The African Renaissance and the long Arab spring
The Egyptian “youth revolution” has been compared to innumerable historical instances ranging from France’s 1789, to Russia’s 1991, Berlin’s 1989, via Iran’s 1979 and the more recent Eastern European coloured pushes. Some more radical analysts went so far as claiming that Egypt was its own historically unique moment. Ironically enough, the political transitions closest to Egypt’s have been the largely overlooked African revolutions of 89-91. And as former Afro-optimists of all colours now attest, this moment of ‘African Renaissance’, has proved incapable of bearing much fruit, despite initial excitement and democratic enthusiasm. Can we avoid a similarly endless Arab spring?
Coincidentally, it was the 1987 fall of another Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, that signaled to the rest of the African continent the opening of a new era of freedom from anti-colonial heroes and anti-imperial struggles, an era of democratic participation and youthful leadership, an era of change and growth. Western powers saw in this moment a necessity to step away from their post-colonial rhetoric of “development without democracy”, in De Gaulle’s words, to the more palatable “democratic conditionality.” While the USA was carrying its first Libya-bombing campaign””killing Gaddafi’s 15 months old daughter””the rest of the continent was preparing its struggle to graduate from post-colonial subjection to fully-fledged citizenship.
Two decades later, the African continent is still populated by scores of failed states. Certainly, the revolutions of the late 80’s and early 90’s, from Benin to Mali via Kenya, secured political gains for some states, including widened political participation, press liberalization, and the ascension of new political forces to power. However, the focus on democracy did not save these countries from skyrocketing inequality, falling GDP, healthcare crises – such as HIV/AIDS or malaria pandemics – the expansion of massive informal economies built around drug or human trafficking, and tremendous political unrest.
Whatever the undisputed benefits of freedom of expression, participation, or assembly, constitutional reform and multi-partyism, the African cases demonstrate that participation alone does not amount to grand change: “Development without democracy” or “democracy without development”, same difference. Beneath the neo-liberal rhetoric of democratic conditionality, flourished another process, less apparent and yet fundamentally more important, namely, the continuous “criminalization of the state.”
Egypt: The Thug-State
Although state criminalization proceeded in multiple ways across the continent, in Egypt it took particularly insidious forms in three respects. First, the ‘semi-privatization’ of the state encouraged by Western loaning bodies led to the creation of a bureaucratic class bent on using its position as intermediary between citizens and the state to obtain bribes and kickbacks. When the average state salary is about 400 EGP/month (65 USD) the maintenance costs of the bureaucracy are borne directly by the broader population. The state became perceived as an insatiable monster, whose predatory tentacles the average Egyptian citizen had to avoid at all costs. Over time, the average Egyptian lost all interest in the affairs of the state, and developed a healthy skepticism in all that did not fill his family’s belly.
This ‘politics of the belly’ normalized petty corruption, generated massive losses for the state in the form of tax evasion, and eroded the capacity of the executive to get things done. Beyond these financial losses, it also depoliticized the majority of the population. ‘Political avuncularism'””the trend of seeking the position of ‘uncle’ rather than ‘father of the nation'””conspicuously sported by most potential actors on the political scene, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the army, or Mohamed Baradei, bears witness to this latent criminality of the state: to remain popular, parties avoid direct association with governance, and, as good uncles, prefer to distribute political candy, like bread or cash, for votes.
Second, the loss of state legitimacy was compounded by Mubarak’s political appropriation of state violence under the guise of national security. The Pax Mubaraka””Mubarak’s New Deal in the wake of Sadat’s assassination””meant that in exchange for peace and stability the Egyptian people would entrust its new father with the management of the country’s resources. But in the new Egypt Ltd. the bracketing of external foes””maintaining a million employees in the military””gave way to an internal war on terrorism justifying the gargantuan growth of the security apparatus. Under Mubarak’s guidance, the Interior Ministry inflated to an estimated 1.7 million employees, amongst whom 850’000 swelled the ranks of the police and ministry staff, 450’000 distended the Central Security Forces, while 400’000 bloated the halls of the State Security Investigations Service (SSIS).
The SSIS kept records on almost every citizen invested in the public sphere, including most politicians, activists, journalists or businessmen. The police engaged in acts of torture, random arrest, and gratuitous violence simply for the sake of keeping the population at bay””bent over in fear and utterly paralyzed. Its main tasks were reduced to the rigging of elections and the silencing of political dissent.
