After three decades of economic progress but political paralysis, change is in the air, says Max Rodenbeck
TRAVELLING into Cairo, Egypt’s monster-sized but curiously intimate capital, it is hard to tell if these are the best of times or the worst. Visitors who have long known the city are in two minds. Egyptian expatriates returning home are liable to cringe at the worse-than-ever traffic, the ever-louder noise, the fervid religiosity, and what they often bemoan as a new aggressiveness that spoils their nostalgia for a sweeter, cheerier Egypt. But tourists who came here, say, 20 years ago, tend to delight in the sleeker look of the place, the surprisingly efficient and still friendly service, the far better quality and variety of goods in the markets, and the fact that some taxis now actually have functioning meters.
Both impressions are right. The new World Bank-funded, Turkish-built terminal at Cairo International airport is as blandly functional as Cincinnati’s or Stockholm’s. Gone are the sweaty officials and greasy baggage handlers of yore, the taxi touts and shoving crowds. A businessman arriving here may be whisked in an Egyptian-built car to the cigar bar at one of Cairo’s dozens of swish hotels—perhaps one at City Stars, a commercial complex on the scale and in the style of Las Vegas. Or perhaps to another fancy hotel in one of the burgeoning gated exurbs in the desert, surrounded by the lavishly watered greenery of a designer golf course. There, the talk will be of beach houses and yachts on the Red Sea, of hot stocks on the Cairo exchange, and of Egypt’s delightfully low-cost labour.
A less lucky traveller, however, might instead see these things as most Egyptians do: in the giant backlit billboards that clutter Cairo’s roadsides and rooftops, vividly flaunting the unattainable. The consumer paradise they display, with perfect hair, light-skinned children and men in pinstripe suits, stands in stark contrast to the harried, shuffling crowds below. Such sights will probably be accompanied by an earful of complaint from the driver stuck in a jam: about corrupt traffic cops and the absurd impossibility of feeding and schooling the kids on $150 a month, but above all about politics, the staple of all Middle Eastern conversationalists.
Political talk in Egypt has always been acidly cynical, but now a new bitterness has crept in. This has not been prompted by any change from above, since little has really changed in Egyptian politics since President Hosni Mubarak came to office 29 years ago. The sour mood is informed instead by the contrast between rising aspirations and enduring hardships; by a growing sense of alienation from the state; and by the unease of anticipation as the end of an era inevitably looms ever closer.
It is not surprising that Egyptians should feel rather like driftwood on the Nile, accelerating towards one of the great river’s cataracts. Their current pharaoh is 82 years old, visibly ailing, and has no anointed successor. Most of his people have known no other leader. The vast majority have grown so inured to having no say in the course of events that the reflex is to float patiently rather than try to paddle. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November this year and presidential ones for September next. As usual, few citizens are likely to take part. They will watch from the sidelines and accept the preordained results with grim humour.
Nevertheless, the expectation of a seismic shift is almost tangible in the air, and not just because of Mr Mubarak’s health. Egyptians may be renowned for being politically passive, but the rising generation is very different from previous ones. It is better educated, highly urbanised, far more exposed to the outside world and much less patient. Increasingly, the whole structure of Egypt’s state, with its cumbersome constitution designed to disguise one-man rule, its creaky centralised administration, its venal, brutal and unaccountable security forces and its failure to deliver such social goods as decent schools, health care or civic rights, looks out of kilter with what its people want.
For some time Egyptian commentators have been noting resemblances between now and the years before Egypt’s previous seismic shift. That happened in 1952, when a group of army officers rolled their tanks up to King Farouk’s palaces and tossed him out. The coup was wildly popular at the time. It had followed a period of drift and growing tension, marked by strikes, assassinations, riots and intrigues between Communists, Muslim Brothers and the king. Egypt was thriving economically, but the spoils flowed mostly to a cosmopolitan elite that was out of tune with the street. It had a functioning democracy, but ever-squabbling politicians seemed unable to get things done. To general chagrin they could not shake off the lingering influence of Britain, whose soldiers refused to budge from the Suez Canal where they had been encamped since 1882.
The officers’ coup replaced this genteel but dysfunctional constitutional monarchy with one-party rule, fronted by a strongman and backed by secret police, with the tanks idling nearby. Republican Egypt became a model for other Arab dictatorships and forced wrenching changes at home. Its promises of free health and education, land reform and jobs in state factories and offices did lift millions out of misery to mere poverty. The ideology of pan-Arabism trumpeted by the coup leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, gave Egyptians a place of pride in the world, even if his boldness brought ruinous wars in Yemen and against Israel.
Six decades and four presidents on, the revolutionary regime has metamorphosed into one that encourages private business and allows for some pluralism. Yet it looks to many Egyptians like a waning dynasty—the 45th in the long line of houses that have ruled the world’s most enduring nation since 3000BC. Its promises are largely in tatters. Schools and hospitals are indeed free to enter, but they are grim, bare, crowded places where getting learning or treatment requires cash that many still do not have. The lower middle class of army officers and bureaucrats who rose in the revolution have joined the gentry they were supposed to have ousted, adopted their haughty ways and now share Egypt’s spoils with them. The poor still queue for government-subsidised bread and must scrimp and save to buy a pair of shoes.
The government’s plan to perpetuate itself in office, via the traditional electoral rigmarole, is likely to go ahead. Predictions of change in Egypt have almost always proved wrong; generally it bumbles along much as usual. This time may just be different. The country now faces three main possibilities. It could go the way of Russia and be ruled by a new strongman from within the system. It might, just possibly, go the way of Iran, and see that system swept away in anger. Or it could go the way of Turkey, and evolve into something less brittle and happier for all concerned.