Public protests in Egypt are not about minor changes or grievances. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime faces a deep process of legitimacy erosion – the same pattern of legitimacy erosion that exists across much of the Arab region. This erosion won’t simply go away with more protests or new governments, and it will be with us in the years to come. Understanding the larger societal and demographic factors eroding these regimes is vital to understanding the unrest in the Middle East and how the Arab world can move forward.
This erosion is coming from five directions.
Biological challenge (The generation gap)
The first challenge is what I call the biological challenge. There is a generation gap between old rulers and the majority youth. Biologically, a new generation of Egyptians reproduces at a relatively high rate. Currently, around 65 percent of Egyptians are under 30 years old with an unemployment rate of 25 percent among those who are between 18 and 29 years old. For those who are employed, half of them work on jobs that do not match the kind of training they got while in college or technical high school.
Moreover, only 1 percent of Egyptian youth are officially affiliated with political parties, which means that they are politically underrepresented. These young men and women do not have the historical memories of their parents. Egypt's younger generation simply does not remember Mr. Mubarak as the esteemed air force leader in the 1973 war against Israel. His military background, which may have meant a lot to their parents, does not mean much to the new generation.
Geological challenge (Oil wealth and social capital)
Second, the geological challenge contributes to this legitimacy erosion. There was great geological virtue in having such primary resources such as oil and phosphates, and being in control of geo-strategic waterways or even sources of water (following the famous theory of Asiatic despotism). This control over natural resources, in addition to foreign aid, brought many Arab states their legitimacy in the 1970s through 1990s through “baksheesh” or “stipend petrocracies.”
However, wealth gained from natural resources, controlled waterway access, and foreign stipends, cannot continue to have the same legitimizing effect for Arab regimes in the future. There is an increased demand on the part of the new generation for free education, healthcare, and jobs. The formula of a "better-off super-citizen" economically and a "worse-off nobody" politically will not work in the future. As UN Human Development Indexes show, Mubarak’s regime has generally failed to convert monetary capital into social capital.
Theological challenge (Islam and democracy)
Third, there is a new Islam-related challenge that faces autocratic rulers in the region. This can be called the theological challenge. Some Islamists have proven that they are more committed to democracy than some of the secular autocrats. The "theological/theocratic" card used by autocratic rulers to defame Islamists has been fading away due to the fact that many Islamists have proven less violent or radical than their own rulers. Modernist Islamist groups, such as Egypt’s al Wasat Party, have been constantly trying to establish their commitment to peaceful democratic participation in Egypt. Yet it was deprived of this right.
It is becoming more difficult to claim that all Islamists are followers or students of Al Qaeda leaders. By adopting democratic discourse and disassociating themselves from violent radical Islamists, modernist Islamists debunk the theology/theocracy pretext that autocratic statist elites use for postponing democratization. However, there is also a pro-status quo challenge emanating from the religious discourse. This challenge is coming from the Salafi and Sufi discourses that paint the status quo as acceptable by Islamic standards. Followers of these discourses (that are estimated by some accounts to be roughly 10 percent in the region) are heavily used by the rulers to minimize the impact of political Islam that is inherently opposing the autocratic secular regimes.
Technology challenge (The Facebook youth)
Fourth, there is the challenge of technology. All the previous developments would not have been possible but for the impact of technology that made Muslims abundantly connected to the world. Satellite dishes and the Internet show Muslims what is happening in Georgia, Ukraine, Tunisia, and other countries. The advancements in communication technology have helped facilitate demonstrations throughout the region. The ruling elite in Egypt insisted that “Facebook youth are not the ‘real’ Egyptian youth.” The counter argument that was proven right in the past few days is that Facebook youth are the Egyptian youth, since they enjoy the right to freedom of expression online that they did not have offline.
There are over 700 satellite channels in Arab societies, and almost 70 percent of them are not government-owned. No monopoly over information, ideas, or even wrongdoing in this part of the world is possible anymore.
Ideological challenge (Nasserism and Islamism are out)
Fifth, there is the challenge of ideology. Egyptians live in a time of an increasing fade-away of the allure of the non-democratic ideologies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Nasserism (Arab nationalism) and radical Islamism. Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, adopted socialism to justify state-controlled economies and one-party systems to achieve (non-democracy related) goals such as liberating land, achieving national unity, or simply to guarantee self-survival. These democracy-unfriendly ideologies adopted by Mr. Nasser lost their significance after decades of formal independence, widespread corruption, and the collapse of the Soviet model. The words Islah (reform) and tagheyeer (change) have become the new buzz words in most Arab streets.
The aforementioned biological, geological, theological, technological, and ideological challenges have eroded the legitimacy of Mubarak’s regime. Thus, Mubarak’s promises and pseudo-democratic steps are perceived by the youth to be unsuccessful public relations maneuvers to deflect the pressure.
The march of democracy is long and bumpy but it has to start somewhere, and it has started.
Moataz A. Fattah is an associate professor of political science at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the author of “Democratic Values in the Muslim World.”