Egypt under Hosni Mubarak was a sham democracy. Whether a country without deep democratic traditions can find a better governmental system will be played out in the months ahead.
Mr. Mubarak could not quit gracefully because he equated himself with the state. L'état, c'est moi has been the hubristic sense of destiny of authoritarians through the ages, and he shared that sense.
Egypt had all the trappings of democracy but little of the substance. It had some free expression but within severe limits. It had some independence of the judiciary but not much. It's estimated that 10,000 people languish in jail as political prisoners.
In the last presidential election, in 2005, 23 per cent of Egyptians voted; in the 2007 Shura Council (parliament's upper house) election, 31 per cent did so. Since certain parties were banned, the media biased and the President's party omnipresent, the authoritarian regime carried on.
As is often the case in such regimes, friends of the powerful got rich, as did those lucky enough to profit from the market system. The gap, therefore, yawned between the very rich in the Cairo suburbs and the masses. It's the same routine in Jordan (now experiencing some unrest), where the elites (often Palestinian) live in splendid homes in Amman; or in Syria, where the young, rich elite cavort at the nightclubs in Westernized hotels in Damascus.
The Egyptian masses, it would appear, did not make this uprising; the young, secularized elites with their social network communications began the agitation. Others then grafted themselves onto it.
Much used to be made by Middle East analysts of the mythical "Arab street," a phrase used to denote the masses who could be aroused by nationalist appeals against Israel, the United States, former colonial powers or whatever. This time, however, the "Arab street," or at least elements of it, has turned against the existing regime, which, predictably, has fought back to retain its privileges and power.
The regime has brought stability internally and externally through a cold peace with Israel after three unsuccessful wars with that country since 1948. But it hasn't materially improved the standard of living or the economic prospects for many Egyptians, a state of affairs that plagues many Arab states. While most of Asia soars, and parts of Latin America rise, the Arab world stagnates by any economic, social or political measure, as United Nations reports done by Arab experts continue to document.
Egypt's youth unemployment rate stands at about 25 per cent. Put it another way: Sixty per cent of the country's total unemployed are under 30. It's the same dangerous portrait for the entire Arab world, where youth unemployment ranges from 15 per cent in Morocco to 45 per cent in Algeria, according to the UN Human Development Reports on the Arab world.
The latest report, issued last year, showed that Egypt had a poverty rate of 40 per cent, with poverty defined as income of $3 a day. To ease the pain, the Mubarak government sinks massive amounts into subsidizing bread prices, just as it plows huge sums into the military, whose role in the unfolding of events will be crucial. The country's budget, therefore, is doubly distended to keep social peace and the regime in power.
Egypt's population has almost doubled since 1980, to 80 million people, although the population growth rate fell throughout the period. But the economy couldn't produce enough benefits to lift people from poverty with that kind of population surge. Unlike some other Arab states, Egypt couldn't cover its economic lethargy with oil revenue.
Nor could government services keep pace. Thirty per cent of Egyptians lack proper sanitation services. The illiteracy rate is shockingly high. The country's infrastructure is lacking in almost everything. All the regime's self-congratulations can't hide these doleful realities, but then the same observations could be made about many Arab countries.
It's too soon to say who'll emerge to run Egypt. Mr. Mubarak's idea of reform is to appoint a bunch of people from the intelligence services and the military - which shows how out of touch he's become.