Paul Pillar

The Coming Disillusionment in Egypt

The greatest hazard yet to come in the political upheaval in Egypt involves a possible dashing of high hopes among the Egyptian public and a resulting souring of Egyptians on the concept of moderate, peaceful, democratic change. A newly released poll sponsored by the International Republican Institute shows just how high and probably unattainable those hopes are, and thus how great is the hazard.

The poll, taken in mid-April, depicts an Egyptian populace that is highly positive about where their revolution has already gone and where it is likely to go. Ninety-five percent of respondents supported the revolution, and about a quarter say they had personally participated in some way. Eighty-nine percent believe things in Egypt are going in the right direction, and the same number believe the revolution will make Egypt better—53% say it will make it much better. A large majority of Egyptians believe that their “current government” will be able to address Egypt's biggest problems; 39% are very confident of this and 38% are somewhat confident.

So which problems are deemed the biggest? In Egypt, as in so many other places, it's the economy, stupid. Unemployment was easily the most frequently named (by 37%) as the number one problem, and was named by 63% as one of the top three problems. The next most frequently mentioned as the top problem were security and crime (21%), corruption and financial scandals (11%), and wages and salaries (8%).

The expectations for the revolution are at least as high on the economic front as on any other. While most respondents say their own household finances got worse during the past year, 80% believe those same finances will get better during the coming year. It is hard to imagine how any regime could come anywhere close to meeting such expectations. Even if a further political transition from military rule to a genuine representative democracy goes smoothly (itself a big “if”), the structural impediments to substantially improved economic performance extend far deeper than that. Even if inspired leadership by some Egyptian Deng Xiaoping were to embark on an accelerated effort to demolish those impediments (another big “if”) and such an effort were to overcome sources of resistance such as the Egyptian military's heavy role in the economy (a tall order), the time scale for major improvement would be generation, not just a year or two.

The stage is set for major disillusionment and dismay. Maybe the lot of the average Egyptian has been bad enough that even very modest improvement will provide sufficient satisfaction. In the poll, 41% said they have trouble feeding themselves and buying bare essentials, and another 37% said they have the means for “survival” but not much more. But the disparity between current reality and hope for the near future is so great that going from very bad to somewhat bad may not be good enough.

If disillusionment does set in, we will see how thin and fragile is the sentiment in favor of democracy. Egyptians seem enthusiastic enough at the moment about their newly found political liberties; large majorities say they they did not bother voting before but did so in the recent constitutional referendum and intend to do so in the next elections. The fact, however, that—even though at the moment Egypt is governed by a military dictatorship—democracy and free elections did not rank high on Egyptians' list of current concerns (neither one was mentioned as one of the three highest problems by any more than 6% of the respondents) speaks to the thinness. Many would lose whatever fragile faith they have in democratic procedures if they do not see those procedures leading to improvement in their daily material circumstances. And this would mean renewed appeal for strongmen or extremist ideologies.