Too little attention has been paid to how Egypt’s socialist past and welfare – state present shaped the current rebellion. But neither the daring of the young people who defied a brutal dictatorship nor their passion and rage can be understood without knowing this history.
Many Arab and African states, including Egypt, are backward because socialism and statism created dysfunctional governments that were eventually overthrown by military dictatorships. Welfare especially worsened the desperate predicament of Muslim societies, where political, social, and personal repression is upheld by piety while women and the sexually repressed young, who cannot marry until well past 30, suffer terrible mistreatment and disabilities.
Welfare’s reduction in child-mortality rates helped create a demographic bubble, with millions of unemployed and probably unemployable youth roaming the streets, ready to explode in riots. This bubble has been draining what little resources these nations possessed; their investments in raising their youth have not seen appropriate returns, especially when they die young. The growing numbers and rage of the chronically unemployed have made it difficult for these countries to advance materially – even when their economies improved and fertility was dramatically reduced, as occurred in the last decade in Egypt.
About 40 percent of Egyptians are dirt-poor fellahin, farmers (in the West, only 3.5 percent of people work in agriculture). Tradition encouraged the siring of many children, to secure free labor and old-age support; consequently, about 50 percent of the population is under 25 (compared with 32 percent in Germany, 37 percent in France). Unemployment in Muslim countries is officially close to 10 percent but is probably much higher among the young.
Egypt’s population has doubled since the beginning of Mubarak’s reign. Welfare provided the means for the very poor to keep body and soul
together and to have many children. But Egypt’s highly bureaucratized and corrupt crony system inhibited economic growth and denied the young employment and advancement beyond subsistence. Rising prices made marriage unaffordable until well into a man’s thirties. Sexual frustration and hopeless unemployment combined to create the rage that the Tunisian conflagration ignited.
What happened in Egypt between the end of the Second World War and the present rebellion illuminates what has happened economically throughout the Arab world (and much of Africa, too). In order to keep their religiously, culturally, and politically repressed citizens pacified, Arab dictators copied the West’s post-World War II welfare policies. Upon taking power, they nationalized industries and created socialist welfare states with autocratic governments.
When young Egyptian officers deposed King Farouk in 1952, they structured their “republic” on third-world models of military dictatorship. The Egyptian economy was totally subjected to politics, breeding inefficiency, waste, and corruption.
Dependence on Arab oil and on vast amounts of foreign aid (which was funneled through corrupt elites that squandered or stole much of it), together with Cold War politics, maintained these repressive dictatorships, however horrendous they were (e. g., Idi Amin). When the civilians ruling them messed up too badly, or lost in war against Israel, they were overthrown by the army, which then made bigger messes.