It was 1990, and President Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was in turmoil. The statist economic order built by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had come apart at the seams: Egypt's banks were failing, inflation hovered around 20 percent, and -- following the collapse of the Egyptian pound on the international currency markets -- Egyptians had begun hoarding American dollars. Mubarak also had to contend with tanking oil prices, which impacted both exports and remittances from the Gulf, and a dangerous upsurge in terrorist attacks. The assassination of Rifaat al Mahgoub, speaker of the Egyptian People's Assembly, as well as two horrific attacks against Israeli tourists (one between Cairo and Ismailiya and one on the Egyptian-Israeli border near Eilat) in 1990 alone called into question the proficiency of the state's security forces and resulted in a precipitous decline in tourism revenues. Egypt's economy -- based on subsidies, bureaucracy, and a bloated public sector -- was limping feebly toward the 21st century.
Revolution, it is often said, appears impossible before it happens -- just as afterwards it seems inevitable. For the young revolutionaries that powered Egypt's Jan. 25 uprising, the tipping point must have felt like magic. (Indeed, Alaa Al Aswany, a noted Egyptian writer and activist, describes it as a "miracle" in the forward to his most recent book, On the State of Egypt.) But the chapter between impossible and inevitable in Egypt's history is rather more prosaic -- less celestial, more terrestrial. That chapter -- and the beginning of the end for Mubarak -- starts with the economic crisis of 1990.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August of that year seemed to provide the Egyptian strongman with an answer to his financial woes. In exchange for lending diplomatic and military support to the U.S.-led coalition formed to oppose Iraq's aggression, Egypt received a "bonanza of economic rewards," as Bruce Rutherford, an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University, writes in Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World. Loans from the United States and the Paris Club, an informal group of private creditors from 19 of the world's biggest economic powers (12 of which sent military personnel to aid the U.S. invasion of Iraq), were written off and Egypt was showered with some $15 billion in emergency economic assistance. Mubarak, it seemed, could not have played his cards any better.
The aid, critical though it was to reviving Egypt's failed banking sector and stabilizing the economy, contained the seeds of Mubarak's eventual destruction. Conditioned on a demanding International Monetary Fund (IMF) restructuring program, the loans required that Mubarak cut government services, liberalize interest rates, and undertake an ambitious privatization program. They required, as Dina Shehata, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, has argued, that Mubarak break "Nasser's bargain" -- a promise to provide social services, employment, subsidies, education, and health care in exchange for exercising total control of the political environment.
Taking a longer view of events that led to the Jan. 25 revolution does not deny the importance of immediate catalysts such as the fraudulent 2010 parliamentary election or the murder of Khaled Said, a blogger who was beaten to death by police officers and for whom a Facebook page calling for the revolution was named. Nor does the focus on material well-being obscure the role of existential factors -- freedom, dignity, justice -- that inspired Egyptians to risk their lives for political change. But the gradual deterioration of economic conditions in Egypt throughout the 1990s and early 2000s coupled with the rise of an independent labor movement -- one that played an important if not critical role in Egypt's 18-day revolution -- suggests that a longer reading of history might reveal the origins of Mubarak's fall. After all, as Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, recently observed in Foreign Affairs, "pyramids crumble slowly." Perhaps so did the man who many Egyptians joked might someday build his own.