Egypt: It’s not about the price of melons

Ayatollah Khomeini famously asserted that the Iranian revolution was not about the price of melons. In his view, the revolution was driven by the people’s rejection of the secular, westernized Pahlevi regime, and their corresponding desire for a just state based on the rule of Islam.

Khomeini was not completely right – the downturn in the Iranian economy in the late 1970s, following several years during which living standards for many Iranians had been rising, was certainly a factor driving popular discontent, especially among the middle classes. (Political scientists will tell you that regimes are particularly vulnerable just after a period of strong economic activity, when expectations have been raised.) 

But Khomeini certainly did have a point. The Shah had forfeited popular support though the corruption of his family and through the brutality and pervasiveness of his security forces. His ridiculous efforts to legitimize his rule by linking it to ancient Persian forbears failed to instill national pride among ordinary Iranians or respect for him personally.

When an apparently viable alternative presented itself – in the form of untarnished leaders with a resonant national/religious message – the Shah was swept away.[1]

Similarly, the Egyptian revolution is not about the price of melons (or perhaps we should say, it’s not about “eish” the staple bread so central to the diet of ordinary Egyptians). True, economic conditions have declined recently following a few years of strong growth. Inflation rose, and the price of food has been affected by the global rise in food and commodity prices. But viewed in the context of Mubarak’s 30-year rule (or the near 60-year rule of the Free Officers and their successors) recent economic events are hardly decisive.

The trigger was the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia which showed that a supposedly unassailable strongman, supported by an omni-present security apparatus, could be chased from office with relative ease.[2] When it became clear that protests in Egypt would not be brutally suppressed (protests which in the first days could quickly and easily be organized through new social media) the movement gained strength. As Mohammed El-Baradei said, the “wall of fear” was broken.[3]

No one had any illusions about Mubarak’s regime. Elections were rigged (heroically so in the case of the most recent parliamentary elections in November and December 2010.) Police brutality was widespread and increasingly discussed (Khaled Said, the Alexandrian student beaten to death on a public street in June 2010, has been a potent symbol in recent weeks). There was a perception that those close to Mubarak, and his son Gamal, were lining their pockets with lucrative government contracts.

And what did the ordinary Egyptian get in return for these failings? Not much, and certainly not enough. Unemployment is rampant; those in work often have to do two jobs to make ends meet; for many, the quality of life in Egypt’s overcrowded cities is sordid; and the economic standard of living for the vast majority remains low.

In the eyes of many Egyptians, Mubarak had had 30 years to make things better and he wasn’t making any progress.

So what does that tell us about the likely priorities for the new regime?

My prediction is that the focus will be on democracy, education, job creation, and the deconstruction of the more repressive aspects of Mubarak’s security apparatus. Those are the issues which lie are the heart of the discontent which has brought Mubarak down. They are the issues which affect how Egyptians live their lives day-to-day.

 We’ve already seen some indications of likely policy directions. As the former regime tried to satisfy the protesters’ demands, it announced a 15% pay increase for government workers, the Ministry of Finance announced that it would be accepting new job applications, and the Ministry of Transport said it would give permanent jobs to many of its contract workers.

The cost of building the kind of society which Egyptians are demanding is going to be huge. To address unemployment, the government’s wage bill will increase over the medium term, not decrease. To make even modest improvements in the quality of education, the Ministry’s budget will have to skyrocket.

And it’s hard to imagine that there will be much scope to reduce the military budget, given the role which the armed forces have taken in ushering in the new regime.

I also predict that talk of economic reform will become muted as medium and long-term economic restructuring takes a back seat to social issues.

Privatizing Banque du Caire, restructuring state-owned enterprises and re-ordering the public accounts system are just not issues that are going to resonate with ordinary Egyptians. Their undoubted benefits take years to materialize and they may provide a threat to living standards over the short term (in the form of job insecurity, for example).

Over the medium term, I hope to see an Egypt which is more free, more just and better educated, and one in which fewer people struggle to make ends meet day-to-day. But I also expect to see an economy under huge strain as it tries to keep up with the financial cost of some of these demands.

The price of melons (…or bread) may still emerge as a potent issue for the new Egypt.

[1] I would place one important qualification on this thesis: I do think that if the Shah had been a more effective ruler, he would have had a reasonable chance of facing down the incipient revolt during the first half of 1978. But he was chronically indecisive, ill with cancer, and in 1977 his long-time advisor, Assadollah Alam, resigned due to ill health. (It was Alam who had dealt decisively with the riots in 1963.) But if he had been a more effective ruler, he would never have ended up in the position he found himself in 1978.

[2] In saying “relative ease” I mean no disrespect to those Tunisians and Egyptians who lost their lives during the revolutions.

[3] Note that the protests which have swept Mubarak away did not come out of nowhere. Incidence of popular protest has been increasing in recent years (the Kifayah movement organized a series of rallies in 2005 – 2006) and social media such as Facebook and YouTube has led to a much greater sharing of discontent.