The Revolt in Egypt: Causes and Consequences, a brief review

Yesterday, I went to the King’s College London Middle East Research Group seminar on the causes and consequences of the revolt in Egypt.

I only stayed for two of the speakers, Dr Ashraf Mishrif and Dr Michael Kerr, because, well – just because.

The Economic Causes of the Egyptian Revolt

Dr Ashraf Mishrif made a prediction: either Mubarak would announce his resignation; or he would assume more powers to deal with the revolt. In other words: even the ‘experts’ haven’t got a clue where this revolt is going to end up.

Ashraf went on to talk in more depth about the economic causes of the revolt, safer academic territory.

In the last three or four decades, there have been a number of economic policies put in place by regimes in the Middle East in general, and in Egypt in particular – and they have all failed. The two economic reform programmes promoted under President Mubarak have had only limited success.

The years 2006-2008 showed solid growth at 7%, but this has not been felt by the majority of the population. Poverty has grown in absolute terms: from 17% in 2002, to 19.8% in 2010. There is also high inflation in Egypt at 11.8% and high unemployment at 9.8%.

And it’s not just in Egypt that we see this economic crisis: in Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and many others. Even the Gulf States have high unemployment, at around 9% in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example.

The Egyptian regime refused to allow opposition groups to help plan these economic reforms – and this was a big mistake, politically and economically. The result has been that the regime has bound themselves to only a small segment of the Egyptian business community and the 7% growth has benefited perhaps as little as 10% of society.

During this time of growth, the Egyptian government also failed to put in place an effective social security system for the unemployed. This all meant that, from around 2004, workers and unions were rioting against the unfair and precarious economic situation. This unrest spread to the youth and to the middle classes, resulting in the present revolt.

What is the Egyptian Revolt?

Dr Kerr argued that this was not a revolt against Mubarak, but a revolt against failed Arab nationalist politics.

The revolt is certainly not (yet) a popular revolution. Only 2% of the population have been involved in the protests. Why might this be? Fear: of what the regime might do; but also of what might replace it. The Egyptians only have to look across at Algeria and at Iraq for frightening examples of what happens when revolts go wrong.

The revolt is not an Islamist movement. The relative silence of the Muslim Brotherhood shows that they are not seeking a leadership role in this revolt. It also shows how effective the regime has been in restricting the Brotherhood.

The Consequences of the Egyptian Revolt

There is the strong possibility, Dr Kerr believes, that the Egyptian government will paint personality change to look like regime change.

We’re not on the cusp of big change in Egypt.

The problem with the revolt is that there is no obvious or credible alternative in Egypt. The regime has played its cards very cleverly by, for example, injecting a small number troops into the crowds to raise tensions and to pit the Egyptian people against each other. This has caused the US to flip and flop in their response to the revolt: they only want to protect their interests.
You can trace political unrest in Egypt back to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. The US foreign policy towards the Middle East has changed twice in the last ten years, from supporting the status quo under Clinton, to the interventions of George W. Bush – and now back to supporting the status quo under Obama. The Egyptian government have been using this to their favour.
The Egyptian people are not able to agree on what they might want to replace the regime: all they want is simply to be rid of them. The lack of a plan is not surprising, given how quickly the revolt rose up and spread. No one predicted this: 

this came out of the blue.”

The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 is also not a particularly happy example for the protesters to follow. The gains of that revolution have been largely reversed. The pendulum has swung back towards Syria and the US appear to have accepted this, returning their diplomats to Damascus.

“The Egyptian regime could still claw back their position of three weeks ago.”

What follows the departure Mubarak is unclear. If there is a general strike, then the US will be forced off the fence and will have to support a regime – perhaps militarily – that protects their interests in Egypt. Egypt is too important a support for US influence in the region for them to let it go.

Will the revolt in Egypt set off a domino effect? Yes. However, the Syrian government won’t fall: it is more credible than the Egyptian regime. In the Gulf, the distinction is that they have a lot of money. If the regime there is foresighted, they can use some of this money to put in place social reforms that would keep the population from revolting.

To conclude: this revolt came out of the blue, driven on by the youth through technology and beefed up by the international media. But, Dr Kerr warned, the media is fickle. Once the televisions are switched off – what then?

“A revolution can disappear if you switch your television off.”

What do you think?