What Egyptians call “the Revolution” lasted just 18 days. It began on Jan. 25 and ended on Feb. 11, 2011, when the strongman who had ruled Egypt for 30 years caved in to the apparent will of the people (expressed in the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square) and resigned from office.
All Egypt — it then seemed — erupted in joy. One leading pizza store celebrated with the offer of “democratic pizza” — meaning, you could choose your own topping.
The revolution’s cheerleaders in the western news media were equally euphoric.
In picking seven student activists from Tahrir Square to adorn its Feb. 28, 2011 cover, Time hailed the arrival of “The Generation Changing the World.” Smiling and casually attired, the four men and three women shown on the cover were the kind of 18-to-24 year-olds you would expect to see in an Apple store in Cairo — or Palo Alto. There were no beards or burqas. One of the activists was wearing a baseball cap turned backward.
Marching as confidently as ever in the wrong direction, Time predicted a quick and painless transition to democracy and renewed economic vigor. “These young people have done more in a few weeks than their parents did in 30 years,” a political-science professor at Cairo University was quoted as saying. “They are the Internet Generation… the Facebook Generation… or just call them the Miracle Generation.”
In its own voice, Time proclaimed:
According to the old narrative, the only outlet for youthful dissent lay in Islamic extremism and violence. A much cited 2003 Brookings Institution report on Arab youths warned that they were being raised in an environment of religious radicalism and anti-Americanism. “These values,” the reported argued, “thus become the formative elements of a new and dispossessed generation, auguring badly for the future.”
The auguries were wrong. In reality, Arab youths were a big part of the silent, moderate majority. In virtually every Arab country, more than half the population is less than 30 years old. And like young people everywhere, most of them prefer the freedom that comes with democracy to the straitjacket of political autocracy or rule by religious conservatives. A survey of youths in nine Arab states released in 2010 by the p.r. firm Asda’a Burson-Marsteller showed that they ranked democracy as a greater priority than good civic infrastructure, access to the best education or even fair wages.
In fact, “the auguries” have been pretty much on target. It was Time that was wildly off the mark in its belief that the combination of youth and technology was about to triumph over the long-entrenched forces of military autocracy and Islamic fundamentalism.
Egypt’s just-announced presidential election has created an uneasy alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood, which has captured the presidency, and Egypt’s secular-minded military, which formed the backbone of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and which continues to wield enormous power.
Even minus Mubarak and his family, Egypt has not strayed far the pre-revolutionary status quo. Having dissolved an elected parliament and effectively declared martial law for the indefinite future, the military runs foreign policy, commands the police and intelligence, and is closely aligned with the judiciary and the other arms of government. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its front-page story on June 25:
The Brotherhood’s long power struggle with the military is far from over. The military has pledged to hand over power to Mr. [Mohammed] Morsi by the end of the month. But Mr. Morsi will assume a presidency crippled by military-imposed constitutional changes that have stripped the office of most of its powers.
Despite their successes in last November’s parliamentary election and in the June’s presidential elections, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood seem to be fully aware that they have not received a strong mandate to change anything — least of all to join Iran in transforming society through the establishment of a theocratic state. The Brotherhood has a strong and highly energized base, but it still lacks broad appeal – it won just 25% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. It boosted that to 51.7% in the runoff only because many voters were forced to choose between poison — either accepting a holdover from the hated Mubarak regime… or voting for a representative from a group that has long favored the imposition of Sharia law.
If anyone has been left out in the cold in today’s Egypt, it is the Internet/Facebook generation, not the Brotherhood or the military.
For a vivid and revealing account of how three of the revolutionaries from Tahrir Square have fared in post-revolutionary Egypt, I would urge the reader to view the hour-long BBC 2 documentary — “Children of the Revolution” — found on YouTube.
One of the three — 24-year-old Ahmed Hassan — is a college graduate with a degree is in telecommunications. He seems to have little or nothing in the way of useful knowledge or marketable skills. Taking him at his word, the film-makers introduce this slow-witted youth as someone who is “angry after many years of suffering everyday humiliations at the hands of the state.” On Feb. 12 — the day after Mubarak stepped down — Ahmed enjoys a brief moment of fame at his local barber shop, lauded by friends as one of the heroes of Tahrir Square. He tells them: “Now, when an employer finds out that I was part of the revolution he will never treat me badly like before. Impossible!” Bitter and still unemployed several months later, he comes to the opposite conclusion — “Everyone is scared of (hiring) me because I was part of the revolution that toppled Mubarak.”
