The explosion of protest in Egypt has emerged from deep currents in the country’s modern history. Tarek Osman maps the roots of tumult and the dynamics of the new political reality it has already created.

The protests that have swept Cairo and other Egyptian cities since 25 January 2011 have taken many observers – and even many participants – by surprise. The immediate triggers of the eruption included the events in Tunisia and accumulating disgust at the Egyptian state’s rights violations. Yet in another sense its ingredients took decades to come together.

In this longer perspective, the source of what is happening in Egypt also lies in economic, social and political developments since the country’s last “regime change” in 1952, and in the pressures and faultlines that these developments incubated.

In particular, five currents – a changing class structure, a decline in the regime’s legitimacy, eroding institutions, the absence of a meaningful national narrative and a dramatic demographic shift – flowed through the interstices of Egyptian society to set the stage for the current explosion.

A six-decade prelude

The first factor is the transformation in the composition of the country’s middle class. This group of public-sector employees, professionals, army officers and owners of small- and medium-sized enterprises coalesced in the 1950s and 1960s.

But in the mid-1970s, under the infitah (open-door) policy of President Anwat Sadat, the middle class reconfigured as new sectors emerged – traders, brokers, employees of multinational companies, and a significant number of the 3 million–plus Egyptians who emigrated to the Gulf in search of jobs during the 1970s oil bonanza. Moreover, the state’s gradual but consistent withdrawal from providing adequate education, healthcare, transportation and other key services weakened the traditional middle-class and pushed parts of it into the lower socio-economic strata.

The financial reforms of the 1980s and 1990s further pressed the older middle class and widened the fractures between its various subdivisions; then, the economic policy shifts of the 2000s imposed severe pains on this beleaguered group. The state incrementally retreated from central economic command (initially by floating the Egyptian pound, resulting in inflation, then through an accelerated privatisation programme, extending to the state’s strategic assets, and finally by granting economic decision-making power to the private sector’s leading capitalists). This hollowing-out of, and within, Egypt’s middle class created social tensions, alienated many of its segments, and instilled anger that percolated through the society.

The second factor is the gradual erosion of the legitimacy of the regime. Nasser (1952-70), Sadat (1970-81), and Mubarak (1981-) all ruled Egypt on the basis of the people’s consent to the ruling framework that the 1952 coup d’etat/revolution had put in place. But no truly fair and transparent elections took place in Egypt during those sixty years. The people’s consent was schematic, with constant reference to the key tenets of the 1952 revolution – chief amongst them being “siding with the working classes”. The economic policies of the mid-1970s onwards rendered that tenet in particular null and void, and as they merged power and wealth in the 2000s legitimacy drained from Egypt’s ruling elite.

The Egyptian people’s tolerance of the semblance of democracy (lacking any real participation in power or any functioning checks and balances) and their tolerance of absolutism (from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak) had come to converge around their tacit acceptance of ultimate rule by the military establishment that had led, secured, and sustained the 1952 regime.

This began to change in the 2000s with the ascendancy of the new capitalists: their assumption of complete control over the state’s economic strategy and practices created an intra-regime balance between the military establishment and the emerging economic players. That distorted formation, whose newer elements had their financial clout alone to sanction their position, represented to a degraded middle class a final breach of an already terribly frayed social contract.

The third factor is a noticeable weakening of the regime’s established institutions. This was especially true of the presidency itself. Under Nasser and Sadat, it had remained a vibrant nerve-centre of governance, even a laboratory of ideas (albeit some bad ones), and certainly the place where active power was contained and expressed. By the 2000s the institution had long withered into a mere administrative structure around the president.

Such dilution could in principle have been welcome, had democratically elected institutions (mainly the parliament) also been strengthened and a healthy balance struck between presidency and government. Instead, what happened in Egypt was that the (undemocratic) parliament, the government, and the presidency became varied representations of the president’s will – executive bodies, rather than pillars of a functioning political system. The same decay took hold of most other state institutions, from government ministries to the public sector. The regime’s institutional structure had reached its weakest point since 1952.

The fourth factor, one that both reflected and compounded the others, is the chronic lack over more than three decades of a national project. The failure of Egypt’s liberal experiment in the first half of the 20th century, and the fall of Arab nationalism and the Nasserite dream as the 1960s developed, left Nasser’s successors focusing their efforts on “development”: a vague notion that, from the start of the strategic shift in the mid-1970s, was understood solely in economic terms, and which over the years was diluted into successive five-year plans (economic milestones, financial targets, statistical measures) devoid of any grand ideas.

The ambitious and inspiring objectives of “catching up with Europe” (during the liberal period) and “leading the Arabic nation in its historical march” (at the height of Nasser’s reign) became a distant memory. No big picture or grand scheme filled the void in the Egyptian psyche. Egyptians’ economic pain could not even find consolation as sacrifice for a higher cause; it was increasingly context-less, even meaningless.

