Egypt is witnessing the slow-motion collapse of a stagnant and brutal political order.
BY CHARLES HOLMES|JANUARY 25, 2013
The failure of Egypt's education system has a dramatic political impact. Egypt's leaders have cynically created factories that produce unimaginative, uninquisitive recruits for their vast military and civil service bureaucracies. The intellectual class, whose efforts initially helped to conjure Nasser's Egypt into existence, has increasingly been squeezed and hounded into silence by a paranoid regime that hears whispers of dissent at every turn.
The struggle of secular liberals to find their feet in the last two years is an indirect consequence of Egypt's intellectual rut. The result of Egypt's decaying academic institutions is an absence of ideas and a near-total lack of political vision. It is telling that Mohammad ElBaradei, arguably the most prominent member of the secular-liberal opposition, spent almost his entire career outside of the country.
Meanwhile, a parallel deterioration in Egypt's mainstream religious institutions -- most notably Al Azhar University, which was once the preeminent global seat of Islamic learning -- has paved the way for the rise of foreign Islamist ideologies. Egyptian politics has not only become less secular, but Islamist politics has become more radical and less inherently "Egyptian."
The limping legacy of the Nasserist state is also evidenced in Egypt's bloated public sector. Poorly functioning government departments and sluggish bureaucracy have come to epitomize for many the ailing nature of an ossified state, and the burden of public sector salaries on a near bankrupt economic system cannot endure forever. Meanwhile, the gulf in professional standards between Egypt's introverted public sector and an increasingly globalized commercial business community grows greater by the day.
Nasser's seismic nationalization policies have unintentionally granted his successors a handy mechanism of exerting power and influence through the gradual redistribution of the nation's wealth to a small clique surrounding the ruling establishment. The startling disparities of wealth within Egypt represent a cruel and dangerous paradox: According to World Bank statistics, 20 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line.
Yet even as Egypt teeters on the edge of economic cataclysm, any efforts toward a redistribution of wealth and resources, or alterations to its inequitable system of fuel and food subsidies, have so far remained half-hearted. Political forces have buckled to domestic political expediency, so far resisting the IMF's warnings that reforms of taxes, subsidies, and the public budget are prerequisites for Egypt to receive its $4.8 billion assistance package.
On the two-year anniversary of the revolution, solutions to Egypt's crisis of modernity are hard to come by. Morsy's intrinsically conservative government appears just as authoritarian as its predecessors, and the opposition has failed to build a political organization or define its agenda. Meanwhile, the retrograde visions of the radical Islamist opposition threaten to pull Egypt even further from the modern world.
Despite their differences, the diverse political forces in Cairo all hold to a misguided notion that Egypt's main challenges are relatively fixable, superficial abuses -- not fundamental issues related to the broken structures of their state and society. Two years ago, demonstrations against the established hierarchy sparked protests from almost every corner of the country -- from schools, to hospitals, places of work, and even within families. These pressures will continue to represent an existential threat to Egypt's political elite.
The 18 days that brought down Mubarak demonstrated that Egypt is capable of achieving the unthinkable. Today, more of the honesty, courage, and soul-searching that stirred the public's imagination during those days will be required to bring an end to the old, dying political order in Cairo