It all seems surreal – those 18 days in 2011 when Egyptians broke down the wall of fear to demand the fall of the Mubarak regime. As television screens across the world showed millions of Egyptians bravely confronting violent security forces, Egyptians proved they were not docile subjects relegated to the status of an indefinitely oppressed people.
The people’s message was loud and clear: They deserved a democratic system that would provide them a life of dignity where the government served the people, not the other way around.
Demands for political rights were not merely abstract goals. Egyptians sought wealth redistribution from the rich elite to the middle and lower classes, equal opportunities for employment (especially among educated youth), and wage increases after decades of stagnation.
On the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s so-called January 25 Revolution, it has become clear that Egyptians’ aspirations have been quashed.
What was supposed to be a historic political opening to transition Egypt onto a democratic political trajectory instead resulted in a regression to military domination where soldiers, rather than civilians, control the levers of political, economic, and security power.
The military and security elite have replaced former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party crony capitalists who abused political office to reward their friends and family through lucrative state contracts and plum government positions.
Although some Egyptians believe the country will regain stability under the firm hand of a president who was once a military general, history proves otherwise. Nations in other parts of the world have regressed, rather than thrived, under military rule. Generals are not trained in the game of democracy, where negotiation and compromise, rather than command and control, define the process.
Moreover, Egyptians have tasted the fruit of freedom – if only for a brief moment. Egypt’s youth, in particular, will not so easily accept another era of authoritarianism that suffocates their dreams and steals their future while their counterparts in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe experience more freedoms.
Indeed, Egypt’s new leaders should be cognizant that the same economic, social, and political factors that contributed to the January 2011 uprising still fester, making the likelihood of a future revolution quite real.
Rising poverty decimating the middle class was arguably the most significant impetus for the 2011 popular uprising. Stagnant wages of most Egyptian workers were insufficient to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and education. As the government ratcheted up economic liberalization and privatization, subsidy reductions increased prices of gasoline and basic foodstuffs, leaving more Egyptians facing food insecurity.
Meanwhile, the gap between income and the cost of supporting a family increased for both blue- and white-collar employees. In 2010, most working-class families with two wage earners lived below the poverty line. At the time of the uprising, most Egyptians’ real wages had contracted so much that approximately 20 percent of Egyptians fell below the poverty line and another 25 percent hovered just above it.
These same factors exist today. Overall unemployment rates stand at more than 13 percent for the general public and 25 percent among youth. Current wages, especially for unskilled workers, are stuck at levels from the 1990s. Annual inflation continues to hover near 10 percent. Growth in Egypt’s G.D.P. has dropped from 5.1 percent in 2010 (just before the uprising) to two percent in 2014. Electricity and fuel shortages are at unprecedented levels, and families struggle to make ends meet.
At some point, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government will be held responsible for the country’s myriad economic and political problems. Press censorship, military trials, antiterrorism laws, and other anti-democratic practices cannot shield the government from a public that expects tangible improvements in their quality of life.
Egyptians broke Mubarak’s wall of fear, and they are likely to break the new walls currently being built under Egypt’s new police state. The rapidly declining economic crisis coupled with pervasive corruption and a non-democratic political system is a recipe for long-term instability.
For Egypt’s sake, let’s hope the current government learns from, rather than repeats, the mistakes of the past.