Saturday, 13 February 2016 23:39

Egyptian Revolution: New Problems Instead of Democracy Featured

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IN RUSSIAN

The 2011 revolution in Egypt unleashed a revolutionary storm throughout the region. It was the changes in this, the largest and most influential country socially and culturally, that aroused the neighbours who were intrigued, but not really inspired by the earlier experience of tiny Tunisia. Inspired by the example of Egyptians who toppled the seemingly eternal regime of Hosni Mubarak, people took to the streets in the hope of a better life. However, for the Land of Pyramids itself the revolution’s consequences were mixed in the political and socio-economic sense.

No real change of elite took place, as witnessed by the outcome of the autumn 2015 parliamentary elections which were boycotted by practically all the opposition parties. The turnout was particularly low among young people who had been the driving force of the “revolution on the Nile,” as initially the demonstrators on Tahrir Square were young people who had lost faith in their future and who had nothing to lose. Today there is a tangible sense of disappointment among the young generation in the new regime. This is an alarming signal considering that in 2015 young people accounted for 23.6% of Egypt’s population (about 20.7 million). What is more, a quarter of them are unemployed and 51.2% live below the poverty line.

Thus the social base of the protest has not disappeared, which is fraught with fresh outbursts of discontent unless the authorities take urgent and effective measures to improve the situation. At the same time qualitative changes in Egypt call for a restructuring of the entire political and economic mechanism, something that is not happening in practice.

New Power with Old Habits

At the same time qualitative changes in Egypt call for a restructuring of the entire political and economic mechanism, something that is not happening in practice. 

Meanwhile the functionaries of the National Democratic Party which controlled the country’s parliament under Hosni Mubarak are returning to politics. It is notable that there are about 50 former army and police officers among the new MPs. Observers note the passivity of Egyptian voters (the official turnout figure is a mere 28%) and compare the recent parliamentary elections to the sluggish elections of the Mubarak era.


 

The new speaker of the lower house of the Egyptian parliament elected in January 2016 was professor Ali Abdel-Al, a veteran of Egyptian politics whose candidacy was highly controversial, with some opposition deputies openly declaring the return of the Mubarak times while the speaker himself hastened to pledge his loyalty to President Sisi calling him “the leader of Egypt's new march”. Critics were quick to note that this was how Mubarak, and before him Sadat and Nasser, were hailed. TV presenter Tawfik Okasha, an independent MP, declared that “the election of Abdel-Al was a ‎big mistake because he is an old guard figure who ‎represents an extension of the autocratic politics of the ‎former NDP.”

After a brief period of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt is again in the hands of the old elite. The elite has not been renewed by recruiting new leaders who came into prominence during the course of the revolution. Moreover, instead of integration of counter elites they are being alienated.

It would be fair to say that the old regime has been restored, only with new protagonists at the head. As a result, even the Egyptian media point out that Sisi is a younger version of Mubarak.

Terror Becoming a Common Phenomenon

The elite has not been renewed Moreover, instead of integration of counter elites they are being alienated. The old regime has been restored, only with new protagonists at the head. 

However, the continued presence of factors that can fuel a new revolution is only one of Egypt’s problems. The toppling of President Mursi put the country on the brink of a civil war. The Muslim Brothers who stood behind Mursi had ambitious power plans, especially because at first they were the best organised political force in Egypt and felt the support of Qatar, Turkey and even the USA. Now the Muslim Brothers are again underground and at least some of them are leaning towards the idea of armed insurrection.

And corruption dropped very little compared to the pre-revolutionary period. 

Terror is taking hold in Egypt, with terrorist attacks constantly being reported. This is very dangerous considering the chaos in neigbouring Libya and the increased activity of radical Islamists on Sinai because now arms smuggling has become much easier. Observers note the highest level of terrorist threat in Egypt in the last 15 years. In November 2014 the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group active on Sinai Peninsula declared its allegiance to Islamic State. The militants have unleashed a virtual guerilla war in the northern part of Sinai. In June 2015 radical Islamists staged a successful attack on the country’s Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in which foreign tourists also died. Egypt’s main historical landmarks – the Giza pyramids and Karnak temples in Luxor – came under attack.

