The country is more opinionated, daring, and entrepreneurial then ever.
The perception, as defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is catapulted towards the presidency, that Egypt is returning to the concentration of power that has stifled it for the past six decades is wrong. The country’s economics and sociopolitics are pulling it in two different directions.
It is true that power concentration is deeply rooted in Egyptian history. About 7,000 years ago, someone tried to enhance the yield of a grass field. Organised planting emerged; it became possible for successful farmers to buy land and the labour of others. Those who managed to control water – and so irrigation – became masters of their communities. And so the first Egyptian kingdom was born: a highly centralised state that held immense sway over the life of its subjects. That centralisation remained a fixture of Egyptian politics for millennia.
The Egyptian liberal age, lasting 100 years from the mid-19th century, gave rise to western-style universities, a secular judiciary, professional syndicates and a dynamic press. Centralisation was diluted. This experiment ended abruptly in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ambitious nationalist officer, overthrew the monarchy and ushered in the first republic – a power structure that revolved round the military. In the following six decades the state subjugated the institutions that had thrived in the first half of the century and eliminated all checks on its power. Power centralisation returned.
By the first decade of the 21st century Hosni Mubarak, who became president in 1981 after a 35-year military career, was ageing. Decision-making was divided between his family, the government, the ruling party, the security apparatus and a coterie of oligarchs. Corruption was rampant, inflation soared and the exploding demographics – a doubling of the population in less than four decades – exerted huge pressure on the state’s already stretched budget.
When tens of thousands of young activists took to central Cairo in January 2011, in protest at these conditions, their call – especially their economic demands – resonated with huge social segments.
Mr Mubarak fell – but, though it seemed the first Egyptian republic was over, the aspirations of the activists were different from those of other constituencies. The final round of the first free presidential election, in June 2012, was telling: a battle of the two powers that had dominated sociopolitics in the past half-century. A candidate representing political Islamism, which had neither challenged the state for 50 years nor participated in the initial phase of the uprising, faced another candidate representing the first republic itself.
But the perception that Egypt is returning to centralisation is wrong for three reasons.
As a result of economic reforms undertaken in the past two decades, the private sector has, for the first time in half a century, become the largest employer and provider of investment capital. So a large minority of Egyptians are now urbanised middle-class professionals, with economic stakes to protect and aspirations to materialise. They not only expect but will demand a say in how their future will be shaped.
The second reason is the socioeconomic challenges facing the country. Egypt is one of the world’s largest importers of food; its energy subsidies, on which more than 50m people depend, are unsustainable; and it has an acute youth unemployment problem. The fact that it needs significantly to upgrade its infrastructure, housing stock and manufacturing base means there is a huge demand for jobs. But state capital is lacking, sovereign debt rising, largesse from allies in the Gulf is not permanent, and the state has no magic tricks to meet the needs of a society dominated by semi and unskilled workers. The ruling powers will have to offer incentives to the domestic and international private sector to commit capital. This will lead to the emergence of a multipolar power structure.
The third reason is that the 85m-strong society (of which 45m are under 35, and two-thirds of that group are in their teens) is being transformed. It is more connected to the world, more opinionated, daring, and commercially and socially entrepreneurial. No central power can control such a society for any significant period of time. These factors will inevitably weaken centralisation.
But there is another scenario. The state powers could be drawn further into their war against political Islam; jihadism could continue to rise, leading to a heightening of security measures and weakening of the rule of law. Investment capital would be withdrawn; and socioeconomic demands would remain unmet. This would fuel social unrest, at a time when polarisation is entrenched and significant social groups feel marginalised or threatened.
In this scenario, the immense popularity that the powers of the first republic enjoy would quickly evaporate, and large constituencies would resort again to mass protests. If this materialises, Egypt will be back on the brink.
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