Egyptians are unhappy with their government and the state of the country – nobody can argue against that. Many are angry, but very few are actively doing anything about it. We had waves of demonstrations and outbursts of anger; however, none has come close to shaking the regime, and it is unlikely that the current or future waves of demonstrations or bursts of anger will be any different. The Egyptian state is strong and has a powerful and ruthless oppressive machine, and that is unlikely to change. So is change impossible? No, I would argue.
Many visualize “change” as a change in regime; a collapse for the current regime driven by a popular uprising, and the emergence of something new, different and completely unrelated to the current regime. However, the Egyptian state is so powerful that this scenario is highly unlikely. The only way, in my opinion, for significant change, is for something to originate from within the state, and for that to happen, three conditions for change need to take place.
The first condition for change is the de-consolidation of power. Over the past three decades, Mubarak has accumulated so much power that is enviable by a king or tzar. He has systematically purged all institutions from their charismatic and qualified leaders, be it the military, police, judiciary, bureaucracy, professional syndicates, business, religions institutions, or civil society. If you are young, qualified, uncorrupted and charismatic – you have no place in the current regime, and are likely to end up abroad out of mere frustration. For anything to happen, this consolidation of power has to end, which will only happen when President Mubarak dies (or is seriously incapacitated). Once this happens, Egypt will have a huge vacuum of power, and many new players will jump in to fill in that gap. Until that day, many unhappy actors, especially in the military and security establishment, will remain silent and passive.
The second condition for change is for the bad to get worse, for those who matter. While government salaries have always been dismal, a government job, especially for the top layers of the bureaucracy, often came with many perks that made life tolerable. Military and police families have military housing, health-care and other services that compensate for their dismal salaries. Other groups within the middle class had similar perks, whether through the government or through their professional syndicates. For example, judges, lawyers, university professors, medical doctors, or engineers, all had alternative support systems that helped them maintain their middle class lifestyle. However, these perks have been quickly eroding over the past few years due to hyper inflation and shrinking government services. The result is that most of these groups are sinking into poverty. Their frustration and anger is growing. This constituency does matter because this IS the core of the regime! The suffering of this (formerly) middle class is likely to worsen if inflation remains high, government subsidies and services continue to be eroded, and well-paying work opportunities remain scarce. This broad middle class has almost always been politically dormant be it for apathy or co-option. However, in recent months, economic pressures have been driving these groups into the streets. The worse it gets for this dwindling middle class, the more politicized they will get, and the more impetus for change we will have.
The third condition for change is a trigger that creates a consensus among the top decision makers that “an orderly and controllable change is better than a random change that is out of hands.” Observing the events that really tick the Egyptian en masse, the two that come at the top of the list are price hikes and Israeli aggressions. A price hike in a commodity that affects everyone, like bread or gasoline, is likely to create strong protests. Similarly, a violent and widely broadcast Israeli incursion is likely to create a similar feeling, albeit not directly directed at the government. We’ve had a number of these triggers in the past years, and the reaction has always been strong, but still small enough to be contained by the central security forces and riot police. However, if there is a gap in power in a post-Mubarak period, and broad frustration among the middle class, this may not continue to be the case. Having said that, the impact of these outbursts is unlikely to be the demise of the regime, but a consensus among the decision makers that the momentum behind change is so strong that they better ride the wave and control it, rather than stand in its way. In such a situation, they are likely to do so.
So how far are we from this tipping point? Sooner or later, we will move beyond the Mubarak-era, and whether it will be his son or whoever, we will have a period of de-consolidation of power which will open a good opportunity for change. As everyone anticipates that day, things are getting worse for Egypt’s middle class, and they are getting more and more politicized. And when the time comes for the tipping point, we will not lack a trigger. Once more and more political players start seeing this inevitable dynamic, they will start posturing for the post-Mubarak era, and the snow-ball effect will start. Until then, my heart goes to the brave youth who are getting beaten by our security forces; those life-long employees who are slowly falling down the social ladder; and those youth who are sitting on Cairene cafes rotting for the lack of the dignity of a job that pays living wages.
Amin Elmasry. 12 July 2010.