BY RAZMIG B. SHIRINIAN
The mass uprising in Egypt since January 25 was largely about the shifting sense of nationalism, long dormant Arab nationalism, expecting the state to be accountable to the plight of the people and revere its national pride. The common grievances articulated can be summed up as a combination of revived national sentiments and lack of livable wages. It is the plutocratic regime with its practice of terror, nepotism, and abuse of power that people rejected.
The long deprived electorate in Egypt has no experience in shaping the future democratic change. Legitimate grievances expressed by the protesters notwithstanding, radical democratic change in the country is highly unlikely. Moreover, the expressed anger was fed not so much by democratic deficiency or the absence of accountability and freedom, but primarily by neoliberal years of capitalism and years of pervasive corruption.
Like Egypt, the uprisings in the neighboring Arab countries qualify as acts of public disavowal of existing plutocratic regimes. The presence of rampant corruption, nepotistic republicanism, marginalized young talents, women, and peasants all point at the poverty of economic policy and the developmental deficiency in the midst of wealth accumulated by the few.
It has become quite obvious throughout these uprisings, including the protests in Wisconsin, that people are demanding an equitable share of the wealth that their rulers and a few super rich have amassed for themselves at the expense of ordinary minimum wagers and the deprived masses. The rich have always taken more and left the rest to struggle with poverty, neglect, and insecurity. Notably, people in the Arab world moved spontaneously, without charismatic leaders, but determined and conscious of their socio-economic predicament.
A strikingly parallel development can be drawn in the United States. President Obama’s promise for change is not dissimilar to the Tea Party movement in the sense that both work to ensure that fundamentals stay the same. That is, the rich benefit from the failed policies of addressing the essential causes of poverty, recession, unemployment and social breakdown. There is a bankruptcy of policy of change that eventually compels ordinary working people to take matters into their own hands. The current movements in the Middle East teach us an unprecedented lesson.
The prospects of a new government in Egypt, neither Islamist nor secularists, but strongly nationalist in the tradition of Gamal Abd-al Nasser who took power in 1952, seem to move against the neoliberal economic policies. Since 1970s, these policies have largely marginalized over half of the population, produced the unemployed youth, and contributed to poverty and slum life.
The new political impetus taking shape in Egypt and also in the Arab world comes as a result of unregulated and globalized free market economy that largely ignored the masses and contributed to the growth of the Egyptian lumpen-proletariat. The experience should come from history. What Egypt needed in 1952, according to Nasser, was not democracy but development, a policy to carry Egypt into the modern world, with all the ingredients of education, employment, infrastructural growth, and industrialization that the idea of development included.
The plight of the Egyptian youth, their high sense of political efficacy, and widespread poverty have been the driving forces of the current movement. The new regime, which might emerge in some six months or so, should be required to construct an equitable economic system in which jobs with livable income are secured, food and fuel prices are controlled, and the country undergoes a development policy rather than economic growth for the few – if we have any hope for a genuine democracy to ensue.
Egyptian people are experienced and smart to realize that democracy imposed by the market can best be established on paper, but in reality it is the oligarchic rule that will continue to dominate. The primordial challenge they face is to substitute a functioning democracy for oligarchy. That requires a governing process based on investment in social capital, enhanced civic capacity and an institutionalized expression of equitable economic development.
Thus, “we the people” democratic creed in Egypt does not entail an understanding of free political elections as much as it turns against the neoliberal economic policies. These policies have enriched a tiny corrupt national elite while sacrificing the wellbeing of the populace and forcing over half the population to live below the poverty line. This creed will also stop turning a blind eye to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Palestinian dungeon in the Gaza. It will not enrich western defense companies, which has been the steady policy of post colonial autocratic governments. It will rather bring strong and independent national sentiment along with stability and peace founded on livable and equitable income for working class people.
Razmig B. Shirinian is a Professor of Political Science at the College of the Canyons