Help me understand the current political situation in Egypt.
February 3, 2011 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the current political situation in Egypt.

To some degree, I've been keeping up with current events in Egypt. What I would like is a detailed background/context for why the revolt is happening and what factors led to it.

So if you can help fill me in, or point me towards a resource, that would be great.
posted by iftheaccidentwill to Law & Government (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Essentially, Mubarak has been in power for 30 years, and Egypt has massive unemployment, especially among the young. He's up for "re-election" this year, although Egyptian elections are generally pretty corrupt. Hence the revolt. Also, it seems that the revolt in nearby Tunisia inspired many of the protesters.

That's the Cliff Notes version.
posted by elder18 at 9:29 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

To partially understand Mubarak, recognize that he came to power when the guy ahead of him was killed by hard-liners for trying to make some peace in the region. In fact, Mubarak himself was injured in the attack.

Hundreds of people were indicted in the follow-on trials. Terrorism has remained an issue in the country ever since. Fun fact: Al Qaeda has its roots in that Egyptian debacle.

So, with Mubarak, you get ego + paranoia + a real honest-to-goodness reason to be paranoid = a dictator for life that remains in power and abuses his people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:38 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

elder has it right. Add this:
the army loved in Egypt and they have not taken a side. The police are hated. Israel and the US and a number of allies supported dictator in charge cause he kept the peace and sold gas to Israel and kept Suez open to all ships etc. The Brotherhood , an Islamic group, has little or no power and seem a bit bewildered by events but will probably be taken in to a coalition govt
if the revolution succeeds and the country gets democracy and elections.
Egypt get lots of foreign aid from US--2nd only to Israel, and that is to keep them (and Jordan) in the peace camp. The US--the papers do not really report this--in touch with Egyptian army via phone. Other Arab nations may follow suit, and Arab leaders now scared silly.
posted by Postroad at 9:41 AM on February 3, 2011

What’s Happening in Egypt Explained. Originally linked via BoingBoing.
posted by sharkfu at 9:58 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's a blog post that details many of the subtly varied factions involved in the current situation. I'm not well-versed in the area, so I can't vouch for its accuracy. I wish I could remember how I came upon it.
posted by mhum at 10:29 AM on February 3, 2011

I'm stupid. It was a FPP yesterday.
posted by mhum at 10:31 AM on February 3, 2011

Here is an article from Al Jazeera.
posted by aniola at 11:12 AM on February 3, 2011

Like in old Road Runner cartoons, where the bird runs of a cliff, but instead of falling is suspended over empty air for a long moment because the realization hasn't hit yet, people are realizing that for the first time that the dictators who rule the Arab countries have nothing real holding them up the knowledge percolating through newly-possible communications channels that bypass state broadcasters: satellite channels and the web. In the past many countries were ruled that way, even in Europe. Or priorities of the Cold War, or the Arab/Israeli conflict, or blood-soaked internal conflicts with Islamists made the authoritarian regimes seem like something that was worth leaving in-place. Now there's nothing there. The only remaining block was psychological, and it was tipped, by random chance, in Tunis.
posted by Paquda at 11:23 AM on February 3, 2011

Why Mubarak Is Out--excellent analysis (well, from what little I know).
posted by Anonymous at 11:36 AM on February 3, 2011

I note that the far left Brit paper The Guardian has running commentary on what is taking place and also a good deal of WikiLeaks stuff

Now even Syria beginning to show unrest

an issue of some significance: Muslim family life tends to have lots and lots of kids...and given economics in the region, you get unemployed young hormonally driven men with time on their hands and stifled culture and this pours over after a while or till the police and goons seem less important than expressing pent up feelings.

Any solution must take into consideration the economics of how people Egypt, many are living on two bucks per day.
posted by Postroad at 11:56 AM on February 3, 2011

I found this Fresh Air interview of veteran Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis very informative.
posted by pwb503 at 11:59 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just checking in at a recess break - thank-you very much for all the responses! The articles are especially appreciated.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 12:14 PM on February 3, 2011

Another interesting take I heard that explained the frustration of a lot of Egyptian men is that being unemployed in Egypt keeps you in a state of suspended adolescence. You don't leave home until you get married, and you don't get married until you can provide for your family, so you have 30 somethings who don't have jobs and are incredibly frustrated.
posted by electroboy at 12:22 PM on February 3, 2011

Fun fact: Al Qaeda has its roots in that Egyptian debacle.

Tangentially related, but it's worth pointing out that there is a huge gap between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in terms of their goals, rhetoric, and actions. The MB has renounced violence for decades in favor of political organizing and social services (for which al-Qaeda and other radical groups have denounced them), and has repeatedly stated that they support a pluralist democratic political system in Egypt.

Time to end US fear of the Muslim Brotherhood - Richard Bulliet, Columbia University
posted by Fin Azvandi at 12:37 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

The "guy ahead of him" was not killed "for trying to make peace in the region". He was killed for a bunch of reasons, among them:

--being a corrupt dictator (yup, another one!);

--presiding over an economic 'liberalization' that involved abandoning the social development that was the one real gain of the decades following the 1952 revolution, re-pauperizing the peasantry (a process which has continued steadily under his successor), and abandoning the urban middle class to inflation and underemployment, while having his ministers tell the impoverished public "Boiled fava beans are delicious!" from the comfort of their limousines (cf. the 1977 bread riots, the most serious unrest in Egypt between the 1952 revolution and... this one);

--continuing the Nasser-era development of the security state that repressed or eliminated political opponents until only the mosque retained a shadow of autonomy as a locus of civil society;

--encouraging Islamist political currents, as a tool against any left-wing political movement;

--making a fatuous pretence of being a devout Muslim while he and his family swilled the stolen wealth of half the country, in the aim of fooling a devout population (not to mention those Islamists) into believing that he was a good man;

--...oh. And yes, breaking the relatively united front of Arab states which for the first time ever had emerged in 1973, to make a separate peace with Israel, thereby (i) leaving the Syrians to be beaten to shit in the Golan and in the longer term (ii) guaranteeing that Israel would continue to hold to the entirely unsustainable territorial settlement that resulted from the 1967 war, no compromise, no withdrawal from the occupied territories, no right of return (or financial recompense) for the Palestinian refugees, and above all no wider regional peace, in the belief that doing so would give him the US backing required to secure his corrupt regime against the political wishes or social development of the Egyptian population for a generation. This belief proved to be correct; unfortunately for Sadat, the bargain didn't require him to be around for it to work.

Be wary of thinking that Sadat was killed "for trying to make peace". Saying that requires ignoring the social and political history of Egypt for a generation before his death. It also requires ignoring the grasping political opportunism of the man himself.

If you actually want to understand what's going on you could do worse than looking through the articles and briefings discussed here. The special report by Max Rodenbeck and the long article by Adam Shatz that they mention (and link to) would be good places to start.

The Arabs are by their nature a fiery people. ... Arabs are also stubborn by nature
A broad brush picture indeed, and not very useful unless you're willing to go with "Germans, very efficient" and "Ah, the yellow man, hardworking yet mysterious" as political analysis.

far left Brit paper
Ha, The Guardian. Far left.

posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:45 PM on February 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

It looks like there are two questions here. First, why are Egyptians angry at Mubarak? And second, why protest now? Egyptians have been angry at Mubarak for a long time, and especially in the last five years, there's been an increasing number of protests and workers' strikes. But the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia was a turning point; as Mona Eltahawy said, it opened up people's imaginations and made them believe that they could do the same and bring down Mubarak. As for more background on the conditions leading up to this in Egypt, there are a lot of problems in the country that have made Mubarak unpopular:

1. The dismal economy - Unemployment is high, estimated at 10%, but even higher - 30% - for young people, who make up a fourth of the population but 90% of the unemployed. While the huge numbers of youth put a lot of pressure on the job market, job opportunities have shrunk. And since the education system doesn't do a good job of preparing students for the job market (more on that below), even many university graduates have trouble finding jobs; 50% of male and 90% of female university graduates remain jobless two years after graduation.

If young people can't get jobs, they can't buy an apartment, afford a wedding, get married, or start a family. And in Egypt, people don't move out on their own in their 20s the way Americans do; they live at home till marriage. So without jobs, they have to just keep living with their parents, frustrated and unable to become "real" adults. And even if they do get jobs, housing prices have gotten so high that it's very difficult to afford to buy an apartment, which leaves people in the same predicament. So a lot of people leave the country. Some try to cross the Mediterranean illegally and drown in boating accidents. Some go to work in the Gulf, where many of them are exploited.

