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Why Egypt regime can weather the storm

By Tarek Osman, Special to CNN
  • Egypt protests represent significant challenge to Mubarak regime, Tarek Osman writes
  • The author says protests expose the divisions in economy and society
  • Osman says rise of middle class means many have a stake in avoiding chaos
  • He says the regime's opponents are divided and not prepared to lead

Editor's note: Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He is the author of "Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak" (Yale University Press, 2011).

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- This week tens of thousands swamped the heart of Cairo, Alexandria, and other major Egyptian cities, facing down anti-riot police, to demand cheaper food, better services, and substantial changes to the regime's modus operandi.

With five dead, more than 100 injured, and the police resorting to tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, most observers are examining whether the Egyptian regime will be able to contain the situation and suppress the protests without even more significant bloodshed.

Two factors suggest continued tension and further challenges to the regime. First, the Egyptian state's institutional framework is at its weakest point since the coup/revolution of 1952 that created the Egyptian republic. The delicate balance that the regime has nurtured, between the rise of the liberal capitalists within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the traditional power and influence of the military and security establishment, seems to be under strain.

The center of gravity and decision-making has shifted from the long-established anchors of stability toward inexperienced new economic and financial players.

Egypt cracks down on protesters
Suez crowds confront riot police
Tear gas in the air in Alexandria
Egypt's communication crackdown

The ascent of the new capitalists gave rise to the second factor: an unexpected solidarity between the politically active -- who see the influence of the new capitalists as a blurring of the lines between power and wealth -- and the disenfranchised poor, who as a result of successive financial reform measures, face severe economic pains. The situation is made more acute by a youth unemployment rate of more than 15% (in an 80 million population, 40% of whom are under 30 years old).

The politically active and the millions of poor Egyptians blame the Hosni Mubarak regime, which has been in power for three decades. This is a tenuous political environment, where anguish and anxiety can quickly turn into anger, and with any catalyst, into action.

But, so far, the situation in Egypt is not combustible. Despite the regime's overall poor record, its major upgrading of the country's infrastructure, relative success in installing economic liberalization, and cautious foreign policy have fostered an environment in which a few million middle class families managed to secure economic gains.

The past decade also witnessed a notable rise in entrepreneurialism with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians able to build small enterprises leveraging the growth in economic sectors ranging from food and beverages, to tourism, to information technology, to entertainment.

The development of the Egyptian real estate industry and the country's capital markets attracted the life savings of few more millions.

In today's Egypt, specifically in Cairo, Alexandria, and the major cities of the Nile Delta, there is a relatively large middle class that has a serious stake in the country's economic future, realistic ambitions for further economic gains, and which abhors the prospect of chaos in the country.

Another factor reduces the chances of immediate change in Egypt: the unpreparedness of the regime's serious political opponents. The street's demonstrations create momentum and could be a catalyst for change. But the regime's rivals vying for power in Egypt remain deeply wanting.

This is a tenuous political environment, where anguish and anxiety can quickly turn into anger...
--Tarek Osman

Political Islam, and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, continues to be mired in a divide between its cautious and aging leadership and its young, enthusiastic (and sometimes pugnacious) devotees. Its ensuing political actions have been equivocal. At times, the Brotherhood has deliberately avoided confrontations with the regime that any political challenger would relish.

The liberal movement continues to be fragmented, from the traditional opposition parties, to students' movements, to the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, to the new National Association of Change, the vehicle associated with Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei. Arguably, the liberal movement benefits from the nationalist, inclusive slogans of the demonstrations which shunned appeals to Islam and Christianity in favor of Egyptianism.

But the liberal movement so far lacks the institutional structure required to evolve into a viable, immediate alternative to the regime. This unpreparedness is a paramount deficiency in a country with colossal economic challenges such as Egypt's.

As Egypt heads toward a presidential election in September, two things will shape its political landscape. One is the interaction amongst the regime, political Islam, and the liberal movement; the other is the relationship within the regime itself -- between the military and security establishment on the one hand and Egypt's economic power centers on the other.

It is unlikely that the situation in Egypt will descend into chaos. The military and security establishment can enforce stability, provided we do not see major unrest within the country's middle class. But these expressions of anger intensify the uncertainty surrounding Egypt's future -- especially in the period post-Mubarak, who is approaching his mid-80s.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tarek Osman.

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