 

The main question is who will tackle the backlog of problems. One of the key difficulties is the inefficiency of the civil service which is the main brake on economic development. Businessmen complain that not a single high-ranking bureaucrat can make a significant decision without a say-so from the military. That greatly hampers the conclusion of major deals.

According to Transparency International, corruption in the country is rife. In 2010, ie before the revolution, Egypt’s Corruption Perception Index was 31 points (the higher the figure, the less corrupt a country is). In 2012 and 2013 when the corrupt regime seemed to have been swept away by the new forces, the index rose to 32 points (out of 100), in 2014 to 37, dropping to 36 in 2015. In 2015 Egypt was, on that count, way behind such countries in the region as Qatar (71), the UAE (70) and even Jordan (53). The conclusion suggests itself that the authorities on this issue did not go beyond high-profile token actions and corruption dropped very little compared to the pre-revolutionary period.

Egyptian Pinochet?

In foreign policy Sisi’s most notable step has been the upgrading of relations with Russia. 

In the meantime ordinary Egyptians pin great hopes on the country’s new leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a fact not lost on Sisi himself (or the people around him) who puts the stake on big infrastructure projects and economic liberalisation. However, whether he will become an Egyptian Pinochet is a big question. Today he is seen above all as the man who saved the country from Islamist dictators who, according to many Egyptians, hijacked the revolution” using populist slogans but proved to be unable to govern the country and deliver on their high-sounding promises.

The Egyptian media name the opening of a new line of the Suez Canal as the main achievement of Sisi’s first year as president. However, the economic effect of the project is questionable considering the downturn in world trade.

 

In foreign policy Sisi’s most notable step has been the upgrading of relations with Russia, which is now promoted in the media as a powerful ally capable of providing Egypt with modern weapons (the cost of the deal is about 3.5 billion dollars) that would guarantee military parity with Israel. Besides, Russia will pay 85% of the cost of building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant that would symbolize a technological breakthrough. Bilateral relations do not seem to have been hampered even by the incident with the Russian airliner over Sinai and the subsequent suspension of flights to Egypt. The two countries continue to demonstrate their interest in cooperation in various areas from joint fight against terrorism to food trade.

Saudi Arabia is thought to be another important partner of Egypt. For Egypt’s foreign policy under Sisi the key issue is reviving the Egyptian-Saudi tandem which was pivotal to Mubarak’s policy. Cairo has he strongest army in the Arab world, but does not have enough financial resources, while el-Riyadh has the money but not enough soldiers. So, mutual interest is there. Back in the 1980s Mubarak positioned Egypt as a guarantor of Saudi Arabia’s security, especially in the face of the Iranian threat. That threat is still considered to be real for al-Riyadh, which means it will remain one of Egypt’s main sponsors. In December 2015 Egypt joined the anti-terrorist coalition created by Saudi Arabia. In exchange it got Saudi promises of financial aid in the amount of 8 billion dollars and oil supplies at cut prices for a period of five years.

In terms of foreign policy Egypt is back on the old track, having given up the ambitions of the brief period under Mursi for greater independence and its flirting with Qatar, Turkey and Iran. 

US military aid has not stopped. In spite of a cooling of relations after the 2013 military coup the Americans have resumed annual financial aid to the Egyptian military to the tune of some 1.3 billion dollars. Supplies of arms, ammunition and spares continue. All this shows that Sisi does not forget the old allies and partners and ideally seeks to benefit from all the countries that show an interest in Egypt. Most importantly, in terms of foreign policy Egypt is back on the old track, having given up the ambitions of the brief period under Mursi for greater independence and its flirting with Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

Economy in Crisis

In October 2015 Masood Ahmed, the IMF Director for the Middle East and Central Asia, put the growth rate of the Egyptian economy at around 4.3%. Growth was registered for a second year in a row (it was 4.2% in 2014). Thus Egypt was back where it was on the eve of the 2011 revolution. It is notable that growth in the region as a whole, including oil exporting countries, was just 2.5% in 2015.


In the coming years Egypt will need substantial foreign financing to implement its development projects and shore up its budget. 

The IMF puts Egyptian progress down to restored investor confidence in the country, the new budget policy of the authorities and massive aid from the Gulf countries. At the same time they note the high unemployment level and stress the need to create new jobs, especially for young people. This requires inclusive economic growth that would boost the well-being not only of the elite, but of other social strata as well. In recent years the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small group in Egypt was higher even than across the Middle East (where the gap is traditionally wide). Data for 2012 showthat six billionaires in Egypt controlled 24% of Egypt’s GDP. Egypt also faces the challenge of strengthening its positions in the international capital markets and reducing budget deficit (which is higher than in other countries in the region).

Masood Ahmed estimates that in the coming years Egypt will need substantial foreign financing to implement its development projects and shore up its budget. The IMF experts who visited the country in September 2015 note the shortage of foreign currency reserves, which, at the current level of imports, would last three months. There is a currency black market in Egypt. The government has to dip into reserves to shore up the Egyptian pound. Against this background, there is an outflow of dollars while local companies are unable to buy raw materials and equipment on time.

Another government headache is the survivals of Nasser’s socialism in the shape of subsidies for fuel, electricity and foodstuffs. This is a very pressing problem considering that more than 40% of Egyptians live below the poverty line. With population growth out of control the subsidies enjoyed by the poor are a serious burden on the budget. The government seeks to cut subsidies for fuel and electricity and is planning to introduce a value added tax.

The only practical result of the revolutionary upheaval has been to demonstrate the inability of moderate Islamists to build a democratic state and tackle the country’s real problems even with current external support. 

Continuing growth of food prices is a serious problem. In early November 2015 Sisi promised to take extra measures, such as organizing food sale at reduced prices.

The situation in the tourist industry gives little cause for rejoicing. Before the revolution it accounted for about 11% of GDP bringing in more than 14% of currency earnings. The number of foreign tourists in Egypt peaked in 2010 at 14.7 million, but has been steadily going down since due to instability in the country. Even so, in 2014 revenues from the tourist sector amounted to a hefty 7.5 billion dollars (compared to 12.5 billion before the revolution). There were signs of tourism reviving in early 2015, with the authorities announcing plans to bring the number of tourists to 20 million by 2020. However, the death of 8 Mexican tourists in September and the crash of the Russian airliner over Sinai caused a new drop. The Egyptian tourist business is losing 280 million dollars a month because of the suspension of flights from Russia and Britain, according to the Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou.

Results of the Revolution

 

It has to be said that the results of the 2011 revolution in Egypt are largely negative. The situation in the country is increasingly unstable, terrorists are stepping up their activities and there is a veritable guerilla war on Sinai. The social problems that led to the overthrow of Mubarak have merely grown worse because of instability and economic slump (especially in tourism).

The only practical result of the revolutionary upheaval has been to demonstrate the inability of moderate Islamists to build a democratic state and tackle the country’s real problems even with current external support.

The Muslim Brothers who came to power have proved to be usurpers and populists incapable of effectively governing the state. As a result Egypt had no option but to revert to the old model. However, the restoration was confined to giving a facelift to the façade while the chance to rectify the errors was missed. Thus, a new spiral of social tensions in 5-10 years’ time is likely, to be followed by a new revolution (perhaps the explosion can be delayed by tougher repressive measures, but police measures cannot reverse the trend). Only, that revolution would be aimed not against a specific authoritarian ruler, but against military dictatorship in general and would involve various armed groups, which is fraught with further serious destabilistion and even a civil war.

 

Previously published : http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=7256#top-content 

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