Egypt is Sad, But Still Hard to Read

The acquittal of former President Hosni Mubarak last weekend marks a symbolic nail in the coffin of the uprising and revolution that overthrew his government in February 2011. It is tempting but reckless to make definitive judgments about the meaning of the extraordinary stages of Egyptian political life since then.

Egypt has always been impossible to describe. Now it is also impossible to analyze. The acquittal of former President Hosni Mubarak last weekend marks a symbolic nail in the coffin of the uprising and revolution that overthrew his government in February 2011. It is tempting but reckless to make definitive judgments about the meaning of the extraordinary stages of Egyptian political life since then.

These stages include the Mubarak ouster, the euphoric assertion of people power and citizen sovereignty, the drafting of several new constitutions, the Muslim Brotherhood victories in parliament and the presidency, the ouster of both, the election of former armed forces commander and now President Abdel Fattah Sisi, and the massive support for Sisi from oil-rich Arabian Peninsula states.

It is difficult to assess the lasting consequences of these and many other related events for many reasons. Among these are the volatile nature of an Egyptian citizenry with no prior experience in democratic pluralism; the ideological polarization that has come to dominate society; our broad lack of understanding of the inner workings of Egyptian minds that one day support a revolution, months later support a resumption of power by the armed forces, and in future could move in a different direction; and the impact of the underlying conditions that sparked the unexpected January 25, 2011 revolution in the first place.

Objective analysis would suggest that those underlying conditions are worse now than they were then. The economy, real incomes and job-creation all remain insufficient in the face of the population’s basic needs, while that population continues to grow by some 1.5 million people every year. All these citizens must be housed, fed, educated, provided with water and health care, and, eventually for most of them, jobs. The capacity of the Egyptian economy to meet these needs is about the same as my ability to jump over the moon. Massive financial support from the Gulf states, around $15 billion a year now, prevents the state from collapsing, but does not address its underlying socio-economic stresses, and probably exacerbates the political autocracy that sparked the revolution.

The main driver of that 2011 revolution is probably more severe now than it was then, but not as openly expressed in the Sisi era: citizen exasperation with military rule and political autocracy that led to severe socio-economic disparities and a massive thirst for basic human dignity. Those who openly challenge the state now do so in a more polarized environment, with Islamists and secular progressives mostly in jail, in hiding, or in hibernation, and only small numbers protesting on the streets. Many who ousted the Mubarak regime now fervently support the Sisi government, and they may opt for other saviors in a few months or years.

Tens of millions of Egyptians still suffer the indignities that drove them into the streets in January 2011, but they can do nothing about their condition of political emasculation in the face of the three forces that have now combined to run the power structure: the armed forces with their 62 years of experience in low quality governance, tens of billions of dollars of aid from the Gulf states, and a population with tens of millions of fearful citizens who crave the promise of stability under a military strongman — but may soon discover that the promise is a false one, and the stability of Arab military strongmen is an illusory figment of their desperation.

Mass indignity and home-grown dehumanization triggered the revolution that ousted Mubarak, and mass hysteria then ousted the elected President Mohammad Morsi. A frenzied craving for the end of this roller-coaster of instability, violence, social services dysfunctions and political drift elected President Sisi and eliminated any credible opposition as fiercely as did Soviet puppets like Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu or Arab military tyrants like Saddam Hussein.

Egypt’s joining this club of police state-style governance is a sad day for the Arab region, but this is most likely a stage that we must pass through, not a permanent condition. When another five million Egyptians are born in the coming three years or so, the Gulf states tire of supporting a weak economy, and basic human needs for tens of millions of Egyptians deteriorate even further, we should expect some kind of reaction that is impossible to predict now.

Other factors that are already visible will also come into play, such as domestic security and environmental threats, regional realignments, the fate of Syria, Iraq, Libya and extremist movements like ISIS, and the responses of major world powers.

The three traditional civilizational poles of the Arab region — Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo — now all suffer massive dysfunction and uncertainty, caused primarily by the military men who for half a century or more ruled and ruined these countries. The road back to normalcy will take many years. One thing seems certain, though. What military men ruined, military men cannot repair.

Rami G. Khouri published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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