Why Egypt’s 'Arab Spring' Boomeranged So Badly

Five years ago, Cairenes poured into the street and brought down Mubabrak, only to find themselves with a new dictator and a sagging economy. What went wrong?

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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An Egyptian protester waving a flag as tens of thousands gather for a demonstration at Cairo's Tahrir Square in April, 2011, two months after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted,
A protester at a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square in April, 2011, two months after President Mubarak was ousted.Credit: AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Five years ago today, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for what erupted into 18 days of mass protests, and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

Those were exhilarating times – that is, if you were completely blind to the realities of the Middle East.

“Egypt Today is a free and proud nation. God bless,” tweeted Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian who had been director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The word Tahrir means liberation Forevermore it will remind us of the Egyptian people -- of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world,” proclaimed Barack Obama.

The New Yorker reported that Tarek Shalaby, a web designer and blogger, shouted at the news of Mubarak’s resignation: “This is Egypt! And viva la revolution!” Someone formed a conga line, the magazine added.

Riot police set fire to tents pitched by anti-Mursi demonstrators at Tahrir Square in Cairo January 25, 2013. Mursi's opponents mark the second anniversary of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.Credit: Reuters

That vignette captures about everything that was wrong with the Egyptian revolution, and for that matter, with the ideas of freedom and democracy that were supposed to have animated the Arab Spring.

The average Egyptian at the time didn’t even know what the Internet is, much less have access to it. He or she would have been offended by the idea of a Conga line involving physical contact between unrelated men and women. A good Muslim, but not a fanatic, he loathed corruption and official indifference, but he wasn’t pining for the freedom and tolerance for diversity.

The real Egyptians

The real Egyptians made their true feelings felt in the months that that followed the January 25 revolution, and they twere nothing like their leaders had hoped or expected.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency: “The word Tahrir means liberation".Credit: AP

Egypt’s first democratically elections produced a Muslim Brotherhood government followed in short order by chaos and oppression, and then by a widely back coup d’etat by Egypt’s current president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. ElBaradei – a Western-educated lawyer and diplomat who spent little of his adult life in home country, and is therefore a very untypical Egyptian – emblemizes the whole timeline. He arrived at Tahirir Square to join the protests, made a failed bid for the presidency as a secular democrat, backed the al-Sissi coup and then quit in protest at its oppressive tactics.

Five years after those heady times, al-Sissi’s Egypt looks very much like Mubarak’s Egypt, just a little shabbier. As the heavy crackdown ahead of the January 25 anniversary demonstrates, the government is an intolerant of dissent as ever. The Muslim Brotherhood was tamed but the much more radical and violent Islamic State presents a serious security challenge.

Far from being the regional strongman it once was in the days of Gamal Nasser, Egypt has been forced to watch from the sideline as Saudi Arabia and Iran duke it out for No. 1.

Scantily-clad infidels alert

The Egyptian economy is also in a shambles, which is more likely to cause al-Sissi trouble than ISIS or the country’s remaining democracy activists.

No-one can say with certainty what set off the Arab Spring, but certainly Egypt’s poor economic performance in the years up to 2011 was a factor. The country’s topline growth was impressive, but the benefits weren’t trickling down.

Unemployment was 10% before the revolution and youth unemployment was 25%. That was a lot of combustible material walking the streets of Cairo with little or nothing to do, so that when the Tunisians set an example a month earlier by toppling their own dictator well, that’s how revolutions are made.

A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi holds Morsi's picture, and a copy of the Koran, at Talaat Harb Square, in Cairo, Jan. 25, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Nowadays, Egypt’s jobless rate is 12.8% and its youth unemployment 26.3%, so it is understandable why al-Sissi is keeping a tight lid on things.

Egypt’s economic woes aren’t entirely his fault. Islamic militants seem determined to keep the country’s vital tourism industry from reviving. Whether that’s because they don’t like scantily-clad infidels tanning on their beaches or because they have made a strategic choice to undermine the economy is anyone’s guess, but the results are the same.

Meanwhile, oil prices have collapsed, reducing a major source of export earnings.

The economy has been kept afloat by some $30 billion in aid and loans from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states since 2013, a reward to al-Sisi for dispatching the Muslim Brotherhood. But even with that help, Egypt has so few dollars to pay for imports that it’s had to impose import controls, which has stifled the manufacturing sector that relies on imported inputs, further constraining economic growth. In any case, the Gulf largesse is under threat. Low oil prices means Saudi Arabia & Company will be hard-pressed to keep the aid spigot open.

Disney Cairo?

An Egyptian supporter of ousted president Hosni Mubarak holds photos of him during a demonstration outside Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court in Cairo, April 1, 2013.Credit: AP

Al-Sissi has to do something to get the economy back on its feet and he seems to realize that. He has engaged in some reforms, like reducing wasteful and expensive fuel subsidies, but his main plan is marquee projects like the Second Suez Canal, building a million homes for poor and middle-income Egyptians and constructing a showcase capital city in the desert east of Cairo. They are inspiring and on paper have elicited pledges in the tens of billions of dollars from governments and investors.

But even if the heavy hand of Egyptian bureaucracy – a monster so chaotic and unwieldly that even the Egyptian government doesn’t know exactly how many people it employs -- were lifted, they are unlikely to produce the desired results. The Gulf money they rely on is drying up, the startup time for multi-zillion-dollar projects is lengthy and the benefits will accrue to a tiny minority of Egyptians.

Egypt’s economic problems – and as a corollary its political problems – are too deep to be solved by building an Egyptian Disneyland, which was one of the glitzier elements of the projected new capital.

Those problems aren’t about corruption and dictatorship, as is conventionally assumed. China has amply demonstrated that you can enjoy years of significant economic growth with both -- if you are start from a low baseline of industrial development. It’s later, as a country tries to rise to the next stage of economic development with an advanced service sector and high-tech, that political freedom and efficient government become critical, as China is about to learn.

Rather, it seems Egypt and the Arab world lack an entrepreneurial culture that has the power to ignore or overcome corruption and dictatorship. That’s evident in the fact that the kind of economic growth enjoyed in East Asia and has now spread to India and even parts of Latin America seems to have bypassed the Middle East. The Gulf economies are wealthy but that’s because of oil profits and a heavy presence of expatriates doing the heavy lifting; apart from that the Middle East is an economic backwater.

Cultural conservatism – in the Arabs’ case embedded in a fealty to traditional Islam – is probably the biggest obstacle to economic development. It distrusts democracy and entrepreneurism in equal parts and is what insured that Egypt’s revolution would fail -- and will keep the country poor until things change.

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