Arab governments, including Egypt's, generally believe that citizens' economic and social rights can be protected without a centralised commitment to safeguarding their civil and political rights. Government officials tend to give priority to the right to education, work, healthcare and social security rather than freedom of expression, freedom of association, participation in civil society organisations and political parties, and holding free and fair elections on a regular basis. Alternatively, they bend towards the need for openness towards civil and political rights before guaranteeing economic and social rights in order for society to stabilise, have cohesion and make progress.
From the 1950s to the present day, Egypt's state institutions have depended on the rhetoric of eliminating poverty, ignorance, unemployment and disease before turning to the "luxury" of freedom of expression and freedom of association. Politics have changed since the 1950s, from one party rule with one individual at the helm between 1954 and 1970 to the rule of another individual and his party within a restricted party pluralism that included some opponents during the Sadat and Mubarak eras. In all cases, the conviction that economic and social rights are paramount and should precede all others, remained solid.
With a short hiatus between 2011 and 2013 during which civil and political rights in the aftermath of the January Revolution were the priority, Egypt is now back to one individual-one party rule. The prioritising of economic and social rights under the current regime means that only the state institutions and the strong executive that controls them are entrusted with guaranteeing the rights to education, work, healthcare, etc. State institutions and the executive, it is believed, have no need to partner with citizens, who are free personally as well as publicly, and with a society balanced by respect for people's freedoms and their right to individual initiative, competition and choice with neither fear nor favour.
In the regime's worldview, the state institutions, not the citizens or civil society, provide, develop and advance education, employment, healthcare and social security. The strong executive authority, meanwhile, creates the legal framework and enforces the law, allocates public resources and implements policies as it sees fit. Citizens must listen, obey and show support, or at least refrain from dissent, and must also concede their civil and political rights while waiting patiently for their economic and social rights to be guaranteed. The task of society is thus to convert the individual support required of the citizen — obedience — into collective support — mobilisation — and alignment with the state and the executive while marginalising those who sing a different tune, either by going against the national consensus or by dreaming about economic and social rights and the safeguarding of their freedoms all at once.
An obedient citizen is not a free citizen who is able to exercise the right to choose and launch individual initiatives, either in personal life or in the public sphere. A compliant society is one that not only eliminates the civil and political rights of its citizens, but also eliminates the opportunities for a diverse and competitive private sector in various economic and social fields, from education to the labour market.
When state institutions and the executive alone have the ability to control economic and social rights and give themselves the exclusive privilege of determining how this is done, they have full control over education, employment, healthcare and everything else that a modern society needs. They are, therefore, able to prevent the emergence of a vibrant private sector. When this happens, the citizen's right to freedom of choice and individual initiative, and society's right to diversity and pluralism, are abolished, and the private sector loses its true identity and reason for its existence, which is the expression of a free citizenry and a free society.
It is not only civil society organisations, political parties and a free media that lose their reasons for existence and vitality when civil and political rights are abolished, but also the private sector, and with it the principles of private ownership, individuality and open competition as the main principles for economic and social activity. Public ownership, state control over resources and means of production, and a public sector that has no competition in the form of private profit-making entities, are all consistent with the perception of the state as the only driver of development and progress; citizens and civil society are reduced to obedient onlookers and consumers. This is also consistent with a belief in the precedence of economic and social rights over anything else.
Setting aside my personal belief in the moral, human and societal preference for the principles of private ownership, individualism and competition, and the democracy upon which it is based, the major dilemma posed by the prevailing view of the regime in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Arab world) is its repeated failure to guarantee economic and social rights over periods of stability in different countries under different conditions. An example of this can be seen in different Arab states and the failures of successive governments in terms of the material happiness of their citizens forced to forfeit their civil and political rights. Other issues are linked to such a critical failure, such as what is seen in a country like Egypt, where the state machine, obedient citizens and a regime-aligned society distort the private sector, causing it to lose its ability to contribute effectively to national development and progress, simply because the state has a monopoly, limited innovation and poor productivity.
In Egypt and other Arab countries, anyone who wants to guarantee the economic and social rights of the citizens cannot rely solely on the state institutions and the executive authority. If a competitive and innovative private sector is desired, with expanded private ownership and a smaller invasive public sector, then individualism, freedom of choice, diversity and pluralism cannot be suppressed. There has to be a balance between citizens' rights and the government's duties and responsibilities. When this is missing, as it is in Egypt and other Arab countries, we end up with the tragedy that we have endured since the 1950s, leaving us all very far from what our countries and citizens deserve.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 11 January 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.