Sunday, July 25, 2010

Can Egypt change?

As reports of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's declining health continue, our authors weigh in on Egypt's political future in a post-Mubarak world. Can Egypt change? Has it already changed? What are the kinds of changes it will need most in the coming years?

Can Egypt change?: prospects for economic reform

The question of whether Egypt can change makes a fundamental, but typical, mistake about what's going on in today's Egypt. Reading the U.S. press, you would think that Egypt is so brittle it is about to break into thousands of shards, and that the country will be left in chaos and confusion after the departure of the incumbent president, Hosni Mubarak, from office -- whenever that may be. It's true that the Egyptian government is not particularly confident and assured right now, nor the general population particularly content and satisfied. But apprehensive and ill-at-ease is a fair description of the world right now -- so what's different in Egypt? In fact, there has already been quite a bit of change in Egypt in the last decade, and most Egyptians are simultaneously pleased, eager for more, and uneasy about it. The question is not whether to change but how fast and how well change can be managed.

One need only start with the basic dilemma, which is not the succession to Hosni Mubarak. There are, give or take, about 80 million Egyptians. About 40,000 babies were born in Egypt this week -- half as many as were born in the entire United States -- and there will more than 2 million new Egyptians by the end of the year. Most of these children face daunting challenges. Twenty percent of them will be brought up on less than a dollar a day; the vast majority will go to schools that are overcrowded, the teachers poorly trained and even more poorly paid. They will consume more of the Nile's water, and they will encounter a job market that requires skills they won't have.

The policy challenges in Egypt are obvious, and they are on the front pages of the local newspapers daily. Just this week, the simmering disputes with the riparian states of the Nile Basin jostled for the headlines with complaints about low scores on the annual school-leavers exams. Less apparent is the perennial search for foreign financing -- public and private -- that keeps the government coffers from emptying and that has fueled a respectable six to seven percent growth rate in GDP since 2007 (and even in the depths of the global financial crisis, Egypt sustained a 4.5 percent growth rate, thanks in ironic part to its still small and old-fashioned banking sector).

These are the conventional policy problems that confront the current Egyptian government, and will confront any other Egyptian government. But it is worth noting that the horizons of the growing population of Egypt are also changing. Fifteen years ago, there were no mobile phones in Egypt; 10 years ago there were a million. Today, there are 60 million mobile phones in Egypt -- many of them smart phones capable of accessing the Internet and communicating via SMS and MMS. There are now numerous Egyptian private satellite television stations, and a thriving, contentious press. It was the current government, committed as it is to taking advantage of the new information and communication technologies, that made this possible.

This technology may well have made a few Egyptians billionaires, but it has also made navigating Cairo's dreadful traffic easier. It makes organizing spontaneous demonstrations of affection for the Egyptian national football team, or support for Mohammed El-Baradei's calls for change, or protest against government labor policies, much easier. It facilitates the flow of information -- true and false -- and it changes the relationships within families, as women and children renegotiate their independence and autonomy while staying always a phone call away.

In part, perhaps because of the quickening pace of life, and against the conventional stereotypes, Egyptians are getting impatient. They see change, both good and bad, all around them, and they are eager to see it sorted out, organized, channeled, and effectively managed. The complaint of the moment in Cairo, from cab drivers to ministers: "there is no system!" This may not auger well for democracy -- an unsystematic system if ever there was one -- but it does militate against high drama, not to say chaos. Egypt is not brittle; it is navigating though a flood of change, and no-one, not even the most ardent critic of the incumbent government, wants to see it capsize.

Lisa Anderson is the Provost of the American University in Cairo.

