It goes without saying that Egypt has seen a revolutionary political change. Its new president is a leader of an organization that a little more than a year ago was still banned and feared. Since February 2011 Egyptians have voted four times. Yet, people-oriented policies are nowhere to be found and ordinary Egyptians feel little change for better in their everyday lives. Few dare to say this out loud: big part of the problem is the Egyptian society itself. It is still authoritarian: at work, at home and in the Arab street.
The notion of an authoritarian Arab society is not new. Brian Whitaker, a British columnist at the Guardian, in his book “What’s really wrong with the Middle East” (Saqi, 2009) talks to an Egyptian journalist who explains that not the single Mubarak is the problem but the fact that “Egypt has a million Mubaraks”.
Authoritarian homes, workplaces and streets
First, think of the 6.5-million strong public sector. Nearly 10% of the society make up state institutions, the so-called public service. Ministers, clerks, teachers, policemen, postmen they have all gotten used to authoritarian way of dealing with inquirers. They tend to abuse power on every level of state institutional structure. They favour their next-of-kin and their acquaintances or they benefit from graft. The amount of wasta (connections) characterizes the influence that an ordinary citizen has when confronted with the state – without wasta one is powerless.
Citizens fight a constant battle with state institutions, which enslave people instead of serving them. It’s not a characteristic particular only to Egypt. For example, visits in public offices in Poland in the 80s and 90s were equally nerve-wrecking: ordinary people at the mercy of an arrogant clerk. It is no wonder that the beneficiaries want to keep their privileged positions – changing their attitude will take years of top to bottom institutional reform.
Arrogant clerks have long been one emanation of the Egyptian state. So have been the family and education models. The family itself is in a sense authoritarian: the father makes decisions while the rest of the family follow his guidance. The mother of course is emotional and has immense influence on the children but she remains silent vis-à-vis her husband’s judgments. In the words of an Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra “the parents are sacred”. Family is the microcosmic state, which subdues an individual to obedience. The school does the same. The 2008 World Bank survey admitted that “the education system mainly rewarded those who were skilled at being passive knowledge recipients”. Passive knowledge recipients become passive order recipients. Eventually the school instills the sense of omnipresent higher authority.
If the state, the school and the family are authoritarian, such has to be the street as well. The sense of citizenship is weak, local community is an artificial creation – it only exists as long as people are blood related – and the civil society has yet to fully emerge. Those deficits result in lack of responsibility for the country, for local environment, for the mountains, the seaside, the school etc. Often the first thing that strikes you in Arab countries is the lack of consideration for the immediate surroundings: people throw rubbish in the streets, in the river or in the sea. No one cares and yet it changes again once you enter someone’s home which in contrast to the profane street is a sacred milieu. Western foreigners do get to experience the proverbial Arab hospitality but characteristically for authoritarian societies deep distrust still mars relations among Arabs themselves.
Still on track in the right direction
For now political change has outpaced the social one. But there is an Arab saying: dawam al-hal min al-muhal – more of the same is impossible. The social change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary – it is more time consuming and less spectacular. Events is Tunisia and Egypt showed that in times of a more politically-empowered individual the Arabs could stand up as well – not only to state authorities, but sons and daughters to their fathers and grandfathers, women to men, employees to employers, the smaller ones to the bigger. That change is slow to bring tangible fruit but it looks unstoppable.
Patrycja Sasnal is Middle East analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). She is also the author of the recent publication Populism vs Progress After the Presidential Elections in Egypt.
For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners: