Egypt: a diagnosis

Tarek Osman
28 June 2007

Talk to people intimately familiar with Egypt, and you'll find two views dominating how they perceive the country today. The first is a romantic, nostalgic view of a glorious history, ancient and recent; a country whose potential is dramatic in terms of its intellectual capital, reservoir of talent, geographic location, and aptitude for leadership. In that perspective, Egypt remains an unfulfilled promise, hampered only by poor management and regional circumstances.

The second viewpoint is less sanguine. It sees Egypt as structurally failing, with disenchanted, poorly educated, bitter youths; fundamental problems in the socio-economic dynamics; crushing, humiliating living standards for a majority of its citizens; and pervasive corruption, passiveness and sullenness.

An Italian friend of mine, from Lombardia no less (Italy's wealthiest region) visits Egypt annually and could spend hours lecturing poetically on Egypt's charm - and potential; another friend from Kuwait visits grudgingly, only for business purposes, and for the briefest of periods. And in between, millions of Egyptian youths strive to emigrate, some in search not merely of "better" living but of the very basis of sustainable life; yet relatively few Egyptians return to the country from New York, London and Dubai to start businesses in various sectors.

Which of those two portraits is closer to the reality of today's Egypt? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine how Egypt's modern face is shaped by six striking characteristics, which I will examine in turn.

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian investment banker covering the Gulf and UK markets. Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (7 June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Can the Arabs love
their land?
" (22 May 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

A spreading tide

The first characteristic is the omnipresent - and in many quarters fearsome - socio-political Islam. With eighty-eight out of 440 seats in the parliament, control of almost all professional syndicates and universities' students unions, unprecedented levels of veiled women and bearded men among ordinary Egyptians, and a flood of religion-based TV shows, the influence of socio-political Islam in Egypt is pervasive and unavoidable. According to numerous serious commentators, if a truly free election took place in Egypt, the Islamic movement - led by the Muslim Brotherhood - would sweep to a parliamentary majority.

The influence of socio-political Islam in Egypt is fivefold:

▪ Egypt has, over the past millennium, been a religious society, but a secular state. Egypt has never experienced al-wali al-faqih (rule by religious jurisprudence) phenomenon that Iran is undergoing or that Pakistan, Saudi, Morocco and other Islamic states have passed through - in one form or another. Egypt's rulers, since the Pharaonic era, have always stayed close to the religious establishment, but never assumed its leadership. Egypt's influence in its sphere - through its history, music, literature, films, media and universities - have traditionally been fiercely secular in nature, what the doyen of Arab political commentators, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, refers to as Egypt's "tender power".

The omnipresent, overarching socio-political Islam currently taking Egypt by a storm is, in effect, fundamentally altering the Egyptian society's foundations of power, claim to influence, and traditional regional role. Egypt's prominent cultural exports today, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Amr Khaled (two leading Islamic preachers) are vastly different from earlier exports such as Umm Kalthoum (the Arab world's leading singing diva), Naguib Mahfouz (the Arab world's sole Nobel literature laureate) and Adel Imam (its most prominent actor).

▪ Socio-political Islam alters not only Egypt's positioning in the Arab - and non Arab - worlds, but also alters how its young people perceive the country. Socio-political Islam is turning Egypt into a mix of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, a land in search of an identity, confused between its glamorous, pagan past; liberal recent history; and conservative present; a country pregnant with angst - not the mini-Vienna that Khedive Ismael (Egypt's ruler in the 1860s and 1870s) was trying to build, not the monarchical Egypt that was a destination for talented Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, and Armenians; not even Nasserite Egypt that was a beacon of political progressiveness.

▪ Internally, socio-political Islam divides Egyptians into true Muslims, good Muslims, semi-good Muslims, OK Muslims, not-too-bad Muslims, bad Muslims, and non-Muslims. Such division entrenches the Islamist view of Egypt, yet affect serious social divisions in a country that has always boasted of its diversity, tolerance, and of being the centre of gravity in the Arab world.

▪ Also internally, socio-political Islam, like any religion-based socio-political system, installs the anchor of "truth" in the backyard of the religious establishment. What's right is what the religious establishment deems right; what's heretic is what the religious establishment finds distasteful. Egypt no longer has a Taha Hussein, an Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad, a Tawfik al-Hakim to turn to for intellectual guidance; in today's Egypt numerous sheikhs self-assume such role. And such change has an effect on Egyptians' collective self-perception.

