Last week, the Saudi king—whose family conveniently named the country after itself—called for “stability” in Egypt. Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—where if you own just one yacht and personal jet they consider you a pauper—masters of the universe called for “stability” in Egypt.
I don’t want to ruin the punch line here, but President Obama, Sarah Palin and every talking head on the Sunday morning chat circuit all agree—Egypt needs “stability.”
It seems there’s nothing like a revolution taking place inside the Empire’s most strategic ally in the Arab world to get the suits all harrumphing about stability.
A dear friend in Cairo, ISR editor Ahmed Shawki, described the Rapunzel-length lines outside the banks Sunday, the first day they’ve been opened all week, which is perhaps emblematic of Cairenes’ own need for some degree of stability. But I suspect they’re not all talking about the same thing here.
As with most phenomena in class society, it is their stability versus ours. Of all the crimes of the Mubarak regime, instability in daily life was not necessarily one of them.
Every day, like clockwork, ordinary men and women knew that finding enough food to feed their families and clean water to drink and bathe in would be predictably difficult and near impossible for some. With the absolute certainty that life under a stable dictatorship assured, 14.2 million of Egypt’s 80 million people would wake up every day secure in the knowledge that living on less than $1 per day would mean they certainly could not eat three meals a day and would have to beg or find charity to eat even one.
One could argue there was a degree of stability in the expectation most workers had under Mubarak that any attempts to unionize and protest for decent wages would lead to repression. Though it must be noted here that workers in recent years have nonetheless fought fierce battles that have led to small successes, which paved the way in some modest sense to the current instability in the streets.
On my visit to Egypt in April 2008, I took a long walk through one of Cairo’s slums, Imbaba, a neighborhood of winding streets where the concept of combined and uneven development ceases to be an abstraction. On a school day, a group of children sat under a brutal sun greasing spare parts for a gleaming Mercedes on an unpaved street while sitting on a wooden cart pulled by a goat slightly scrawnier than them.
Food insecurity that year had led to widespread rioting and the bread shops’ shelves were bare, though women could buy a few pieces of dusty pita off the hood of an abandoned Toyota. Everywhere young men wearing heavy black uniforms, in 90 degree heat, were sitting with high-power weapons, just watching.
Walking along the Nile, that fabled river of greatness, was a heartbreaking experience because corruption under Mubarak’s stable dictatorship allowed industries to turn it into a sickening swamp of pollution, at least within the metro area that is home to nearly 20 million people.
Poverty and the absence of environmental regulation—or more likely widespread bribery that allows for lack of enforcement—amount to air pollution levels that the World Health Organization claims are 10–100 times beyond what is considered safe.
Egyptian doctor Salah Hassanein compares the lives lost from Cairo’s air quality alone to a jet crash killing 1,000 people every day for 20 years. He explains, “The laws are not enforced because there is no effective monitoring. The rich can always cheat or use his/her influence…. Scientists in Egypt are afraid to speak and have adopted a see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing attitude.”
Egypt has been neoliberalized and economically occupied by the United States and European powers, and it’s not just their war matériel that are stamped “Made in the USA.” In case you’ve ever wondered about the mystery of the Great Sphinx of Giza, it’s that she’s been condemned through modernity to stare out upon a KFC and a Pizza Hut just a few hundred yards away.
This is what imperial stability has brought to Egypt. The cradle of humanity was reduced to a sick experiment in political, social and environmental deprivation.
Which is why I don’t think what Egyptians crave most of all these days is stability. Because when stability only brings you madness and oppression, then instability can be liberating.