Egypt’s election and the rise of crime



As Egyptians went to the polls this week in an historic first ever free presidential election, David Kirkpatrick reports in the New York Times that prominently on their minds is the rise of crime since the fall of the dictatorship (read the story here). On the eve of the vote to choose Egypt’s first president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, this pervasive lawlessness is the biggest change in daily life since the revolution and the most salient issue in the presidential race. Random, violent crime was almost unheard-of when the police state was strong.

With politicians competing on how to restore security, it is tempting to compare Egypt with the United States. The differences are too important to leave to second. Crime became a prime theme for political legitimation in the U.S. after the 1960s, when the U.S. was already a mature democracy with well established law enforcement institutions and a highly developed economy.

Egypt in 2012 is a developing economy (at best, perhaps a failing-to-develop economy) with no history of democracy, and law enforcement institutions that lack credibility both in terms of effectiveness and human rights. Popular fear of crime in the America of the 1960s took the form of moving to the suburbs and purchasing handguns. In Egypt of 2012 it has resulted in mob lynchings. But while the differences are profound, the commonalities are more than coincidence. In both places, police have been flawed institutions.

In Egypt of 2012, the police remained deeply discredited by their history of petty corruption and fealty to the Mubarak dictatorship. While American cities in the 1960s had long-established — and, by the standards of the developing world, relatively professional police forces — these police forces were also highly corrupt and deeply racist; they lacked legitimacy and credibility particularly in the minority neighborhoods. Indeed the relationship between white police and African American neighborhoods in cities like Oakland and Philadelphia remained so toxic through the 1980s that it approximated conflict zones like Northern Ireland.

The crime wave that rocked America in the 1960s has never been adequately explained (the usual culprit being the over-sized delinquency cohort of the post-war baby boom), but I believe it was bound up with the breakdown in the prevailing racialized system of public space, in which police played a role in enforcing different norms in different parts of town, isolating certain rackets in minority areas, while keeping youth of color from congregating in elite parts of town.

The civil rights movement and the cultural tide it brought to northern cities in the ’60s helped sweep away that regime, but recalcitrant racist police forces (abetted by politicians) resisted the construction of an effective inclusionary regime to police public spaces in the large cities.

The crime wave in Egypt is clearly related to the breakdown of the social control imposed by the dictatorship and the uncertainty as to the new forms of public order that will replace it. The use of lynching by mobs in some Egyptian locales suggests some residual identification with regime’s methods of violent repression, a dynamic that sociologist Angelina Godoy traced in post-genocide Guatemala.

In Egypt in 2012 crime and insecurity are abetted by terrible poverty and the humiliations that poverty in urban conditions promotes. While we often consider crime in America in the 1960s to represent a paradox of deviance in an affluent society, the rapid de-industrialization of northern cities in the 1950s and 1960s was already leaving many inner-city minority communities largely cut off from viable economic opportunities, a pattern that would grow markedly worst through at least the early 1990s.

From these early reports the political competition around crime in Egypt today appears more promising than one might think from the American example, where both major parties soon aligned behind mass incarceration.

The leading Islamist candidates have tempered their promises of security with a commitment to reform and recast the police, and have made economic development for the poor the center of their political agenda. In contrast, the candidates most linked to the old regime are promising to unleash an unreformed police and no doubt fill Egypt’s notorious prisons with yet more prisoners. Not surprisingly the candidates most likely to be welcomed by U.S. media and political elites are the ones most likely to pursue U.S.-style governing through crime.