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Backward, Corrupt, Peaceable
Few thought it ever would come to this. Egypt has long been seen as a society deferential to authority, with a powerful state and a bureaucracy that might have been backward and corrupt but nonetheless kept the peace. "This a country with a remarkable record of political stability," wrote Fouad Ajami in an essay in 1995, pointing out that in the past two centuries, Egypt has been governed by just two regimes, a monarchy set up in 1805 and the Free Officers Movement that came to power in 1952 with Gamal Abdel Nasser. (France, by comparison, has been through a revolution, two empires, five republics and a quasi-fascist dictatorship in much the same period.) In the popular imagination, Egyptians are passive, meekly submitting to religion and hierarchy. But by the end of January the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities were filled with a different people: crowds of energetic, strong-willed men from all walks of life and even some women, all determined to shape their destiny and become masters of their own fate.
What changed? Well, Egyptians were never as docile as their reputation suggested. Egyptian society has spawned much political activism, from Islamic radicals to Marxists to Arab nationalists to liberals. But ever since the late 1950s, the Egyptian regime has cracked down on its civil society, shutting down political parties, closing newspapers, jailing politicians, bribing judges and silencing intellectuals. Over the past three decades Egypt became a place where few serious books were written, universities were monitored, newspapers carefully followed a bland party line and people watched what they said in public. In the past 20 years, the war against Islamic terrorist groups often genuinely brutal thugs allowed Mubarak's regime to clamp down even harder on Egyptian society in the name of security.
Reform and Revolution
Egypt has had some successes, and ironically, one of them has helped foment change. Over the past decade, Egypt has been reforming its economy. From the mid-1990s on, Egypt found that in order to get loans from the IMF and the World Bank, it had to dismantle the most inefficient parts of its somewhat socialist economic system. In recent years, Mubarak persuaded by his son Gamal, a Western-trained banker appointed a set of energetic reformers to his Cabinet, who embarked on an ambitious effort to restructure the Egyptian economy, lowering taxes and tariffs, eliminating regulations and reducing subsidies. Egypt, long moribund, began growing vigorously. From 2006 to 2008, the economy expanded about 7% a year, and even last year, after the economic crisis, growth came in at almost 6%. Long isolated behind protectionist walls, with media in the regime's grip, Egypt also became more connected with the world through the new communication technologies.
Why would economic progress spur protests? Growth stirs things up, upsets the settled, stagnant order and produces inequalities and uncertainties. It also creates new expectations and demands. Tunisia was not growing as vigorously as Egypt, but there too a corrupt old order had opened up, and the resulting ferment proved too much for the regime to handle. Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that "the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself." It is a phenomenon that political scientists have dubbed "a revolution of rising expectations." Dictatorships find it difficult to handle change because the structure of power they have set up cannot respond to the new, dynamic demands coming from their people. So it was in Tunisia; so it was in Egypt. Youth unemployment and food prices might have been the immediate causes, but the underlying trend was a growing, restive population, stirred up by new economic winds, connected to a wider world. (Notice that more-stagnant countries like Syria and North Korea have remained more stable.)
Mubarak coupled the forward moves in the economy with a series of harsh, backward steps politically. Having allowed somewhat more open parliamentary elections in 2005, the regime reversed course and rigged the elections massively in 2010, reducing the Muslim Brotherhood's representation in parliament from 88 to zero. Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the presidential election in 2005, was arrested on trumped-up charges, jailed, tortured and finally released in 2009. Mubarak had allowed some freedom of speech and assembly surrounding the 2005 elections, then reversed what little opening there had been. Judges and lawyers who stood up to the regime were persecuted.