Third, Mubarak inherited and enjoyed two international positions that criminalized Egypt in the eyes of many Arab and African nations. Most obvious was Sadat’s 1978 Camp David Accords, mediated with American funding. Trading in the lives of neighbors for a annual fee of 2 billion dollars marketed Egypt as a relatively cheap prostitute for the West. Less apparent is Mubarak’s awkward continuation of Nasser’s 1954 deal with Britain over the distribution of the Nile’s waters. Nasser sweetened the pill of Egypt’s abrogation by engaging the six Nile Basin countries in a fraternal discourse of anti-imperial cooperation. Mubarak however, backed up by military arrogance, dismissed their demands as politically irrelevant””paving the way for their signing, with the exception of Sudan, of the 2010 Entebbe accords and the looming possibility of water wars.
Dealing with a criminalized state
Shifting the focus away from participation to decriminalization allows us to envision sustainable foundations for a democratic polity in Egypt. However, nothing short of large-scale neo-Keynesian policies can begin to deal with the size of the problem. Reverting state semi-privatization involves providing Egyptian employees salaries that allow them to survive without informally taxing the population. Upholding the 2010 Administrative Court decision on minimum wage and raising it to a liveable 1200 EGP/month would be a good start. Adding tax brackets to a system that stipulates a 20% income tax rate for anyone earning over 40’000 EGP (6500 USD), and obtaining loans from international funding bodies for ‘rule of law’ programs could easily finance investments in the state apparatus that would pay for themselves in the medium-term by boosting state income.
Although the uprising partially tamed the security apparatus, by disbanding the SSIS and breaking the wall of fear, this will not suffice in dealing with Mubarak’s legacy of violent state abuse. Widely discussed, state de-securitization and de-militarization haven’t been tackled from an economic perspective. Releasing such large numbers of men trained in the use of weapons poses a threat to the political and economic stability of the country in the absence of prospects of productive reintegration into society. When in 2003 Iraq Paul Bremer discharged 300’000 soldiers from duty overnight, civil war erupted. The Egyptian security and military apparatus represents a force about 10 times superior! Absorbing it into the workforce will require increased spending on construction for low-income housing, projects such as extensive public transportation systems, education, R&D, and a functioning social security net.
Simultaneously, these policies must be accompanied by steps to restore the squandered legitimacy of state institutions. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission focusing on issues of corruption and state crime could create an opening in that direction, while bringing into the public domain accessible information preventing the reversion of state institutions towards criminality. The police force and, increasingly, the army are in dire need of such lost legitimacy in the post-Mubarak era to regain the trust of the people. In addition, a TRC provides the only plausible rapid solution to ending the popularity of the ‘politics of the belly’ in Egypt, with the potential result of greater political mobilization for the res publica.
These internal reforms, although paramount to the process of change, are bound to fail if the Egyptian state does not manage to decriminalize its relations to the Arab World and Nile Basin. First, serious demilitarization cannot be conceived without averting the threat of water wars and brokering a sustainable resolution of the Palestinian question. Second, both the Arab League and the Nile Basin constitute Egypt’s most natural economic and political partners. Putting an end to the American rent-for-peace with Israel, and rebuilding mutually beneficial agreements with this important neighboring nation, on another basis than the material incentives of a small elite, is a precondition not only to long-lasting peace in the region, but also to the possibility of greater transnational federalism within the Middle East. On the Basin front, in exchange for an equitable redistribution of the Nile waters, Egypt could contribute to building dams, or sponsoring agricultural projects in the region, such as wheat fields that could supply an alternative to expensive American imports.
While it is still too early to tell whether the Arab spring will avoid the fate of the African Renaissance, the decriminalization of the state in Egypt constitutes a foundation for the reconstruction of the country beyond political sectarianism; a roadmap of sorts for dealing with the uneasy legacy of the post-colonial and neo-liberal trends. The current Egyptian juncture is not vastly different from that of a lot of African countries in 1991, and while the 20 year lag in revolutionary offset offers perspectives of real hope, lessons should be drawn from this African experience if the midwife of history is not to grant life to yet another stillbirth.
Marc Michael is a doctoral student at Cambridge University, he has previously written for Open Democracy and Cambridge ThinkTank History and Policy