Mubarak Has Not Got the Message
Public protests in Egypt are not about minor changes or grievances. Mubarak’s regime faces a deep process of legitimacy erosion. Vice president Joe Biden who stated that “Mubarak is no dictator,” needs to understand that there is a pattern of legitimacy erosion throughout the Arab region. This erosion is coming from five directions that will be with us in the years to come.
The first challenge is what I call the “biological challenge.” There is a generation gap between old rulers and the majority youth. Biologically, a new generation of Egyptians reproduce at a relatively high rate (around 2.7% on average). Currently, around 65 percent of Egyptians are under 30 years old with unemployment rate of 25 percent among those who are between 18-29 years old. Besides, half of them work on jobs that do not match the kind of training they got while in college or technical high school. Besides, only 1 percent of Egyptian youth are officially affiliated with political parties which means that they are politically underrepresented. Moreover, these young men and women do not have the historical memories of their parents. They simply do not recognize Mubarak as the leader of air force in 1973 war against Israel. Thus, his military background that meant a lot to their parents does not mean much to the new generation.
Second, the “geological” challenge contributes to this legitimacy erosion. The geological virtue of primary resources such as oil, phosphates, being in control of geo-strategic waterways or even source of water (following the famous theory of Asiatic despotism) in addition to foreign aid bought the rentier and semi-rentier states their legitimacy in the 1970s through 1990s through "baksheesh or stipend petrocracies". However, this cannot be of the same effect in the future. There is an increased demand on the part of the new generations for free education, healthcare and jobs. The formula of “being better off super-citizen economically and worse off nobody politically” will not work in the future. As Human Development Indexes show, Mubarak’s regime has generally failed in converting the monetary capital into social capital.
Third, there is a new “Islam-related” challenge that faces autocratic rulers in the region. This can be called the “theological” challenge. Some Islamists have proven that they are more committed to democracy than some of the secular autocrats. The “theological/theocratic” card used by autocratic rulers to defame Islamists has been fading away due to the fact that many Islamists have proven less violent or radical than their own rulers. Modernist Islamists, such as al-Wassat Party, have been constantly trying to establish their commitment to peaceful democratic participation in Egypt. Yet they were deprived of this right. It is becoming more difficult to claim that all Islamists are followers or students of Al-Qae’ada leaders. With adopting the “democratic discourse” and disassociating themselves from violent radical Islamists, modernist Islamists debunk the “theology/theocracy” pretext for postponing democratization from the hands of the autocratic statist elites. However, there is a pro-status quo challenge emanating from the religious discourse. This challenge is the salafi and sufi discourses that paint the status quo as acceptable by Islamic standards. Followers of these discourses (that are estimated by some accounts to be roughly 10 percent in the region) are heavily used by the rulers to minimize the impact of political Islam that is inherently opposing the autocratic secular regimes.
Fourth, there is the challenge of technology. All the previous developments would not have been possible but for the impact of technology that made Muslims abundantly connected to the world. Satellite dishes and the Internet show Muslims what is happening in Georgia, Ukraine, Tunisia and other countries. The advancement in the technology of communication has facilitated the demonstration effect. The ruling elite in Egypt insisted that “Facebook youth are not the ‘real’ Egyptian youth.” The counter argument that was proven right in the past few days is that “Facebook youth are the Egyptian youth,” since they enjoy the right to freedom of expression online that they did not have offline.
There are over 700 satellite channels in Arab societies, almost 70 percent of them are not government-owned. No monopoly over information, ideas or even wrongdoings in this part of the world is possible anymore.
Fifth, there is the challenge of “ideology.” Egyptians live in a time of an increasing fade-away of the allure of the non-democratic ideologies of the 1950s and 1960s such as Nasserism and radical Islamism. Nasser adopted socialism to justify state-controlled economies and one-party systems to achieve (non-democracy related) goals such as liberating land, achieving national unity or simply to guarantee self-survival. These democracy-unfriendly ideologies adopted by Nasser lost their significance after decades of formal independence, wide-spread corruption and the collapse of the Soviet model. The words “Islah” (i.e. reform) and tagheyeer (i.e. change) have become the new buzz words in most Arab streets.
To sum, the aforementioned biological, geological, theological, technological and ideological challenges have negatively affected the legitimacy of Mubarak’s regime. Thus, Mubarak’s promises and pseudo-democratic steps are perceived by the youth to be unsuccessful public relations maneuvers to deflect the pressure.
The marsh of democracy is long and bumpy but it has to start somewhere, and it has started.
Moataz A. Fattah is an associate Professor of Political Science, at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by Middle East Online on January 30, 2011: