Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Amr Hamzawi

Plus ça change

While the current political elite is likely to remain in power, by 2020 the dynamics of modernisation will have changed Egypt fundamentally, writes Amr Hamzawi *

I was caught between several ways to approach this forecast of the Egyptian scene in 2020. The attempt to discern what a country and society such as Egypt's will be like 10 years from now is an exercise laden with dangers.

To begin with, in Egypt as in most other Third World countries we lack accurate data on current and projected demographic, economic and social conditions. Such information is an indispensable platform on which to ground a forecast with any degree of objectivity. Second, in Egypt, again as elsewhere in the Third World where democracy is lacking, writers, scholars and others concerned with public affairs find it extremely difficult to obtain government assessments or projections. If they exist, they are hidden behind a heavy screen of official statements perpetually intended to manufacture a rosy picture of the future whose contours are shaped by promises of comprehensive progress that will defeat unemployment and poverty and bring untold improvement in healthcare, education, transportation, production, exports, uses of alternative energy and every other imaginable public service or field of activity.

Because of the veil of secrecy surrounding government information, writers and scholars must almost totally fall back on information and statistics provided by international organisations on the current and anticipated state of Egypt. As the experience of the past few years has demonstrated, however, there are considerable gaps in the accuracy of international facts and figures. Third, judging from the substance of the current public discussion, a clear majority of Egyptians believe that our country is in the midst of a profound economic, social and political fermentation process that must produce significant changes over the next few years. The effects of such prevailing beliefs is to consciously or unconsciously sway those attempting to assess the future into favouring expectations of change over those that presume that much will remain the same.

Bearing the foregoing cautions and reservations in mind, I would like to profer few observations and recommendations concerning the future of the Egyptian state and society in 2020.

First, information and data available through international sources indicate that if the Egyptian population continues to increase at its current annual rate of 2.1 per cent it will approach 100 million by 2020. That huge figure will pose enormous challenges to efforts to combat poverty and unemployment, and to education and public health policies, among others. Today, at the end of the first decade of the new millennium, according to the most modest estimates, the Egyptian poverty rate (poverty being defined as living on less than one dollar a day) stands at 20 per cent and unemployment at 10 per cent. Education, public health and transportation services are severely overburdened and have deteriorated markedly. The economic and social indicators for Upper Egyptian governorates are bleaker yet. The poverty rate has reached 60 per cent in Assiut and Sohag, and 762 of the country's thousand poorest villages are located in these two governorates and in Minya.

Assuming that general annual growth remains at its current level of between four and six per cent, Egypt's economic and social indicators will decline to around a 30 per cent poverty rate and an unemployment rate among youth of over 40 per cent. In addition, there will be sharp discrepancies between the public services available in the southern governorates and the northern ones containing the major urban areas of Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Damietta, as well as the rural areas in the Delta. These latter governorates will remain on the Egyptian map throughout the third decade of this century, after which they may eventually be swallowed up by the sea as the result of global warming, raising the spectre of a national catastrophe.

According to estimates from UN population organisations, in order to achieve better living standards for an estimated 100 million people by 2020, or at least to ensure that they are no worse off than they are today, Egypt must gradually increase its economic growth rate to around 10 per cent between 2015 and 2020. But given projections based on the country's economic performance today, such a target appears unrealistic. Clearly, if the economic growth rate remains as low as it is today and population growth continues to expand at its current rate, Egypt in 2020 will have higher levels of poverty and unemployment and lower qualities of essential services such as public education and healthcare.

Second, when Egypt crossed the threshold into the third millennium, its political life was inert. Two decades of restricted pluralism had allowed for the participation of some opposition parties and forces in legislative elections and, hence, for a small and inconsequential presence in the People's Assembly and Shura Council, and had expanded the margin for the free expression of opinion in the written and audiovisual media and, consequently, a minor improvement in the state of human rights following the 1990s' decade of violent confrontation between the state and militant Islamist groups.

Nevertheless, the country was still left with the absolute control of a ruling elite centring around the president, the military and security establishment and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and its quasi-economic liberalism, which continued to press slowly ahead with privatisation and economic deregulation and the transition towards a market economy but without achieving any real tangible progress in economic growth rates or sustainable development indexes.

