The recent events in Egypt have unsettled the media pundits and Western academic advisers alike. After all, how can the recipient of the largest amount of US Foreign Aid in the Arab world and a close US ally be in such dire trouble politically from within?
As a CNN pundit put it recently,”…, among Arab nations Egypt enjoys a near-unparalleled relationship with Washington.”
But now Washington is worried.
Only last Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated confidently that the United States supported the “the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people”. At the same time, she added that the US was confident that the “the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
But the very next day, secretary of state Clinton said, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” While Clinton urged the Egyptian government to keep the channels of peaceful protests open, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated: “Egypt is a strong ally.”
However, the roots of trouble in Egypt run deep. The recent example of Tunisia may have given the protesters an immediate impetus, but the discontent has been simmering for a long time.
During my most recent visit to the country as an international adviser to a Cairo-based UN project on Arab Trade and Human Development, I noticed signs of unease among top academics and government officials in spite of the relatively high rate of growth and talks of export diversification during the last few years. Inequality and poverty have both been rising. Urban poverty was and remains particularly severe. Even by the official measure, it is over 20 percent. Official unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent but the actual rate is much higher. My long conversations with students, workers and peasants convinced me that it was only brutal repression by the Egyptian state that was keeping a lid on widespread discontent throughout the Egyptian society.
It was also clear to me as a professional economist who has studied the development debacles in many parts of the world including the Arab world, that the causes of unease — even if not consciously grasped in all their historical specificities by the highly intelligent experts or the plain people I talked with — had long trajectories .
They certainly go back at least to the policy failures of the Egyptian President Mubarak who has now been in power since 1981. But perhaps the political vacuum of non-military alternatives arising from the politics in civil society started with the Nasserites, as independent Egyptian scholars such as Samir Amin have observed. Under President Hosni Mubarak, the repression intensified to include not only the secular democrats, socialists and communists but also the Islamicists.
For the moment, to paraphrase Nietzsche, out of the chaos, there is at least one faint sign of a dancing star. It is Mohammed El Baradei who headed the IAEA after a successful career as an Egyptian diplomat. After his highly competent handling of several crises including the one in Iraq, El Baradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2005.
However, El Baradei has yet to form a political party and even his supporters are unsure as to how familiar he is with the complexities of Egypt’s problems. As for his own plans, when he was asked recently whether he would run for president, El Baradei said: “Whether I run or not, that is totally irrelevant. And I made it very clear; I will not run under the present conditions, when the deck is stacked completely.”
“The priority for me is to shift Egypt into a democracy, is to catch up with the 21st century, to get Egypt to be a modern and moderate society and respecting human rights, respecting the basic freedoms of the people.”
All these are goals that deserve the support of the international community. Will Egypt be able to make a peaceful transition to a democratic society with equality and justice for all before things fall apart?
Haider A Khan is a professor of economics, JKSIS, University of Denver.