The millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in 2011 and again in 2013 demanding a fundamental change in the governance of their country must be bewildered and heartbroken over the betrayal of the promised transformation.
Before a military takeover in 1952, Egypt was a semi-feudal society with huge disparities in wealth, income distribution and social participation. The “First Republic” (1953-1970) was a reformist dictatorship undertaking difficult and fundamental changes in education, health, employment and social mobility within a centralized economy.
Significant social advances were realized, but the essence of democratic governance, however, was not advanced, and the military’s grip on power continued.
The “Second Republic” (1970-1981) witnessed major changes in domestic and foreign priorities. The economy was re-structured under U.S. guidance to function on the basis of the newly proclaimed “open-door” policy, inviting foreign investment and loosening state economic controls.
The attempt to implement International Monetary Fund recommendations to reduce subsidies on basic items was cancelled in the face of widespread revolt. A truce was achieved with the Muslim Brothers, opening the door for their penetration of society.
The inconclusive 1973 Middle East War elevated the prestige of the army, which acted as the guarantor of regime survival. Lip-service was paid to democratization, but without real change.
The “Third Republic” (1981-2011) saw the original reformist agenda of the first republic almost totally undermined. The state abdicated its social responsibilities toward the ever-increasing poor population.
The mantle of social welfare was picked up by the Muslim Brothers and other religious-based groups. Their involvement gave them immense power on the street not matched by the government. Meanwhile, a large business class at the top grew and monopolized wealth and influence.
Corruption became endemic, and poverty indicators were alarmingly out of control. The army was ever-present in the background to ensure regime control. The main public economic assets of the country, accumulated over decades, were cheaply disposed of to domestic and foreign “investors,” with the help of corrupt regime officials.
While a sham political “democracy” was proclaimed, widespread violations of human rights went unchecked, and the brutal suppression of civil society continued unabated. Eventually, unprecedented nationwide revolt brought down the president — but not the regime. The army continued to be the arbiter of political power.
The backbone of the three republics was undoubtedly the Egyptian army. No regime could have survived without the acquiescence of the military brass.
Currently, a “deep state” is continuing to operate based on the army, the security apparatus, the appointed government and the business mafia. The media were co-opted or coerced to sing the praises of the regime.
The army — immune from criticism — expanded its control in every facet of public life. It is estimated that the armed forces own and operate more than 40 per cent of the economy. The huge military budget is a state secret and cannot be examined even in parliament.
Oversight and transparency are totally lacking. Political opposition is ineffective, divided and strictly controlled. Intellectuals, academics, journalists, and leading writers and artists are in jail or have fled the country.
The hope that the “Arab Spring” was ushering in a new basis for democratic, inclusive governance quickly faded when the elected Muslim Brothers government pushed through a faith-based constitution. The revolt against the inept regime and the ensuing army takeover foundered on the inability to shed decades of military-based governance model.
A rubber-stamp political machinery, an overzealous security apparatus, a marginalized judiciary, “friendly” media, and the ever-looming shadow of the military are allowing the regime to rule without the normal democratic checks and balances.
A deteriorating national-security situation is used by the government to repeatedly impose a state of emergency and drastically restrict civil liberties.
The IMF has succeeded this time in securing compliance with its harsh measures affecting millions of Egyptians. Thanks to Saudi money, the penetration of Wahhabi-Radical religious discourse in Egyptian society — a once pioneering secular bastion in the Middle East — is further compromising the ability of the country to abandon its authoritarian past, and is a recipe for a disastrous sectarian divide.
Egypt is facing an uphill battle in its struggle for progress and stability, and the whole volatile region will be affected by the outcome.
Hanny Hilmy, PhD, is an associate fellow in the Centre for Global Studies and co-ordinator of the Middle East Discussion Group at the University of Victoria.