Egypt: A permanent revolution?

Ray Bush, Thursday 3 Mar 2011

The 25 January revolution has changed political life for good but will only be successful if it can link the tremendous struggle over rights and representation with economic growth that provides jobs

Finally, it seems, and only after being pushed hard by permanent demonstrations, Egypt’s generals have indicated a procedure for promoting serious constitutional reforms as a first step towards the possibility of democratic deepening. The development of a new constitution will be delayed until a new parliament that can debate it. The appointment of a legal committee to assemble proposed reforms to be put to a referendum is clearly significant. But why has it taken so long, and why has this committee not been part of a more clearly defined new interim government? The continued presence of members of the old regime raises concerns about just how serious the military is in ridding the country of the economic elite that has destroyed Egyptian livelihoods for the last 30 years. How long does it take to get rid of the detritus of cronyism and enable the entry of democrats to Egyptian national politics?

This may not be the time to be curmudgeonly – and it is not my wish to be so. My recent experience at the biggest party I have ever attended, in Midan Tahrir, two weeks ago was exhilarating and joyful, full with expectation and real hope. It has been more than twenty years since I began visiting and studying Egypt’s political economy. I have often made annual pilgrimages to Cairo’s wonderfully vibrant, yet repressive and challenging city and I have witnessed attempts to transform the countryside by destroying benefits Nasser gave tenants and other smallholders, as the NDP decided instead to return land to land owning allies. Many of the landed elites were in the corrupt parliament so voting for rural (diss) possession was easy. if tenants have been impoverished, nouveau riche; mostly young and assertive investors have taken advantage of cheap (and corrupt) land ‘sales’, free water for high value and low nutritious food stuff for export rather than the promotion of local food security. The destruction of Egypt’s environment by agribusiness stripping the country’s valuable top soils became de rigour. Yet these processes among many other, have been contradictory in there outcomes. After most of my visits I would usually feel that Egypt would be unable to stay the same for more than 24 hours, and yet simultaneously I would have the feeling that the country would remain the same for a great many more years. Conflict, inequality and injustice were so evident alongside demonstrations of enormously opulent wealth, and struggles for economic and political transformation have always been evident.

The 25 January revolution has changed political life for good. Things will never be the same, even if the military seem unable or unwilling to properly gauge the mood of the country and ensure more swiftly a complete exorcism of the ancien regime. There is a revolution underway and it is a process that will go beyond the removal of Husni Mubarak from office. After 30 years of social and political stagnation that systematised brutal repression of rights and people’s dignity, and which helped to sustain intense poverty and the manipulation of religious prejudice, there is now a chance to promote an ambitious and transparent ‘root and branch’ reform programme. 25 January opened a dam of pent up resentment and frustration. That could easily have been funnelled into violence and envy, counter brutality and revenge yet that was only evident when NDP thugs entered the fray as the robber baron regime tried to cling to power. The revolutionaries, from all walks of Egyptian life, young and old, middle class, small farmers and destitute, workers and elderly demonstrated confident self controlled maturity of protest. Continued protest until remnants of the old guard are thrown away remains necessary and should receive not only local support, amid an understandable irritation by a few, that the ‘normal’ life of tourist trade and small business is disrupted. But these demonstrations need also international solidarity and support. The buzzards of the EU, UK and US are circling, and many have landed to establish an understanding of just what has been happening in the country of such geostrategic importance and historical ‘stability’. Caught out by the splendour of revolution Egypt’s allies in the international community have been busy playing ‘catch up’. This applies especially to the US. Why is Washington’s intelligence in the region so poor and outmoded and why couldn’t the (relatively) new broom in the White House grasp the nettle of real democratic transition rather than elevate concern with stability and defence of its Israeli ally. Tel Aviv is challenged by democracy on its door step and the US will have trouble in its historical strategy of determining the outcome of political transition without being seen to do so.

The revolution will have lots to say about Egypt’s regional presence. It will live with an Israeli neighbour that is peaceful and democratic, that respects Arab citizens of the Jewish state and abides by international law including complete withdrawal from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. The revolution can legitimately question why the Camp David agreement benefitted Israel financially and militarily more than Egypt and the revolution can certainly question why Mubarak’s regime became the jailor of the Gazan concentration camp.

Domestically the agenda is long. Already people have shown greater respect for each other than was much in evidence with Mubarak’s bestial regime. The revolution demands a more open and democratic public sphere of mutual respect, this agenda has been driven by all demonstrators not only the youth that has so captured media imagery. Without doubt the youth demand and deserve a respect that is at odds with a moribund age set of deference (unearned), which helped structure a non-participatory political culture and at its worst was captured by the patronising stupidity of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman during the height of the revolution. High on the agenda is clearly the establishment of a rule of law, habeas corpus and the removal of systemic torture from Egypt’s landscape of law and (dis)order. This will not happen immediately as the chain of command in all police stations will need recasting in customs that will simply not be understood by many force commanders. The rights debate will need more than just a new minister. The idea of inherent human rights, that people are innocent until due process has found them guilty of whatever they may be charged with and the complete judicial and civilian oversight of the police, will be just a beginning but one that is essential to safeguard revolutionary gains. If the police needs reform, new training, skills and knowledge as well as raised salaries for rank and file officers, (reducing the incentive for bribery and links with local gangs) the security services needs closure. Security services are important in all democracies to ensure that legitimate opposition does not become converted to military insurgency. But security and police forces will need to internalise that they operate to defend the Egyptian people, not the Egyptian regime. Only when the forces of law and order are so reformed will it be likely that political opposition emerges free from infiltration and dirty tricks and mutual respect unifies people with a security agency that defends all Egyptians. There is thus no role for the aml dowla or muhabarat in the new Egypt and the sooner this is affirmed the better. After all it was the awful actions of these forces over more than a generation that partly drove the unprecedented mobilisation to Tahrir.

