First, the importance of the next steps in Egypt cannot be overstated. There has been a revolution there, but it is not complete in the eyes of the revolutionaries. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF, still holds power and a veto over the future of the country. This was surely strengthened when the supreme court declared 1/3 of the seats in parliament invalid, in effect disbanding parliament altogether. In turn, the SCAF has taken the opportunity to name a constitutional drafting committee and unilaterally decreed itself virtual autonomy on military matters and veto power over the drafting of the new constitution. It is against this backdrop that Mohammed Morsi, whose membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was ended only yesterday after he won the election, takes a presidency with significantly circumscribed power, in contrast to a remnant of the old regime that seems clearly resurgent.
The events of the coming days and weeks will be critical as the rest of the Middle East, and the world, looks on. There are a host of international issues that hinge on Egypt's future. Strategic thinkers fret over a Brotherhood-dominated government's relationship with Israel, and indeed the future of peace in the Middle East. American planners worry about priority access to the Suez. In my mind, however, the most critical question is, "What do these events have to say about the future of democracy in the Middle East?" Egyptians lamented that after all the sacrifice, they were left with a choice between the Islamists and the old regime. And the old regime nearly won! And although Shafiq did not win, the old regime is still at least a power-sharing party in the new government due to the revisions to SCAF's powers. Even with Morsi in the presidency, many Egyptians feel that the new boss is much the same as the old boss. Furthermore, many that did vote for Morsi were "holding their nose" as one tweet said and voting against Shafiq rather than for Morsi.
In the original presidential vote, there was little more than 40 percent turnout. Of that 40 percent, the two lead each got less than a quarter of the overall votes. Thus, approximately 10 percent of eligible Egyptian voters wanted either candidate. When you consider that two of the most popular candidates were disqualified prior to the primary, even fewer Egyptians truly wanted what they got. Americans are used to holding their nose and voting for the least bad of the choices, but the party system and the issue platforms are well established. We aren't choosing between an Islamist and Mubarak's prime minister. We have seen the same in Iraq and elsewhere. (On this, see my book Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy) Toppling a regime and holding a vote often has decidedly suboptimal outcomes. Arabs are seeing this, as well. What was all that struggle for, if there is now an ineffectual Muslim Brother in power who will be controlled by the all-powerful SCAF? This would be only the shallowest of change, when all is considered. Things may turn out very differently, but we must be clear that all eyes are on what transpires in Egypt. If the SCAF marginalizes the elected officials, this will discredit democracy as a force for change in the Middle East, promoting instead heightened radicalism and violence to produce change, and more illiberal means to consolidate change once it comes.
Even once this mess is somewhat sorted out, we must remember that these changes have not even begun to address the root issues that prompted the discontent in the first place. For that, I'll point you to an excerpt from my forthcoming book:
Egypt is an amazing land that has long been a cultural and economic center. The state was deemed the “World’s Top Reformer” by the World Bank in 2007. Today it is obvious that the title was more than a bit misleading. Its reform in the ease of doing business brought it only to 126th in the world. By comparison, the regional runner up, Saudi Arabia, hardly a paragon of transparency and efficiency, moved into the top 25 worldwide on these measures. By the 2009 rankings, Egypt had only moved to 106. These reforms fueled growth rates reaching 7.1 percent in 2010, but the gains were mostly seen by the upper classes. In contrast, Egypt’s poor saw their standard of living eroded by inflation created by the wash of new investment. Despite the economic growth, the proportion of the population below the poverty line rose steadily. Thus, while some analysts cited reform and development as trends that would help to take the wind out of angry Islamists’ sails, development with only partial reforms fueled the growing disparity between rich and poor in Egypt.
The foremost topic in most conversations I had with Egyptians was the state of the economy, specifically rising consumer prices. The stark division between those average people struggling to make a living and the elites who became rich off the current system was a daily insult. Glitzy suburbs built by real estate investment companies from the Gulf ring Egypt’s squalid cities, their crumbling infrastructure, and the grimy, once-grand facades of old Cairo. Thousands with no other options live in the cemeteries in the shadow of the Citadel: the City of the Dead. This area is ringed by apartments teeming with Cairenes barely making ends meet. The entire city hummed with a tense energy.
