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Slow Going in Egypt

An interesting new article in Al Jazeera English sheds more light on the lack of change in Egypt. Profiling a marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo, it paints a bleak picture of the “democratic revolution” that has supposedly occurred over the past eight months:

Egypt’s government is designed for a dictatorship: It is extremely centralised and tightly controlled by national policy, and local councils are void of power. Although Cairo’s three governorates have separate budgets and various departments, they largely depend on the country’s ministries, led by presidentially appointed ministers, to care for essential elements of the urban environment: housing, schooling, transport, parks, healthcare, etc. Governorate budgets largely go to paying salaries rather than public spending. There is no unified city government with elected local officials and a mandate to effectively manage the city. Instead, governors do the occasional ribbon-cutting, and make hollow announcements regarding randomly selected projects that suit their whimsy. […]

Residents in Mounib, like the majority of Egyptians, have no effective means to a political voice, to participate in government or to demand from authority something as urgent as cleaning the cesspool that runs through their neighborhood.

The ruling SCAF has been reluctant to make any fundamental changes to the system of governance. The court order to dissolve local councils has not been enforced. There have been no rules regarding former NDP members and their beneficiaries from dominating the political arena, and the fabric of the defunct system described above is fully intact. Governors have been appointed as was done before. The NDP’s controversial Cairo2050 plan, which calls for the dislocation of millions of inhabitants in the name of neoliberal development for the rich, has resurfaced after months of speculation over its fate.

Since February, 50 political parties have been registered and numerous political figures have emerged. Dominating public discourse have been voices from the Islamist side of the spectrum, who have insisted on keeping the conversation on issues of identity. The everyday concerns of citizens and inhabitants of Cairo such as transport, housing and waste have been conspicuously absent. When I last visited Mounib, residents were not concerned with national identity, the dichotomy between liberals and Islamists, the threat of a military regime or American interests in the region. They were concerned with the polluted canal, the uncollected waste, the mosquitoes infesting the area and the lack of official response. There is a deliberate gap that has been created between the people and the powerful, and the current transitional government is maintaining that gap.

This is far from uplifting, but it also is not surprising. The chances that the Arab Spring would lead to the creation of a fully democratic, liberal, and secular state in Egypt were never particularly high, and the transition from a one-man dictatorship to a looser arrangement governed by the military was always the most likely outcome. Yet the most interesting insight of the article is the extent to which the current heated debates about whether the country will be led by Islamists, liberals, or the military miss the true challenge for the Arab Spring.

For the vast majority of Egyptians, the revolution was not carried out due to a love of Islam or of liberalism, but out of the desire for greater opportunity and a higher standard of living. The Mubarak government was particularly bad at providing this, but the new government doesn’t seem to be making any steps to improve things. Whether the country is ruled by the army or the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptians will judge its success on whether it can materially improve their lives in the communities they live in. So far, none of the major players seem to be moving in this direction.

What will happen in Egypt when the poor, the hungry and the dissatisfied realize that none of the groups contending to lead the revolution in their name has the slightest idea about how to help them?

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