The Rebuilding of Egypt

© 2011 FrontLine Security (Vol 6, No 1)

In the first week following Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ousting from office, the residents of Cairo celebrated the promise of a new and democratic state. In a country that has known a central government for 6000 years, the aftermath of the February Revolution marks the first time in Egypt’s political history that the people may have the opportunity to elect their own leader. In this crucial and delicate post-revolutionary phase, the military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken control of the country. Despite being a military Junta, the armed forces are enjoying a swell of popular support plus acceptance from the international community.

The state of tourism was so bad that stable owners near the pyramids had to cut food rations for their horses and camels because the feed was too costly.

While the revolution was a political victory, it was not without casualties. No fewer than 365 men and women lost their lives. Their images are now emblazoned on shirts and assorted paraphernalia, peddled by street vendors seeing an opportunity for quick cash. The revolution has become a lucrative market unto itself mere days after Mubarak’s departure from office. The curbside commercialization of the dead may seem predatory to a degree, but is not without justification. Egyptians are keen to commemorate their heroes and find symbols that will distance themselves from any association with President Mubarak. Ultimately, the thin t-shirts and badly printed cards are indicative of how desperate the population is to make money through any means available.

The poor economy and vast unemployment was a central spark in igniting Egypt’s revolutionary embers. Despite the political success of the revolution, it has created an even worse immediate post-Mubarak economy by killing foreign investment and devastating Egypt’s all-important tourism industry. The already impoverished country where 20% live below the poverty line is losing 400 million Euros a day, largely from a lack of tourists. The daily average of visitors to the pyramids has fallen dramatically from 5000 to under 10. The state of tourism is so bad that stable owners near the pyramids have cut food rations for their horses and camels in recent weeks, because the feed is too costly.

In the face of this economic crisis, protests and workers strikes are increasing. Egyptians are exercising their new-found freedom of demonstration to demand raises and secure concessions from the junta, despite a military decree against strikes. However, such actions are symptomatic of greater problems facing the young democracy.

Tech savvy and worldly youth were primary leaders of the protests, but the foot soldiers in Tahrir Square were mostly the uneducated and jobless. The intelligentsia easily communicated to the masses that the revolution would see the removal of an autocratic leader and new freedoms. Beyond that, any expectations were of one’s own making and imagining. Though the protesters were not purposefully mislead or manipulated, they have now begun to demand instant financial gains as their revolutionary reward – gains that are impossible for employers and the junta to deliver.

Striking a Balance
The escalating walkouts and demonstrations pose a troubling dilemma for the military. They must allow Egyptians to protest, however they must also revive the shattered Egyptian economy. Having a workforce on strike will only hinder financial growth, although it may for a time be politically necessary. The junta must also decide to what extent is can dismantle the state structures, a key demand of the continued protests. Egyptians are anxious to see all of Mubarak’s associates fired or imprisoned. With any regime change an expunging of the old guard is an understandable desire of the oppressed and victimized. To keep favour with the population, the Junta has and will continue to arrest the most corrupt and disposable public figures. However, it needs to strike a balance between justice and a witch-hunt, if only for acceptance by the international community. Moreover, the military knowingly does not have the expertise to take over all governing roles and must rely on both Mubarak’s own appointed cabinet and the Mubarak-era bureaucrats who run institutions such as the state TV and myriad infrastructure services. Meanwhile, the world is carefully monitoring the Egyptian military’s ability to exercise the same restraint it showed during the revolution and to ultimately give up its governing powers in six months. Thus far, the military seems limited to speaking out against continuing strikes and can do little more than appeal to the long-term common sense of citizens.

Adding to this vicious cycle of political-economic deconstruction, any and all demonstrations only remind potential tourists that Egypt remains unstable and unsafe. The junta is all too aware of the negative optics associated with widespread protests and a pronounced military presence in the streets. During the victory celebrations in Tahrir Square, tanks were strategically tucked into nearby alleys and side streets, out of view of the world’s cameras. Freshly designed posters and banners were then distributed throughout the crowd in a variety of languages, urging tourists to return. It was a marketing ploy that failed to gain much media coverage while revealing just how important the tourism industry will be in propping up Egypt’s burgeoning democracy.

The commitment of the population to building a new state is the crux of Egypt’s democratic future, but it may falter before it can be realized. In a butchers’ market near Tahrir Square young men prepare frozen meat for local restaurants. They are proud of their country’s achievement but seem to care little about becoming involved in the creation of a new state. Their priority is getting information on how to move away from Egypt to North America or Europe. Their belief is that in a post-revolutionary atmosphere, Western governments will drop visa restrictions out of an interest in helping Egypt’s youth prosper. These beliefs are echoed by young and old in the impoverished suburbs of Cairo. Ironically, the population is filled with national pride, yet also a desire to take advantage of the situation to move away.

The Post-Mubarak Egypt is one of great euphoria, vast unknowns, and immense potential. Alongside the challenges that face them, Egypt’s citizens have been handed enormous democratic opportunities. Meeting the responsibilities of democracy will depend on the politically untested youth who fuelled the revolution and the understanding of the working classes that immediate change is impossible. Most tangible improvements will take years, if not generations to materialize. However, the initial benchmark will be Egypt’s first free elections in 6 millennia and the withdrawal of the military from politics so that the old regime does not rebuild under a new name. While the world can watch and advise, it will be the Egyptians themselves who, rightfully, govern the outcome.

Christopher Bobyn, FrontLine’s European correspondent, visited Cairo in the immediate aftermath of the successful demonstrations.
© FrontLine Security 2011