Egypt's cinematic drama has created a global audience that yearns for a hero and a happy ending. Yet the tale playing out in Cairo is not a Hollywood movie: Egypt is in the throes of a traumatic confrontation with modernity, which will continue to define the country's direction regardless of individual actors and political micro-dramas. This crisis was the primary cause for the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, and the events of the past two years are merely the symptoms of Egypt's current state of affairs.
What we are witnessing is the last, dying gasps of the Nasserite era. The ideological vision of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the 1952 revolution that overthrew Egypt's monarchy, has defined the last six decades of Egyptian politics: Arab nationalism, vehement anti-colonialism, the nationalization of the country's economy, and the preeminence of the military are the foundation on which modern Egypt is built. While Nasserism was arguably successful in helping Egypt emerge from its political past, it has long been in slow decline -- and is now on the verge of collapse.
The crumbling of the Mubarak regime two years ago momentarily wrenched Egypt's population out of a decades-old slumber. But today, many vestiges of Nasser's Egypt -- key structures of state, society, and the economy -- linger on. They are the creaking, dysfunctional machinery of a protectionist system still striving to shut out the forces of modernity and globalization in order to preserve the vested interests of an elite few.
Egypt's insidious state security establishment is a prime example of the country's unfinished revolution. The Jan. 25 protests proved to be the watershed moment when -- for all its networks of informants, secret police officers, and legions of thugs -- it had no answer to modern technology, digital media, and mobile communications. While describing the uprising as a "Facebook Revolution" remains misleading, protesters understood how their technological advantages enabled them to outmaneuver a clumsy and brutal security apparatus. Two years on, however, the Interior Ministry remains unreformed, the scars of years of brutalization of Egyptian society are yet to be healed, and civilian law enforcement faces an undetermined future.
Depressingly then, though no less predictably, the Muslim Brotherhood has quickly revealed itself as representing a continuation of this broken system. President Mohamed Morsy has shown himself as eager to maintain an authoritarian stranglehold over the political process as his predecessor, unilaterally issuing a declaration that granted him far-reaching powers and ramming through a new constitution on short notice. In another sinister echo of the old regime, the Brotherhood is now employing its own armed thugs to violently confront protesters, as seen in the December 2012 clashes outside the presidential palace.
Meanwhile, despite Morsy's house cleaning of the military's senior leadership last August, critical aspects of the country's controversial new constitution leave the uniformed establishment's independence from civilian oversight and autonomy over its own opaque affairs intact. Key clauses have kept the military's vast budget away from parliamentary view and formally sanctioned the use of military trials for civilians. It is difficult to envisage how the country can genuinely move into a new era while the military, representing the immovable institutional foundation of Nasser's Egypt, continues to dominate the country's commanding heights.
The decay of Egypt's education system provides a window into the slow collapse of Nasserite Egypt. In the years following the July 1952 revolution, the barely existent public education system underwent an exponential expansion: By the mid-1970s, the education budget represented more than 25 percent of the government's total expenditure, while spending on school construction increased by 1,000 percent. During the same period, overall school enrollment grew by a staggering 400 percent.
This early commitment, however, faltered long ago. Nowadays, education spending represents a pitifully small portion of the public budget, more than 80 percent of which goes to pay bureaucrats' salaries. Primary school classes of up to 60 children are taught in multiple daily shifts, while education relies on rote memorization, stifling intellectual curiosity and creativity.