Nearby Giza is a squalid town at the foot of the Great Pyramids. The breathtaking memory of the Pyramids will always be associated in my mind with the litter and dung scattered in the sands around them and the unforgettable image of a fat rat and a soiled white egret fighting over a piece of rotten meat on the edge of a dirty sewage ditch running through the heart of Giza. The image summed up the struggle that is life in Egypt. From the rampantly corrupt police, boldly shaking tourists down for bribes in the ruins of Egypt’s proud heritage, to the touts and vendors in the streets, to the officials and elites growing rich as the masses go hungry, everyone is fighting over scraps. It should be no surprise that many Egyptians view privatization dimly, seeing it as a way for the corrupt elites to take a bigger share of the spoils.
Egypt had a cosmopolitan and tolerant era, at least in the major cities, in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Alaa al-Aswani’s The Yacoubian Building (Al-‘Imara Yaqubian), has been one of the most popular Arabic novels since its publishing in 2002 and was made into a record-breaking movie in 2006. It follows the lives of a diverse cast of Egyptians, highlighting the significant gaps between the poor and the elites and the old and new rich, while exposing the corruption of the ruling elites and the extremism often spawned by blocked aspirations and mistreatment. Aswani was originally going to title the book Wust al-Balad, “Downtown.” For Aswani, the downtown area of Cairo “symbolizes an era. There was once a very different kind of Egypt, a liberal Egypt in which many different cultures lived side by side; a truly open society. There was an Egyptian interpretation of Islam. For hundreds of years, bars, nightclubs, mosques, and churches stood side by side in Egypt. Everyone was free to do whatever he or she liked.” According to Aswani, the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, the lack of democracy, and especially the influence of the ultra-conservative Saudis on Egyptians who worked there in the 1970s and 80s and brought such mores home with them all conspired to bring this liberal era of Egyptian history to an end.
Aswani’s character, Zaki Bey al-Dessouki, represents this bygone era, which I would argue began its death earlier than the 1960s. In the 1950s when strongman Abdel Gamal Nasser took power and turned Egypt’s focus from the cosmopolitan Mediterranean to the passion of Arab nationalism, the country’s identity was forever changed. While Dessouki is a flawed character, an alcoholic and womanizer, he is the most humanly decent of all. Played by wildly popular Adel Imam in the top-grossing film version, Dessouki bemoans Egypt’s fall from a relatively cosmopolitan past in a climactic, drunken speech in Talaat Harb Square. This square was once home to upscale shops in the heart of downtown, but is now a shabby roundabout just blocks from the famed Tahrir Square.
The regime permitted this and other artistic ventures as an outlet for pressure and a show of “openness,” but they were insufficient. While there was no unrest in the offing when I visited in 2008, riot troops from Central Security sat at the ready, their trucks parked prominently near Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the heart of downtown Cairo. This, the heart of Aswani’s wust al-balad, was a draw both for Cairenes and the tourists coming to see the amazing, if atrociously displayed, antiquities at the National Museum. It became the focal point of the January 2011 revolt. President Hosni Mubarak ably demonstrated how state-making is akin to organized crime in his reaction. After vowing to step down in months, the regime sent out their thugs into the streets to cow the demonstrators. The next day, Mubarak pointed to the violence as he stated that, while he would like nothing more than to step down, he could not do so because it would result in chaos. This classic protection racket tactic is how many regimes justify their existence and heavy-handed tactics to both domestic and international audiences.
The revolt came neither in the face of economic crisis nor due to a complete lack of growth. They came not despite, but because of Egypt’s growth. As glitzy housing and retail projects sprang up and more new Mercedes could be seen, as more Gulf investment money poured in, the rich profited but nothing trickled down to the poor. The influx of cash drove up inflation on consumer goods, eroding the position of those in lower income groups. Analysts who boast of development as a stabilizing influence do so against the weight of history, especially in today’s troubled states. The flow of cash into these societies is profoundly destabilizing, cautioning us to expect worse in more places before all can enjoy the benefits of prosperity.