New Internationalist

Country Profile: Egypt

March 2013

One of the world’s oldest nations, Egypt is often perceived as mired in the past and politically stagnant. The country’s last 150 years instead reflect a dynamic process, part of the greater human quest for fair self-governance. Egypt may be a casebook study of autocracy and centralized, top-down decision-making from the pharaohs till now, but it also illustrates how élitist, defensive power structures lose touch with the people, who thus learn to fend for themselves and their communities.

Maria Golia
Sisters Maria Golia

Egypt’s last 150 years have seen a series of transitions, first from a feudalistic Ottoman province to a sovereign state under former viceroy Mohammed Ali. When Ali’s iconoclast grandson built the Suez Canal, he envisioned Egypt as the hub of a nascent global shipping industry. But the Canal enticed imperial interests seeking a shorter route to eastern colonies. A nationalist uprising in 1882 threatening foreign commercial interests gave the British Navy an excuse to bombard Alexandria and make Egypt ‘a protectorate’ under a puppet monarchy.

In 1919, a nationwide revolt paved the way for a constitutional monarchy and opposition representation in Parliament without diminishing the British presence. The 1952 Officers Revolution sent both the King and the British packing, launching a pan-Arab socialist experiment that concentrated economic power by nationalizing industry, but betrayed workers by nationalizing unions. Egypt’s referendum-elected presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, all military men, monopolized political life while shaping the constitution to uphold their power. To quell dissent, whether from Islamists (who assassinated Sadat) or secular opposition, Mubarak poured money into the internal security apparatus which acted with brutal impunity.

Maria Golia
Immediately after the uprising Maria Golia

In January 2011, Egyptians took to the streets to demand Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years in office, and the right to elect his replacement. On 11 February 2011, after 18 days of continuous nationwide protests involving thousands of deaths and arrests, Mubarak stepped down. The Armed Forces, who refrained from attacking protesters, became the ‘protectors of the revolution’ but military trials for civilians continued and the hated security apparatus remained intact. The military meanwhile organized multiparty parliamentary elections which returned an Islamist majority; and presidential elections where the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won by a whisker.

Maria Golia
A farmer in upper Egypt. Maria Golia

Six months of power-brokering later, Morsi had enough clout to frame Egypt’s next constitution with zero gain of civil rights and more references to Islamic law. The battle for the constitution is still under way, with demonstrations and street battles dividing a society whose aspirations for democracy are leavened with an urgent need for stability and economic progress. Egypt’s new government has so far failed to inspire unity or to present a vision of the future that people can get behind.

High unemployment and low skill levels are endemic among youth, the bulk of Egypt’s population. They need a government that encourages their participation, but the present leadership reflects decades of authoritarian manoeuvring to eliminate competition and is as ill-prepared, unimaginative and defensive as its predecessors. The 2011 uprising has nonetheless raised the expectations of a public that won’t settle for incompetence, manipulation or religious appeals to obedience.

Egyptians face the threats of water, land and energy shortages and dwindling food sufficiency. How will they govern themselves past these obstacles? By relinquishing rights to the traditional strongman? Or by self-organizing on a nationwide scale, as active agents of renewal? Egyptians, in short, are confronting the same issues as the rest of the world, but time is no longer on their side.

Country Profile: Egypt Fact File
Leader President Mohamed Morsi
Economy GNI per capita $2,340 (Algeria $4,460, UK $38,540). The poor have benefited little from the relatively high growth rates of recent years.
Monetary unit Egyptian Pound
Main exports Crude oil, agricultural and processed food products, chemicals and textiles. In 2011, exports fell 20% due to the Arab Spring unrest.
People Although occupying nearly a million sq km, Egypt is mostly desert, with a population of around 83 million concentrated along the banks of the Nile, an area roughly the size of Serbia (77,000 sq km). Population growth rate 1990-2010 is 1.8%.
Health Infant mortality rate 19 per 1,000 live births (Algeria 31, UK 5). HIV prevalence rate less than 0.1%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 380 (UK 1 in 4,700). Diabetes, heart, lung and kidney diseases are common. State-sponsored healthcare is generally abysmal; doctors are grossly underpaid.
Environment Egypt suffers severe land and water shortages and off-the-scale air pollution in urban areas. The Aswan High Dam halted the Nile’s annual flood deposits of rich silt and encouraged the heavy use of toxic fertilizers.
Culture Egyptians distinguish themselves from Gulf Arabs owing to Pharaonic antecedents and a long history of absorbing foreign influences: Roman, Persian, Greek, Turkish, Levantine and European.
Religion Primarily Sunni Muslim with a Christian minority (10 million). Conspicuous religiosity has accelerated in the last decade. Sectarian strife has increased since the 2011 uprising.
Language Arabic. Most educated Egyptians also speak English or French.
Human development index 0.644 – 113th of 187 (Algeria 0.698, UK 0.863)
Sources
Country Profile: Egypt ratings in detail
Previously reviewed
2003
Income distribution
The population’s top 20% holds 40.3% of income. Egypt is the world’s 90th most unequal country, around the same as the UK (92nd).
Life expectancy
73 years – up from 68 years when last profiled (Algeria 73, UK 80).
Position of women
Although they constitute 37% of the workforce and a record number voted in recent elections, women are barely represented in governing bodies. Paternalist traditions, laws and religious practices limit their role in society.
Literacy
66%, but this UNESCO estimate is misleading. Many graduates of Egypt’s overcrowded, ill-equipped schools will stumble through a newspaper article and rarely read a book. The disparity between men’s (83.3%) and women’s (65.7%) literacy rates remains telling.
Freedom
Over a thousand Egyptians have died in protests since 2011 demanding basic rights, while the detention, intimidation and physical abuse of citizens and journalists has scarcely abated.
Sexual minorities
Although technically illegal, male homosexuality is tolerated by society, so long as it is perceived as a ‘phase’ that ends when men marry and start families.
NI Assessment (Politics)
In November 2012 Egypt’s president granted himself more decision-making power than even Hosni Mubarak, his despised predecessor, attempting to forestall dissent over coming policies, including removing subsidies on basic commodities. The 2011 uprising has nonetheless empowered civilians who exercise their right to protest. Egyptians need a government that inspires trust and approaches the public not as a problem but as a partner. Two years after Egypt’s revolution, such leadership has yet to emerge.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 460 This column was published in the March 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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