The Plagues of Post-Mubarak Egypt: The Dictatorship's Legacies

Protests, piety, and poverty persist among the inhabitants of post-Mubarak Egypt. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

The streets of downtown Cairo are sweltering as usual this summer afternoon, but Tamer Hassan resists the urge to turn on the taxi's air conditioning. Instead, the 39-year-old father of two keeps the windows rolled wide open and hopes for passengers who will tolerate the baking heat. What else can he do? For all his determined penny-pinching, he has plenty of days when his eight-hour stint behind the wheel brings in barely enough to cover the cost of renting the vehicle from the cab company—never mind the extra gas it would take to run the AC.

And he needs whatever he can get from moonlighting as a cabdriver just to keep his 8-year-old in private school. Hassan is convinced—not without reason—that Egypt's woeful public-education system is good for nothing but turning children into undereducated hooligans. Hassan's day job as a state-employed security guard at a public theater pays barely $33 a month, an amount that hasn't gone up in the nine years he has worked there, he says. His son's tuition is $475 a month. Hassan has no idea what he'll do when his younger son, now 3, is ready for school.

It's people like Hassan—millions of them—who pose some of the biggest challenges confronting Mohamed Morsi. Somehow Egypt's new president still needs to persuade these skeptics to believe in his campaign promises that things will get better. And that won't be easy. When Morsi faced off against former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in last month's presidential runoff contest, half the country's voters didn't participate, and those who bothered to show up divided nearly down the middle. That left Morsi (who hadn't even been his own party's first choice for the presidency) the winner by the barest of majorities over his opponent, Shafiq, who was widely viewed as the military's favored candidate and a relic of Hosni Mubarak's ousted dictatorship.

The worst of it is this: no matter how unexpectedly skillful a politician Morsi might turn out to be, the task he's facing is practically impossible. Even before he can tackle the country's stalled economy, the failing education system, the bloated bureaucracy, and the crumbling -infrastructure—not to mention winning the confidence of the millions of Egyptians who didn't vote or actively supported his opponent—he has to figure out how much power the interim military government has actually ceded to him. Just weeks before he took the oath of office, the Supreme Court, stacked with holdovers from the Mubarak regime, effectively dissolved the country's first freely elected Parliament. Then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) amended its own previously issued Constitutional Declaration, giving veto power to the military in the drafting of a new constitution exempting the security forces and the military budget from presidential control.

Crucial legal questions remain lodged in the court system. Among the unresolved issues: ongoing challenges to the disbanding of Parliament, how to select the assembly that will write the new constitution, and even whether the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party can legally exist. (There's old legislation still on the books that forbids the creation of religious-based political parties.) Meanwhile, the generals have hinted that Morsi's term of office could be cut short to make way for another presidential election when the new constitution is ratified.

Such disputes have only worsened the country's most pressing problem: the stalled economy. All year the grappling over power between military and civilian leaders has delayed a deal with the IMF for a $3.2 billion loan that could stabilize borrowing costs, assist with further international aid, and reassure foreign investors. Economic growth is projected to be no more than 1.5 percent this year, compared with 5.1 percent in the last year of Mubarak's rule. Currency reserves have sunk to little more than a third of their level on the eve of his fall, from $43 billion to $15.1 billion. Tourism and direct foreign investment have dropped, and unemployment has climbed. According to IMF forecasts, the budget deficit could grow to 10 percent of GDP this year.

As one of his presidency's first acts, Morsi ordered a 15 percent increase in the pensions and salaries of government employees, along with an increase in social-security payments, effective this month. He never said where he thought the -money would come from; that didn't matter, as the generals soon made clear. On July 1 they approved the national budget for fiscal year 2012–13 without allowing Morsi even to review it. Now the new president has no choice but to continue the Mubarak regime's spending habits and little hope of making good on his own campaign promises.

But Egyptians like Hassan don't much care about the details. They just want solutions to the country's problems—and fast. Since Mubarak's fall, they've endured more than 16 months of frustrated expectations, and most of them have precious little to show for it. In fact, roughly half the country's 83 million people are estimated to be living on roughly $2 a day or less. "The problem in Egypt is there is no middle class," Hassan says as we sit stuck in afternoon traffic. "If the government doesn't help people who want to work, crime is going to rise even more. People won't be able to feed their families."

Hundreds of protesters gather outside the presidential palace on Morsi's first day in Office. Gianluigi Guercia / AFP-Getty Images

But Morsi has inherited a system that was designed to keep the old guard in power, not to build a modern, vibrant middle class. Take education: roughly 32 percent of the population is under 15, but the country's public schools are in dire straits. Classrooms are shared by 40 to 50 pupils, and curriculum is focused on rote learning, rather than on critical thinking. "The mismatch between the outputs of the education system and the needs of the job market is one of the key reasons behind the persistently high level of unemployment in Egypt, which is officially estimated at 12 percent but generally assumed to be significantly higher," the London-based think tank Chatham House warned in a paper on Egypt's education system earlier this year.

Morsi clearly needs to clean up the Education Ministry and inject more money into the nation's classrooms. But he has no control over the budget. And the past six decades of military rule have created a feudal system of deeply entrenched corruption throughout the government. "It's going to take time for Morsi to reform the ministries, and time is the one thing he doesn't have," says Joshua Stacher, a 2012–13 Wilson Fellow and author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. "Any kind of maneuver he makes within a ministry to reform it, change its personnel, redesign it, is going to be met with bureaucratic obstructionism by people who are used to doing things a certain way and are basically turf guarding their positions in that ministry. They're going to dilute initiatives, sabotage them."

That in itself would be a serious obstacle to getting Egypt up and running, but Mubarak allowed the rest of the country to fall apart as well. The country's roads, ports, and bridges are mismanaged and crumbling. Infrastructure investment has plummeted over the past 15 years, especially in power generation and transportation, according to a January 2010 World Bank working paper. "Associated with this decline, capital expenditures in Egypt have been reduced in the last decade, raising concerns that the country may have reached an unsustainably low level of infrastructure investment," the report said.

Egypt already occupied a less-than--distinguished spot in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings, but in the past year it slipped still lower, from No. 108 to No. 110. Out of 183 economies, Egypt ranks 154th for ease of attaining a construction permit, 101 for getting electricity, and 145 in tax payments. All of these factors contribute to Egypt's economic dysfunction. "These are all complementary moving parts," says Stacher.

The only way for Morsi and the Brotherhood to begin fixing these problems is by taking the reins away from the military and its vested civilian partners. So far, however, that doesn't seem to be happening. -Human-rights groups have been particularly dismayed by the Brotherhood's acquiescence to the generals' demand that the civilians keep their hands off the Ministry of Interior. "The mission of security reform is very important, and it should be a priority," says Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "But there is no political will."

Instead, he says, when the topic of reforming the Interior Ministry was raised in the now dissolved Parliament, the Brotherhood seemed to focus solely on substituting pro-Islamists for officers who persecuted them under the old regime. Other than that, Mubarak's police state remains essentially intact, institutionalized torture and all. In the past 16 months, more than 100 protesters have been killed in clashes with the security services, and 12,000 civilians have been hauled before military courts. "Nothing has happened," says El Din Hassan. "They are claiming there is ongoing reform, [but they are] just using some beautiful words."

The country's Coptic Christians are particularly worried. Since March 2011, thousands of Copts have left Egypt for fear of the Islamists' rising political strength, according to Naguib Gabriel, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights. In fact, two of his three sons have moved abroad. In the past year, he says, his law office has been threatened, vandalized, and set ablaze because of his high-profile work on Coptic issues. Morsi has promised to name a Copt as vice president, but many say they want solid guarantees of religious liberty—including the right to build churches and prosecution of those who commit sectarian violence—not just token gestures.

In his first televised address to the nation, Morsi promised to be a president for all Egyptians, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular. Many of his listeners remain unconvinced. "The Muslim Brotherhood never keeps their word," said Zyad Elelaimy, a Social Democratic Party M.P. from the now dissolved Parliament and a veteran of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which planned the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising. Members of the Brotherhood interviewed by Newsweek admit that they have a lot of work to do, but say their critics should be more patient. "We've been going about this as ethically and as legally as we can," says Brotherhood spokesman Jihad El Haddad. "Perhaps not as revolutionary as many had hoped, but then again, the Muslim Brotherhood was never a revolutionary group. It's a gradual-reform and social-change group."

A protester writes demands on the wall of the presidential palace. Khaled Desouki / AFP-Getty Images

Some accuse the Brotherhood of making secret backroom deals with the military to carve out realms of influence in the new Egypt. Others say that for the moment the two sides ought to be seeking common ground. "What is needed is an agreement between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood that for the foreseeable future they have to share power," says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They have to rule together because there is no other way to do it. They cannot start addressing issues which are totally crucial unless they solve some of the political problems."

If they can't find a way to resolve their conflicts and move forward against the desperate problems that are afflicting ordinary Egyptians, the country is in big trouble. And civilian politicians like Morsi will be the ones who are held accountable. "If they fail, what does that do to perceptions about democratic change?" asks Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. "Does it discredit the move to create more accountable governments and pave the way for authoritarian relapse?" Already a palpable hankering for a return to the old order has set in among many Egyptians. The desire was reflected by Shafiq's strong showing in the elections—not only in the runoffs, when he was the only remaining alternative to the Islamists, but also in the first round, when he finished second.

Tamer Hassan says he doubts that Morsi and his party will fix Egypt's problems. As soon as they have a solid grip on power, they'll begin abusing it, he predicts: "Once they grab the bone, they'll just keep biting it." As he speaks, he's driving through Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the uprising that overthrew Mubarak and ushered in Morsi. "But it all depends on what they do," he says, shaking his head. "If they change something, I swear, I'll be the first one in line voting for them."

Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist.