Egyptian politics and the definition of insanity

Egypt’s ruling elite needs to come up with a better formula than simply trying to turn back the clock

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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Albert Einstein defined the word “insanity” as doing something over and over again, while expecting a different result. One wonders; is it political insanity to do something again and again while expecting a different result? If so, then at least parts of the Egyptian political elite may wish to reconsider their options.

Over the past year or so, a wide swathe of thinking among the Egyptian political elite has proceeded as thus. The instability of the last three years has been catastrophic, and Egypt needs to do whatever it takes to avert it from happening again. Revolutionary politics was a complete disaster, as the line of thinking goes. The revolutionary uprising of 2011 was not just unnecessary – it was wholly counter-productive, and the clock needs to be turned back as much as humanly possible.

The argument continues: first on the agenda must be to improve the country’s economic situation, wrecked by the uprising, and all will be back to normal. Moreover, the economy was doing badly prior to the revolution, and as such, improving will avoid any further unrest. In this regard, participation and engagement with former members of the Mubarak regime (described by that awful word “felool”/”remnants”) ought to be the norm, as they know best how to return Egypt to its former glory.

These discussions happen against a backdrop of political, as well as legal developments. As Egypt proceeds to fulfill the final step of the post-Mursi road-map, Egyptian citizens will go to the polls to vote for parliamentary members. The Cairo Appeals Court for Urgent Matters has already lifted a ban on former National Democratic Party (NDP-Mubarak’s party) members from running in elections, which annulled a previous ruling by another court that banned them from running in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. Proponents of the return of NDP members to political life argue that exclusion of this portion of the political class is just unthinkable, as they represent a huge amount of influence in the country.

Leaving aside any moral or normative reasons to oppose this line of reasoning – after all, the calls of the January 25 revolution were hardly appalling – one ought to ask if this is even a logic and realistic set of predictable outcomes.

Egypt’s ruling elite needs to come up with a better formula than simply trying to turn back the clock

H.A. Hellyer

The Egyptian economy was not doing badly in 2010. On the contrary – the country’s GDP was increasing, as it had been for some time. The issue was not whether or not it was increasing – it was whether or not the country’s population en masse benefited from economic growth or not. When Gallup polled Egyptians between 2005 and 2010, the results showed clearly that at the very same time that the country’s GDP was increasing, Egyptian feelings of “well-being” were diminishing. Yes, the country was getting richer – but that affected only the top 5-10 percent of the population. There was no trickle down effect, which was a direct result of the way in which the country was managed. Anyone lauding a return to those days by engaging with members of the former National Democratic Party and its economic policies ought to remember that those very policies led to the January 25 uprising in the first place.

Now, that should not be taken to mean that permanent exclusion of the National Democratic Party is a good idea either – if Egypt’s recent history is anything to go by, marginalization of political trends that are willing to engage within the system is hardly a recipe for democratic development.

That being said, there are still many who ask – wasn’t the January 25 revolutionary uprising a bad idea? Did it not lead to years of chaos, and the resulting instability that still partially plagues the country?

The question is backwards

It sounds like a reasonable line of enquiry – but the truth is, the question is backwards. The activists that went to the streets on January 25 did not appear in a vacuum – they were reacting to years of police brutality, and economic inequity in society. They did not go looking for a revolution, but for reform – those demands increased the more they were brutalized by Mubarak’s police state response. The chaos that then ensued was not the result of the revolutionary camp, that never governed, but of those who took the reins of power that came afterwards.

The question ought not to be, “was the January 25 revolutionary uprising a good idea” – it ought to be “were the economic and security policies of Mubarak’s state good ideas?” Because, in truth, the uprising would never have happened without those policies – they were the midwives of that uprising.

The irony of Egypt in 2014 is that many seem to be trying to replicate precisely the same policies of pre-2010, without realizing that those very policies led to the uprising they are so desperate to remove all traces of. Even more ironic is that the population of Egypt in 2014 is even more resistant to those policies, owing to the demographic developments since then.

In 2010, those recognizing the efficacy of the state were far more than they are today – today, opposition to the state on political grounds accounts for a minority, but it is a far larger minority than it was in 2010. In 2010, the number of youth in the country – and more importantly, unemployed youth – was far lower. Expectations in 2010 for Mubarak’s regime were particularly low, and thus he could not disappoint – whereas in 2014, Egypt’s authorities are raising expectations tremendously, without much optimism that they could deliver, at least in time. That all means that the political framework of 2010 is not just unworkable; it is even more likely to result in some sort of chaotic eruption later down the road, even if years away from now.

Egypt’s ruling elite needs to come up with a better formula than simply trying to turn back the clock, and trying the same recipe all over again. Otherwise, they can expect not a repeat of January 25– but indeed, perhaps something truly chaotic. The January 25 uprising had principles, which some few still struggle for in today’s Egypt. If there is an upheaval against the system in the years to come, the only principle may be – “I’m sick of this, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Egypt deserves a lot better than that – and its authorities ought to consider sowing the seeds for a lot better, right now, instead of simply replicating mistakes of the past.


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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