Egypt’s Revolution Conspires for Change
Egypt is suffering a deep economic crisis and needs tough reforms to climb its way out of it; large sums of foreign capital are crucial for short term survival and structural changes for the long run. Since being elected as the first President of Egypt post-Mubarak, Morsi has had to confront a fragile economy, an unemployment rate of at least 20% (the actual one could be considerably higher given the preponderance of the informal sector and the decline in tourism) while more than one fifth of the population is living below the poverty line. Morsi cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the mood of the ‘street’. Inasmuch as Morsi would like to take a more populist stance, he will eventually have to launch the kind of reform that in Egypt has typically led to ‘bread riots’. Morsi has never gained the support of secular reformists – those who share the outlook of the original Tahrir Square protests of 2011. He has also lost some of his Muslim Brotherhood base after failing to uphold a tough stance in the wake of the latest Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Morsi will have to swallow the Camp David Accords and continue to block militants filtering in the Sinai to attack Israel.
Morsi’s concentration of powers has essentially exonerated Morsi from having to abide by any popular sentiment; he has the ultimate authority and can as such take decisions that might be unpopular with the so called ‘Arab Street’. In other words it allows him to act like Mubarak when necessary. Even as Washington and western capitals will surely criticize Morsi’s actions in public; in private, they will prefer having the luxury of dealing with one strong voice in Cairo rather than a multitude of these. A more democratic Egypt would have been less amenable to accommodating Tel Aviv, were it truly to express the dominant Party’s position. Morsi’s foreign policy, in fact, has remained very pragmatic. He has not indulged in grand gestures that would indicate any significant change from the Mubarak years. This is not surprising, because if anything at all, after decades of repression, the Muslim Brotherhood has survived because of its deep pragmatism.
The 60 dead and hundreds injured in this week’s clashes in Egypt suggest that, on the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people have yet to achieve democracy; they are also paying a high price towards achieving this goal. The crowded streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Suez have made it clear that the revolution is not over – perhaps, in fact, the revolution has not even started yet. Surely, the external attributes of power have changed and there is an elected government with a majority party (even if Parliament has been dissolved for now), the Muslim Brotherhood, which has represented the unofficial opposition since 1928. The tables have turned now and the old Islamist opposition has had to confront secular protesters, much closer in spirit and aspirations to those who launched the Tahrir Square protests in 2011. Yet, even the masses appear to have lost confidence in Morsi and the army may be waiting in the wings to take back some of the power that the new president tried to reduce when he came to office last June.
The Muslim Brotherhood has failed to take a path leading to a just democracy. The movement is in fact divided and as happens in many parties, there are both reformers and radicals within its ranks. Such a split, barely a month before another parliamentary election, cannot facilitate any effective government action in the direction desired by the people. The army’s long shadow, as noted above has not gone away; it is still there and not only will it work to ensure stability; it will seek to protect its interests and search for ways to take a more active role in the power structure. Egypt is also in dire need of financial aid. The economy is collapsing and the recent tensions – which seem to be merely the start of a wider and longer season of protests-will hurt the tourism industry, which is the largest employer in the private sector. The currency has been devalued by 50% and unemployment is easily above 20%. The two possible short term solutions have some thorns. The IMF will lend Egypt some USD 4.8 billion but only on the condition that it adopts structural reforms, which in Egypt would necessarily, include a repeal of food subsidies – one of the most sensitive political issues in the country for decades and Egypt currently imports 40% of its food needs.
Qatar, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, also has a loan of USD 2 billion (it lent Egypt $2.5 billion last year) in store but is waiting for the situation to stabilize in Egypt and for the IMF to lend its money first as a sign of confidence, if any is even left. Nevertheless, without this aid, Egypt will continue to sink deeper in the climate of protest. The secular opposition has never stopped protesting and even the soccer riots in Port Said are related to the youth who originally took part in the Tahrir Square protests two years ago. At the same time, the Islamists could radicalize further, blaming Morsi of having made too many compromises and of failing to embrace a program that is truly in the spirit and practice of the Shari ‘a. Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries that have undergone significant changes in the past 24 months will need many years to fully emerge from the turmoil, just as it took ten years for the former Soviet Block countries to see some true reforms and/or progress. The problem is that for Egypt – and even for Tunisia and others – ten years is too long a period. The risk of implosion and regional contagion of unrest is too high.