Publication: Egypt After the Spring: Revolt and Reaction
12 January 2016
Two out of the three demands of the slogan of Egypt’s 2011 revolution – ‘Bread, freedom, and social justice’ – were fundamentally economic. Although triggered by political events, the revolution reflected the collapse of the implicit social contract between the state and its citizens, in which people had traded political rights for a basic livelihood. The government relied on economic devices, including subsidised energy, transportation and essential foodstuffs, to walk this tightrope. Its inflated public sector, employing 5.5 million civil servants by the end 2010, was another aspect of this rentierist strategy. During the final days of the revolution and afterwards, workers in large state-owned factories participated in around 60 strikes. The targeted companies – strategic workplaces such as the Cairo Public Transport Authority, Egyptian State Railways, subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority and the state’s electricity company – and the coordination among tens of thousands of workers suggested the effective collapse of this contract.1 Despite an official growth rate surpassing 6% in the five years leading up to the revolution, the liberalisation agenda that the government had pursued under Hosni Mubarak in the 2000s had caused distress among the population. Similar to other comparable cases, economic liberalisation in Egypt generated growth that barely ‘trickled down’. At the same time, the rapid pace of change, cronyism and scant attention to social justice generated significant discontent. Rampant inflation and currency devaluation meant that already low wages could not meet basic needs. Following the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, jobs became increasingly scarce, with rising youth unemployment. Objections to the economic situation preceded the revolution; from 2006 onwards, there were regular strikes, such as the famous general strike in April 2008. Keeping in mind structural challenges, including food and energy shortages, this chapter will discuss and evaluate the economic platforms of successive actors since the 2011 uprising. Egypt’s economic story since the uprising has been one of destructive inaction, but this has just begun to change. The economic vision of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, dubbed ‘Sisinomics’, is a radical departure from the slow and cautious process of economic change that characterised the 2011–13 period. Sisi has combined a business-friendly approach, as showcased in the economic conference held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, with an enduring role for the military as an engine of development, notably through its involvement in ambitious projects such as the ‘New Suez Canal’. However, Sisinomics carries many risks; despite the hype, it has overlooked essential demands, such as social justice and economic inclusiveness.