▪ The October 2006 issue of Vanity Fair ran a long investigative piece on the life of a mid-20s Egyptian man without a job, without money, without a girlfriend, with few very-unpleasant encounters with the security apparatus, and with a very bleak view of the future (see Scott Anderson, "Under Egypt's volcano", Vanity Fair, October 2006). It ended with the young man sending his American friend - the Vanity Fair writer - a letter expressing his wishes: winning in the annual American visa lottery or finding solace amongst his religious brethren!

A hollowed middle-class

The second characteristic is the weakening of Egypt's middle class.

Some observers claim that Egypt's middle class has vanished. This is not true. Egypt's middle class continues to constitute the largest strata of the society. It is, however, severely weakened. Here, three factors are relevant:

▪ Economically, Egypt's middle class is poorer - in terms of its purchasing power. The flotation of the Egyptian pound - in a country that imports the majority of its food and basic material needs - and the concentration of the supply of a number of salient industries in few economic hands, resulted in a painful inflation. As Sahar al-Ga'ara (an active feminist and journalist) has put it: "the Egyptian middle class family used to complain for decades of the increasing fees of private tutoring, now they complain of the price of sugar and tea."

▪ With the greater emphasis on securing daily needs, the engagement in politics and public debate has subsided. Admittedly, it was never dramatic in Egypt, but it is revealing that despite huge campaigning on the government's and opposition's sides for the package of constitutional changes, fewer than 22% of registered voters (who themselves are a minority) turned out to vote in the March 2007 referendum (and that figure includes swathes of government employees who are virtually shipped to the polling booths). Moreover, in June 2007 only 7% of Egyptians bothered to vote in the election to the shura (the Egyptian parliament's upper house).

▪ Interestingly, the middle class in Egypt recognises its weakening. No longer the Egyptian universities, unions, syndicates, artists' groupings, middle-ranking government employees feel that their needs are addressed and their sensibilities regarded. The concentration of power in the hands of a select group of notables, mainly from the new guard at the ruling National Democratic Party; the vast prominence and influence of a small group of businessmen and financiers; and the absence of any grand national project or inspiring goal, has left Egypt's middle class painfully aware of the hollowness and fragility of its traditional position in the society. This position has not disappeared, but it pulsates with frustration.

The unseen unknown

The third characteristic is uncertainty.

The political scene in Egypt over the past sixty years was hardly a recipe for long-term political stability - yet there was always an omnipresent feeling of certainty about where power resided. President Gamal Abdel Nasser died at the age of 52, amidst his frenetic preparations for a military attack against Israel to liberate Sinai; Egypt was shocked; a power struggle ensued, from which Anwar Sadat emerged victorious. Yet notwithstanding the struggle at the top, there was certainty that the new ruler would establish a definite centre of power. True, this did not prevent Sadat from being assassinated in October 1981. Egypt was shocked; but despite the tumultuous situation, it was again foreordained that the vice-president (Hosni Mubarak) would ascend to power.

Today, the situation is far less clear (see "Egypt: who's on top?", 7 June 2005). President Mubarak has been ruling for over a quarter of a century - and there are no clear plans for his succession. Scenarios abound: Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, is touted as the heir; the National Democratic Party almost certainly will nominate him, but what about the views of the millions whose sympathies lie with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nasserites, the liberals, and others who certainly do not favour the succession-by-inheritance scenario? What about the views - and actions - of Egypt's most influential power, the military?

Uncertainty overhangs Egypt's political future, leaving the political scene tense, agitated, and open to different scenarios - dreams as well as nightmares.

A social wound

The fourth characteristic is poverty.

Egypt has always been a poor country, at least by GDP per-capita basis. Egyptians are used to citing eras when the Egyptian pound was worth more than £2.5 (today, a pound sterling buys more than ten Egyptian pounds), times when Egypt was granting Saudi Arabia wheat and sugar, let alone the elegant robes that adorns the Ka'aba (Islam's holiest site, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia). Yet, the economic truth is that Egypt, though of high economic potential, has always witnessed significant gaps in income, widespread poverty, and a perverse wealth distribution. However, poverty in Egypt today is different. It's stark, close to the society's core, and increasingly aggressive.

