Hang on Egypt, this could be a rough ride

In Egypt, it seems, quite a lot has changed and yet, much has stayed the same.

H.A. Hellyer

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First, there was a king. He was overthrown by his military – in a bloodless coup, which, accordingly to all accounts at the time, seemed to happen with a good deal of fanfare. Until now, it seems, quite a lot has changed – and yet, much has stayed the same.

There is something to be said for continuity, one supposes. Stability (that word which seems to pollute every discussion about Egypt) is, apparently, what the majority of Egyptians want. The lack of stability over the last few years is what has led so many of them to accept pretty much anything that promises the restoration of stability. Indeed, when one looks at many of those who opted to attend yesterday’s events, and looks at their governments’ statements, one sees clearly a type of glee – Egypt is well and truly on the road to the stability that characterised the pre-January 25 period.

The question is not whether or not Egyptians want change – it’s about how much change they want, at what pace, and what they are willing to give up for it

H.A. Hellyer

Except, of course, there are a couple of problems with that sentiment. Firstly, it’s rare indeed that any government or authority promises a continuation of what has come before it. On the contrary, each authority, and Egypt is no exception, promises change. Indeed, the very reason why they are the new authority is due to a sufficient number of the public, and elite stakeholders (not necessarily particularly decent or progressive ones), wanting a change. The question is not whether or not Egyptians want change – it’s about how much change they want, at what pace, and what they are willing to give up for it.

2010 is over

Secondly, whether people are willing to admit this or not – 2010 is over. The pre-January 25 period is finished. That ought not to be taken as some sort of triumphant, bellicose roar – rather, it’s simply a reflection of reality. Some will look at Egypt today and declare (some positively, and some negatively) that the “Mubarak-era” has returned. But it hasn’t – and that is not simply because that while the new chief of the country took the presidential oath, the old one was sitting in the hospital building literally next door (how is that for irony). It’s because Egypt itself has changed.

Again, that note about “change” should also not be taken as some sort of grand victory. It’s more a statement about inevitability. The outbreak of protests on the January 25, despite the rampant conspiracy theories of supporters of Mubarak, Western ultra-leftists and their allies notwithstanding, was not some sort of grand plan or prodigious plot. It happened, because the conditions in Egypt at that point made the system no longer viable. That’s not a moral, normative statement – it’s a very realist point. Some autocracies actually “work,” in that they can keep going. Mubarak’s system in 2011 was a tinderbox. The surprise should not be that January 25 took place – but that it was not far more chaotic when it did.

If those conditions existed on the January 25, 2011, they certainly have not gone away now. The very same conditions that led to that revolutionary uprising remain. They haven’t been miraculously solved over the past three years. The revolutionaries never developed the capacity to effectively not only challenge the system, but also provide an alternative. The Muslim Brotherhood who dominated the political scene, even rising to the presidency, never succeeded (some might say they didn’t really try, either) in addressing the conditions that led to the January 25 uprising. Their opponents within the traditional political networks of Mubarak, as well as within various institutions, were likewise uninterested in taking on any of those key economic, social and political tribulations that have plagued every authority in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak.

Three years on

Three years on, a new man sits in the presidency. He faces those same problems. But actually, he faces a lot worse. His military predecessor who took over after Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi, had to reckon with a difficult economic situation – but he didn’t have to consider the same security issues that this president faces. Tantawi did not have the societal polarisation that still exists in Egypt after the events particularly of the last 10 months – events that have cost more Egyptian lives than any other in recent history. This president, on the other hand, has all of that to deal with now. It’s certainly not clear how he intends – or how he might be capable – to contend with it.

He also has something that no previous president quite had to deal with. In the past three years, the youth of Egypt, who account for probably the majority of the Egyptian population (depending on how you define “youth”) have lost a tremendous amount of confidence in any political force. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party sunk in popularity over the course of Mursi’s year in power – but it was not the only one. Political parties, in general, increasingly became irrelevant - and that was partly why certain sections of the population acquiesced – or even supported – a direct military takeover.

But that youth population has not gone anywhere. In the past three years, they’ve lived through the 18 days of 2011’s revolutionary uprising; they’ve lost many of their number to police brutality; and their hopes and dreams remain unfulfilled. There are those that talk about the “need to talk to the youth” – but such phrases underestimate the gravity of the situation. It’s not that the youth need to be “talked to.” It’s that the youth are the ones that ultimately hold the cards. It’s that the current generation of political leaders (or lack thereof) are in dire need of saving themselves from the ultimate wrath of the next generation.

That is the country this next authority will have to cope with.

Hang on. This could be a pretty rough ride – and in Egypt, that’s saying a lot.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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