A Short Primer on Egypt Now » American Footprints

The following is a guest post by Noor Khan
Basic Egypt facts
Egypt has about 80 million people and is the most populated Arab country. It is the 2nd most populated African country. The per capita income is about $5500, but the income gap is very large, with the vast majority of people living on about $5/day. It is a net exporter of petroleum, but not a major one. Many Egyptians work in the Petro-states or the West and send money back for their families. The three largest sources of hard currency in Egypt are tourism, the Suez Canal, and remittances from abroad. The literacy rate is between 60% and 70%, pretty good for Africa. About 85-87% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslim and 10-12% are Coptic Christian. Egypt gets 1.3 billion in military aid from the USA.
Egypt has NEVER experienced a real democracy. Despite being technically independent since 1922, it was under British colonial control until the Free Officers “Revolution” in 1952. Since Nasser and the Free Officers were pretty popular, the time is often looked back on nostalgically, especially by the lower classes, but it was a military government. Since Nasser’s death in 1970, Egypt was ruled by Anwar Sadat until he was assassinated in 1981 and M. Hosni Mubarak since then. Upon coming to power, Mubarak instated an Emergency Law which suspends many constitutional protections and basically gives the state complete jurisdiction for anything falling under the category “security.” There is no guaranteed right to privacy, free speech, assembly, press, or even a trial. Although there are a number of members of the judiciary who have tried to maintain its independence from the state, they are regularly thwarted and often removed or worse.
The political party which controls the country is the National Democratic Party. Other parties are allowed, but kept weak; the Muslim Brotherhood is technically banned but still the biggest party in opposition. When the elections are relatively free, they carry about 20% of the votes. There are periodic “elections” for a parliament that has no real power, and Mubarak is “re-elected” regularly with more than 90% of the vote. Recently, it has been clear that he expects his son Gamal to be “elected” after him (he’s 82), although there has always been a chance that another military strongman will take over, since Gamal is not from the military. Among the major contenders are Omar Suleiman, who was just named vice president, Ahmed Shafiq, who has just been made prime minister, and Sami Annan the Army Chief of Staff (who was in the USA on Wednesday).
Why are Egyptians in the streets protesting?
First of all, they want a real democracy. No one is fooled by the “elections” that just play musical chairs with the people already in power. They want real choices. Yes, many want the choice to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. But that has NOT been the major theme in these protests, and in fact has been less important than anyone expected. The real issue is that the people want fair and free elections with all choices on the table. They want what most Americans want here.
(Note: The Brotherhood has condemned political violence, recognizes the Constitution and is NOT a terrorist organization. It is also not out to destroy Israel, although it certainly is not interested in putting Israel or America’s desires above those of Egyptians.)
Another issue is the use of torture by the police, who are protected by the Emergency Law. It has become endemic to the point that no one expects NOT to be tortured if arrested. And the reasons for arresting you can be as simple as not moving out of the way of a police officer fast enough. People disappear and die in police custody on a regular basis, and if the “arrest” is supposedly for “political crime,” there is very little the family or even lawyers can do. It is estimated that there are close to 10,000 political prisoners in Egypt at any given time. (See “We are all Khaled Said” on Facebook for more on the issue of torture in Egypt.)
The third is corruption. It is almost impossible to get anything done in Egypt without knowing someone or bribing someone. This is at every level of society. You need to bribe government officials to run a business, get a permit for anything, avoid a trumped up fine, get or keep a public sector job, or even get a driver’s license in fewer than five visits. Education is supposedly free, but government schools are so bad that only the most desperate will send their children there. For example, the average class size of a 7th grade Arabic language class in a public school in Cairo (from my sister-in-law, who is a teacher) is about 70 students. Health care is about the same. You literally have to budget about 25% of hospital costs for an operation for “tips” so that nurses and doctors will help you. Private care is better, but no less corrupt. You want to install a new pipe? Plan on having to pay at least three different people bribes to get the paperwork to do it “legally.” Buildings literally fall down in Egypt all the time, as quality codes can’t be enforced because of corruption. The list goes on.
Connected to the corruption is the bureaucratic inefficiency. It takes hours just to pay your electric or phone bill. Getting a copy of your birth certificate will require a full day off work, trekking to multiple offices, plus the bribes. And it’s not like you can avoid the bureaucracy either, because EVERYTHING needs government pieces of paper. For my Egyptian driver’s license I needed to go to the Interior Ministry to get a stamped copy of my marriage certificate to prove I was Egyptian (because I am married to the Egyptian whose name is on my Egyptian passport, which I had) and then the Foreign Affairs Ministry to get them to translate it and then another office to get it stamped. Then I had to bribe someone to say I had driven a stick shift for the test, because my own car was an automatic. Then I was told I couldn’t put my degree on the license (occupation is listed on these things) because it was from the USA. Despite having a Fulbright to Cairo University and all the documentation from the Bi-National Commission, I was supposed to take my degree to the Ministry of Education to get it endorsed and then do another set of acrobatics. I decided it was easier to be listed as “uneducated” on the license. My sister-in-law was born on February 4, but the certificate of passing high school has a mark on it so it looks like February 14. After weeks of going between different government offices to get this fixed so that her college degree would be registered correctly, we finally gave up. We made a mark in front of the 4 on her birth certificate and enrollment paper. So now her birthdate is the 14th. It’s easier to forge than to correct a government mistake. Imagine this kind of rigmarole every time you needed to do paperwork of any kind.
The last problem is the poverty. Prices have risen over 12% in the past few months, but food has risen the fastest. Meat has gone up 23%, sugar about 30% and tomatoes even more. In a country where most of the population spends about 50% of its income on food, this has been devastating. People can’t put food on their family, as W would say. Yes, things are tough everywhere, but they are very bad in Egypt, and the government is spending billions on weapons and the security apparatus which protects them from the people more than it protects Egypt from any external threat. Plus, the fat cats in government and their “private sector” cronies are very visibly flaunting their ill-gotten gains. The gap between the rich and the overwhelming majority of poor is huge, but now the middle class is shrinking quickly – sliding down, not going up. There are thousands of luxury housing units going up all over Cairo, while the majority of the people are packed like sardines in tiny apartments with deteriorating infrastructure. “Let them eat cake” is the government’s attitude.
So who do the Egyptians want in charge?
Good question – why don’t we let them vote on it? Realistically, it will take at least a few months to arrange for free elections. Until then, Egyptians will accept a transitional government they trust to turn over power to a new elected civilian government. They might even trust the military to do it, but I don’t think so. The two most trusted people by the masses are probably Mohamad al-Baradei, the former head of the IAEA, and Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League. Maybe another will appear. Opposition leaders such as Ayman Nour and Noman Goma’a would probably not want the job, as they would want to run for Parliament. Could elections be held fairly? I don’t know. Egypt does have some reliable figures in the judiciary, but I personally would prefer international observers. Would the Egyptian masses? Again, I don’t know. Most Egyptians I know distrust international organizations and are very leery of threats to their country’s sovereignty, perhaps for good reason.
What should the US and other governments do?
Support democracy. The people are actually quite clear. It is time for us to stop supporting dictators who we think are more reliable than a free people. And it is time we stopped thinking our foreign policy and economic concerns should be more important to other countries than their own. There is much more I could say here, but I’ll stop now.
Noor Khan is an assistant professor of history at Colgate University, with a specialty in modern Egypt.
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