During the past few months, Egyptian society has been riveted by a series of violent crimes that highlight the changing social and economic condition of the country and give possible indications about the shape of things to come.
The crimes in question include a number of violent murders perpetrated against children under mysterious circumstances, the murder of a young man who had blackmailed his father-in-law in an affluent neighbourhood in Cairo, and a murder in a monastery against a distinguished monk to cover up for corrupt transactions within the monastery.
In addition to these murders, kidnappings of children from wealthy families for ransom are increasingly common.
Car thefts and bank robberies are daily occurrences, and rape and sexual harassment are endemic, making Egypt one of the most dangerous countries for women in the world.
Not surprisingly, the latest international crime index indicates that Egypt now ranks number 29 in the world in terms of crime levels, compared to number 37 in 2015, and number 44 in 2013.
According to the 2018 index, Egypt had the third-highest level of crime in the Arab world, coming third in line after war-torn Syria and Libya.
Thus, while Egypt may have been lucky enough to escape the turbulent fate of many Arab countries in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring due to the robustness of its security apparatus, it may not escape the fate of many countries in Latin America such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil that have been suffering from very high levels of violent crime.
A recent report by the Igarape Institute on Citizen Security in Latin America described the situation in these countries as an “undeclared civil war”.
The report stated that “the sheer dimensions of homicidal violence are breathtaking. In 2015, an estimated 154,000 Latin Americans were intentionally murdered. Between 2000 and 2016, an estimated 2,500,000 were victims of homicide.”
The report attributes the high levels of violent crime in Latin America to a number of interrelated factors including high rates of urbanisation and youth unemployment, low levels of educational achievement, income inequality, broken households and a high ratio of female-led households, high levels of drug and alcohol consumption, and finally low levels of confidence in the judiciary and in law-enforcement agencies, and widespread reliance on private security companies.
High crime rates have had a detrimental effect on the legitimacy and stability of governments in Latin America. The pursuit of ever more repressive and punitive approaches to try to curb the rising crime rates has been associated with increasing impunity by law-enforcement agencies and widespread breaches of due process and human-rights standards, coupled with the increased militarisation of the police and in some cases the direct deployment of military forces in high-risk urban settings.
However, in most instances these strategies have failed to curb rising crime rates and have in some instances led to their exacerbation, leading many analysts to advocate the use of more developmental, participatory, and community-based strategies to dealing with rising crime in the Latin American context.
Some of these same factors are very much a feature of present-day Egypt. As in much of Latin America, the demise of the welfare state and the adoption of neoliberal reforms in Egypt have led to far-reaching social and economic stratification and polarisation.
Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, the middle class is struggling to stay afloat, and the poor have lost the protection of the social safety net previously provided by the welfare state.
Egyptian society is increasingly divided between the affluent few who increasingly live apart in gated communities guarded by private security companies, and the millions of poor people living in ghettos and shantytowns on the outskirts of these suburbs. T
he middle class that constituted the bulwark of Egyptian society for much of the past century is struggling to stay afloat and increasing segments of the middle class are sinking into poverty.
During previous decades, social and economic discontent in Egypt was channeled through the vehicle of Islamist groups in their moderate and radical forms.
For better or for worse, Islamism provided an ideological vehicle through which this discontent could be transformed into a project for the political and social transformation of society, often by violent means.
However, since the events of 2011 and their aftermath, Islamism has been in retreat, and social discontent may now be expressing itself in the form of more diffuse and sporadic societal violence such as murders, kidnappings, rapes and violent robberies.
Though critics of the government’s social and economic policies often warn that the economic reforms adopted by the state during the past few years threaten to provoke a revolution by the poor or the hungry, it is far more likely that these reforms will provoke higher crime rates and increased inter- and intra-class violence in the form of violent robberies and homicides.
Rather than a revolution by the poor, the economic immiseration of broad segments of Egyptian society will most likely result in growing insecurity for the rich and the wider use of violence and repression by the state.
As the experience of Latin America indicates, though economic reform and the dismantlement of the welfare state may bring about economic growth and prosperity for the few, the social cost of these reforms can be very high if they are not accompanied by a deliberate and substantial investment in equitable growth.
Perhaps rather than follow the path of Latin America where economic reform has privileged the few and immiserated the many, Egyptian policy-makers could explore how a substantial investment in human development in the form of education, healthcare, and basic infrastructure could provide the foundation for a more peaceful and sustainable path to development in the years to come.
In recent months, the Egyptian government successfully diffused through counter-terrorism and military operations the threat coming from domestic and regional jihadist groups.
However, as the case of Latin America demonstrates, the threat associated with rising violent crime rates can be equally significant and must be tackled from a holistic developmental perspective and not simply from a law-and-order one.
* The writer is a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Is violent crime the new normal?