Country Profile: Egypt

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

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.

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.

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.