As the countries of North Africa and the Middle East continue to be rocked by popular protests, the lessons from Egypt’s fall deserve attention. For all the theorizing, the key elements of Mubarak’s downfall can be traced back to three simple domestic concerns: food, finances, and freedom. By failing to either maintain the status quo or adjust to new realities, Mubarak allowed his nation to slip from his grasp.
Food played a critical role in the fall of Egypt’s leadership structure. The prices of basic food staples had shot up more than 20 percent in a three-month period, surpassing the ability of the nation’s food subsidy programs to keep prices stable. However, right up until they failed, the subsidies were supposed to be enough to maintain stability. Food prices “shouldn’t spark a big problem or discontent,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, just days before the outbreak of the protests that ended the Mubarak regime.
What went wrong? For centuries, Egypt was a land of agricultural prosperity. The Nile had provided, to the point that the Israelis wandering in the dessert moaned endlessly after the rich meals they’d left behind in exchange for their freedom. Yet in recent decades, falling yields and poor agricultural practices had forced the government to import enough food to feed everyone. Egypt became the world’s largest wheat importer and the eighth largest market for American produce. To offset the costs of this importation with the public, Mubarak put subsidies in place to keep basic food items affordable.
It was a flat out bribe to the population to support the regime, and for a long time it worked. However, inflationary pressures outpaced the subsidies, food shortages emerged, and the government’s spending program couldn’t keep up. With the bribe falling away, there was no reason for the Egyptian people to continue to put up with their dictator.
The financial health of Egypt also contributed to the fall of the government. The Mubarak family holdings have an estimated value of $70 billion, according to the BBC. Yet the average Egyptian only makes $2,758 per year, and 40 percent live on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank. Somewhere out of those thin pockets, the government has had to pay for all of its programming while corruption has ensured that foreign aid flows to special interests rather than social programming.
The government simply couldn’t keep up. While the Egyptian economy was growing at a rate of five to six percent a year, global price points for key goods were going up faster. The inflation was outpacing growth, keeping the government scrambling to maintain a smoothly operating system. Tax receipts were also down, pinching government programming at all levels.
When the protests first broke out, it didn’t take long for an even more precarious financial situation to develop. Inside of two days, the stock market plunged more than 17 percent. Banks put limits on how much cash individuals could take out of their accounts. Foreign investment capital ran for the hills.
At first, the government tried to claim that their cash reserves would preserve them through the protests until things started dying down. However, hungry, young, and unemployed, the protesters weren’t interested in going anywhere. Instead, faced with a looming financial collapse for the nation, the government gave way.
Finally, there was the element of freedom. Now, you might be thinking of Western style freedoms, like democracy. However, the freedom that brought down Mubarak was very basic – the freedom of speech.
Historically, Mubarak’s regime had maintained a tight control over the flow of information. Unfortunately for Mubarak and dictators everywhere, the Internet is out there. Facebook and Twitter are not exactly the purview of the local middle-aged police chief, but his oppressed sons and daughters certainly know how to use them to say what they’re thinking and make plans.
Protests were organized online, and hesitant souls could be encouraged to come out. When the government attempted to shut down communications, they found that smartphones on global networks could bypass their efforts. In short, the regime’s ability to get its people to shut up and take it was eliminated, and freedom of speech allowed organizers and dissidents to put Mubarak on notice. With the word out and the channels open for protesters to communicate, Egypt’s people found their voice and used it to tell the government (finally!) that enough was enough.
Perhaps our leadership in America should take this to heart. Soaring food prices, our nation’s financial death-throes, and the government’s attempts at back-alley deals to stifle our fundamental constitutional freedoms should sound warning alarms all around our country.
We look and see Egypt, but the reflection that stares back is our own.