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Reasons for Egypt’s current state of unrest

2013-07-07

Of the approximately 83 million people alive in Egypt today, over 50% are under 20 and almost 70% are under 30.  The average age is 24; for comparison, in the USA it is 36.8.  The unemployment rate among young people is about 30%.  According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics and other experts, Egypt’s main problem is unemployment driven by a bulge of young people entering the work force.  A striking feature is that unemployment among college graduates is almost ten times as high as for elementary school graduates, meaning that there are many more menial jobs available than skilled jobs.  (Source: Wikipedia.)

When the revolution started, many observers noticed that the streets were full of educated urban youth.  These people have been able to obtain an education and are open to new developments all over the world.  They are overwhelmingly urbane, sophisticated, articulate, and peaceful if they are not provoked.  They know about democracy and the Internet, and they have cell phones with WiFi.  They use Facebook and Twitter to organize their demonstrations.

President Morsi was elected with 13 million votes exactly a year ago.  Now the protesters say they have 17 million signatures on a petition calling on him to step down.  So there is clearly overwhelming opposition to what Morsi has been doing.  There is also no constitutional way to impeach him, leaving the military no choice but to step in to express the will of the people.

There is still a large Islamist faction in Egypt, particularly among the rural poor.  The Muslim Brotherhood has an estimated 600,000 members or supporters in Egypt, and there are many more radical Islamist groups.  In last year’s parliamentary elections, the Islamist bloc received 7.5 million votes (27.8 percent of the total.)  The al-Nour party is the most prominent, and derives much of its support from its charitable activities.

Therefore, one can separate Egyptian political parties into three: the young, urban population with thirty percent, the Salafis with almost thirty percent, and the other forty percent with tendencies in between, most of whom voted for Muslim Brotherhood candidates.  The Brotherhood was extremely popular as recently as the parliamentary elections, but has fallen out of favor due to Morsi’s autocratic behavior.

Egyptians who wanted democracy with protection of individual rights voted heavily for Morsi in the presidential elections because they believed the moderate propaganda put out by the Muslim Brotherhood.  After the election, however, Morsi quickly began to display autocratic tendencies.  He tried to place himself above all other Egyptian political institutions, including the judiciary, after the parliamentary elections were invalidated by the courts.  He packed his administration with hard-line Islamists.  He supported the Islamic take-over of the constitutional convention, which resulted in a constitution without any protections for religious minorities or civil liberties.  Most important, he failed to do anything about the continuing deterioration of the economy.

The Islamist agenda, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood and extending to al-Nour and its fundamentalist offshoots, is fundamentally illiberal.  Salafists are not willing to live in a society in which people have individual rights to practice, or not practice, religion as they wish.  Their goal is a society in which the sexes are segregated, women are forced to wear the veil, and alcohol is not available.  The do not believe in majority rule– they say that God is the only rule.

Therefore, it will be very difficult for Egypt to peacefully implement the type of political system and society with which we are familiar.  There will be a tendency on the part of a significant segment of the population to try to infringe on the rights of others, and this will create conflict.  This is most apparent with the young people, who, after their exposure via Internet to a completely open society, will have difficulty with the Salafist approach.

Paradoxically, the Salafists have reasonable political relationships with the West; this is clear with the most Salafi-dominated country, Saudi Arabia.  President Morsi, as a democratically elected member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was supported by the United States.  It is the Shia who are in open conflict with Western society, and the Palestinians are caught somewhere in the middle.

One reason why Salafi-dominated governments are able to get along diplomatically with Western countries is that, according to Islamic law, it is permissible to lie in order to advance the Islamic cause.  This reason should promote extreme caution.

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