Egypt’s suicidal state

It is not the Egyptian revolution that failed, but the Egyptian state.

An anti-government protester defaces a picture of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria on January 25, 2011 [File: Reuters/Stringer]

After a turbulent decade of revolution and counterrevolution, Egypt appears to have gone 360 degrees back to entrenched and brutal military dictatorship.

In this uneven clash, Egyptian citizens fought those above the law and, ultimately, those above the law won. Those who pursued the dream watched it turn into a nightmare of intimidation, persecution, prison, ostracism, banishment and even exile.

This has led people to make the seemingly inescapable conclusion that the revolution failed. Many go as far as to blame this failure for Egypt’s subsequent woes and the deterioration of the situation in the country.

But this is viewing the situation from the wrong perspective, or at least from a very narrow vantage point.

Yes, it is true that, although the protests in Egypt in 2011 managed to achieve their immediate goal of removing Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionary wave did not succeed in changing the regime, let alone the system.

But, in my view, it is not so much the Egyptian revolution but the Egyptian state that failed. Before the revolution, Egypt had been on a general course of gradual relative decline and decay for decades, losing its one-time status as a regional heavyweight and one of the most dynamic, developed and modern societies in the developing world.

The 2011 revolution was not the cause of Egypt’s subsequent troubles but a last-ditch, desperate effort to save the Egyptian state from itself, as well as a final hopeful plea for bread, freedom and dignity by citizens.

That said, the problems which have plagued Egypt are common across the region, with barely a state pursuing a sustainable model of governance. Even the Gulf, which has seen far less protest than the rest of the region, is only able to maintain the status quo through ruthless repression and the cushion of relative wealth. But Gulf states are sitting on a ticking timebomb of popular discontent, inequality and massive disenfranchised immigrant communities.

In reality, 2011, when the ageing Mubarak’s fifth term was due to expire, was set to be a crunch year for the Egyptian regime, whether or not Tunisia had erupted into inspiring revolt. The state was on the brink of failure, but the regime was in denial and determined to maintain its grip on power, though it had no clear game plan for doing so.

“Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011 [but] fear terrible instability and disruption,” I wrote in 2010. “I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm.”

The Egyptian state had become politically ossified and was riddled with endemic corruption. It was a fully-fledged kleptocracy with all the attendant incompetence and inefficiency this brings.

Even the enormous economic growth that had led the World Bank to praise Egypt in 2008 as the world “top reformer” was misleading and illusionary. In a manner similar to what happened in the former Soviet republics, an oligarchic class of tycoons and wealthy entrepreneurs had amassed huge fortunes by buying up state enterprises at seriously deflated prices, by benefitting from historically low corporate taxes (including zero-percent “tax holidays” for many), widespread tax evasion, capital flight and, of course, nepotism and kickbacks.

With the state abandoning its role in almost everything but enriching the prosperous and protecting their wealth, Egyptians were increasingly left to fend for themselves. This undermined the implicit social contract by which millions of citizens tolerated freedoms deferred in return for benefits conferred that had been in place since the 1952 revolution and military coup.

Egypt’s version of the welfare state died of starvation and neglect. Public schools and universities became underfunded industrial farms for the mass production of junk learning. Nevertheless, they still produced legions of educated graduates who aspired to make a decent living in freedom and dignity but instead ended up in a harsh labour market of exploitation, underemployment and joblessness.

Public healthcare had become so starved of resources that even life support was switched off, with poor patients often unable to access public hospitals or departing them worse off than when they entered. Even the subsidies upon which the country’s poor were so reliant were inadequate.

This does not mean that only the rich prospered in Mubarak’s Egypt. There was a certain amount of social mobility and a class of upwardly mobile professionals emerged, as attested to by the plethora of plush shopping malls and exclusive luxury housing developments. The trouble was that the majority of the population was not only left way behind, but they were not even provided with a safety net to keep them from descending too far into the abyss of poverty.

Almost everything the state had once safeguarded was now in the private domain, even many previously public spaces. In a neoliberal wet dream, Egypt had become a jungle governed by the law of survival of the richest. Education, employment, healthcare and sometimes even life were no longer basic rights but private privileges and perks.

Dignity and safety were not automatically granted but had to be “earned” through social connections and the payment of sweeteners. For millions of Egyptians, the state’s sole role in their lives had become almost entirely oppressive. With Egypt generally untroubled by violent crime, the greatest public safety threat was the regime’s thugs.

I recall during a visit to Egypt in the immediate prelude to the revolution nobody was expecting, the general mood was one of such abject despondency and despair that I left the country as 2010 gave way to 2011 with a sense of deep dejection.

I was gripped by foreboding and concern for the future feasibility of Egypt’s status quo. This was reflected in an article I wrote at the time about the socially corrosive effects of Egypt’s tipping or baksheesh culture. “As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty,” I concluded. “And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.”

That reckoning came much sooner than expected. Yet the state refused, quite literally, to read the writing on the walls. It sacrificed its head to save its body. It attempted to appease the population with scraps of freedom and promises of change. It hid behind an illusion of superficial democracy. Throughout all this, it was baffled by why people continued to rise up and rebel.

Since the 2013 military coup, following protests against the government of President Mohamed Morsi, the regime of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has taken off the gloves completely, crushing brutally and cruelly any form of criticism and dissent. Moreover, it has revived the Mubarak-era kleptocracy and put it on steroids.

Preoccupied with enriching the military and its hangers-on, the regime is consistently failing to provide the services citizens expect from their government. If this situation does not change soon, Egypt will end up in a very dark place. The Egyptian state is on a path to total collapse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.