Briefing: The Egyptian revolution one year on

Activists and trade unions have announced 11 February as a day of general strike and civil disobedience in Egypt – in protest against continued military rule.

One year after forcing their long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011, many Egyptians are confused about the achievements of the revolution so far.

On the one hand, many say they are freer and more politically-empowered after asserting themselves – not only during the popular uprising that forced the president to leave after three decades in power – but also in the months that followed, in the form of continued protests against their new rulers and at the ballot box.

On the other hand, with an ailing economy, skyrocketing food prices, growing unemployment, inconsistent health services, continued deadly clashes, a weak new parliament, and a perceived unwillingness of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to leave power after taking over from Mubarak, many are asking what the revolution has brought them.

People are, in some cases, getting fed up with the revolution itself. Cairo’s central protest square, Tahrir, does not have the energy it used to and many activists feel disillusioned. They never expected the revolution to be such a lengthy process, and are facing antagonism from some Egyptians who just want the violence, insecurity and economic deterioration to end.

In an increasingly divided Egypt, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: Egypt is not where they wished it would be one year later.

Ailing economy

Addressing the first post-revolution parliament on 31 January, Prime Minister of the National Salvation Government Kamal Al Ganzouri could find no better word to describe the condition of the national economy than “bad”.

Al Ganzouri said internal debts jumped from 147 billion Egyptian pounds (US$245 million) in 1999 to 857 billion pounds (US$1.4 billion) at present, and that 1,500 factories had already closed, while the government had to take measures to reduce the budget deficit by 20 billion pounds.

Revenues from tourism, a main source of foreign currency, tumbled to $2.8 billion at the end of 2011 from $14 billion the previous year, according to independent economist Abdel Monem Al Sayed.

The local currency lost 12 percent of its value against the US dollar over the same time period, he added.

These figures might explain a surging unemployment rate. Unemployment stood at 8.9 percent of the work force in 2010, but in 2011, the rate rose to 11.9 percent, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

Some independent experts expect the rate to increase in the future as the economy continues to perform poorly and tourism proves to be incapable of compensating for the revenues it lost to political uncertainty and security turmoil. The return of over half a million Egyptians from Libya has not helped.

The Egyptian economy grew at 2.5 percent in 2011, down from 4.8 percent in 2010. Pre-revolution forecasts put the economic growth rate at 5.8 percent, according to former Finance Minister Samir Radwan.

Price rises

Apart from scarcity, some basic commodities are becoming intolerably expensive for most Egyptians. The price of fruit and vegetables is doubling, while beef, chicken, and fish have become the privilege of the rich. Tomatoes sell for the equivalent of 50 US cents (up from 25 cents), potatoes for 65 cents (up from 25 cents) and beef for $12 per kilogram.

The majority of Egyptians – who do not have natural gas delivered to their homes – have to wait for hours outside gas cylinder distribution centres. The alternative is to buy the gas cylinder for $6.6 on the black market. The same cylinder sells for $1 at official distribution centres.

Natural gas and petrol scarcity is threatening the ability of subsidized bread bakeries to continue operating, according to some bakery owners.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics on 31 January announced that 25.2 percent of the population was poor – living on less than $2 a day – as of 2011, compared with 21.6 percent of the population in 2010.

The agency added that 51 percent of poor people lived in the south of Egypt in 2011, compared with 44 percent in 2010.

Health sector struggles

The security vacuum that hit the nation in the wake of the revolution has made hospitals insecure, despite the government’s best efforts. The dwindling economy has led to shortages in pharmacies and hundreds of thousands of people struggle to find medicines and vaccines. Top of the list of scarcities are insulin and medicine for the heart and liver diseases.

An Egyptian pays tribute to a protester killed in clashes with security services in the months after Hosni Mubarak left power

The head of the Heart Institute on 16 January said that doctors had already stopped conducting open heart surgery because of an extreme shortage of 15 medicines which protect patients against blood-clotting. Four days earlier, officials from the Cancer Institute in Tanta in the Nile Delta said the institute was in urgent need of 12 essential medicines that were scarce on the market. Such complaints are voiced every day, reflecting a deeply troubled health sector.

Compounding medicine shortages is an endless cycle of protests and strikes by doctors and pharmacists who either want a salary increase or permanent work contracts.

Insecurity

The most shocking recent example of insecurity was the killing of 74 and the injuring of around 200 people during football riots in the Mediterranean city of Port Said on 1 February. It was the worst of many incidents of violence in the country since Mubarak’s departure, and reinforced the feeling of many Egyptians that the state was not present.

A proliferation of weapons and deteriorating security conditions have rendered hijackings and robberies common news in Egypt. And people are increasingly taking the law into their own hands.

Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai abducted 25 Chinese workers and 19 border guards in two separate incidents in less than two weeks, in protest over the detention or killing of fellow tribesmen.

In late January, hundreds of civil servants decided to prevent tens of cruise ships carrying foreign tourists from crossing a certain point on the River Nile until the civil servants were given permanent contracts by the government.

Inefficient governance

Many in Egypt say they do not long for the days of the former regime, but they express discontent at SCAF’s transitional governance since Mubarak’s fall.

They say the military council is not transparent, participatory, accountable, responsive, or even efficient.

Many members of the newly elected parliament point to the recent presidential election law as an example. The military council issued the law, which will regulate the next presidential elections, without consulting parliament.

The new parliament, elected over the course of the past few months, remains at the helm of the military council, and its majority party – the Muslim Brotherhood – is often at odds with the wishes of activists in Tahrir square.

Optimism

Despite this widespread deterioration, Egyptians still have reason to feel optimistic. In a newly-found sense of voter empowerment, millions of Egyptians showed up at polling stations across the nation in November and December to choose members for the first post-revolution parliament. Around 47 percent of the voters chose the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization banned for decades under the former regime.

Egypt also expects to hold its first post-Mubarak presidential elections this year.

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* This article first appeared on IRIN (the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN-OCHA), with the title Briefing: The Egyptian revolution one year on on Feb. 10, 2012.

Check the Egypt archive for previous and forthcoming posts.

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Daniel Berhane
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