Then there is Gigi Ibrahim, also 24, dark-haired and strikingly pretty, the prototypical student activist and an avowed socialist. Gigi becomes a media star — one of the faces seen on the cover of Time and a spokesperson for the revolution that television stations in Cairo, London, and New York call upon for comment. But she, too, becomes disillusioned as the year wears on and women are no longer welcome on the square. Like Ahmed, she does not even bother to vote in the parliamentary elections that are held in November of 2011.
Gigi, the daughter of a rich industrialist, continues to think of herself as a revolutionary. In the words of the film, “Gigi wants to destroy the old system that made her father.” In the aftermath of the revolution, she goes into her father’s clothing factory to urge workers to demand higher wages and better working conditions. The long-suffering father tells the filmmakers: “Anyone who makes 1,000 now wants 5,000. It’s a disaster. She has turned my people against me. I think she’s a communist.”
Then she trains her sights on other employers. “Gigi and her comrades” — in the words of film — “turn their social networking skills” to the larger task of trying to incite workers across country to strike for higher wages and better benefits.
Having followed Ahmed and Gigi from the beginning of the revolution, the film-makers made the wise choice of including at one of the Islamists who were latecomers to Tahrir Square. So they added Tahir, 26, a Quran teacher and Salafist who had been imprisoned multiple times over the previous decade for religious activism.
Tahir made me think of what Mitt Romney must have looked like in his young missionary phase — ramrod straight, coat-and-tied, serious both about the message to be preached and getting ahead in his own life. That is not to suggest any connection between the two men apart from their physical appearance and bearing. Tahir, who lives in a five-story building filled with other member of his extended family, tools around Cairo on a Vespa.
Of the three revolutionaries, Tahir is the only one who thrives over the course of the next 12 months. He has a double celebration in November: Getting married on the same day that the Salafists emerge as big winners in the parliamentary election, coming in second behind the Brotherhood. Despite his own experience as a prison inmate, Tahir fully supports the Army in using tanks and armored vehicles to run over protesters in the run-up to that election. “I don’t agree with the protesters,” he says. He calls the riots “a conspiracy to subvert the election.” Chillingly, he also looks pleased in a Quran class when students aged 5 or 6 call for the killing of Coptic Christians.
In the midst of all this tumult, Egypt’s economy, unsurprisingly, has gone from bad (the condition for many years) to a whole lot worse. Tourism has collapsed. Unemployment has soared. Euphoria over the revolution has been replaced by worries over the lack of jobs and concern that the country may be unable to pull itself out of a deepening hole — regardless of all the social networking and texting over mobile phones that captured the attention of many reporters during the 18-day long revolution.
My wife and I returned in early February from a week-long trip in Upper Egypt — making a small contribution to the country’s depleted tourism industry. Though we were cocooned in the luxury of a guided tour, we still saw plenty of evidence of Egypt’s descent into economic and social chaos.
In striking against their nearly bankrupt government for more pay, lock workers at Esna succeeded in stopping most of tour boats that go back and forth between Luxor and the Aswan Dam. At the same time, we saw lighted and speeding trains that were empty of any passengers because the railroad workers had gone out on strike as well — leaving displaced passengers to queue on the road for buses to continue their journeys.
One of the biggest factors accounting for the lack of growth and jobs in Egypt is its bloated and fractious public sector. The government accounts for 35% of total employment in Egypt. In Turkey, it is 13% and in India, it is just 4%.
Too bad, then, none of the leading contenders for power in Egypt — whether in the Brotherhood, the military, or even in what remains of the student activists — seems to have any sense of the truth contained in F. A. Hayek’s dictum: “Only capitalism makes democracy possible.”
Egypt will never have a flourishing democracy without a more enterprising and productive economy.
It’s too bad that nobody seems be championing the cause of free enterprise and genuine capitalism (as opposed to the crony capitalism that flourished under Mubarak and previous governments). Nothing would be more effective in stimulating the growth that is so desperately needed — while finally allowing democracy to replace authoritarian rule.
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