Egypt’s suicidal state

By Khaled Diab

Events following the fall of Hosni Mubarak reveal that the Egyptian regime is on the path to self-destruction.

Image: Ramy Raoof

11 February 2021

After a turbulent decade of revolution and counterrevolution, Egypt appears to have revolved 360 degrees back to entrenched and brutal military dictatorship.

In this uneven clash, ordinary Egyptians fought those above the law and, ultimately, those above the law won. Those who pursued the dream watched it turn into a nightmare of intimidation, persecution, prison, ostracism, banishment and even exile.

This has led people to make the seemingly inescapable conclusion that the revolution failed. There are many who go so far as to blame this failure for Egypt’s subsequent woes and the deterioration of the situation in the country.

But this is viewing the situation from the wrong perspective, or at least from a very narrow vantage point.

Yes, it is true that, although the protests in Egypt in 2011 managed to achieve their immediate goal of removing Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionary wave did not succeed in changing the regime, let alone the system.

But, in my analysis, it is not so much the Egyptian revolution but the Egyptian state that failed. Prior to the revolution, Egypt had been on a general course of gradual relative decline and decay for decades, losing its one-time status as regional heavyweight and one of the most dynamic, developed and modern societies in the developing world.

That said, the problems which plague Egypt are common across the region, with barely a state pursuing a sustainable model of governance. Even the Gulf, which has seen far less protest than the rest of the region, is only able to maintain the status quo through ruthless repression and the cushion of relative wealth. But Gulf states are sitting on a ticking timebomb of popular discontent, inequality and massive disenfranchised immigrant communities.

In reality, 2011, when the ageing Mubarak’s fifth term was due to expire, was set to be a crunch year for the Egyptian regime, whether or not Tunisia had erupted into inspiring revolt. The state was on the brink of failure but the regime was in denial and determined to maintain its grip on power, though it had no clear game plan for doing so.  

“Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011 [but] fear terrible instability and disruption,” I wrote in 2010. “I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm.”

Seen in this light, the revolution was not the cause of Egypt’s subsequent troubles but a last-ditch, desperate effort to save the Egyptian state from itself, as well as a final hopeful plea for bread, freedom and dignity by citizens.

The Egyptian state had become politically ossified and was riddled with endemic corruption, a fully fledged kleptocracy, with all the attendant incompetence and inefficiency that brings.

Even the massive economic growth that had led the World Bank to praise Egypt, in 2008, as the world “top reformer” was misleading and illusionary. In a manner similar to the former Soviet Republics, an oligarchic class of tycoons and wealthy entrepreneurs had amassed huge fortunes by buying up former state enterprises at seriously deflated prices, by benefiting from historically low corporate taxes (including zero-percent “tax holidays” for many), widespread tax evasion, capital flight and, of course, through nepotism and kickbacks.

With the state abandoning its role in almost everything but enriching the prosperous and protecting their wealth, often brutally and ruthlessly, ordinary Egyptians were increasingly left to fend for themselves. This undermined the implicit social contract by which millions of citizens tolerated freedoms deferred in return for benefits conferred that had been in place since the 1952 military coup and revolution.

Egypt’s version of the welfare state died of starvation and neglect. Public schools and universities became underfunded industrial farms for the mass production of junk learning. Nevertheless, they still produced legions of educated graduates who aspired to make a decent living in freedom and dignity but entered a harsh labour market of exploitation or unemployment.

Public healthcare had become so starved of resources that even the life support was switched off, with poor patients often unable to access public hospitals or departing them worse off than when they entered. Even the subsidies upon which the country’s poor was so reliant had largely dried up.

This does not mean that only the rich prospered in Mubarak’s Egypt. There was a certain amount of social mobility and a class of upwardly mobile professionals emerged, as attested to by the plethora of plush shopping malls and exclusive luxury housing developments. The trouble was that the majority of the population was not only left way behind but they were not even provided with a safety net to keep them from descending too far into the abyss.

Almost everything the state had once safeguarded was now in the private domain, even many previously public spaces. In a neo-liberal wet dream, Egypt had become a jungle in which it was survival of the richest. Education, employment, healthcare and sometimes even life were no longer basic rights but private privileges and perks.

Dignity and safety were not automatically granted but had to be “earned”… through social connections and the payment of sweeteners. For millions of Egyptians, the state’s sole role in their lives had become almost entirely oppressive. With Egypt generally untroubled by violent crime, the greatest public safety threat was the regime’s thugs.

I recall during a visit to Egypt in the immediate prelude to the revolution nobody was expecting, the general mood was one of such abject despondency and despair that I left the country as 2010 gave way to 2011 with a sense of deep dejection.

I was gripped by foreboding and concern for the future feasibility of Egypt’s status quo. This was reflected in an article I wrote at the time about the socially corrosive effects of Egypt’s tipping or baksheesh culture. “As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty,” I concluded. “And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.” 

That reckoning came much sooner than expected. Yet the state refused, quite literally, to read the writing on the walls. It sacrificed its head to save its body. It attempted to appease the population with scraps of freedom and promises of change. It hid behind an illusion of superficial democracy. Throughout all this, it was baffled by why people continued to rise up and rebel.

Since the 2013 coup following popular protests, the regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has taken off the gloves completely, crushing brutally and cruelly any form of criticism and dissent. Moreover, it has revived the Mubarak-era kleptocracy but on steroids.

Preoccupied with enriching the military and its hangers on, the regime consistently fails to provide the services citizens expect from their government. If this situation does not change soon, Egypt will end up in a very dark place. Though not yet completely failed, the Egyptian state is certainly on the path to collapse.

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This article was first published by Al Jazeera on 25 January 2021.

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