The fifth factor, which made every other thornier, is demographics. Egypt’s population almost doubled from 1980 to 2010, from around 45 million to more than 80 million. More than 45 million of them are under 35 years old. These young Egyptians are deprived in multiple ways: economically, psychologically (in that they were obliged to witness, and endure, the rising influence of an ultra-wealthy elite in a shockingly corrupt political–economic milieu), and emotionally (in that they were living through a socio-political void marked by a sense of wasted energy, a disconnect between regime and people, and an overarching heritage of lethargy and failure).

In a chapter entitled “Young Egyptians” in my book Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010), I argued that this major demographic bloc has generated many positive social dynamics. But none of them can yet counterbalance the sheer weight these five disabling factors have exerted on Egyptian society and (especially) its young people. An eruption, with this generation in the vanguard, was inevitable.

A two-month overture

Egypt is now in transitional limbo. The eruption of January–February 2011 has been too powerful to be contained within the existing political structure, yet not powerful enough to force the regime’s removal. At this delicate stage, four emerging realities of the political earthquake of the past two weeks are clear.

First, it has been a political rather than an economic eruption: the demands of the several million young Egyptians who protested in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt were not about subsidies or higher salaries but cut to the heart of the country’s political framework.

Second, the fixation on the apparent political deadlock over whether or not President Mubarak will step down immediately or at the end of his term in September misses the fact that the Egyptian regime is not solely the president. Now that the new capitalists who shared power in the past decade are out (some indeed are already being prosecuted), the regime’s foundational core – the military establishment – has regained its former control.

The key figures emerging as political captains in this transitional period are respected as individuals; some even command wide appeal, in part because they draw on the bruised middle classes’ fear of a descent into chaos and their realisation that the army is the only force in Egypt able to ensure stability and maintain order. In this sense it is arguable that the regime, embodied more than any other institution by the military, is now stronger than it was pre-25 January 2011.

Third, political Islam has achieved a strategic gain. It is true that the young people who catalysed the uprising have declaimed their rhetoric in nationalist and secular language. The Muslim Brotherhood neither inspired the demonstrations nor led the opposition forces at any stage.

But the Brotherhood is now negotiating with the Egyptian vice-president as a recognised entity (politically, if not – yet – legally). The Muslim Brotherhood is also in open dialogue with Mohamed ElBaradei, the most notable of the regime’s liberal opponents. It increasingly has a conspicuous presence in the demonstrations. And crucially, after more than sixty years of intense (and almost continuous) confrontation with its arch enemy, the secular regime, the Brotherhood has changed the terms of engagement.

True, the Brotherhood has pledged not to field a presidential candidate in the presidential elections due in September 2011; it also hinted that it would not stand for more than a third of seats in the next parliament. But these conciliatory (and non-binding) measures serve to confirm that the eighty-two-year-old Brotherhood has acquired a new confidence, and that many among its younger generation see a historic opportunity to move closer to the prize of power.

Fourth, Egypt’s liberal movement is also a winner. It may remain fragmented, fractured, and leaderless, as it was before 25 January 2011. The country’s liberal parties linger in a catch-up game with the rapidly changing situation. The momentum created by the emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei remains personified in him, lacking a structure that can be presented to the middle classes. But it is undeniable that the liberal movement more than any other political grouping was the force whose ideas and presence guided the youth revolt. This has created immense political capital, which it can only use, however, by finding the savvy strategists it has lacked for decades.

The next deluge

How will these emerging realities play out in coming weeks and months? In political terms, Egypt will enter a phase of competition for influence and support between the new leaders of the military establishment; political Islam, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood; and Egypt’s liberals. This will be a medium-term political duel that extends beyond the September elections.

It will be an absorbing contest. The military establishment has the restraint, discipline, grasp of power and historical perspective to present itself as the protector of the people, the bedrock of stability, and the founding principle of the regime that ruled Egypt from 1952.

The Brotherhood, supported by political Islam’s wide and deep socio-economic infrastructure, sustained by its superb organisational powers, and connected to the conservative religiosity of Egyptian society since the 1980s, will present itself in new colours – specifically drawing on the successful and appealing example of the AK Party’s experiment in Turkey.

The liberals, if a credible, modern leadership arises from within their ranks, could also benefit from the political contest. This in turn will depend on their ability to build on the momentum of the current revolt, in part by invoking Egypt’s liberal experiment in the first half of the 20th century (a period to which many in Egypt’s middle class feel deeply attached).

But there is, too, a larger Egypt, in which millions around the country beyond the inspiring events of Tahrir Square will have a decisive voice in the unfolding political drama. The waters of Egyptian politics have been stagnant for a long time. The “eternal brown land” is preparing for a further deluge of political energy. Where it will take us, no one yet knows. But something has already changed. This is a good time to be an Egyptian.

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