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Op-Ed

Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution

Hafez Ghanem

Egypt appears to be in the midst of a second revolution.  According to the military who were monitoring events, the crowds demonstrating around the country yesterday were “in the millions”.  This is the same as the demonstrations that toppled the Mubarak regime.  It is still hard to predict the final outcome, and whether this will lead to a step forward toward a stable democracy, or another step backwards toward chaos, violence and xenophobia, or a return to autocratic rule.  Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that things will change, even if President Morsi remains in power.

Many western observers do not understand why Egyptians are rising against a president they elected freely only a year ago.  Can’t they wait for him to complete his four-year term?  This uprising became inevitable because the ruling Muslim Brotherhood has failed to respond to Egyptians’ aspirations for a better life and greater social justice.  They let the economy deteriorate and people’s lives have become harder.  They should have listened to former U.S. President Bill Clinton: “it is the economy, stupid.” 

Of course many Egyptians have noneconomic grievances.  They complain that the Muslim Brotherhood has monopolized power, and that the ruling party has passed an Islamist constitution which received support from less than a third of eligible voters.  They entered into an open war with the judiciary, and appear determined to put it under their control.  The Muslim Brotherhood has demonized Egypt’s media, and harassed them with lawsuits.  Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart, is being sued by Islamists claiming that he disrespected religion and the president.  They attacked artists, and even fired the highly respected director of the Cairo Opera.  They have created an atmosphere where extremist Sunni Muslims could spread hate messages against minority religions and sects.  Four Egyptian Shia Muslims were lynched by Sunni extremists, a first in the country’s modern history.

Many of the millions demonstrating in Egypt’s streets are concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s threat to personal liberties and freedoms of expression and religion.

Many of the millions demonstrating in Egypt’s streets are concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s threat to personal liberties and freedoms of expression and religion.  They feel that Egypt has traditionally been a tolerant Muslim country where different cultures and beliefs coexisted, and that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to change Egypt’s identity. 

However, polls indicate that those who are concerned with personal freedoms do not represent the majority of the population.  They are a sizeable minority that is led by the “westernized” elite.  The majority of Egyptians support Sharia.  But as pointed out by opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed El-Baradei: “people cannot eat Sharia.”

The problem is economic.  The more than 65 million Egyptians who live on $5 or less per day would not consider demonstrating on the streets to protect the Cairo opera house, or even to support the popular Bassem Youssef.  However, they are revolting against the decline in their standards of living.  This revolt could have been avoided if President Morsi and his government had made Egypt’s economy a priority.

Huge numbers of Egyptians believe that Morsi has failed as president.  This is not because he is trying to infuse more religion into the public sphere.  In fact, Egypt is a very conservative country, and religion is already very much in the public sphere.  They believe that he is a failed president because he has done nothing to improve the daily lives of Egyptians.  More young people are unemployed now than when he took office.  Prices of necessities are higher.  Bread lines are longer.  Gasoline is scarcer.  Power outages are more frequent.  Corruption is on the rise.  Insecurity is greater.

President Morsi and his government argue that all economic ills are the result of 30 years of mismanagement by the Mubarak regime, and that it is unfair to expect the Islamists to solve those deep-rooted problems in one year.

President Morsi and his government argue that all economic ills are the result of 30 years of mismanagement by the Mubarak regime, and that it is unfair to expect the Islamists to solve those deep-rooted problems in one year.  They are partly right.  Youth unemployment and corruption have been major problems in Egypt for many years.  However, long lines for bread and fuel, and frequent power outages are relatively new phenomena.

Egyptians do not expect their government to perform miracles, but they do expect it to start tackling their problems.  As a democratically-elected president, Morsi could have been more responsive to the electorate’s demands and needs.  And there are many things that the Morsi government could have done.  It could have put in place a nationwide program to support youth entrepreneurs.  It could have expanded public works programs to provide temporary support to the unemployed.  It could have started a partnership with civil society and the private sector to fight corruption.  It could have reformed the fuel subsidy system to avoid shortages.  It could have put in place a credible macro-stabilization program to attract foreign financing, and stop the downwards slide in the value of the Egyptian pound and the resulting rise in the prices of imported necessities.

The Morsi government has appeared incapable of dealing with Egypt’s economic problems.  Egypt has had three different finance ministers in the span of one year.  For the millions of poor and middle-class Egyptians life has become unbearable.  And, there seems to be no hope in sight.  That is why Egyptians are once again revolting.  For most Egyptians, it is not a second revolution, but a continuation of the struggle that started in January 2011.

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