Amidst the recurring violence and polarisation in Egypt, it is clear that the society has lost – at least temporarily – a valuable opportunity to forge a process that would benefit from the country’s cultural richness, and that the political transition that started with the January 2011 uprising has failed to provide an answer to the vexing question Egyptians have been unable to answer for more than six decades: “What is Egypt?”
This is not the first time that the question has gone unanswered. Muhammad Ali Pasha and Khedive Ismail, the founders of modern Egypt in the 19th century, created the state institutions but deliberately crushed the political representation of almost all Egyptians. The liberal experiment – from the 1920s to the early 1950s – put forward a narrative that many social groups supported, but at the expense of the economic rights of the lower-middle classes and the poor. Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism in the ensuing two decades championed – also with popular support – a different narrative, but at the expense of civil and political freedoms. And for the past four decades, Egypt has lacked any national project or serious attempt at confronting contradictions in its social fabric.
Two factors could have made it different this time. The first is demographic. There is a peril that arises from having millions of undereducated, underemployed young men with very little to lose living very difficult lives amid a lack of basic services. That the current political transition was started by neither the military establishment nor the Islamists, but by secular young Egyptians representing the 45m people under 35, heralded immense promise.
However, the polarisation Egypt has been experiencing in the past two and a half years marginalised these forces. The promise of a young generation advancing a new national project at a moment of national unity is postponed for another day.
The second factor is economics. Egypt confronts acute challenges relating to its fiscal structure, competitiveness and educational system. The January 2011 uprising – and the momentum it unleashed, which strengthened ordinary people’s sense of having a stake in their country’s economy – could have been an opportune time to adopt the economic reforms needed to confront these challenges. There was a sense that their urgency and magnitude would compel the various political forces to come closer towards political compromises. Now, the greater the turmoil, the less possible it seems to create that social cohesion.
Glimmers of hope remain, however. Despite the bloody scenes, Egyptian society still retains its agrarian character, which favours conciliation and compromise. The unrivalled dominance of the military and the unlikelihood of a division in its leadership make prolonged violence untenable, especially given that the state’s fight against terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s significantly weakened jihadist groups’ operational capacities. And the powerful forces of political Islam may now be carried away by passions and a sense of victimisation; but they will inevitably opt to participate in domestic politics through organised structures and processes. In a country with Egypt’s demographic and economic profile, no political player with any strategic insight can afford a prolonged impasse.
Egypt is also too big to fail: its population constitutes almost a third of all Arabs; it is by far the largest cultural producer in the region; it has for centuries been the intellectual base of Sunni Islamism. It has been the incubator of every significant pan-Arab ideology in the past two centuries and it commands a critical positioning in almost all strategic dossiers on the Middle East.
There is, however, an enormous difference between not failing and succeeding. The former would be the result of a series of stopgap measures, each buying a few months of tranquility and enabling the country to feed itself – but barely move on. The latter would be founded on an inclusive political and economic transition that takes Egypt towards genuine democratisation and stability. Only that would unleash the potential of a young society with a vast reservoir of talent.
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