The Middle East Channel

Why Egyptian progressives should be chanting ‘economy first’

It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped ...


It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped by a disturbing tendency of conflicting political forces to accuse their political opponents of working secretly for the "counter-revolution" or prematurely raising "particular" interests at a time when all citizens should be thinking only of the public good. And, as yesterday’s front page of the New York Times reported, the Egyptian military is exploiting ideological divisions among Egyptian civil society to entrench its status as an extra-constitutional actor, with the connivance of some liberal forces including one sitting justice on the Supreme Constitutional Court. Has revolutionary momentum in Egypt therefore ground to halt, confronted by the harsh reality of the complexities of governing a country of over 80 million people that suffered 30 years of institutional rot under the Mubarak administration? And if so, what can be done to renew revolutionary momentum?

While many liberals believe that regaining revolutionary momentum requires focusing their energy on establishing a bona fide liberal constitution as exemplified in the "constitution first" slogan, I believe the revolution would be better served by focusing on establishing the foundations for an accountable and effective government that would allow Egypt to make the structural changes its economy needs in order to establish a stable and prosperous democracy for all Egyptians in the long-term. Only after those conditions have been satisfied will it make sense to discuss the thornier and much more divisive questions like the relationship of religion to the state.

Despite the attention given to the ideological divisions between secularists and liberals on the one hand, and Islamists on the other, the fundamental division in Egypt is one of class. Debates about the character of the Egyptian state and the extent of personal liberties is primarily an intra-elite debate that does not address the practical problems the vast majority of Egyptians face in their daily lives: how to find food, shelter, health, and education. We are all familiar now with the idea that 40 percent of Egyptians live on $2 per day or less; but that should not lead us to believe that those living on $3 or $4 per day are living good lives. By contrast, Egypt’s well-to-do have solved the daily problems of life in Egypt in a manner customary to elites in the developing world: by withdrawing into an isolated world of gated-communities, private schools, and private health care. Many of these Egyptians, despite their relative privileges, nevertheless participated in the Jan. 25 revolution, and stand to benefit — perhaps substantially — if a more democratic and accountable government is put in place. There is already evidence that Egypt’s hi-tech sector is enjoying something of a quiet renaissance in the wake of Mubarak’s departure. Yet the opportunities in hi-tech will almost inevitably be restricted to already privileged segments of Egyptian society.

As I argued in a previous article on this site, the success of the Jan. 25 revolution depends not only on strengthening formal democratic procedure, but also requires a substantial restructuring of the Egyptian economy so that it works for the benefit of the bottom three-quarters of Egyptian society.  The only way to move the revolution forward, and avoid the risk of a return to de facto or perhaps de jure military rule, is progress on a new social contract that makes credible commitments to improving, in the short term, the living conditions of the mass of the Egyptian people, and in the long term, their productive capacity. 

Unfortunately, the secularist-Islamist divide has obscured, and continues to obscure, the more urgent debates needed on how to restructure Egypt’s economy so that it can solve both its short and long term challenges. Indeed, the brooding omnipresence of the "secularist-Islamist" debate is particularly distressing because it ignores the substantial common ground shared by all Egyptian political forces: Namely, the need to have a genuinely representative government that is accountable to the Egyptian people through periodic free and fair elections; the need to guarantee freedom of expression in order to monitor the performance of the government; the need to have the law applied in a neutral fashion so that it serves the public good instead of the interests of the regime in power; the need to eliminate arbitrary detention and abusive police tactics including torture; and the need to guarantee a decent standard of living for all Egyptians. 

Thus far, the chief revolutionary demand with respect to the economy has been to raise minimum wages, and indeed, the government has taken steps to do just that. Unfortunately, raising minimum wages is at best a band-aid incapable of solving the structural problems endemic in the Egyptian labor sector. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has thus far seemed more intent on obtaining aid from neighboring countries and the west, with the goal of delaying needed economic reforms, rather than pursue the vigorous restructuring of the economy that Egypt needs. Moreover, it is unlikely to change course unless domestic political forces pressure them to do so. The Jan. 25 coalition, however, has not been able to articulate sufficiently to the Egyptian public the connection between political and economic reforms, and have allowed themselves — and their continuing demonstrations — to be portrayed as hindering the recovery of the economy.     

Instead, Egyptians of all political groups need to focus on the inter-linkages between individual rights, accountable and effective government, the rule of law, and economic prosperity. No system of law, whether Islamic or liberal (or pick your other "ideal"), can function if it is effectively undermined by a bureaucracy which is demoralized by low pay, for example. Yet no government can pay its civil servants a fair salary if it fails to collect sufficient taxes from its citizens, a fact which in turn requires a growing economy. Economic reforms, which must include substantially enhanced redistribution of national income and social investment, are the most crucial prerequisites for a modern, independent, and democratic Egypt that can live off the sweat of its own brow rather than the capricious "generosity" of an international community that inevitably comes with strings attached. The revolution can only regain its footing if political forces focus their attention on achieving the core demands of the Jan. 25 revolution as expressed by the shared demands of all Egyptian opposition groups and defer debate on the more philosophical and divisive questions such as the relationship of religion to the state. By fetishizing the constitution, moreover, Egypt’s civilian political elite are placing the cart before the horse and substantially increasing the risk of creating a constitutional military dictatorship. Such an outcome will only lead to further deferral of the day of reckoning in Egypt and would represent the most profound betrayal of the more than 800 Egyptians who died in the Jan. 25 revolution.

Mohammad Fadel is an Associate Professor of Law and the Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law