Of course Egypt’s revolution will only be successful and more easily defended if it can link the tremendous struggle over rights and representation with economic growth that provides jobs. Egypt’s economy has grown by about 5 per cent in real terms each year since 1980. It is the ambition of all developing countries to achieve such a level of growth especially where it outstrips the increase in population. Yet sustained economic growth singularly failed to deliver employment and poverty reduction. The NDP robber barons were successful in rewarding themselves – real estate, land, cement and steel, and of course the military too – after all didn’t the military get its ‘toys for the boys’ to a value of $1.3 billion per annum from the US as well as guarantees for its own enormous business ventures in land, real estate and manufacturing? But urban and rural poverty – the abjection of the majority of Egyptians from the wealth that they have produced is the biggest indictment of the last thirty years. At best Egypt has developed but Egyptians have not! Unemployment levels might be as high as 50%; food inflation of 20 percent accelerates poverty and child hunger and bread riots around the bakeries of Cairo in 2008, were an early indicator of tipping points to come.

It’s no longer popular to talk about ‘class’ in the Middle East (or anywhere else perhaps) the working class or the peasantry or fellahin, but it is these social classes that produce Egypt’s wealth. The financial and service sectors may have grown in the last thirty years but the wealth generated from speculation remained in the hands of the economic elite and not with the country at large. The NDP not only ignored structural impediments to growth, namely the high dependence upon rent – from Suez, labour remittances and oil and gas, it ensured that its cronies would benefit from kickbacks from contracts linked to construction and land deals often in the rentier sectors. And revenue that accrued from such skulduggery was used only for conspicuous consumption or more real estate construction that the vast majority of Egyptians could not even dream of occupying. It is one thing to say that market capitalism and economic liberalisation has given Egypt the greatest opportunity to boost livelihoods and well being – the mantra of Gamal Mubarak especially after Ahmed Nazif’s administration in 2004. It is quite another to evidence how the market economy has ensured the trickle down of growth rather than the funnelling up of wealth to the already mega rich.

If and when the dust begins to settle down around the political transition it is in the economic arena of sustained economic growth with justice that the revolution may stand or fall on. More than 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. It is probably much higher than that and possibly even as high as 80% in some rural areas – that would make Egyptians poorer than Zimbabweans – not a comparison many would immediately consider. But this is the depth to which the NDP and the Mubarak tribe took the country. The way they set thugs on Egyptians and destroyed their own party offices suggests there was also an orchestrated plan to ‘burn Cairo’ legitimising perhaps a more aggressive military intervention to defend the country.

It is going to take great care to dig Egypt out of the pit of economic crisis and to do so with justice and equality. The first step will require Egyptians to see that there is indeed a crisis and to construct a genuinely national participatory political system. World Bank and other international agency love affairs with headline growth figures veil inequality, uneven development and has accelerated social unrest. The long term crisis began with economic reform in 1991, (1987 in the countryside) – reform heralded by the international community that fostered robber baron capitalism. The medium term crisis lies in the pivotal working class and trade union unrest that has provided strong roots for the revolution. More than a million workers and their families have been involved in industrial actions since 2004 and the Mahalla revolt in 2006 involving 28,000 workers was a clear signal to all but the most illiberal government that kefaya (enough) really was kefaya. The vibrancy of worker unrest and the challenge to confront 19th century working conditions has not been lost on the fellahin. It is likely that at least, 300 farmers have been killed in 2010 with 1500 injured and 1700 arrested following rural struggles over access to land, boundary demarcations, struggles against dispossession and other disputes with land owners and police. The politicisation of land is at a level greater than any time since Nasser and it is an issue the future minister of agriculture will have to address with care and attention to redressing rural poverty and how it has been sustained by dispossession of small holders and accumulation by land owners.

Addressing all these themes will depend on the revolution being sustained, on the coalition of youth continuing to broaden their excellent and profound grasp of the realities underpinning wealth and inequality and building links between urban workers and rural small holders. This will require permanent revolution, permanent dissatisfaction with the status quo and of course vigilance against counter revolution. It will also need to be underpinned by a new system of education in Egypt that values not only the core principles of literacy and numeracy, and their delivery in the classroom without violence or sexual harassment. The revolution has begun to legitimise the importance of challenging all information and to question everything that is presented especially by government. That will need to continue as debate about an election, its timing and planning and organisation will no doubt dominate the next 6 months.

Ray Bush is Professor of African Studies and Development Politics, University of Leeds, UK and Author of Economic Crisis and the Politics of Reform in Egypt (Westview 1999) editor of Counter Revolution in Egypt’s Countryside (Zed Books 2002). His most recent book is Poverty and Neoliberalism. Persistence and Reproduction in the Global South (Pluto Press 2007).


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