I imagine some senior state officials breathed a sigh of relief once last Friday was over, and with it demonstrations protesting the border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Except for some commotion downtown, the day seemed to have passed in peace, with no worrying consequences for the future, and the vast majority of the Egyptian people held their silence and did not participate in the protest, which was limited to overzealous (or paid) youth.
But those who believe this are dreaming and ignoring several facts as clear as day.
The first is that there is a reservoir of untapped anger and resentment on the Egyptian street, stoked not only by the issue of Tiran and Sanafir islands, but the general political and economic mismanagement of the country.
Politically, the mismanagement has given us a parliament without credibility and successive governments that have no decision-making power, disregard the constitution, and stubbornly refuse to address the issue of rights and liberties, especially political prisoners, the continued enforcement of the protest law, and the persecution of civil society organizations.
Economically, the clumsiness and opacity is clear in the continued adherence to a failed strategy to attract investment, the inability to address the tourism crisis, rising prices, and the continued marshaling of national resources for megaprojects with no apparent concern for services and utilities that touch Egyptians’ everyday life.
Second, although Friday’s demonstration brought just a few thousand people to downtown, it was bigger and more diverse than anticipated. It also illustrated the prevailing outlook of today’s youth, who are not deterred by either warnings of Muslim Brotherhood participation or threats of prison.
Third, the fact that people didn’t turn out in large numbers for Friday’s demonstration is less an indication of satisfaction than confusion and reservations about the utility of this form of protest.
People’s experience with the January and June revolutions was tough—the first brought in the Muslim Brotherhood while the second proved unable to put the country back on the democratic path. It’s no wonder, then, that Egyptians are reluctant to embark on a new adventure of uncertain outcome.
This, however, doesn’t mean they are satisfied with the status quo, and it’s not a mandate for the state to continue its current course. It may instead be that the public is watching and waiting, searching for methods of change other than packed demonstrations in public squares.
Fourth, the matter of the islands is not yet over and will not magically disappear. It will continue to plague the state until it settles the issue in a legal way convincing to both the Egyptian and Saudi side.
Referring the issue to the House of Representatives will not resolve it. The state is simply throwing the hot potato to parliament, hoping for a way out of a crisis it created but would rather not solve.
As I said last week, I’m not an expert on public international law, but Am certain the state mismanaged the islands dispute, revealing a reckless disregard for public opinion and a belief that it can continue to govern by surprise, as if there’s no society, parliament, or people.
Fifth and most seriously, the state seems unaware of its growing disconnect from the public. This was clearly demonstrated when the president said on the day of the demonstration that Egypt is carrying out some great projects, but the media ignores them and the public either isn’t following or doesn’t appreciate them.
I have no doubt that the president was genuinely angry and annoyed that the public is ignoring megaprojects currently underway, but as I’ve said repeatedly, it’s not simply a matter of construction projects, no matter how grand. Society, parliament, and the public must be involved—in assessing the importance of these projects and setting priorities—rather than being surprised by them. It only deepens the divide between the people and the state when the latter takes it upon itself to forbid, bestow, and unilaterally determine the interest of the public, leaving them nothing to do but be appreciative.
The growing popular protest sounds a warning to the state that it has lost its way, politically and economically. This time it may have passed in peace, and the same thing may happen on Sinai Liberation Day. But the direction is clear and the anger is growing. There may still be a chance to correct the course and reconstitute state-society relations before it’s too late, but only if those in power listen.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.