After a decade, Arab Spring countries show socio-political extremes between, for instance, a Tunisia and a neighboring Libya, with Egypt in an intermediary zone. Egypt’s decade witnessed orderly legislative elections and three presidents when Mubarak had reigned for almost thirty years. But Egypt’s current president is the former Minister of Defense, a continuation - with a short interval - of the practice of military presidents since 1952.
In the small village of Sidi Bouzid in the Tunisian south that saw Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, i.e. the spark of the Arab Spring, the 10th anniversary went without any mass festivities. Why? Egypt’s 10th anniversary will be on 25 January. Differently from Tunisia, many of Egypt’s Arab Spring leaders are either in prison or in exile. Despite the commemoration of the date as an official holiday, most probably there will not be any popular festivities. Why?
Rather than recounting Egypt’s events during the last decade, this article is analytical and looks at Egypt as a comparative case study, whose findings go beyond this country. As we know, the Arab Spring was pioneered by Tunisia on 17 December 2010, and Egypt followed more than a month after (on 25 January 2011). However, this country’s socio-demographic weight and regional status make of it a representative sample reflective of wider patterns. Egypt’s centrality is consensual. In a BBC partial survey of eight films and twelve documentaries about the Arab Spring, four and six – 50% respectively – were about Egypt. This article’s three sections emphasize two factors that are relatively overlooked in the analysis of the Arab Spring trajectory: the economic needs rationale and the role of international factors.
An Arab Spring, Autumn or Winter?
These three terms are used in Arab and global media and demonstrate divergent fortunes, time evolutions and changing assessments of the impact of these mass protests. At the end of July 2011, the Saudi regional TV channel, El-Arabiya, conducted a survey about the degree of optimism/pessimism related to the Arab Spring. Optimism was the dominant mood: of those surveyed 71% were optimists; 7% pessimists and 22% didn’t know. Moreover, 90% believed the future would be better, compared to only 4% who thought it would be worse, and 6% did not know. If this survey were to be conducted today, public opinion reactions could be the reverse of a decade ago. Though in Egypt’s case, while many would affirm that this country has been saved the tragic fate of Libya, Yemen, or Syria, a majority would assert the failure of its Arab Spring. Several (political) indicators are quoted in support: the overthrow and death in prison of its first civilian president; Mubarak’s rehabilitation upon his death through the participation of President al-Sisi and his government in a nationally-organized funeral; the increasing numbers of people detained without trial, restrictions on basic rights such as freedom of speech, association…
The Human Rights Controversy
During his official visit to France in early December, President al-Sisi affirmed that Egypt has nothing to hide concerning its human rights record. His host, President Emmanuel Macron, asserted that there are differences between them at this level, but that France will not condition its economic cooperation and arms sales on their differences. These differences were aired amidst a huge controversy between, on the one hand, the European Parliament, and on the other, the Egyptian and Arab Parliaments.
The EU statement (12 December 2020) is both very detailed and specific about violations of universally-accepted human rights. The rebuttals by the Egyptian and Arab parliaments do not address these specifics but insist on alternative principles, e.g. defense of ’national sovereignty’ against ”neo-colonial intervention” and especially the emphasis on an alternative definition of human rights. This alternative definition contests the Western individual-based emphasis and gives priority instead to a collectivity-based concept centered on the primacy of development and Egypt’s socio-economic needs (Mostafa El Fiqi, Head of Alexandria Bibliotheque, reiterated that the most basic human right is the one that guarantees a permanent shelter and a dignified daily life, El-Shorouk newspaper, 23 December 2020). According to this logic, the prerequisite for the satisfaction of these developmental needs is political stability and preservation of the state. The content analysis of President al-Sisi’s 149 speeches during the three-year period 2014-2016 shows this priority (Abd Rabbu, El-Shorouk newspaper, 13 December 2020). Whether in his 60 speeches to his domestic audience or the 89 to the outside world, the priority is (economic) development and its prerequisites. Security - increasingly defined as against “Muslim Brotherhood terrorism” and its allies - is the sine qua non for whatever reform is desired. Official sources repeat ad nauseam that despite Covid-19 their economic policy proved its worth, citing in support of this the IMF’s “trust”, as indicated by loans of $17.1 billion for the period 2015-2020. In return, Egypt applied the Fund’s required reform plan, including cancelling subsidies for many basic commodities, from electricity to petrol, and devaluing its currency by almost 300%. The IMF confirms the success of “its advice”, as some basic economic indicators show improvement for the three-year period 2018-2020.
Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook Database, OCT 2020
Whereas the average poverty rate according to official figures went up from 27% to 32.3%, Egypt’s relationship with the IMF is still a win/win. Egypt gets the needed loans and also the IMF’s confirmation that the country is carrying out serious economic reform. Similarly, the IMF demonstrates through the experience of a major developing country that its structural adjustment program is the blueprint to follow for economic reform.
The Egyptian government even shows that its “economic success” is also a political success. Official and semi-official media statements repeat, again ad nauseam, that the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime in July 2013 saved Egypt from the tragic fate of many neighboring countries, such as the mushrooming of armed militias and endless ”new wars” amidst state failure. Data on the 12 indicators of the FSI (Fragile/Failed State Index) show Syria’s progression toward FS status as its rank went ”up” from 39 in 2010 to 4 in 2020 – a loss of 35 ranks; Libya from 112 to 20 – a loss of 92 ranks; Yemen from 18 to the infamous top rank of number one failed state. In comparison, Egypt went from number 43 on the list in 2010 to number 35 in 2020 – a loss of 8 ranks.
General historical analysis shows that there is not really any inconsistency between the two types of human rights. However, for the majority of the proverbial “man (and woman) in the street”, issues such as socio-economic needs come first in daily life. By content of the 44 most chanted slogans in Tahrir, the highest number (11, or 25%) were about socio-economic aspects. Moreover, those who suffered during MB rule from frequent water and electricity cuts and daily insecurity such as increasing car thefts, do not want to see a repetition. In choosing their priorities, the avoidance of such daily difficulties could come first. Tunisia’s present situation indicates the same order of priorities for most of the population, as the majority of the decade’s 650 protests are about socio-economic issues. A general rule then seems to be that unless political success is coupled with daily economic problem-solving, it is short-lived.
In their obsession with these immediate needs, ordinary citizens tend to overlook the linkage between a regime’s characteristics and its socio-economic policies. On the contrary, many at present go so far as to attribute current daily problems to the occurrence of the Arab Spring itself. The urban youth-based protests of a decade ago are seen not as a reaction to governance problems but rather as their cause. Such a dominant narrative is a good case of what Gramsci labelled hegemony by consent, when the mass base internalizes a regime’s authoritarian bargain.
The Authoritarian Bargain and its international support
An early version of this bargain in the region started in the Gulf in the debate on the rentier state. In a nutshell, citizens give up many of their political/democratic rights in return for the state’s economic largesse.
Beyond the Gulf context, Egypt’s case at present shows that this bargain was widened and reformulated to mean the primacy of dealing with economic needs and its prerequisite of political stability. What needs to be factored in is the contribution - intentional or not - of international governmental partners in Europe and the Gulf. Europe is obviously interested in political stability in the Southern Mediterranean to limit - if not prevent - irregular immigration. Moreover, political stability in Egypt guarantees the payment of its debt, and the maintenance of trade relations, including voluminous arms deals. The case of Italy is very telling in this respect. Italy’s insistence on and championing of human rights issues has been raised to the European level because of the case of Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge University PhD candidate who was kidnapped in February 2016 during his field research in Egypt, then found dead on one of the desert roads outside Cairo, with his body showing torture. Trade relations were of $7.2 billion in 2018 with Egyptian exports of $1.3 billion whereas Italian exports of $5.9 billion, i.e. five times as much in Italy’s favor. In 2019, Egypt tripled its arms imports from Italy with new deals amounting to 16-18 billion euros for the next few years. This is in addition to enormous investments, including ENI’s huge gas explorations. Economic relations with France tell the same story. According to French customs, in 2017 France and Egypt posted an increase of 21.8% in their trade, which totaled 2.5 billion euros. Between 2013 and 2017, France became Egypt’s main military supplier. What needs to be reiterated (in addition to decorating al-Sisi with the highest award of Legion d’honneur) is what Macron made explicit during al-Sisi’s visit to Paris on 6 December: “I will not condition matters of defense and economic cooperation on these disagreements (over human rights)”.
Neither Italy nor France is exceptional in this respect. When EU and Arab leaders met in their first summit in February 2019, European concerns about “irregular immigration” led to a consensus of “investing in stability “in Southern Mediterranean countries. This concern for stability goes hand in hand with Gulf countries’ efforts to counter the Arab Spring. In his memoir, Promised Land, former U.S. President Obama reports repeated pleas during January-February 2011 from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the USA to stand by Mubarak. When these pleas failed, Gulf aid to get rid of Egypt’s MB regime are estimated at between $20 and $30 billion, including deposits with the Central Bank of Egypt and petroleum products as grants. This international governmental collaboration, in addition to the above-mentioned IMF support, show the importance of factoring in the impact of external factors in support of the authoritarian bargain.
Though Egypt went through three legislative elections, many of its 100+ political parties were there only on paper. President al-Sisi officially won his second mandate in March 2018 with 97.08 % of the vote after several presidential candidates declined or withdrew, voluntarily or not. At present, some surveys such as Raseef22 no longer ask for a balance-sheet of the Arab Spring but reformulate their question as follows: “would it have been better if the Arab Spring had never happened?”. This shows a confusion between (negative) results and (initial) causes. As Bouazizi’s case and its regional diffusion show, the Arab Spring mass protests took place against real socio-political problems. Many of these problems are still there, with Tunisia’s current unemployment average at 15% and in some parts of the country above 30%. As shown above, Egypt scored some progress at this level. But there isn’t a choice to be made between the “political” and “socio-economic” aspects as they are two sides of the same coin. In this respect, an analysis of Egypt’s present setback, rather than failure, is also inherent in the challenges of the democratization transition process, as the voluminous literature on transitology reveals (Korany 2014). The post-Arab Spring decade is illuminating concerning many of these challenges, for instance:
- Lack of coordination among the protestors’ youth leadership, the well-known coalition-building. Press reports talked about the presence of as many as 160-200 leaders.
- This was coupled with a lack of experience of this young middle-class leadership, clearly reflected in the absence of a program of action for “the Day After”, combining both socio-economic needs and political objectives. As a result, Mubarak’s announced departure on 11 February 2011 was interpreted as the protests’ final victory rather than only one stage to build on (Korany, Al-Ahram newspaper, 9 March 2011, i.e warning of the vulnerability problem less than a month after Mubarak’s resignation).
- The result was that other, more organized groups – such as the MB – took over. In fact, this organization joined the protests late and their subsequent dominance of both the parliament and the presidency ignited the traditional fight between the MB and the military. The military have won.
Bassiouni, Cherif (2017), Chronicles of the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath 2011-2016. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ghoneim, Wael (2012), Revolution 2.0. Berkeley, California: Houghton Miflin Harcourt.
Korany, Bahgat (Ed.2014), Arab Human Development in the 21st Century. Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press.
Sayegh, Yezid (2019), Owners of the Republic: An Anatomy of Egypt’s Military Economy. Washington and Beirut:Carnegie Endowment.
Egyptian and Arab media outlets/newspapers.