In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-9, riots erupted all over the world, from Thailand to the Ivory Coast and from Yemen to Albania. For some reason, the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt were singled out by the international media and cast as the Middle-Eastern equivalents of the French Revolution involving the overthrow of stale dictators and the eternal cry for freedom and “democracy”. Why would Egyptians and Tunisians who have never experienced either freedom or democracy clamour for both was left unexplored.
The truth is far less romantic and much more prosaic: spiralling food prices, resurgent inflation, and growing income disparities between rich and poor gave rise to the discontent that led inexorably to the much-ballyhooed skirmishes. It was about food, not about freedom. Egypt GDP has grown by a respectable 5% in 2010, but the cost of comestibles soared by 17% and unemployment ratcheted up to 9.7%. Egypt’s population is inordinately young and is set to double within the next three decades. Hopelessness is a potent combustible: the absence of job prospects weighs more heavily with Egypt’s Twitter crowd than their country’s noxious psephological record.
Like in dozens of other developing countries, the Egyptians struck a Faustian deal with their rulers: they gave up their liberty in return for personal safety, job security, and middle-class prospects. Mubarak, the country’s much-maligned Pharaoh failed to deliver on all three counts. Having thus breached the unwritten social contract, the Egyptians want him to pay the ultimate political price and abdicate humiliatingly.
So, why are they crying out for “freedom” and “democracy”? Because it sounds good on television and because these are the reflexive buzzwords of this post-authoritarian age. They wouldn’t know a democracy if it fell in their lap: Egypt has been a military dictatorship since 1952 and an absolutist monarchy prior to that. This is the key to the resolution of this largely artificial crisis: the military will step in; depose of the aging and ailing Mubarak; appoint a caretaker “expert” and “interim” government, headed by one of their own; set an ever-shifting date for “free and fair” elections; freeze food prices; create jobs (with the West’s generous assistance); and increase social handouts. Thus pacified, the Egyptian street will revert to its habitual somnolence.
And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Having been brutally repressed for decades, they are in no shape to pose any serious threat or to constitute any real alternative to the military. This is not to say that, in the longer term, they won’t rebound. Egypt may yet end up a theocracy whose dogmatism lies somewhere between Iran and Turkey. But this is not for now.
And what about Egypt’s relationship with Israel? Both sides benefit greatly from America’s largesse (to the tune of 2-3 billion USD annually each). The Egyptian military is unlikely to give up such a generous endowment. Israel also buys half its natural gas consumption from Egypt. There are intelligence-sharing programs in place. In short: Israel and Egypt are as inextricably intertwined as Israel and Turkey. Prognosis: a cold front ahead, but no stormy conditions.