Public Corruption and the Egyptian Revolution of January 25

The January 25 Revolution, as Egyptians call it, is the fourth Egyptian revolution in the last 130 years.  The modern Egyptian national movement has consistently sought three goals: self-government in the basic sense of allowing Egyptians to be in charge of public offices; independence in the international community and effective domestic sovereignty, in particular with regard to the national economy and the ability to secure a more egalitarian distribution of national wealth and income; and governmental accountability to the people of Egypt.  While Egypt’s prior revolutions secured, to a certain extent, the first two goals, contradictions between the desire for national independence and the desire for democracy ultimately led to the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952.  The Egyptian people discovered, however, that in the absence of internal democracy, it was impossible to preserve the gains of the previous revolutions.  The January 25 Revolution therefore affirmed the centrality of democracy to the Egyptian national movement, not just as a utopian goal—one whose practical implementation would be indefinitely deferred—but rather as the foundation for a modern, independent, and prosperous Egypt.

The Mubarak regime was the last breath of the Free Officers’ Revolution.  The Mubarak regime systematically stifled the development and maturity of democratic and egalitarian norms which are immanent in Egypt’s modern legal and political history, even as the regime paid increasingly grotesque lip service to democratic forms.  The spread of corruption and torture represented the grossest and most palpable failures of the regime to live up to the aspirations of the Egyptian state: Egyptian law prohibited both financial corruption[1] and torture,[2] yet Mubarak used his powers under the Constitution of 1971 to subvert the enforcement of Egyptian law in order to benefit himself, his family, and their allies.  It is not surprising, then, that eliminating torture and public corruption were issues that galvanized Egyptians during the January 25 Revolution.  With the resignation of Mubarak on February 11, 2011, Egyptians have now turned their attention to how the Egyptian state can recover public property from the possession of corrupt officials of the ancien regime.[3]

A quick glance at poverty in Egypt explains why corruption was such a central concern of the January 25 Revolution. In the early 1990s, Egypt began to implement structural adjustment reforms to its economy at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”), and the Egyptian state embarked on a campaign of privatization of state-owned firms combined with a substantial reduction in the state-provided safety net and state investments in education and health.  As a result, and despite the generally high marks Egypt received from the IMF, the rate of Egyptians living on less than $2 per day remained at a stubbornly high 20%, and real wages for the working class stagnated.[4] Benefits of growth during the Mubarak era generally went almost exclusively to those sectors of Egypt that were already relatively well-off, and the class of crony capitalists close to the regime especially benefitted.[5] Consequently, both the working classes and the upwardly-mobile but politically disconnected professional middle classes could easily unite behind a revolution committed to the elimination of public corruption. The working class blamed the public sector’s failures on the corruption of Mubarak cronies who were appointed as managers of state-owned firms. On the other hand, the upwardly mobile professional classes could identify corruption as a primary cause holding back Egypt’s international competitiveness and an immediate threat to the value of their greatest asset—their human capital.

The widely held view that the corruption of the Mubarak regime was debilitating Egypt’s ability to compete internationally also reinforced the deep desire for a genuine system of democratic accountability[6]: Egyptian law already prohibited financial corruption of public officials, but Mubarak’s presidential powers effectively insulated himself and others from the reach of Egypt’s otherwise broad set of anti-corruption laws. . . .

Read full article (PDF)


[1] See, e.g., Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 11 Sept. 1971, as amended, May 22, 1980, May 25, 2005, March 26, 2007, March 30, 2011, art. 95 [hereinafter Egypt Constitution]; Law No. 62 of 1975 (Illegal Profit-Making) Al-Jarida Al-Rasmiyya, 7 July 1975 (Egypt); Law No. 38 of 1972 (The People’s Assembly, as amended by Law No. 175 of 2005) Al-Jarida Al-Rasmiyya, 28 Sept. 1972 (Egypt), arts. 23–24; see also Transparency Int’l National Integrity System Study, Egypt 2009 40–43, 54–56 (2009), available at http://www.transparency.org/content/download/50747/812368 [hereinafter 2009 Transparency Int’l Study] (providing a detailed overview of Egyptian law’s extensive prohibitions against public official corruption).

[2] In 1986, Egypt acceded to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Dec. 10, 1984, S. Treaty Doc. No. 100-20, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85, and the treaty went into effect in 1987.  See Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: Egypt, U.N. Office of the High Comm’r for Human Rights, Treaty Bodies Database, http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/22b020de61f10ba0c1256a2a0027ba1e/80256404004ff315c125638b005df964?OpenDocument (last visited Mar. 8, 2011). Under the Egyptian Constitution, treaties, once ratified have immediate effect in the domestic legal system. Egypt Constitution, supra note 1, art. 151.

[3] See, e.g., Criminal Court Upholds Mubarak Asset Freeze Order, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Mar. 8, 2011, available at http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/343983.

[4] See Selected World Development Indicators, in World Bank, World Development Report 2010: Development & Climate Change 380, tbl.2 (Poverty) (2011), available at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDR2010/Resources/5287678-1226014527953/WDR10-Full-Text.pdf [hereinafter Selected World Development Indicators].  But see U.N. Development Programme & Inst. of Nat’l Planning, The Egypt Human Development Report, EGY/01/006, at 27 (2004), available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/nationalreports/arabstates/egypt/egypt_2004_en.pdf. (estimating the percentage of Egyptians living at the $2 per day level to be slightly above 40%); Egypt Ministry of Econ. Dev., Egypt—Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: A Midpoint Assessment 7 (2008), available at http://www.undp.org.eg/Portals/0/MDG%20Links/Egypt%20MDG%20Mid%20Term%20Assessment%20Report%202008.pdf.

[5] Hanaa Khair-El-Din & Heba El-Laithy, An Assessment of Growth, Distribution, and Poverty in Egypt: 1990/91–2004/05, in Egyptian Economy: Current Challenges and Future Prospects 13, 53 (Egyptian Ctr. for Econ. Stud., 2008).

[6] Polling data prior to the January 25 Revolution indicated that although 88% of Egyptians believed that democracy would help Egypt progress, only 4% of Egyptians actually had voiced an opinion to a public official, the lowest figure in the world. Abu Dhabi Gallup Ctr., Egypt: The Arithmetic of Revolution—An Empirical Analysis of Social and Economic Conditions in the Months before the January 25 Uprising 7 (2011), available at http://www.abudhabigallupcenter.com/146888/BRIEF-Egypt-Arithmetic-Revolution.aspx.