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Repression and Poverty Underpin the Uprising in Egypt

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Recent events in Egypt could be an opportunity for the United States to support the people of Egypt, but no Obama administration official has recommended publicly that President Hosni Mubarak should step down. We speak with Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, about the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime and the record inflation and poverty that underpin the ongoing protests. “In Egypt, from 2004 until the present, the government and its reforms were applauded in Washington by World Bank, the IMF and U.S. officials,” Shehata says. “But what all of that masked was what was going on at the level of real people and ordinary lives.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 28, 2011Uprising in Egypt: “This is the Biggest Political Challenge the Regime Has Yet to See from the Streets”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our special coverage of the mass protests in Egypt, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Samer Shehata to talk about how the Obama administration is responding to the protests. He is a professor, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt.

Your observations of this massive popular rebellion in your country, in Egypt, Professor?

SAMER SHEHATA: Yes. Well, it’s something that is incredibly — it’s remarkable. It’s something that none of us expected, if you would have asked us a month ago. Certainly, the reasons are long in the coming. This is a regime that has been authoritarian from the very beginning, even before President Mubarak. It’s a regime that has tried to use the institutions of democracy in a facade-like manner to sell itself as a democracy to the West, but, of course, it’s nothing close to that.

There are also economic reasons that are underpinning these protests. As you know, 20 percent of Egyptians live below poverty, and another 20 percent of Egyptians live close to the poverty line. Inflation has been very high over the last number of years. Income inequality, according to the World Bank and the IMF, has increased, as well.

And President Mubarak, I think it should not be mistaken, is a dictator. He is a dictator. And what people are calling for is not just a change in the ministers or a new minister of finance, but a different regime. They want Mubarak to leave. And I think it would also not be acceptable, for all of the people on the streets, if the newly appointed vice president were simply to take over. He is also part of the regime. And what they’re calling for is a fundamentally different type of politics. And I think that tomorrow, with the calls that we’ve heard today for a national day of protest, a million-person march tomorrow, hopefully, hopefully, this regime will come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how economics — you’re a specialist in labor in Egypt. The situation in Tunisia, which seems certainly to have lit the spark in Egypt, and the situation in Egypt — what, 40 percent of people are in poverty in Egypt — how did they feed into this popular uprising?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, that’s certainly correct. I mean, with regard to the events in Tunisia and the events in Egypt, I think that the economic situation, of course, is far worse in Egypt. The levels of income in Tunisia are twice those in Egypt. Mohamed Bouazizi, the gentleman who self-immolated himself on December the 17th, was quite symptomatic of millions of people across the Arab world, even beyond Egypt, in Jordan and Yemen and Algeria and so on, who are young, who have some level of education — in his case, it was a high school education — but really who have no realistic job opportunities or future in front of them. The figures regarding unemployment in Tunisia and Egypt and other places are very high. In Tunisia, it was officially 14.7 percent. This is according to the IMF. And then, if we look at certain segments of the population, youth elements in the population, those below 25 years of age — and, of course, these are youthful countries, where half the population is below the age of 30 — the percentage of unemployed among the youth is significantly higher, three times what the official rate is. So, in Egypt, the economic situation is even worse than Tunisia. Tunisia is rich in comparison to Egypt.

You mentioned the percentage of people under poverty. But also, beginning in 2004, of course, Egypt began implementing economic reforms called for by the IMF — or really forced on them by the IMF and the World Bank — from the late 1980s and the early '90s, economic reform and structural adjustment programs of privatization, subsidy cuts, opening up markets, deregulation and so on. But the Egyptian government did it in a very hesitant fashion, unwillingly at first. But in 2004, something radical happened, and a new government was appointed, new ministers were appointed, who believed wholeheartedly in the ideas of the IMF and the World Bank. And they quite vigorously pursued these policies. And there was at one level, at the level of macroeconomic indicators, statistics, GDP growth rates, foreign direct investment and so on — Egypt seemed to be a miracle. And this, of course, was the case with the Tunisian model earlier. You'll remember that Jacques Chirac called it the “economic miracle,” and it was the darling of the IMF and the World Bank, because it implemented these types of reforms earlier. Well, of course, we saw what happened in Tunisia. In Egypt also, from 2004 until the present, the government and its reforms were applauded in Washington by World Bank, IMF and U.S. officials. GDP growth rates were above six percent in consecutive years. Egypt received the top reformer award from the IMF and the World Bank, tremendous foreign direct investment.

But what all of that masked, what all of that masked, was what was going on at the level of real people and ordinary lives. Real incomes were declining as a result of incredibly high inflation, not as high as in Zimbabwe or Venezuela, but inflation rates of 25, 30 percent, eating away at people’s incomes. Basic commodities, foodstuffs, prices were increasing tremendously. In 2008, about 13 or 14 people, Egyptians, died as a result of conflicts resulting from them waiting in long bread queues, because there wasn’t enough bread, and violence would erupt. People were waiting in line for hours to obtain subsidized bread, which is also one of the bases of this regime, you see. It has to do that in order to at least have some kind of acquiescence from the public. So, what these macroeconomic indicators masked was what people were experiencing at the level of everyday life and real income. As I mentioned, poverty was increasing. Income inequality was increasing. And even corruption was increasing, according to Transparency International.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened this weekend, that President Mubarak responded to the mass protests not by resigning himself, but by saying he would dissolve the parliament? He then went on to talk about one of the so-called new names, Omar Suleiman, who, as Jane Mayer points out in a piece in The New Yorker over the weekend, is actually not so new to anyone who has followed the American policy of renditions for terror suspects. She writes, “Since 1993 Suleiman [has] headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances. […] He has served for years as the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak.”

SAMER SHEHATA: Yes. Well, with regard to what happened over the weekend and President Mubarak’s speech on Friday, and then the subsequent events of appointing a vice president, these are attempts to save Mr. Mubarak and to save his regime. These are steps that fall far short of what millions of Egyptians are calling for and the only thing that’s going to lead this revolution to end, which is the regime to end and for a new government with people unaffiliated with the previous corrupt and despotic regime to come to power. So Mubarak was trying to save himself by offering some concessions. And those concessions were, of course, as you mentioned, dismissing the parliament and then appointing a vice president, something that Egyptians have been asking for for 30 years — this is a country that has been without a vice president for that long; he’s refused to appoint one — and then, of course, appointing a prime minister. It’s also interesting to note that both of these individuals are military figures, right? That’s also something that’s not very heartening.

And then, with regard to Mr. Suleiman, of course, it is not so much feared, the, you know, Egyptian general intelligence, but certainly an integral part of the regime. And he is someone who, before his appointment, before his appointment, had some respect among the Egyptian people. He’s clearly very intelligent. He has tried to stay out of the limelight. He —- there is not known directly that he has been involved in corruption, unlike many other of the previous ministers and so on. So, before his appointment, he had some legitimacy. And in fact, with the rise of Gamal Mubarak over the last number of years, many Egyptians were putting his name forward -—

AMY GOODMAN: The son of Mubarak.

SAMER SHEHATA: With the rise of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, into higher posts in the government, and the idea that he was going to be implanted or installed as a president through farcical elections in the future, earlier, people were putting Omar Suleiman’s name up as someone who would be much more acceptable. Of course, all of that has changed now, and Mr. Suleiman has lost any kind of legitimacy or credibility he had, because this is nothing other than a tactic that the Mubarak — Mubarak himself is using to try to hold onto power.

With regard to his involvement in the rendition program and so on, this is also — not that fact in particular, but his behavior and his actions and his views are also apparent in the WikiLeaks documents. He is someone who is clearly not committed to any conception of democracy. He says in the WikiLeaks documents that the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, is a very dangerous Islamist group that needs to be excluded completely from politics. It’s also clear that he believes that Egypt should maintain the blockade of Gaza, creating this 1.5 million open-air prison, as it were. He is very well known in the United States, because he has been coming here regularly. He has handled, been the point person for the very important issues of Palestinian-Palestinian relations, Egypt’s relationship with Israel. He is also the gentleman, the point person for Egypt’s relationship with Sudan and Omar al-Bashir and so on. Those types of foreign policy concerns in Egypt are not handled by the Foreign Ministry, but are handled by the security services.

So he would be someone who would be unacceptable, I think, if we’re genuinely concerned about the development of democracy. He’s unacceptable if you talk to and listen to what the millions of people on Egypt’s streets are saying. He’s someone who might be, unfortunately, acceptable to capitals abroad. But of course, as Sharif mentioned, that’s not the primary concern here. The primary concern here is what millions of Egyptians want and deserve, and that is a government that represents their interests, a government that is elected by free and fair elections.

AMY GOODMAN: And as the New York Times’ Ethan Bronner writes, that “the Israelis would be reassured” if he were chosen. He is chosen now as the vice president of Egypt by Mubarak, a position that hasn’t been filled in many, many years. Samer Shehata, if you could stand by, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, we’re going to take a break and also look at the amount of money the U.S. has given Egypt. It has tremendous power over what Mubarak does right now, given the tens of billions of dollars, mainly in military aid, it’s given the Mubarak regime. Stay with us.

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