By Amr Hamzawy, www.DailyStar.com (published in Lebanon, leading English language newspaper in the Middle East)
In Arab countries such as Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan, a burgeoning social crisis caused by out-of-control global inflationary pressures, a crippled welfare system, and persisting high levels of poverty and unemployment is further complicated by a broader political deterioration. Taken together, the social unrest and deteriorating politics call into question the prospects of stability in those countries.
Over the past two years, Egypt has come to be a case in point for the dangers inherent in that kind of development. In April 2008 a number of civil society organizations including independent unions, syndicates, and networks of young activists organized a national strike day to express their frustration with deteriorating social and economic conditions.
Workers’ strikes have become frequent in Egypt. Hundreds of strikes and protests have been carried out over the past two years, but none escalated to the levels of Aprils. Inflation has been a problem for many years in Egypt.
The Mubarak regime has consistently tried to contain the situation through a combination of repressive and conciliatory measures. Yet the persistence of protest activities demonstrates the seriousness of popular discontent and the failure of both oppressive methods and minor peace-making concessions to mollify the public.
The Egyptian regime’s lack of an overall strategy to address the country’s enduring troubles extends far beyond the economic sphere. The regime seems to have abandoned the often-implemented option of using political reforms to defuse socioeconomic tensions.
Egypt is trapped in an unenviable position, characterized by growing social unrest and political deterioration. Choices made by the Egyptian regime will most likely determine whether the current social convulsions will be followed by more instability or, if matters are handled prudently, sustainable recovery. In all likelihood, the option of moderating the perilous effects of economic strain by orchestrating a new wave of political reforms is one that the regime will hesitate to embrace at this stage. The concern that such openings might make worse the odds of the approaching presidential succession (Mubarak turned 80 on May 4 and his fifth terms ends in 2011) seems to surpass any other considerations.
The current resurgence of protest activism constitutes the one promising development in Egyptian political life. But progress on the street needs to be complemented by real progress in the performance of organized opposition forces in the political process. Notwithstanding the fact that this progress is largely predicated on the regime’s willingness to welcome the opposition’s input, it is also dependent on the quality of the opposition. Only through active, disciplined, credible, and committed participation in the political process can organized political forces in Egypt effectively advance the reform agenda and push for sensible and comprehensive policies that address the socioeconomic exigencies at hand.
Amr Hamzawy is a distinguished Egyptian political scientist who contributes articles in Arabic to various academic journals. He also writes regularly for the Arab daily al-Hayat and the Egyptian daily al-Masry al Youm.