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The Cairo Files: Pre-Revolutionary Egypt?

Egypt is frequently compared to pre-revolutionary Iran. After all, like Iran in the 1970s, Egypt is ruled by an aging, American-backed authoritarian regime, which is largely seen as having failed to promote social, political, and economic progress. Meanwhile, domestic support for Islamist groups has risen dramatically in recent years – a consequence of a regional embrace of Islamism, as well as Islamist groups’ providing key social services that the Egyptian government has failed to deliver. Finally the Egyptian regime has responded to this challenge much as it Iranian predecessor did: with brutal repression, which has only exacerbated public resentment.

Most recently, Egyptian frustrations have largely arisen from the government’s duplicitous economic policies. The story is as follows: after a successful string of workers’ protests and a general strike on April 6th, opposition groups began organizing for another series of demonstrations on May 4th – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s birthday. The Egyptian government pre-empted these demonstrations, however, when it announced a 30 percent raise in wages for state workers on May 1st. Then, when plans for the May 4th demonstrations fizzled, the government suddenly chimed in with a new policy that entirely wiped out the wage increases – massive price hikes for gasoline (46 percent!), cigarettes, and other goods.

In turn, during my recent trip to Cairo, many opposition leaders and activists spoke of a looming “explosion” (infigar). Naturally, I always asked the same question: does this mean a revolution? Here is where the Iran-as-Egypt analogy falls apart: every political leader and activist I spoke with – from the radical Islamic Labor Party to the liberal (and pro-American) Ghad party, as well as analysts from across the Egyptian political spectrum – saw no possibility of a domestic revolution in the near future.

Generally speaking, two factors are preventing a revolution. The first is opposition groups’ belief that the regime is simply too strong to overthrow, and that violence would be a strategic mistake. In this vein, Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Muhammad Habib defined the looming “explosion” – his word – as “public demonstrations,” calling a violent overthrow of the government “impossible.” Meanwhile, even the Brotherhood’s harshest domestic critics confirmed the Brotherhood’s claim that it lacks arms, and therefore – despite being Egypt’s best-organized opposition movement – lacks the capability to immediately catalyze a revolution.

The second factor standing in the way of a revolution is historical. As the director of one liberal NGO told me, historically, Egyptians have only revolted against foreign occupations. In turn, he said, overthrowing an Egyptian-run government – no matter how corrupt – lacks public legitimacy. Moreover, public consensus sufficiently supports none of the major opposition groups as an alternative to the regime. Finally, as a number of interviewees argued, Egyptian society typically shuns violence, further complicating prospects for an Iran-like “explosion.”

Of course, none of this is to say that an Iran-like revolution is impossible in Egypt. It is easy to see how certain opposition groups – with their members scattered throughout the country and better connected to one another than ever before – could theoretically launch an insurgency if they were truly committed to it. Still, for the moment, the consensus seems to be against such action, while the regime appears to be managing its domestic challenges as effectively as ever.



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