In the middle of all the political turmoil and ambiguity, two opposing undercurrents are slowly building up: on the one hand, the previous regime is rebuilding its power and institutions; on the other hand, a mix of political frustration and economically-motivated strikes and protests may bring a second wave of the revolution, mostly directed at the SCAF. And in the background, the context for these two undercurrents is a continuing political ambiguity, and a looming economic collapse. Can we navigate these undercurrents peacefully towards a stable prosperous democratic state?
Rebuilding a Regime: Prior to Jan 25th, the whole Egyptian state was geared towards the Gamal transition project, especially the internal security apparatus, the economic oligopolies, and the shallow political institutions. With the Gamal transition project dismantled, the damage to these institutions was deep – a lot deeper than what is apparent. All these institutions lost their raison d’être, and in absence of strong leadership, they are not able to transform themselves and find a new cause that aligns with the revolution. However, SCAF, which needs these institutions to be able to govern, has already started rebuilding them. the result is that they (SCAF) are, consciously or unconsciously, rebuilding the old regime. The renamed and rebranded State Security (now National Security) started interfering in political events, writing reports on political candidates, and re-organizing their local proxies. They are eager to prove their value to their new masters. Censorship is back, both in print media and TV stations. Independent talk show anchors and columnists are being pressured to behave, and private TV channels are given soft warnings. Remains of the NDP are reorganizing under the banner of new parties, and are starting to re-activate their base and get vocal about their right to run for the upcoming elections, especially in Upper Egypt.
The state of insecurity is used as an excuse to keep the emergency laws (again, under the guise of limited use), even though the constitutional declaration states that the emergency laws cannot be extended beyond 6 months without a public referendum. At the same time, nobody knows if the state of insecurity is a result of a traumatized and ineffective police force, or an intentional strategy. Either way, it is clear that the police force needs major restructuring and rebuilding to be able to perform its (real) job of maintaining public security and enforcing the laws of the land.
The regime is also dragging its feet and resisting any changes to the leadership of public institutions like universities, labor unions or government institutions. The dominant tactic so far has been to minimize change and delay its pace, and only use it as a last card to play when under extreme pressure from the street.
The economic context is also bleak: domestic and foreign investments have all but halted; unemployment is on the rise; foreign reserves are being depleted at an alarming pace; and the overall sense of economic uncertainty is growing. There is a growing consensus among economists that the economy cannot continue at this pace for more than 6 months without a major change of course. Again, the line between what is intentional and what is incompetency is not very clear.
When you step back and look at what’s been happening over the past 8 months, you feel that SCAF is re-establishing the old regime, more or less. Whether they are doing this because they don’t know how to govern without these defunct institutions and ideas, or it is an intentional strategy to protect their personal and institutional interests – nobody knows. We can’t judge intentions. However, the real effect is that the old regime is being rebuilt, slowly, as its institutions are regrouping and rebuilding their power, in the middle of a deteriorating security and economic context.
Revolution 2.0: People are not stupid! They are watching the scene and they question what they see… even though the public sphere is dominated by conspiracies and misinformation. Are the Mubarak and company trials serious? Does SCAF want to stay in power indefinitely? Why are they stalling? How bad will the economy get before it starts improving? Why aren’t the political parties able to work together and build coalitions? Did SCAF cut a deal with the Salafis or MB to gain their support during the critical transition period? With all of these questions unanswered, and many more, there is a growing state of frustration and loss of confidence.
However, the most dangerous undercurrent is the growing depth and breadth of labor strikes. This was the critical element that ended the Mubarak regime in February, and it is now building up with no end in sight. The current government is stuck in a tough position: it doesn’t have the money to bribe them, nor does it have the political credibility or savvy to calm them.
SCAF is betting on the parliamentary elections as a distraction, and they may be right. There are 6 rounds of elections for the two houses of the parliament, spanning more than 3 months. The outcome is likely to be a fragmented parliament with the Muslim Brotherhood winning the highest share, but not a plurality. The resulting government will be a coalition government or a technocrat government with heavy MB participation. SCAF is keeping the presidential elections till later, as a contingency plan in case they need to retain direct control by appointing a military president.
However, it is not clear if the escalating wave of labor strikes will wait for this plan to run its course. The escalating pace and scale of labor strikes pauses a real threat to their plan.
It is also not fair to through all the blame on SCAF; the current political class has lost most of its credibility. The revolutionary youth failed to create credible and united leadership. Old parties from the Mubarak era have been emptied from their cadres and organizational capabilities (with the limited exception of AlWafd Party). Islamist parties are trying to find their bearings and find a way to expand their support base beyond their direct constituencies and address the fears of a large segment of the society who oppose a theocracy. None of the presidential candidates enjoys a plurality that enables them to negotiate with SCAF. So far, the revolution has not been able to produce strong leadership that can represent it and set a course forward. The result is that SCAF has inherited the role of Mubarak, with the same mindset and a more cautious approach, fear of change and slow reactions.
Navigating the Undercurrents: It’s a sad reality that 8 months after Mubarak is deposed, Egypt still has not started a proper transition process towards a stable prosperous and democratic state. In February, Mubarak defined the dilemma to the people as a choice between stability, in the form of his then current regime, and chaos, in the form of an unknown revolution; and the people made their choice. Today, SCAF is making a similar bet by creating a similar choice between re-generating the old regime, or going through the risk of a second wave of the revolution – one that maybe more violent and triggered by economic disparities. The only difference is that this time the army is the last defense line against real chaos. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
If Egypt is to get out of this dilemma, we need to start the real transition process with a civilian leadership and a clear road map, which includes:
- On the security side: we need new leadership that can quickly restructure the police force and bring security to the street.
- On the economic side: we need an emergency economic package to energize the economy, and we need to send the correct economic signals to the domestic and international investors, financial markets, and international institutions.
- On the political side: we need a clear road map and timeline that removes the ambiguity. We cannot continue with the “we’ll get to it when we get to it” approach!
- On the social side: we need a social support package that takes care of the millions who lost or will lose their jobs, temp labor, and those who are already struggling at the bottom of the pyramid. The political and economic price of social disorder is much higher than any price that we may pay for a support scheme.
If we don’t act on these four dimensions within the next three months, we are likely to end up in a disaster. The problem is that the decision makers, SCAF, made it clear that they only act under extreme public pressure, and are not willing to take the initiative and lead the change as the custodians of the country during the transition phase. Until this reality changes, we remain stuck in this vicious circle.
Amin Elmasry. 28 October 2011.