Today's poverty is stark in the sense that it is an all-encompassing vicious circle. Egypt's lower classes are deprived not only of employment opportunities, passable education, and any luxury whatsoever; they are lacking basic human needs such as decent shelter, clear water, and humane transportation systems. That class relies almost wholly on the government's programmes to provide basic needs - programmes that are, at best, too little, too late.

Poverty is close to the society's core because it is directly affecting Egypt's middle class. The millions in middle-ranking government jobs, the swathes of low-income professionals, technicians, teachers, and the vast majority of farmers, have relatively acceptable infrastructure, but extremely limited chances of social advancement, and a high chance of slipping down to lower social strata. Poor, ineffective education, and subsequently general low levels of skills - especially ones required for new, high-paying jobs; severe crunch in the transportation, health and insurance systems; a subtle, but gradual withdrawal of the state from its market-regulating and social-provision role; and recently, following the sudden flotation of the Egyptian pound, a painful inflation, out of synch with wage increases - all contribute to the dire economic state of Egypt's middle classes.

And it's aggressive. A casual review of the types of crimes that have emerged in the Egyptian society over the past ten-to-fifteen years, reveal a slow, but steady inclination towards violence. The major case named "al-Turbini" after one of its defendants - where dozens of children and teenagers were involved in violence, crime, and sexual abuse - is but one example.

Also about modern Egypt in openDemocracy:

Daniel Swift, "Saad Eddin Ibrahim: through the Arab looking glass" (11 April 2003)

Gilles Kepel, "Tightrope walks and chessboards: an interview" (14 April 2003)

Khalil An-Anany, "Egypt's democratisation: reality or mirage?" (10 May 2005)

Negar Azimi, "Egypt's youth have had enough" (1 September 2005)

Roger Allen, "Naguib Mahfouz: from Cairo to the world" (31 August 2006)

Trevor LeGassick, "Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute" (1 September 2006)

The world beyond

The fifth characteristic is the brain-drain.

Egypt is witnessing two contrasting phenomena. A tiny, small cadre of businessmen, entrepreneurs, engineers, and financiers are returning to Egypt from high-flying locations such as New York, San Francisco, London and Dubai. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of well-educated, typically middle-class young men and women in their 20s and 30s are leaving, mainly to the Gulf. Any survey of low- and middle-level jobs in the banking, clerical, and commercial sectors in the Gulf would reveal a steady growth in the percentage of Egyptians in such sectors. In a nutshell, the well qualified and relatively well educated, with a few years of experience in Egypt, leave for much better job opportunities, leaving behind those who couldn't get such offers. A friend of mine who manages one of Egypt's most respected securities-research boutiques was complaining of the difficulty of finding three junior research associates. The ones she wanted are heading to the Gulf.

This is a problem interlinked with the ones mentioned above. The crushing of the middle class under economic pressures, the increasing conservatism of the society, and the emergence of blatant, crude savagery are affecting young, bright things in more than one way - all contributing to a widespread desire to "opt-out".

Between potential and reality

The sixth consideration is potential, not kinetic energy.

The first five considerations make many observers lament that Egypt's energy - its young, growing population; its mass of talent; its diversified economy; and its sheer magnificence at mobilisation - is potential, but not actionable. That divergence between what's potential and what's actually taking place is glaring in numerous areas: in the fact that Egypt's role in Arab and middle-eastern affairs has retreated to a supporter of Saudi Arabia; that its economy is huge, but vastly inferior in terms of openness, efficacy and competitiveness to ones such as that of the UAE and Bahrain; that its cultural products are no longer lead the market in the Arab world; that it now plays catch-up with Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia.

All of the above does not mean that Egypt is doomed to remain a potential - or even, spent - force. A number of initiatives and positive developments, currently taking place, have the capacity to affect positive changes. Yet, a grand view of and strategy for tackling Egypt's interlinked problems is severely lacking. And some might argue the will is also lacking.

Natasha Walter of the Guardian, in a review of a novel by Khaled Hosseini that speaks of the daily lives of millions of ordinary people in a developing country, describes "the faces of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, and a destiny submitted to and endured". Reading those words, I couldn't help but think of millions of Egyptians.

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