Can Egypt change?: political institutions need reform

Sometimes it seems that the only things that change in Egypt are the police uniforms. In November, when temperatures dip into the 60s, they don black woolen outfits. A few months later, generally March, when it starts getting quite warm again they switch back to their white cotton duds. Everything else seems to be just about the way it always was -- my one-eyed barber sitting in the same chair today as the day I met him a decade ago; the guys from the baqqel across the street from where I used to live doing just about the same things as they did when I bid them farewell all those years ago; my doorman is still lording over his corner of Mohamed Mazhar street, and Hosni Mubarak is still the president talking about "stability for the sake of development." Yet, the president, who has worked with five U.S. counterparts, three of whom served two terms, is sick. Official denials aside, the timeline for succession is more likely 12-18 months rather than the three-to-five years that had been the working assumption until the president's hospitalization in Germany last March. Mubarak's imminent demise has prompted analysts, policymakers, journalists and other observers to ask, "Can Egypt change?" While the question seems apt at the twilight of the Mubarak era, it nevertheless seems oddly ahistoric.

Of course, Egypt can change. It changed in July, 1952 when the Free Officers deposed King Farouk and a short time later disposed of their own initial efforts at reforming Egypt's parliamentary system in favor of building an entirely new political order. Egypt changed in 1970 when Anwar Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser. Out went the statism, the "non-aligned alignment" with the Soviets, the Arab nationalism, and war with Israel. Change came again in October, 1981 with Sadat's assassination. Mubarak split the difference between his two predecessors -- hanging onto Sadat's economic liberalization or infitah, moving Cairo back toward the Arab mainstream (while not repudiating Sadat's separate peace with Israel), and keeping Washington at arm's length while continuing to secure its largesse. Beyond the big issues of Egypt's foreign policy and ideological orientation, there have been less noticed social and socio-economic changes in Egypt. When Mubarak took the oath of office on October 14, 1981 the Egyptian population was 45.5 million, or slightly more than half of what it is today. Egypt's gross domestic product was approximately $40 billion; it now tops $145 billion. There were only 430,000 telephone lines in the entire country, now there are approximately 11 million. The life expectancy of the average Egyptian was 57 years old; it is now 70. The World Bank reports that in 1981 the literacy rate was less than 50 percent, now 66 percent of Egyptians can read. By a host of measures, life in Egypt has changed radically and for the better over the course of the three decades.

Yet in the category of "if everything seems so good, why do I feel so bad," even with all the important socio-economic changes that have occurred, the country's trajectory nevertheless seems flat. Indeed, in the abstract, Egypt today looks much like the country the Free Officers took over 58 years ago -- poor, dependent on a global power, and authoritarian. The central problem is the nature of Egypt's political institutions. Nasser and his associates developed a set of political institutions -- rules, regulations, and laws -- in response to the internal political challenges they confronted consolidating their power in the months following the July, 1952 coup. These rules, regulations, and laws were inherently anti-democratic, rigged to serve the interests of the officers along with their civilian allies, and formed the basis for subsequent institutional development. Those who benefitted from this political order -- the armed forces, regime intellectuals, bureaucracy, internal security services, and big business (after infitah in 1974) -- have become a powerful constituency for autocracy. As long as the collective welfare of these groups remain connected to the regime, the kind of institutional change necessary for a more open and democratic political system is unlikely. That's why the ruling-National Democratic Party's "New Thinking and Priorities" was never intended to do anything other than institutionalize the power of the ruling party under the guise of political change. Reform conflicts with the worldview and material interests of Egypt's leaders and their constituents.

It is not just the formal institutions of the state, however, but a whole series of unwritten rules that shape the way Egyptians calculate what is in their best interests. To be sure, this is hardly unique to Egyptian society, but it nevertheless provides some insight into change and Egypt's apparent resistance to it. There is a curious tendency for some reform-minded young professionals to throw their lot in with the regime, despite a professed desire for a fundamental transformation of Egyptian politics and society. Protestations abound about the desire to effect change from working within the state apparatus, but reality is that the Egyptian regime manifests a powerful system of reward and punishment that encourages a measure of political conformity for those not willing to take their risks with Egypt's vaunted internal security services.

