The dropping of charges against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has reminded Arabs of the original goals of the popular uprisings and highlighted the failure of those revolutions to deliver the promised results, as Gerald Butt reports.
The hard lesson that Egyptians and others who came out onto the streets in support of the 2011 Arab uprisings have had to learn is that removing a president from power is the easy bit. In Egypt and elsewhere, change has not always been matched by previously anticipated progress, and most assumptions about how the post-uprising Arab world would look have turned out to be wrong.
For a start, getting rid of a dictator doesn’t automatically mean removing all the individuals and institutions that kept him in power for decades. The latter, of course, have vested interests in their countries returning as far as possible to the status quo ante. This is a key reason why Egypt hasn’t become an inclusive, democratic country, respecting free speech and other human rights, as most of those millions of young people in Tahrir Square back in 2011 might have assumed.
The majority of Egyptians today probably feel less certain about their future and less economically secure than they did during the last days of Mubarak.
What Egyptian leaders since the fall of Mubarak – army commanders first, then presidents Morsi and Sisi – have failed to do is address the core socio-economic issues that brought Egyptians onto the streets in their millions in January 2011. To put the matter simply, millions of Egyptians struggle every day to feed their families.
Egypt is kept from sinking by vast cash hand-outs from Arab Gulf states, but the money won’t be there for ever. The time for action is now. The authorities have to find answers to some difficult questions: without security and stability that allow tourism and foreign investment to return how is the economy to be put back on its feet? How, otherwise, are the needs of very poor people to be met?
More important still: how long will those Egyptians be prepared to live in slums without basic facilities and with scant prospect of employment before there is another uprising, this time led by the urban poor?
So great are Egypt’s problems, not to mention those in Libya, Syria and Yemen, that the focus of Arab leaders naturally enough is on short-term solutions to the most pressing problems. But unless some of the longer-term problems are addressed, too, it is impossible to see how young Arabs can be expected to have any hopes for the future.
Hand-in-hand with the need to provide jobs and housing is the challenge of education, itself a victim of the Arab uprisings and the disruption to normal life across the region. A UN report four years ago spoke of “grave concerns over the state of education in the Arab world” – a region where one third of the adult population is unable to read and write and close to “nine million primary school-aged children do not attend school.” Since that report was written the picture has become even bleaker.
Without the grounding from a curriculum that encourages analysis and debate, rather than rote-learning, the majority of people in the region will be ill-equipped to play a part in politics at any level, even if the opportunity is presented to them.
The dropping of charges against Mubarak was bound to incite strong emotions. It is seen as a symbolic victory by the old guard and provides an uncomfortable reminder of the shortcomings of the Arab uprisings as a whole. But the fate of the former Egyptian president, in the context of the uncertain future of Egypt and the region at large, will probably turn out to be little more than a side-show.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.