social violence to force participation in modes of regime legitimation, a step ahead of Nazih Ayubi’s ‘fierce state’. What we have seen since December 2010, in simple terms, are these acts making these regimes no longer tolerable.

Understanding the roots of the uprisings in the Arab world in this way, I think, enables one to avoid falling into the trap of viewing events through aforementioned clichés of democracy or not, Islamism or not, and neo-colonialism or not. Admittedly, it is a negative premise, one that views the unrest as trying to remove an intolerable situation rather than reaching for an alternative. But this should not be surprising. The very effectiveness of autocratic rule in the region over the previous 5 decades has decimated opposition movements. Indeed, the uprisings have only reached a small minority in the region, with authoritarian regimes still firmly in place from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Despite this, the people across the region are finally gaining the chance of gaining some control over their future, and this is truly signficant.

* I thank my colleague Associate Professor Richard Pennell at the University of Melbourne for passing this image on to me.