The inevitable question, "What can we do about this?" is the sine qua non of all Washington policy discussions. The answer is precious little. Institutional change is rare because it is hard and almost always associated with some sort of dramatic disequilibrium -- defeat in war, revolution, or economic collapse. Yet, there are some things that outsiders can do particularly in the context of Egypt's looming succession so that when Hosni Mubarak does take his last sail up the Nile, Washington has made it clear that it is on the side of transparency, free and fair elections, and non-violence. Still, these kinds of declarations of principle say more about the United States, which is a good thing, than the likelihood they will influence the thinking of Egypt's new leader who will be seeking to consolidate his hold on power and thus dependent on the very same groups who have an abiding interest in maintaining the status quo.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Can Egypt change?: reviewing a decade of changes

Egypt these days feels like a restless sea, pulling this way and that, without a clear direction. One can make a reasonable argument that all these shifting currents are really about economic and labor grievances, or human rights abuses, or the youth bulge, or the need for political reform, or presidential succession. One can argue that Egypt is on the cusp of profound change or that it will get a succession over with in the next year or two and go back to pretty much the status quo ante.

But rather than trying to puzzle out how change might come in Egypt, perhaps it is more useful to describe in broad terms what has already changed. Looking at political life, when I think of the Egypt of ten years ago (let alone 20 or 30), I can hardly believe how different it is today. As recently as 2000, Egyptians got their information primarily from government-controlled media and public discussion of controversial issues was tightly limited. Ask Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who landed in jail that year for making a joke about the possibilitythat Egypt would attempt a hereditary succession along the lines of Syria's. Now, while journalists and bloggers still face harassment, the train has left the station when it comes to media. The independent daily al-Masry al-Youm outsells the government papers, satellite talk shows probe into sensitive corners of political and social life, and young journalists and bloggers are as ubiquitous in Cairo as taxicabs. A few taboos remain, notably any direct criticism of the Egyptian military.

Similarly, ten years ago leaders or employees of non-governmental organizations treating sensitive issues such as human rights or political freedom were treated as enemies of the state, subject to frequent harassment and always in fear of arrest or intimidation. Parents would be concerned for the future of a son or daughter who went to work for such an NGO. Now, while NGO leaders are still not beloved by the government, they have the ear of the public. Their opinions appear prominently in the independent media, but also sometimes on the pages of government organs such as al-Ahram. Egyptian government officials give them a polite (if irritated) hearing in the U.N. Human Rights Council and are obligated to reply to their recommendations. And working for a human rights NGO no longer places a young Egyptian on the fringes of society; it has become legitimate in many social quarters.

This is where I see some of the big changes. There are spheres of public activity that once were off limits -- free media and civil society advocacy -- that now have become legitimate in the eyes of the government, and even more important, in the eyes of Egyptian citizens. While the regime will still occasionally make an example of a journalist or civil society activist, increasingly Egyptians view this as unacceptable, as injustice rather than as expected punishment for transgressing unwritten rules. Witness the surprisingly vigorous reaction to the beating death of Khaled Said in early June. Egyptian citizens increasingly act as though they believe they have certain rights and should not be subjected to the caprices of the regime.

There is another sphere of public activity that has not yet become legitimate in Egypt, but that might be getting there, and that is political contestation. So far, most Egyptians do not behave as though they have the right to choose their rulers and call them to account through the ballot box. Certainly the regime does not consider politics to be legitimate. But the surprisingly positive reaction of Egyptian citizens to the seven-point initiative of Mohammed ElBaradei --which would make real political contestation legitimate -- suggests that the idea is gaining ground among the public. Whether or not Dr. ElBaradei gets his million signatures (apparently he is about 20 percent along the way after a few months), if citizens on a large scale start acting as though they want and deserve open political contestation, we are looking at big change. And if that happens, the United States will have some tough choices to make about whether it values more its friendship with the regime or with the people of Egypt.

Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.


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