January 2011, Week 5


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Mon, 31 Jan 2011 01:02:01 -0500
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Egypt's Class Conflict
by Juan Cole
Informed Comment
Posted on 01/30/2011 

On Sunday morning there was some sign of the Egyptian
military taking on some security duties. Soldiers
started arresting suspected looters, rounding up 450 of
them. The disappearance of the police from the streets
had led to a threat of widespread looting is now being
redressed by the regular military. Other control methods
were on display. The government definitively closed the
Aljazeera offices in Cairo and withdrew the journalists'
license to report from there, according to tweets. The
channel stopped being broadcast on Egypt's Nilesat.
(Aljazeera had not been able to broadcast directly from
Cairo even before this move.) The channel, bases in
Qatar, is viewed by President Hosni Mubarak as an
attempt to undermine him.

Why has the Egyptian state lost its legitimacy? Max
Weber distinguished between power and authority. Power
flows from the barrel of a gun, and the Egyptian state
still has plenty of those. But Weber defines authority
as the likelihood that a command will be obeyed. Leaders
who have authority do not have to shoot people. The
Mubarak regime has had to shoot over 100 people in the
past few days, and wound more. Literally hundreds of
thousands of people have ignored Mubarak's command that
they observe night time curfews. He has lost his

Authority is rooted in legitimacy. Leaders are
acknowledged because the people agree that there is some
legitimate basis for their authority and power. In
democratic countries, that legitimacy comes from the
ballot box. In Egypt, it derived 1952-1970 from the
leading role of the Egyptian military and security
forces in freeing Egypt from Western hegemony. That
struggle included grappling with Britain to gain control
over the Suez Canal (originally built by the Egyptian
government and opened in 1869, but bought for a song by
the British in 1875 when sharp Western banking practices
brought the indebted Egyptian government to the brink of
bankruptcy). It also involved fending off aggressive
Israeli attempts to occupy the Sinai Peninsula and to
assert Israeli interests in the Suez Canal.

Revolutionary Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser
(d. 1970) conducted extensive land reform, breaking up
the huge Central America-style haciendas and creating a
rural middle class. Leonard Binder argued in the late
1960s that that rural middle class was the backbone of
the regime. Abdul Nasser's state-led industrialization
also created a new class of urban contractors who
benefited from the building works commissioned by the

From 1970, Anwar El Sadat took Egyptian in a new
direction, opening up the economy and openly siding with
the new multi-millionaire contracting class. It in turn
was eager for European and American investment. Tired of
the fruitless Arab-Israeli wars, the Egyptian public was
largely supportive of Sadat's 1978 peace deal with
Israel, which ended the cycle of wars with that country
and opened the way for the building up of the Egyptian
tourist industy and Western investment in it, as well as
American and European aid. Egypt was moving to the

But whereas Abdel Nasser's socialist policies had led to
a doubling of the average real wage in Egypt 1960-1970,
from 1970 to 2000 there was no real development in the
country. Part of the problem was demographic. If the
population grows 3 percent a year and the economy grows
3 percent a year, the per capita increase is zero. Since
about 1850, Egypt and most other Middle Eastern
countries have been having a (mysterious) population
boom. The ever-increasing population also increasingly
crowded into the cities, which typically offer high
wages than rural work does, even in the marginal economy
(e.g. selling matches). Nearly half the country now
lives in cities, and even many villages have become
`suburbs' of vast metropolises.

So the rural middle class, while still important, is no
longer such a weighty support for the regime. A
successful government would need to have the ever-
increasing numbers of city people on its side. But
there, the Neoliberal policies pressed on Hosni Mubarak
by the US since 1981 were unhelpful. Egyptian cities
suffer from high unemployment and relatively high
inflation. The urban sector has thrown up a few multi-
millionaires, but many laborers fell left behind. The
enormous number of high school and college graduates
produced by the system can seldom find employment suited
to their skills, and many cannot get jobs at all. Urban
Egypt has rich and poor but only a small "middle class."
The state carefully tries to control labor unions, who
could seldom act independently.

The state was thus increasingly seen to be a state for
the few. Its old base in the rural middle classes was
rapidly declining as young people moved to the cities.
It was doing little for the urban working and middle
classes. An ostentatious state business class emerged,
deeply dependent on government contracts and state good
will, and meeting in the fancy tourist hotels. But the
masses of high school and college graduates reduced to
driving taxis or selling rugs (if they could even get
those gigs) were not benefiting from the on-paper growth
rates of the past decade.

The military regime in Egypt initially gained popular
legitimacy in part by its pluck in facing down France,
Britain and Israel in 1956-57 (with Ike Eisenhower's
help). After the Camp David accords, in contrast, Egypt
largely sat out the big struggles in the Mideast, and
made what has widely been called a separate peace.
Egypt's cooperation in the Israeli blockade of Gaza and
its general quiet alliance with the US and Israel
angered most young people politically, even as they
racked up economic frustrations. Cairo's behind the
scenes help to the US, with Iraq and with torturing
suspected al-Qaeda operatives, were well known. Very
little is more distasteful to Egyptians than the Iraq
War and torture. The Egyptian state went from being
broadly based in the 1950s and 1960s to having been
captured by a small elite. It went from being a symbol
of the striving for dignity and independence after
decades of British dominance to being seen as a lap dog
of the West.

The failure of the regime to connect with the rapidly
growing new urban working and middle classes, and its
inability to provide jobs to the masses of college
graduates it was creating, set the stage for last week's
events. Educated, white collar people need a rule of law
as the framework for their economic activities, and
Mubarak's arbitrary rule is seen as a drag here. While
the economy has been growing 5 and 6 percent in the past
decade, what government impetus there was to this
development remained relatively hidden- unlike its role
in the land reform of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, the
income gained from increased trade largely went to a
small class of investors. For instance, from 1991 the
government sold 150 of 314 state factories it put on the
block, but the benefit of the sales went to a narrow
sliver of people.

The world economy's [pdf] setback in 2008-2009 had a
direct and horrible effect on Egyptians living on the
edge. Many of the poor got hungrier. Then the downturn
in petroleum prices and revenues caused many Egyptian
guest workers to [pdf] lose their economic cushion. They
either could no longer send their accustomed
remittances, or they had to come back in humiliation.

The Nasserist state, for all its flaws, gained
legitimacy because it was seen as a state for the mass
of Egyptians, whether abroad or domestically. The
present regime is widely seen in Egypt as a state for
the others- for the US, Israel, France and the UK- and
as a state for the few- the Neoliberal nouveau riche.
Islam plays no role in this analysis because it is not
an independent variable. Muslim movements have served to
protest the withdrawal of the state from its
responsibilities, and to provide services. But they are
a symptom, not the cause. All this is why Mubarak's
appointment of military men as vice president and prime
minister cannot in and of itself tamp down the crisis.
They, as men of the System, do not have more legitimacy
than does the president- and perhaps less.


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