When Tarek Osman published Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak last fall, few expected that the country would erupt in popular anger only months later. In the book Osman weaves the tale of an increasingly divided and oppressed land and examines the social, cultural, and economic factors that have led to a perfect revolutionary storm -- one of the most significant movements in modern Arab history. From his home, Osman tells Foreign Policy that in the crucial days ahead, it won't be the Muslim Brotherhood or liberal capitalists who determine the country's uncertain future, but Egypt's often overlooked middle class.
"What we are seeing is eruption, which by definition is not going to shape the future," he says.
Foreign Policy: Your book was published last November. Did you think in February you would be sitting here seeing these events unfold?
Tarek Osman: The honest answer is no. I certainly saw, and I think many others saw, that some sort of eruption would happen and that that eruption would certainly come from the wider middle classes and be led by young Egyptians. But it was not in my mind that it would be in January or February. I didn't expect it to happen at such a fast pace.
FP: What finally made Egyptians mobilize? What drove the momentum?
TO: First and foremost, there was a major change in the Egyptian middle class over the past three decades. Hundreds of thousands of families in the '50s and '60s in Egypt were relatively comfortable. But over the past few decades, they have suffered significantly. Many segments were basically downgraded within the middle class over the past 35 years. That transformation within the middle class led to many tensions. And these tensions, suppressed for many years, needed to be released.
The second thing is that the nature of the regime over the past 60 years since the coup/revolution of 1952 has effectively centered on the military establishment ruling Egypt through one of its trusted sons leading the nation. Egyptians have accepted that for many years. There were no free elections over the last 60 years, but there was consent of the people that the military establishment is the ruling establishment represented by a president who has taken a civilian role in society. All of that has changed in the last 10 years as new economic and financial players entered the regime. They started to grab areas of influence and control. And these areas of control were areas that affected ordinary Egyptians' lives. That merger between power and wealth displeased the Egyptian middle class that has been suffering since the 1970s until today, as well as gradually eroding the legitimacy of the regime.
You also have to take into account the lack of a national project for more than three decades. It's an extremely important issue for a very old country like Egypt. For the past 200 years, every single era has something that would make Egyptians passionate, from Muhammad Ali (the founder of modern Egypt), who wanted to build an army and revive this country, to Khedive Ismail (his grandson) who wanted to build a modern Egypt modeled on Europe, to the liberal experiment led by the Wafd Party in the '30s and '40s that aimed to have a constitutional democracy, to Nasser and Arab nationalism (a highly ambitious political project that inspired millions in Egypt and across the Arab world). What was there in the past 35 years? Effectively there was nothing. This has left a feeling for the young that they are living in a political void, that they have inherited a number of political failures, and that they need to fashion a new national project.
Then the final variable that led to mobilization was demographics. In this country, 45 million people are younger than I am -- that's less than 35 years old. If you add these forces together, it's a no-brainer to me. You needed to have some sort of an eruption.