Thursday, February 3, 2011


I am by no means an expert on the political uprising in Egypt, but I think it is important to spend a minute trying to understand what is happening in Egypt and the impact on the rest of the world. Here are a couple posts by Barkeley Rosser (a very good and knowledgeable economist at James Madison University). If anyone else has any good links summarizing the events in Egypt please pass them along.

The Political Economic Basis Of The Egyptian Uprising

Yesterday, Juan Cole posted on "Class Conflict in Egypt," As usual, very insightful on the poltical economic foundations of this uprising. He argues that the original base of support for the Nasserist regime that took over in a coup in 1952 was rural land reform, with the rural middle class that got land still the base of the regime. However, over time with urbanization and slow growth and the rise of corruption since Mubarak took over, that base has eroded. Nasser also gained credibility for throwing out the British and standing up to other outsiders (with the US and Soviets ironically siding with him in the 1956 Suez Crisis against the UK, France, and Israel).

Real wages doubled between 1960 and 1970, when Nasser died, but stagnated after that until 2000, with nearly zero real per capita income growth and a worsening income distribution. Neo-liberal policies, including relaxation of food price controls in the 1990s, did not produce much, although growth did increase after 2000, running at a 5-6% rate. But it has not been enough to provide jobs for the many urban youth, particularly the better educated ones.

Also, since 1980 the regime has been seen as supported by outsiders, particularly the US, Israel, Britain, and France, in contrast to the Nasser period. As economic problems surged with the food price spikes in 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession in the world economy, this made for a weak foundation of support for the regime. We should expect any successor to take a more independent line, especially the moderate El-Baradei who was so badly treated by the US previously.

I must note, however, that while inequality has increased, it is not all that bad compared to many other countries, with Egypt's current Gini coefficient of 34.0 putting it in 90th place in terms of inequality in the world.

Finally, I note that the chances for Mohamed El-Baradei succeeding Mubarak (eventually anyway) have increased with him receiving the support of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. However, there are other more radical Islamist groups in Egypt calling for an Islamist state with Shari'a imposed as law, although they appear to be a minority on that side, even though they are more moderate than the expelled Egyptian Islamic Jihad, whose leaders include the #2 and #3 figures in al-Qaeda.

Whither Egypt?
I was last in Egypt more than a quarter of a century ago, in the early days of the Mubarak regime, before the US had seriously paid down the bill for the martyred Sadat's Camp David signing, which Mubarak upheld. That payment, probably the most serious thing that billions of US aid over three decades did for actual Egyptian citizens, was replacing the sewer system of Cairo, whose exploding flooding had triggered massive "sewage riots," although not as large as the food price riots of 1977 when Sadat attempted to remove subsidies and price controls on food under pressure from the IMF, by far the largest riots until those now occurring there.

This has been a long time coming and how it will end is very far from clear. Roughly there seem to be generally three possible outcomes: 1) Mubarak maintains control following the Iranian success in suppressing street uprisings, an outcome that reportedly the Israelis are predicting and most certainly hope will come true; 2) Mubarak falls to be replaced by Mohamed El-Baradei, former director of the IAEA, whose accurate reporting of the state of nuclear weapons in Iraq led G.W. Bush to try to remove him from his position and who has returned to be surrounded in a mosque with supporters by security forces giving him Islamic cred, even though he is the main hope of the social democratic secularists; 3) Mubarak falls to be replaced by the main opposition in the parliament, who are front parties for the Ikhwan, aka "Muslim Brotherhood," with this possibly leading to more radical factions of that group coming to power, ending in a Sunni-Egyptian version of Iran. As of now, there is no way to know which of these will triumph, and there are other more complicated possible outcomes.

Regarding the economics of this, Egypt is a peculiar combination of decaying state socialism and horrendously corrupt emerging capitalism. Egypt is an ancient country that is very cynical. They have seen it all, but they have been under an increasingly repressive rule with increasing inequality and growth unable to provide jobs for a rising and technicially sophisticated generation, this despite such ameliorative policies as the longstanding price controls on food.

The situation in Egypt parallels in many ways that in such countries as Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon, all of which have been experiencing uprisings led by young Sunni Arabs, although the details vary from country to country, along with the seriousness of the uprisings. It is in Tunisia and Egypt where these uprisings seem the most serious, with real possibilities of some kind of secular social democratic outcome quite possible, which would be a dramatic breakthrough of enormous significance. Unfortunately, the US has been very slow and far behing getting aboard these movements and supporting their more progressive elements. But in the end, the outcomes in all of these countries will have little to do with the US and everything to do with the people in those countries.

I note that Juan Cole at as usual provides very useful reporting, commentary, and links on what is going on there.

1 comment:

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