Inflation (projected at almost 10% for 2011) means that the prices of food just go up and up. A kilo of beef costs 100 pounds now, when it used to be less than half that just a year ago. This inflation has led to the phenomenon of bread lines: poor Egyptians lining up for hours so they can get the cheap state-subsidized bread. And you can bet that salaries in Egypt are not rising to keep pace with inflation, either.

Poverty is also rampant; more than 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. According to the original call to protest on Jan. 25, 12 million Egyptians are homeless, including 1.5 million who live in cemeteries.

2. Corruption - Corruption in Egypt starts right at the top, with very shady relations between the government, particularly the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and business tycoons. In the US, people complain about how politicians only represent the interests of big business. In Egypt, big business represents itself in parliament:

[Last year] the NDP’s upcoming parliamentary election list included at least 50 “heavyweight” tycoons, who the newspaper [Al Ahram] claimed would be selected unopposed because “no one has the guts to compete” with those connected to the policies committee and its chairman.

With a stake in the NDP and the regime, these businessmen rig elections themselves, using their money to bribe government officials and pay for votes. Take Ahmed Ezz, one of the most hated men in Egypt, who has maintained a monopoly on the Egyptian steel market with plenty of help from the government. Or there's Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a real estate mogul who arranged the murder of a Lebanese singer, and who also got sweetheart land deals from the government. And businessmen like Rachid Mohamed Rachid and Ahmed al-Maghrabi serve as ministers in the cabinet (or did, before the new government), regardless of the obvious conflicts of interest.

These rich, connected businessmen give the government bribes in exchange for the sale of state-owned land at ridiculously cheap prices; then they build on it and make enormous profits. At the same time, public Nasser-era companies like the Omar Effendi department store have been privatized and sold to foreigners, in some cases for disproportionately low prices. Regardless of the economics behind those decisions, a lot of people didn't like to see a national icon like Omar Effendi go into Saudi hands; it felt like another blow to Egyptian national pride.

Then there's widespread bribery, which most tourists who have been to Egypt can attest to. This goes back to the government jobs that were handed out during Nasser's regime after he promised a job to every university graduate. With so many jobs being given out, the state couldn't afford to pay decent salaries for them all. Policemen, for example, make $41 a month, about half the average Egyptian salary. It makes sense that government officials would resort to bribery to get by.

There's also the concept known as "wasta" (or in Egypt, "kosa") — the need to have "connections" in order to get a good job or move things through the bureaucracy. This also affects class mobility, since poor people don't have the kind of connections necessary to get ahead.

3. A failed education system - First, too many Egyptians, especially in poor and rural areas, don't receive an education to begin with; in rural areas, 80% of people never even enroll in school (and 82% of those are girls). And for those who do go to school, again, demographic pressure has overstrained the system; there are too many students and too few qualified teachers, all crammed into rundown buildings with poor facilities. Further perpetuating the gap between rich and poor, the wealthy send their children to expensive private schools of better quality; the poor aren't so lucky. The system then emphasizes rote memorization over critical thinking, all leading up to the thanaweya 'amma — the national college entrance exam, which determines your future:

Since the 1960s [fields of study] have been ranked by prestige, with medicine and engineering accepting only the highest-scoring students. The humanities, including law and education, are left with the dross. In effect, this creates a tyranny of exams largely based on rote learning. It forces unhappy students into disciplines they would not have chosen for themselves and produces a chronic imbalance between the skills of graduates and the needs of the marketplace. Egypt has a surplus of would-be lawyers, slapdash engineers and scarcely numerate accountants but few trained librarians, architects or actuaries.

Higher education in general isn't much better off than the secondary education system, so university graduates are often not qualified for good jobs, leading back to the problem of youth unemployment.

4. Government neglect - This is exemplified by a seemingly neverending series of disasters demonstrating the government's neglect of transport and building safety. Train crashes, fires, bus crashes...the list goes on. The government doesn't bother to maintain decent roads, ensure that drivers are competent, or enforce traffic laws. The worst incident was the sinking of the Al-Salam ferry in Feb. 2006. The boat was licensed to transport only livestock under European regulations, but it was crammed with 1,400 people. Then when a fire broke out, the boat didn't have the right kind of fire extinguishers, leading to its sinking. To add insult to injury, the rescue teams didn't arrive on the scene till over an hour after the first distress call. 1,034 passengers died.

