Egypt has always been impossible to describe; now it is also impossible to analyze. The acquittal of former President Hosni Mubarak last weekend marks a symbolic nail in the coffin of the uprising and revolution that overthrew his government in early 2011. It is tempting to make definitive judgments about the meaning of the extraordinary stages of Egyptian political life since then, but also reckless.
These stages include the Mubarak ouster, the euphoric assertion of people power and citizen sovereignty, the drafting of several new constitutions, the Muslim Brotherhood victories in parliamentary and presidential elections, the removal of both, the election of former armed forces commander Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency, and the massive support for Sisi from oil-rich Gulf states.
It is difficult to assess the lasting consequences of these and other related events for many reasons. Among them are the volatile nature of an Egyptian citizenry with no prior experience in democratic pluralism; the ideological polarization that has come to dominate society; our broad lack of understanding of the inner workings of Egyptian minds that one day support a revolution, months later support a resumption of power by the armed forces, and in future could move in a different direction; and the impact of the underlying conditions that sparked the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising in the first place.
Objective analysis would suggest that those underlying conditions are worse now than they were then. The economy, real incomes and job-creation all remain insufficient in the face of the Egyptians’ basic needs, while the population continues to grow by some 1.5 million people every year. All these citizens must be housed, fed, educated, provided with water and health care, and, eventually, for most of them, jobs. The capacity of the Egyptian economy to meet these needs is limited. Massive financial support from the Gulf states – around $15 billion a year – prevents the state from collapsing, but does not address underlying socio-economic stresses, and tends to exacerbate the political autocracy that sparked the revolution.
The main driver of that 2011 revolution is probably more severe now than it was then, but not as openly expressed in the Sisi era: citizen exasperation with military rule and political autocracy that led to severe socio-economic disparities and a massive thirst for basic human dignity.
Those who openly challenge the state now do so in a more polarized environment. Islamists and secular progressives are mostly in jail, in hiding, or in hibernation, with only small numbers protesting on the streets. Many who ousted the Mubarak regime now fervently support the Sisi government, and they may opt for other saviors in a few months or years.
Tens of millions of Egyptians still suffer the indignities that drove them into the streets in January 2011, but they can do nothing about their condition of political emasculation in the face of the three forces that have now combined to run the power structure: the armed forces, with their 62 years of experience in low-quality governance; tens of billions of dollars of aid from the Gulf states; and a population with tens of millions of fearful citizens who crave the promise of stability under a military strongman, but may soon discover that the promise is a false one. The stability of Arab military strongmen is an illusory figment of their imagination, and desperation.
Mass indignity and homegrown dehumanization triggered the revolution that brought down Mubarak, and mass hysteria then did the same to President Mohammad Morsi. A frenzied craving for an end to the roller-coaster ride of instability, violence, the crisis in social services, and political drift all led to Sisi’s election and eliminated any credible opposition in the country.
Egypt’s joining this club of police state-style governance is a sad day for the Arab world, but it is also most likely a stage that we must pass through, not a permanent condition. When another 5 million Egyptians are born in the coming three years, the Gulf states tire of supporting a weak Egyptian economy, and basic human needs for tens of millions of Egyptians deteriorate even further, we should expect some kind of reaction that is impossible to predict now.
Other factors that are already visible will also come into play, such as domestic security and environmental threats, regional realignments, the fate of Syria, Iraq, Libya and extremist movements such as ISIS, and the responses of world powers.
The three traditional civilizational poles of the Arab region – Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo – are now all suffering from massive dysfunctions and uncertainties, caused primarily by the military men who for half a century or more ruled and ruined their countries. The road back to normalcy will take many years. However, one thing is certain: What military men ruined, military men cannot repair.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter@RamiKhouri.