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Better late than never: how to rebound state fragility in Egypt?

Abdulla M. Erfan

25 October 2014

Daily News Egypt 

The Fund for Peace recently published the 2014 fragile states indicators for Egypt bringing empirical realities to the heated debate on policies for addressing Egypt’s political, economic and social challenges.  According to the index, Egypt has been on the brink of becoming a failed state for at least ten years. While there is no overnight panacea for any country to recover from long standing issues leading to failure, Egypt may gradually enhance its position by addressing the four major issues brought up by the index: improving human rights conditions, creating an inclusive political system, instigating serious governance reform, and supporting de-centralised economic growth schemes.

For years, Egypt has been teetering between bad and worse on the fragile states index. In 2005, Egypt was ranked 38 out of 146 countries (the lower the rank the worst the case,) placing it in the “warning” group. In 2006, it plunged into the “alert” group with a ranking of 31 out of 177 countries. From 2007 to 2011, Egypt’s ranking remained low, shifting up to the “warning” category, partly because the significant economic developments at the time proved ineffective in strengthening the state or preventing the consequent uprising. Since 2012, Egypt’s ranking has not differed much from its standing in 2005. These figures fly in the face of a narrative that has gained popularity in Egypt in the past three years: that the revolutionary youth that championed the 25 January uprising brought the state to its knees. These indicators show that the revolution is not the cause of fragility, but is rather, a reaction to it.

Five indicators amongst the index’s twelve criteria have, since 2005, been a constant cause for concern: human rights violations, an increasingly factionalised elite, a weakening of state legitimacy, exacerbation of group grievances, and the deterioration of economic conditions. The indicators as a whole give a comprehensive understanding of state fragility in Egypt, and, year on year, show how neglect has resulted in chronic failure and intractability.

Of the five indicators requiring attention, improving rights conditions is the most urgent, having received the worst rating on the index. Human rights conditions in Egypt have been in decline since 2005, plunging from 7.7 out of 10 (where 10 is the worst), to 9.7 this year. Egypt has witnessed ten uninterrupted years of a systemic violation of human rights by successive governments. The year, following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, was the worst with the limitation of press freedom, a concerted crackdown on political dissent, and the resurgence of torture in Egyptian jails. It is within the presidential mandate to pardon political prisoners, end police impunity for torture and misuse of power, rescind the demonstrations law, and free media. Such measures would relief the national panic, infuse trust in the political sphere and reduce the political tension before commencing a national dialogue.

Building an inclusive political system to reduce polarisation and to avoid the use of repression in resolving social disagreements is essential. The report confirms that a fractured Egyptian elite has been a chronic predicament in Egyptian politics for years; the elite fractionalisation indicator has not dipped below 8 since 2005, but rather reached a worrying peak of 9.4 in 2014. The lack of accessible political institutions to mediate conflicts and facilitate peaceful solutions on the national and local level has left many among the opposition with no means but resorting to the streets—a space itself which has been undermined by a repressive Protest Law.

Activists who were instrumental in the 25 January uprising – among them the co-founder of the 6 April Movement Ahmed Maher – have been imprisoned on charges related to the law. The upcoming parliamentary elections are a rare chance to bring Egyptians together, provided the parliament includes all critical factions, otherwise it will further exacerbate divisions, and institutionalise polarisation. Including local council elections in the current road map could absorb the energy of the youth, push for bottom-up governance reform, and set an example of managed gradual reform.

Serious governance reforms could contribute to a decrease in corruption, while also improving the effectiveness of government, and boosting the quality of political participation. The third and fourth worst indicators in 2014 for Egypt were state legitimacy and group grievances with 9, and 8.6 points respectively. A smart strategy to recover state legitimacy is to target a specific kind of corruption in one of the critical sectors to make a showcase for future anti-corruption campaigns in other sectors. The government would gain legitimacy and garner support from ordinary people if it succeeded in reducing corruption in basic food supplies sector, for example. Targeted institutional reforms in education, providing health that results in materially enhancing the lives of millions of Egyptians, would be both the preferred and feasible strategy for improving state legitimacy.

With around 25% youth unemployment, inflation in the double digits, and meagre economic growth of 2 to 3%, the poverty and economic decline indicator for Egypt was the fifth worst indicator in 2014 with 7.9 points. The growth oriented economic policies of the 2000s has failed to address unemployment, and alleviate poverty for majority of Egyptians. The report confirms this reality as it shows that poverty and economic decline has been a general trend since 2006. The recent unprecedented reforms in subsidies will reduce the budget deficit for sure; nonetheless it is also certain that more poverty will be generated because of the resulting inflation.

Investment is the flip side of the unemployment problem. On local levels, boosting local growth and job creation is essential to achieve balanced economic development and address poverty in the underprivileged governorates like Assiut and Minya. On national levels, assuring a stable economic climate is essential through national reconciliation, respect for rule of low, and fighting corruption. Most importantly, a clear and communicated economic vision that answers questions like: what are the leading economic sectors? How can Egypt regionally integrate, and compete in a globalised economy? What is the rule of the government vs. the private sector in such view?

Where is Egypt going to be in the 2015 fragile states index? Since the index is straightforward, there is a little space to speculate on the right course to reverse degeneration of the state. Standing still on these issues will only exacerbate state fragility with the potential for Egypt to receive the same low score, or luckily one or two points up – only because others are doing worse.

Abdulla M. Erfan is a researcher specialising in re-democratisation and state building in post-authoritarian and civil war countries in the Middle East. Abdulla holds a Master’s degree in conflict resolution from the John B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the University of Notre Dame.

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