The determinants of social stability in Egypt
Relevant and timely economic programmes and reforms are required to ensure Egypt's future stability, not elections alone
Tarek Osman , Wednesday 13 Feb 2013
Amidst the increasing violence on the Egyptian street and the uncertainty regarding the political transition process, the birth of the second Egyptian republic seems to be highly complicated.
This is a natural consequence of decades of lethargy and severe abuse of power.
But the fate of the second republic will be a function of Egypt's social stability in the medium term: the ability of the society to achieve a status in which the state’s institutions are functional and the economic agents productive.
Egypt’s social stability will be shaped by three determinants.
Firstly, the mechanisms by which Egyptians will choose their ruling regime in the short term.
One dark possible scenario is a descent into armed struggles between different political groups, each having its own militias.
The Arab world has seen many of these before, in Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, and currently Syria.
But none of these countries have had Egypt’s highly centralised administrative structure, ancient national identity, and the stabilising factor of a colossal middle and lower middle classes with entrenched economic interests in agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and public administration– sectors that require stability.
Another forceful way is for the military to assert control through display of sheer power. But the experience of the military in taking direct and overt control in 2011 exacted many costs on the institution.
The military will deploy its power only if it believes doing so would save the country at a moment of potential explosion.
This means that the only viable – and open – way is a political process. But so far that process has alienated the majority of Egyptians; the significantly low turnout ratio in the referendum on the new constitution was but the latest proof of that. This is perilous.
A fundamental driver behind the fall of the first republic and the birth of the second was the search for genuine representation. And that is only guaranteed by free, fair, and representative elections. Hence, the immense importance of the parliamentary elections that are to take place in the coming few months.
Failing to undertake them in smooth circumstances will cause political paralysis; will further the disenchantment of the majority; and will expose the country to waves of street-fighting between different groups of angry young Egyptians whose views of the identity of the country and its future are vastly different.
Economics are the second determinant of Egypt’s social stability in the short and medium term.
A fundamental reason why political confrontations in Egypt repeatedly result in severe and increasingly gory conflicts is the fluidity that results from having millions of under-educated, under-employed, sexually-frustrated young men with very little to lose, living very difficult lives amidst a lack of basic services.
The magic word for this socioeconomic bomb is: jobs. But Egyptian competitiveness, educational system, and current local and foreign investment levels are not conducive to the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs every year, and the increasingly precarious monetary situation is not helping.
In the coming months, a very scary word would be inflation. Significant deterioration in living conditions, especially for the lower segments of the society, will stir up wide social turbulences, which would plunge the second republic into turmoil. In such case, Egypt would lose precious years absorbed in a twister of internal struggles.
The first and second factors are interlinked. Only a representative, freely elected government can put forward the argument that a fundamental reform of the country’s political economy is long overdue and would inevitably entail sacrifices. The good news that such government can bring to Egyptians is that various international forces, for very different reasons, do not want Egypt to turn into a bomb.
Egypt is too big to fail. But there is a major gap between ‘not-failing’ and ‘succeeding’. The former is a series of stop-gap measures, each buying the country few months to feed itself and move-on; the latter is genuine reform that would unleash the potential of a young society with a vast reservoir of talent.
The third factor is relevance. The on-going Byzantine debates on the legality of different steps in the transition process are a key reason why the majority of Egyptians are not turning out to vote in highly important milestones in this critical political transformation.
Competition fought on the basis of implementable programmes for the country’s real socioeconomic problems – what really matters for the vast majority of Egyptians - should be what all political forces focus on in the months before the elections.
A clear byproduct is having a serious, competitive parliamentary election; but the strategic implication is to keep the country’s political transition relevant to the people.
Pure legalese would certainly squander the momentum that the involvement of tens of millions of Egyptians in politics – for the first time in decades – has created.
This risks reincarnating the experience of Egypt’s parliamentary experiment in the period from the 1940s to the early 1950s: an existing democratic process, yet one that doesn’t touch the needs and aspirations of the widest segments of the population.
Such conditions, as happened before, prepare the political scene for autocracy.
The writer is an Egyptian political economist, and author of Egypt on the Brink.