Deteriorating Politics and Social Unrest in Egypt

Michele Dunne, Amr Hamzawy, Bahey el-Din Hasan, Steven Heydemann May 16, 2008 Washington, D.C.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a panel discussion on the current social and political unrest in Egypt.
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The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a panel on the current social and political unrest in Egypt. Bahey el-Din Hasan, director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Michele Dunne, senior associate and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment; and Amr Hamzawy, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, participated in the panel. Steven Heydemann, vice president of the Grants and Fellowships program and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the US Institute of Peace, moderated the discussion.

Heydemann briefly summarized the current political and economic conditions in Egypt and suggested that the U.S. is unlikely to interfere in the country’s domestic affairs at this unstable stage in the Middle East’s history.

Hasan said there are a few questions that need to be addressed: What constitutes the present counterattack being carried out by the state? What is the historical significance of last April’s events? Is Egypt experiencing a moment or momentum?

Hasan contended that what is happening today in Egypt is a serious and comprehensive attack on all political opponents of the regime regardless of their ideological background. The main objective of the regime is to make sure that there is no room for political mobility. The state is enforcing its agenda through a variety of means including constitutional changes and explicit repressive measures.

The April strikes were instigated by unorganized bands of independent activists. These were different from the 2004-2005 strikes. The grievances at the moment are not only political but also socioeconomic. Hasan concluded that it is too early to find out whether the movement being detected in Egyptian society today is temporary or a sign of something bigger to come.

Dunne focused on the nature of the state’s response to the recent unrest. The state aimed to ameliorate social tensions by enacting a number of reconciliatory economic measures that provided some relief to the people. Among other things, the government increased wages for public sector employees by 30 percent. It also expanded some food subsidies and welfare programs. All in all, it seems that the government is currently off balance and is trying to regain the initiative.

Hamzawy outlined the two sets of phenomena that characterize Egyptian conditions today. The first is the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions despite substantial economic growth and liberalization. The second is the deteriorating political environment.

The state of organized opposition and its capacity to channel social dynamism into constructive political activism is deficient. The result is that the energy moves to the periphery of the political system, a development that manifests itself in the rise of unorganized street level protest networks. This situation leads to instability and potentially violence.

In the Q&A session, some audience members asked about the differences between the State of Emergency Law, set to expire soon, and the proposed Counter-Terrorism Law. Others asked about the effect of regional tensions on the Egyptian domestic scene.

Both Hasan and Hamzawy emphasized that there is not much difference between the State of Emergency Law and the proposed Counter-Terrorism Law. They agreed that the latter amounts to a normalization of the State of Emergency Law and is more dangerous to the future of democracy in the country. Dunne said regional tensions are unlikely to have a significant effect on Egypt’s politics because Egyptians are very consumed with domestic affairs at the moment.


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The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


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