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Egypt: Corruption, not the State of the Economy, is the Real Problem

- January 31, 2011

I am pleased to welcome “Professor Lisa Blaydes”:http://www.stanford.edu/~blaydes/ of Stanford University and the author of the recently published “Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak’s Egypt”: with the following guest post on recent developments in Egypt.


Economists have described corruption as a stable equilibrium, but one for which the associated cumulative social costs can drive the system to a catastrophic point at which this equilibrium becomes suddenly unsustainable. Of course, no one knew that Police Day, January 25 2011, would be the day that Egypt’s autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak, would lose his grip on power. But it was on this day that the endogenous by-products of the power equilibrium Mubarak had so deftly maintained for almost thirty years finally caught up with his regime.

Why focus on political corruption rather than economic redistribution? Everyday acts of government neglect and corruption are perhaps even more frustrating for regular Egyptians than poverty and unemployment. “Carrie Wickham”:http://polisci.emory.edu/facultypages/wickham.htm has argued that the single greatest problem facing Egyptian society is a sense of _normlessness_. While the regime has been careful to establish both informal norms and more formal institutions to govern treatment of the elite, less of an effort has been made to provide assurances to everyday Egyptians.

Over time, citizens have become enraged by the failure of the state to provide them with basic protection from some of the by-products of economically-based corruption committed by regime cronies. Members of parliament representing Mubarak s hegemonic National Democratic Party were among the most notorious abusers of power and immunity from prosecution for corruption. Parliamentarians with close ties to the regime have been implicated in everything from drug dealing, financial fraud, negligence with regard to public safety, thuggery and even murder. Unless caught flagrante delicto or red-handed strict limits were placed on the ability to prosecute these crimes.

It is also not as though Mubarak was unaware of these issues. A government survey of more than 2,000 Egyptians in 2009 found that the majority of respondents listed businessmen, especially those with close links to authorities as the most corrupt group in society. Recognizing the unpopularity of his stalwarts, Mubarak made a speech to an audience of workers complaining that Egyptian businessmen were exacerbating tensions between themselves and the poor by flaunting their wealth. Acts of government neglect and corruption have had the ability to mobilize Egyptians frustrated with their treatment at the hands of government. Acts of public protest have becoming increasingly common in Egypt over the last few years though the regime has tried to mis-characterize these acts as criminality.

It was the regime’s reliance on corruption as a strategy to bind the rent-seeking elite to the ruling regime that ultimately undermined Egypt s status quo.