The Arab Spring is seen as a failure. The revolutions started six years ago and did not lead to democratization of the Arab countries. However, the region does not stand still and three drivers point towards change in the future. Egypt is exemplary in this regard. It is by far the biggest Arab country by population, and the country is still seen as a cultural precursor of the region. In this note, we look at the dynamics in the country to understand what is driving development.
- Egypt is constructing a new capital city, or New Administrative Capital, on a truly grand scale. Located 60km from the city of Suez, the megaproject will have an international airport and an electric train linked to other cities.
- Other ambitious projects are under construction all across the Arab world, including building an energy cityin Libya, megaprojects in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and new plans to increase economic diversification in Saudi Arabia ‘Vision 2030’ and in the UAE ‘UAE Vision 2021’.
- Egypt has one of the most diversified economies of the Middle East. Saudi’s path forward and its plans to diversify its economy, are by some called the real Arab Spring. The young Saudi prince is energizing the restless Arab youth who want to move forwards.
- The Egyptian authorities have blocked over 400 websites over the last few months. Still, the country has the largest Facebook community in the Arab world, and social media is the only way to express themselves in public. Although admins of influential Facebook groups are arrested, such as the admin of Internet Revolution Egypt, this underground protest persists.
- Bread shortages in 2011 were among the sources of the revolution. Egypt was once the provider of grain to the entire Roman Empire, and is now the biggest importer of wheat in the world. The Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak governments all struggled with decreasing production and increased demand. Now, the El-Sisi government has pledged to end corruption as a whole, but this is not perceived to be successful by Egyptians.
- This week, Egyptian President El-Sisi has announced he will not seek a third term and said that elections in Egypt will be held in March or April 2018.
Traditionally, Egypt was the leader of the Arab world. Until after WWII, Egypt had big influence when President Nasser changed the relationship between the subverted Arab regimes and the West radically, and brought together the disparate leaders of the Arab world. His nationalism and modernizing ideas meant fundamental change. Over the last decade, however, this leading position has shifted to the rich Gulf States, and Egypt struggles to make progress.
The seeds of change and progress have been planted in the brains of the 94 million Egyptians.
When the people demanded a radical change during the Arab Uprisings in 2011, they did not have a clear picture of what this change would have to look like. The Arab Spring could be regarded as only succeeded in Tunisia, by replacing a long ruling autocrat with a more or less functioning democracy. Although the outcome was chaotic in Egypt, we should not see it as a dead end, rather the revolutions of 2011 can be seen as a step towards a next phase of development. Three forces point towards the upcoming modernization and change in the country.
Firstly, the Arab spring has woken up the young Egyptians. In the documentary The Square (2013), we follow the young revolutionaries on the Tahrir Square in 2011. The movie shows how the Egyptian masses experience for the first time how meeting each other physically on the square – and instead of only on social media– leads to having conversations among all the different groups, and how this is empowering them to stand up against the regime. The size of the youth population is growing rapidly: the country’s population has increased by 1 million people in just six months. It will cost the Egyptian President El-Sisi more and more energy to keep the youth under his strict control. Although the government cracks down on activism and civil right movements, many cases of online protests persist.
Secondly, the economic conditions are worse than before the revolution. The Egyptian people demanded the downfall of the regime in 2011 in order to improve the conditions of their daily lives. In the vacuum of the chaos after the Mubarak regime, the authoritarian leader El-Sisi took power. Egyptians are now struggling with higher oil and food prices than before 2011, and dissatisfaction with the current situation is growing.
Thirdly, Egypt is working on modern megaprojects and is opening up to Eastern investment for infrastructure constructions. El-Sisi is building a new administrative capital, and he is reforming the economy by implementing a national development plan while looking East in attracting Chinese investments. El-Sisi hopes for China’s support to create a Suez Canal Special Economic Zone, and it is a welcome partner for BRI projects.
The Arab Spring did not instantly lead to advancements, and the country is currently struggling, but the seeds of change and progress have been planted in the brains of the 94 million Egyptians and are more powerful than we might think.
- Rigidity in tradition that has left the region behind in the race for technological developments and innovation. Egyptians still have to deal with power shortages and low connectivity, but the Arab Tech Economy is on the rise. For example, Egyptians frequently use Careem, the Arab world’s fast-growing ride-sharing company.
- The current tensions and power shifts in the Arab world could lead to new outcomes, bring new forth new leaders to with countries predominantly conservative leaders.