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Egypt: Economic and Social Disparities Underlie Calls for Change

Tens of thousands of people have gathered today in central Cairo and other Egyptian cities for what they are calling the "day of departure" of President Hosni Mubarak.

Ten days after protests began in Egypt, and exactly three weeks after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in Tunisia, one of the most remarkable regional uprisings in recent history continues to blow change through the Arab world.

These are unprecedented protests by citizens reclaiming their rights not only to political freedoms but, critically, to a decent standard of living. The tide of dissent that began in Tunisia has swept to Algeria and Yemen, among other countries, and governments have been forced to react to demands for immediate change.

While the media has understandably focused on the violence and authoritarian intransigence with which the protests have been met, the underlying causes at the heart of these revolutions have received less attention.

Protesters are clearly demanding fundamental regime changes--for rule of law, for greater freedom of expression and for the overhaul of the dominant authoritarianism that has stunted democratic governance for decades. But a tipping point that fueled the uprisings, called "days of rage" by organizers, stems from longstanding frustrations about living a decent life in dignity.

Dissatisfaction about high unemployment, lack of economic prospects, rising food prices, endemic poverty and inadequate living conditions that citizens in these countries have faced has boiled over. Curbing of people's political expression and high-level corruption by avaricious leaders have further compounded this deep frustration. The Brookings Institution recently noted that "the social and economic underpinnings of the uprising are among the important similarities between Tunisia and these other countries."

Access to basic economic and social rights is a central part of the back story: In December 2010, the FAO's food price index spiked to a record level, surpassing even that of 2008 which prompted global riots. The agency estimated that prices could increase further, and worried that this surge could instigate a new wave of riots, particularly in the Middle East. This alarming all-time high prompted the FAO's Chief Economist Abdolreza Abbassian to warn that "we are entering dangerous territory."

Underlying the past weeks' events are inequality--and possible violations of people's economic and social rights--in the rights to food, work, housing and education, among others. Further, two significant areas of discrimination deserve a closer look: disparities between youth and adults, and between men and women, especially in health, education, labor and an adequate standard of living. These disparities are significant, as CESR has previously reported.

A successful outcome of Egypt's current political reform hinges on addressing these fundamental inequities.

An August 2010 ILO report on global youth unemployment pessimistically predicted that in 2010-2011, "only in the Middle East and North Africa" are youth unemployment rates expected to increase in 2011. In a January 2011 report on overall unemployment trends the agency noted that the region continues to have the highest rate of unemployment in the world, with the youth unemployment rate nearly four times that of older adults. Youth are characterized as between the ages of 15-29 years of age, they represent the largest demographic group in the Arab region that is growing at an unprecedented rate, according to a UN report.

In March 2010, the Middle East Youth Initiative pointed out that while unemployment in Egypt had been declining, this was paradoxically associated with a deterioration of job quality rather than major improvements in labor market conditions. Youth who are left with either precarious or informal employment are often not included in labor statistics. The UNDP's 2010 Human Development Report on Egypt warned that the "the outcome of youth's transition to adulthood, if badly managed, becomes highly problematic."

The long-term consequences of sustained youth marginalization has been echoed repeatedly for years by several international organizations. "Given the high percentage of youth among Arab populations, and their intense yearning for jobs, opportunities, and freedom the risks of neglecting youth are simply too high to afford," UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said recently.

It is this "generation-in-waiting," tired of social exclusion, who believe that change is now possible. They are leaders in bringing about what looks to be a new era for the Middle East--one in which governments will have to meet citizens' social, economic and political aspirations.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Egypt, the most populous Arab country. These past 10 days the country has witnessed its first major uprising since the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots.

In a January 25 statement by the Egyptian Land Center for Human Rights in response to the growing protests, the organization noted, "Perhaps this message will make the authorities wake up from their slumber, and force them to apply alternative policies... and ensure a dignified life for the Egyptians. All of this could be achieved by providing opportunities for decent work, decent housing, appropriate health care and education for all citizens, who are raged and angry at the bad conditions and current policies."

Just yesterday, the Director-General of the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), Juan Somavia, called on the leaders of Egypt to "listen attentively and sincerely to the voices of the people [and] first of all, to provide decent jobs and good opportunities to maintain a decent living."

"The failure to address this situation effectively, with all of its consequences for poverty and unbalanced development, together with limitations on basic freedoms, has triggered this historic outpouring of popular demands," Mr. Somavia said in a statement.

The causes of the recent street protests reverberate with civil society organizations' work toward rights-based economic and social reform. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO whose offices were reportedly raided by police and some of whose employees were beaten by thugs yesterday, pointed out last month that the costs of the global economic crisis have been paid by the poor. An increasing cost of living, stagnant wages and lack of employment opportunities was underscored by the fact that the only beneficiaries of Egypt's economic policies are those close to decision-makers, the organization said.

Similar concerns were raised earlier last year by CESR, along with several other local and regional NGOs, when Egypt appeared before the 7th Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in February 2010. A joint NGO statement on Egypt's compliance with its economic and social rights obligations noted some disquieting findings, including that:

  • Public spending on health, education and social security declined between 2003-2007, in stark contrast to the rise in spending on defense and national security;
  • Egypt's anti-poverty policies have failed to make progress, and the number of people living on less than $2 per day in Egypt has risen in the past 20 years;
  • Members of the informal sector have suffered a deterioration of their real earnings over time; and
  • Only 16 percent of women in Egypt work, women's salaries are far lower than men's for comparable work, and women are far more likely to be unemployed. The gender wage gap is the widest of all the lower-middle-income MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries.

The disproportionate impact of economic and social deprivation on women and girls was also highlighted in CESR's fact sheet on Egypt, produced in collaboration with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the findings of which were echoed by the UN Committee monitoring discrimination against women.

The street protests demonstrate how interrelated social and economic rights are to political freedoms. A continued state of emergency has been in place in Egypt since 1981. This highly restrictive political environment has hampered democratic processes, which are vital for sustainable social and economic development and progress on all human rights.

Peaceful transition in Egypt, as well as in other Arab countries experiencing similar changes, must not only open up space for political participation. New leaders and governments must listen to their people's demands for economic and social rights, and for structural reforms to eradicate enduring and entrenched patterns of poverty, inequality, and exclusion. Key members of the international community also must take responsibility in enabling Arab states to meet the full range of their human rights obligations during and beyond this transition period.

Related: CESR condemns assault, coercion and threats of human rights workers and journalists in Egypt >>

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski, Ignacio Saiz and Kevin Donegan on February 4th, 2011