Over the subsequent decade the quasi- liberalism has become total liberalism now as the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound was fully deregulated, the pace of privatisation was accelerated, and measures were introduced to smooth foreign investment in -- and ownership of -- Egyptian financial and economic assets. Yet while these policies may have helped stimulate a rise in growth rates between 2005 and 2007, the rates declined again in 2008 and 2009 due to the global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the presidential elections of 2005 injected some dynamism into political life. These were the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt's history and the first parliamentary elections to yield a People's Assembly in which the opposition held over 20 per cent of the seats. Nevertheless, this spurt of dynamism and the attendant rise in the voice of the opposition as embodied by the Kifaya (Enough) Movement and other fronts that appealed for democratisation failed to bring a qualitative change, whether in terms of the ruling elite's grip over political life and the executive authority's power over judicial and legislative authorities, or in terms of the ability of opposition forces and movements to influence public policy and the lack of real opportunities for political competition and the peaceful rotation of power.

Perhaps the most salient changes between 2005 and today are connected to the rise in the threshold of free expression in the media, and the fact that private sector media have become a primary component of public life. On the other hand, they may also be strongly linked with the regime's greater openness towards the financial and business elite and the absorption of some of its most prominent members in political life.

In other words, the democratic deficit continued to shape the major facts of politics in Egypt in 2009 and at the end of this year this condition appears likely to remain unchanged for years to come. True, with the approaching parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2010 and presidential elections the following year, the opposition is beginning to move into gear. However, given the continuing power gaps between the ruling elite and all opposition forces combined, and given a constitutional environment that hampers political competition, we can realistically predict that the ruling elite will succeed in coming out ahead in the parliamentary and presidential elections without encountering significant challenges.

Regardless of the fortunes of the opposition in 2010, and of the likelihood that the presidency will pass to a successor agreed upon by the ruling elite, the agenda over the next two years will proceed calmly and in accordance with the provisions of restricted pluralism, and pack no surprises.

Does this mean that the current democratic deficit will persist until 2020? Most likely it will, even if Egypt continues to enjoy a relatively high ceiling of freedom and if the thrust of public debate is pushing towards relative improvement in the state of human rights and an element of transparency and accountability in public policy and public office. Still, to keep this forecast as objective as possible I must register two caveats. The first is that as grim as the prospect for democratisation may appear, there have been countries whose political conditions had until recently resembled those in Egypt today and whose peoples had long despaired of changing the status quo that have experienced unanticipated bursts of social ferment (not revolution), yielding peaceful transformations in their systems of government that planted the mainstays of democracy. The second is that such factors as the strength of the Egyptian ruling elite, the weakness of the opposition and the feebleness of outside support for democratisation do not preclude the possibility of a push towards democratic transformation from within the elite itself.

Third, if official political life in Egypt in 2010 offers little cause for optimism, other facets of life on the fringes of politics show some positive developments and trends that should be given broader attention in the public debate. It is important to offset the overwhelming tendency today to reduce Egypt's future agenda to the contest over the 2011 presidential elections and the identity of prospective candidates. One encouraging development is the unprecedented degree of organisational complexity and functional diversity in civil society. Egypt now has a broad range of associations, organisations and networks capable of handling extremely diverse issues such as women's rights, human rights, torture, economic and social rights, religious freedoms and domestic violence. The determination and efficacy of civil society activism have brought tangible improvements in many of these issues and have simultaneously helped broaden the scope of freedom of expression and opinion.

Another phenomenon that has been rapidly gaining ground in the face of the regime's failure to achieve qualitative improvement in the economic and social domains is single-issue grassroots protest action that has succeeded in pressuring government authorities into introducing partial changes, mostly connected with basic public services or wage levels and employment conditions. Interestingly, the government, which rarely backs down in an official capacity, appears willing to reach accommodations when faced with grassroots activism over daily life concerns. Therefore, we can expect a growing awareness among the public of its collective power to express and press for their demands.

Lastly, vital sectors of Egyptian society such as the media and applications of communications technology (the mobile phone and the Internet) are rapidly modernising and changing the culture, knowledge and expectations of an increasing portion of the population, especially the young. Although only 15 per cent of Egyptians are Internet users, according to the most optimistic estimates, this figure will probably at least double by 2020, by virtue of which this sector of the public will acquire considerably greater weight and influence.

The diversification in civil society, the growth in grassroots protest, and the rapid modernisation of vital sectors will combine to usher in a phase in which Egyptian society has the knowledge and skills to work its way around current political arrangements and pressure authorities into introducing real and effective changes to meet civil society's demands for freedom and democracy.

In sum, to usher in an Egypt that can realistically aspire to progress, modernisation and democracy, we will have to raise the economic growth rate to 10 per cent in the next few years. Only then will we be able to reverse the curve in the fight against poverty and unemployment and ensure that 100 million Egyptians have better public services. Also, even as the deficit in democracy persists, we will need to bear in mind the progress and value of what we have accomplished in the fields of civil society, free expression, the development of an independent media and the state of human rights, and we will have to continue to build on these accomplishments.

* Senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, Beirut.

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