Tipping point for Egypt’s downtrodden masses

 By Andrew England Published: January 30 2011 15:34 | Last updated: January 30 2011 15:34 Outside the journalists syndicate’s headquarters in downtown Cairo, dozens of riot police formed menacing lines; helmets on, batons in hand. Activists had called a demonstration to protest planned amendments to the constitution, and as was always the case for such gatherings, the police were out in force. It was the first demonstration I covered in Egypt and it turned out to be a damp squib. That was four years ago and the security forces far outnumbered the handful of protesters. After some exuberant chanting everybody went home. Asked why so few people had turned up, the activists wearily talked of the apathy among many of their countrymen despite frustration with their lot; fear of the iron fist of security forces notorious for dishing out beatings and torturing detainees; and the sense that street protests would not bring change. This was Egypt, I was told, a country that had endured decades of autocratic rule and had a long history of defying doomsday predictions, with patient Egyptians more likely to employ their famous sense of humour to vent anger than take to the streets – perhaps a joke deriding Hosni Mubarak, the ageing president, or a muttered curse aimed at the police. Even after the dramatic uprising in Tunisia when questions were raised about where next in the Arab world, there was a sense that Egypt would not follow suit. The incredible scenes of the last few days have proved that there is always a tipping point. Thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life have braved teargas, rubber bullets and even tanks, to call for the removal of Mr Mubarak. Suddenly, for now at least, their fear of the security forces has been swept away. The scale of the protests has shocked even the most veteran observers of the Arab world’s most populous state. But the ingredients for the popular explosion have been simmering for years as the demographic and social pressures have built up. Over the last 50 years, Egypt’s population has swollen from around 50m to 80m, its people packed into just six per cent of the nation’s land mass, predominantly in the congested capital and the fertile Nile delta. As the population has grown so has the gap between the haves and have nots, with the rates of absolute poverty increasing from 16.7 per cent to 19.6 per cent between 2000 and 2005, according to World Bank figures. In recent years, an economic team within government has implemented reforms that have been lauded by the business community and lured in record foreign investment flows. Yet as the economy returned impressive numbers, the frustrations, or as one government minister put it “the pain,” of the vast majority of Egyptians intensified. As the cost of their basic goods soared, the wealth of the tiny elite became more conspicuous with luxury goods filling the shelves of new malls. Gated compounds hosting palatial villas and lush green grounds sprang up on Cairo’s outskirts, opulent islands of sanctuary from the pollution and chaos of the capital. “There’s a vicious circle of the small clique getting filthy rich and the rest getting impoverished,” said Nader Fergany, a former economics professor and author of the Arab Human Development Report from 2002 to 2005, as the economy boomed. “We have returned this country to what it used to be called before the 1952 revolution: the 1 per cent society. One per cent controls almost all the wealth of the country.” The grooming of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, to succeed his father merely exacerbated many people’s anger. For all its flaws, Egypt was not Syria or a Gulf monarchy, Egyptians would complain, and Gamal’s accession was a further insult to the masses. Increased freedom of the press and a fast growing blogging community also meant that allegations of corruption, government inefficiencies and torture have been reported with unprecedented vigour, sometimes amid accusations of hysteria. Now the genie has been unleashed it is impossible to predict the consequences. The only certainty is that the events in Egypt prove that politicians across the Arab world ignore the demands of their people at their peril. The assumption that frustrated masses who want better jobs and to be able to put decent meals on their tables will accept their lot and bow to the might of an autocracy’s security apparatus is looking increasingly hollow. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011. All Rights Reserved

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