Analysis and Commentary
Egypt, a North African country and the giant of the Arab world, is convulsing with unrest. Expert observers and analysts are not quite certain how this ongoing spontaneous civic uprising shall progress before any semblance of tranquility returns to this country. Some attribute this current mass public demonstration in Egypt's main population centers as a mere spillover from the recent Tunisian revolution which forced its former ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country. What is clear, at least for the interim, is that the Egyptian middle class appears to be driving the current mass protests while the Egypt-based Moslem Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement, is taking a back seat.
Egypt's number one foreign-exchange income source is derived from tourists who troop to the Lower Nile Valley in droves from all corners of the globe. The country also exports some petroleum and gas as well as agricultural produce. Other sources of revenue include the Suez Canal and the near US$2billion subvention that goes to the Egyptian treasury from the US annually since the country's former ruler, Anwar Sadat, signed a peace deal with Israel during the Carter administration.
Egypt's GDP grew by 5.3% and 4.6% during 2010 and 2009 respectively. During my visit to the country last month, I witnessed a large number of construction projects in all parts of the country, from Aswan to Alexandria. The road network and city streets are clean and free of potholes. Fresh agricultural produce is plentiful and affordable, particularly if purchased with foreign currency. The highways of Cairo are full of cars of all types. New residential and commercial buildings as well as shopping centers are popping up all over the place, especially along the recently established beltway constructed around Cairo metropolis. Egypt has unemployment rate of 9.7% which, in African terms, is not at all shabby. So, on the surface, one could easily get the impression that all must be well with the Egyptian middle-class population.
AP Picture : Egyptian anti-riot police confront Egyptian activist
But the problem of modern Egypt lies in its relative success in past few decades. The country can boast of having the largest middle class in all of Africa even though its population of 80 million is much less than that of Nigeria, for example. Egypt's literacy rate ranks high when compared to other countries in Africa and the Middle East. The downside is that this premier Arab nation has been ruled by a dictatorship since the overthrow by King Farouk by Gamal Abdul Nasser through a military coup in 1952. Till date, one can actually say that Egyptians have never known any democracy beyond what they have read in books.
The revolution spearheaded by the military was able to rescue the country from a quasi feudal system that was headed by the monarchy. The armed forces have, however, not devolved power to the citizenry for a variety of reasons. Initially, the compelling need to maintain a strong united stance against their erstwhile foe, Israel, was given as excuse for maintaining a strong centralized control by the top military brass. Shortly after brokering peace with Israel, President Sadat was assassinated in broad daylight by diehard Islamic radicals who sought to transform the Egyptian society by force. The new Head of State, Hosni Mubarak, soon positioned himself as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism in Egypt and this further endeared him with the West up till date. Some variant of democracy was instituted where Mubarak's rule is guaranteed through the National Democratic Party (NDP) which has retained control of government since it was formed by President Sadat. As is the case in most dictatorships, opposition parties are allowed nominally but barely tolerated.
It is awfully difficult to create a large middle class in any society and then turn around and deny it access to political participation in governance. That is the core problem with Egypt today. The pressure from the middle class has been building up for some time and it appears that repression of their desire for open egalitarian government cannot be sustained any longer, even with brute force. The Moslem Brotherhood, an Egypt-based radical Islamist movement founded in 1928, cannot be wished away either. In the last dispensation before the November 2010 elections, this Islamist group garnered as much as 20% of seats in Egypt's parliament. The military have laid low and have opted to play possum; but again, their man, Mubarak, has been at the hem for past three decades.
What is hard for anyone to predict exactly is what shall happen when the status quo is pended. Secular opposition leadership under El Baradei is most favored by the West to step in to fill the void if the patronage governance system run by Mubarak caves in under the intensifying pressure. The Moslem Brotherhood shall surely come to life, once more, as soon as the repressive lid imposed by the Mubarak regime is lifted. The Islamist movement has become so entrenched in Egyptian society that it might be impossible for anyone to govern without partnering somehow with it. There are fears, in some quarters that the Islamist radicals may emerge to take control, but such a speculation is without sound basis due to the sophisticated nature of contemporary Egyptian society. Besides, the army is on standby to assure that things won't completely get out of hand to the extent which can be exploited by radical elements, both on the secular and religious sides.
Egypt is currently convulsing to the level that it had never done before and lots of anxious eyes are watching worldwide. My guess is that the current unrest has surely woken up the Mubarak regime from its complacency and therefore, far-reaching changes are increasingly becoming inevitable. The West maintains a tacit approval of Mubarak, irrespective of public pronouncements to the contrary. With ongoing global war against terrorism, no one in the West is prepared to see Egypt degrade to the extent of being ungovernable. Somehow, I believe that some negotiations are already going on, behind closed doors, to provide some sort of soft landing for the incumbent government by opening up the political system and leveling the playing field to accommodate the opposition forces.
Dr. Okenwa R. Nwosu is the founder of WIEF (http://www.wief.net/).