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Taking Stock : Have the Square’s demands been granted? By Mirette F. Mabrouk

24th January, 2013
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Nobody said it would be easy. But it is probably fair to assume that the majority of the people who crowded into Tahrir Square two years ago, and those who filled squares all over Egypt, had little idea of how difficult things might get.

At the time, there were few signs of the domestic turmoil, economic instability and the social polarization that would grip the country. In addition to the millions who took to the streets, the revolution was supported by many more millions who provided moral and material support, in terms of food, money and medicine for the revolutionaries. Egyptians, for the first time in many decades, were bound together, regardless of religion, gender or ethnicity, by their hope and aspirations for a better country. The cry that resonated above all was the one that would epitomize the revolution: “Bread, Freedom and Social Equality.” Two years, one dissolved Islamist-dominated parliament, an elected Islamist president and a contentious new constitution later, the fervor has died down and it is time to take stock of where we stand on these demands.

Bread.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat and most of it makes its way into subsidized bread. Traditionally, subsidized bread has been the mainstay of Egypt’s poor and both former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak learnt that a shortage in supply was the one sure way to trigger mass riots. The 2012/2013 budget shows that the subsidy will be at just over 24 PT per loaf, the highest yet. In his big October 6th speech, President Mohamed Morsi boasted of an 80 percent improvement to Egypt’s bread services. He did not mention where this figure came from or from what criteria it involved but it is unlikely that a large swathe of Egyptians (many of whom voted for him) would agree with him. Since the revolution, and indeed, since Morsi took office, sporadic shortages have resulted in outbreaks of violence in bread queues, especially in Upper Egypt. The government has already floated the idea of liberalizing the price of flour and introducing a new, better quality loaf at twice the price. It remains to be seen how a people who cannot afford a 5PT loaf will greet a 10PT loaf.

However, bread can also be a metaphor for a country’s health and Egypt isn’t doing too well. Since the revolution, the country’s growth has plummeted from almost 7 percent to about 1.6 percent. The political turmoil disrupts business and a newfound national enthusiasm for striking hasn’t helped. Foreign investors have shied away; Egypt’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the first quarter of 2012 limped in at around $218 million, compared to just over $2 billion during the same time in 2011. Unemployment is officially at 12.6 percent. However, figures change. The current deficit of around 11 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) might be sound bad but it was once 17 percent in the early 1990s and just under 8 percent before the revolution. The problem is that so far, despite the promises of our first democratically elected president, there doesn’t appear to be a plan to tackle the problem. The situation is further complicated by the fact that it’s uncertain who’s making the tough economic decisions. While Egypt has a government, it is uncertain how much influence it actually wields, in comparison to that of the elite of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s party. And, as it turns out, running a charity organization for eight decades does not necessarily qualify one to run a country. As a senior banker recently told the Washington Post, “they don’t have the right calibre of people to do the job.” Nor do they seem to want to take advice; at a recent seminar at a major regional economic think tank which pulled together cabinet personnel and independent observers, not one Islamist economic advisor was present, despite having been invited.

Freedom

Last November, prominent Salafi leader and Al-Nour party member Yasser Borhami praised the new constitution, saying that it “included full restrictions which never existed in earlier Egyptian constitutions.”  He was especially keen on Article 10 which states that “the state and society shall be keen on preserving the authentic characteristic of the Egyptian family.” “This,” he said, “is an extremely important article since it places restrictions on freedom of thought, expression and creativity.” An endorsement of this kind does not spell good news for any rights activist.

The new constitution is classically ambiguous about freedoms. Article 45 guarantees the freedom of thought and opinion. However, Article 44 prohibits insulting messengers and prophets, without defining what constitutes an insult, while Article 31 prohibits insulting anyone at all. An offending article on gender rights, which said that women were equal to men as long as it didn’t contravene Shariah was dropped. However, the remaining article mentions only equality, without gender, therefore failing to guard against gender bias, particularly in light of the fact that Article 10 specifies that the state “shall balance between a woman’s obligations towards family and public work.” It is not the state’s job to lay out what women’s obligations are, particularly when it so conspicuously refuses to do so for men. The result will be that relevant legislation will have to ensure that any occupation a woman may pursue will not conflict with her ability to “balance between family and public work.” Considering that an estimated 30 percent of Egyptian households are supported exclusively by women, this clause represents not only gender bias but a dangerously unrealistic view of the labour market, particularly in the informal sector.

Our new constitution explicitly permits child labour after school-leaving age (14) although children younger may also work, providing the work is “suitable for their age.” Religious freedom has been limited to Jews, Christians and Muslims; the constitution doesn’t recognize any other religions. Egypt’s Bahai population have already heard from the minister of education that since they don’t belong to this club, their children are not entitled to public education (despite their paying taxes).

Egypt’s labour unions, a main proponent of the revolution, have also felt the noose tightening. Following his November 22nd constitutional declaration, Morsi quietly ratified a law that might help bring Egypt’s fractious and independent labour unions to heel. It places an age cap of 60 on all board members of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and allows the (MB) minister of manpower to appoint new members if a seat becomes vacant - if, for example, a board member were over 60.

However, the biggest squeeze has been felt by the media; since Morsi’s election in late June there have been 24 cases brought against media people for of defamation and insulting the president. For reference, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information says there have been 14 such cases over the past 115 years.

It may be the one area of public life where the Brotherhood have exceeded expectations.

Social Equality.

A major criticism of the former regime was that while the country saw growth, very little wealth ever made its way down the ranks. The “trickle-down theory” of economics, which supposes that wealth and economic benefits provided by government to businesses and the wealthy will “trickle down” and benefit poorer members of society, improving the economy as a whole, just didn’t work in Egypt. However, two years later, under a new government, there is little evidence that this is going to materialize any time soon. It isn’t simply that the economy is in tatters. There are deeper problems, among them that Egypt’s much vaunted new constitution is based on the 1971 document. There are several problematic holdovers but one of the most damaging is that the new constitution fails to correct the emphasis on central government. While article 188 of the new constitution allows for the election of local councils, 190 says that their decisions may be overturned by the central government if it is in “the public interest.” An article in an earlier draft, which attempted to redress the gross financial disparity between governorates, never made it into the document Egyptians ratified. As a result, poverty will continue to be most widespread outside Cairo.

The above issues are further complicated by an unstable security situation—with a police force that refuses to reform but has failed to recapture its pre-revolutionary grip on the country—and a chaotic political scene. Two months away from new parliamentary elections, Egypt’s fractious opposition are still ignoring two years’ worth of lesson and failing to put aside ideological differences and personal greed. It is not surprising that despite the Brotherhood’s steadily declining performance at the polls and a reputation tarnished by greed and violence, a senior MB member recently predicted that it would gain 55 percent of the seats at upcoming elections.

The picture, however, is nowhere near as dark as it seems from the above. It must be remembered that while the results might not have been universally popular, Egypt had its first ever democratically elected parliament and civilian president. And Egyptians have learnt much over the past two years. They have learnt that dictators fall and that public accountability is a right and not a campaign slogan. They have learnt that the Brotherhood’s charity comes at a price. That the Army remains the country’s main power broker and that its concern for Egypt is often tempered by its own interests. That the opposition are slow to learn, and slower yet to capitalize on that learning. But perhaps the most important lesson is one that has been absorbed by all the players; Egyptians have learnt that there is strength in numbers, and at the end of the day, they must rely on themselves.

Mirette F. Mabrouk is a Nonresident Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution. Follow her on Twitter @mmabrouk .

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