On top of that, government neglect has led to the collapse of buildings because officials ignored building code violations (frequently due to bribes), fires destroying buildings because they lacked standard safety measures, and further neglect of the victims of these disasters, already poor, who are left homeless and practically ignored by the government. And then there are the incidents of mass sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo while police stood by and refused to protect the women who were being assaulted.

5. Repression - While Mubarak has allowed a certain amount of press freedom, he still cracks down when journalists go "too far." Elections are a farce. Plainclothes police and paid thugs (baltageya) beat voters up, close polling stations to prevent people from voting, and sexually assault female voters. The first presidential election with multiple candidates was in 2005, but with opposition parties weakened by years of repression, and with a huge set of restrictions on who can run, Mubarak faced a thin field of opponents. And of course, the other candidates couldn't begin to match his control over the media and the polling stations, or the millions of "Yes to Mubarak" posters that were plastered all over the streets. There was even one that said, "The fetus in his mother's womb says yes to Mubarak!" Then after he won a sweeping "victory," his main opponent was imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

Egypt has been in a "state of emergency" almost continuously since 1967. This law gives the state an excuse to crack down on demonstrations and the press, and detain political prisoners indefinitely without charge. Torture, including rape, beatings, electric shocks, and burning, is routine, not just for dissidents but also for ordinary people who get on the wrong side of the police. To take just one example, Emad el Kebir was sodomized with a stick, beaten, and whipped in a police station for trying to protect his cousin from getting beaten by police. Then he got sentenced to prison for "resisting arrest."

6. Foreign relations - It's no secret that most Egyptians don't appreciate their government's relationship with Israel. Many resent Egypt's exports of natural gas to Israel, especially since gas prices for Egyptians keep rising. A lot of people are also angered by the government's assistance of Gaza's blockade.

Then there's the decline in Egypt's standing in the Arab world, in parallel with the rise of Iran as a regional power. Meanwhile, Egypt has neglected its relationship with the Nile valley countries, leading to tensions that threaten Egypt's supply of Nile water. And the division of Sudan only adds to the worries. The days when Egypt was a powerful and influential country are long gone. Leaving aside Abdel Nasser's repression and dictatorship, back in his time, people felt that they had pride and dignity, both things that are sorely missing now. One of the slogans protesters have been chanting is "'Aish, horreya, karama insaneya" — "Bread, freedom, human dignity." That's what Egyptians are fighting to get back.

Now that I've practically written a novel here, I'll recommend The Economist's special report on Egypt from last summer for further background reading. Hope this helps.
posted by gg at 6:10 PM on February 3, 2011 [17 favorites]

Mod note: few commetns removed - this will go much better if we stick to what we know and not broad generalizations about other cultures, thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:22 PM on February 3, 2011

Excellent answer by gg.

To simply add a personal perspective on a few of these points:

1. The dismal economy: There have been a lot of posts about all the frustrated men, and they do bear the brunt of the horrendous unemployment. But it's not just men. I know many educated, smart Egyptian women who are frustrated with not finding work. And no, its not because woman are 'supposed to stay in the home', it's because there are no jobs, and those jobs that are there are filled by the rich and/or connected.

2. Government neglect: It's not just the neglect of transport and building safety, it's the complete lack of government response when bad things happen. My husband's friend was killed by a bomb in the Sinai, but since there weren't tourists involved, the government did nothing except beat up a few innocent people and call it justice. Taxes in Egypt are relatively low, but the payouts are even worse. My mother-in-law was widowed and at 65 is unable to work - she receives just under $20 per month in support.

3. Repression: To be clear, the stories of repression and brutality aren't just incidents on the news that people object to - most people know someone that has had a nasty run in with the police or security officials. My husband was beat up twice, both times by the same officer, both times for no real reason. Having to worry all the time that people are safe is very wearing.

4. Foreign relations: Just a point of clarification - most Egyptians don't appreciate their government's relationship with Israel, BUT this does not mean that they want to attack them (a correlation that the media seems eager to make). I don't know a single Egyptian that wants to go back to war with Israel, but they do want to feel like their president would take a stand against unreasonable demands from anywhere in the international community.
posted by scrute at 7:51 PM on February 3, 2011

One more - here's a great article on the context of Egypt's three revolutions of the twentieth century.
posted by aniola at 11:54 AM on February 8, 2011

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