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Egypt violence is rooted in the economy, not just politics

Protesters use slingshots to launch stones at police in Cairo, Tuesday.
Protesters use slingshots to launch stones at police in Cairo, Tuesday.Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

News analysis

CAIRO — Egypt’s recent days of violence have focused attention on its political crisis — but the underlying cause remains an economy on the brink of collapse.

Rising prices of basic goods like bread, sugar and gasoline coupled with high rate of unemployment and a lack of social justice has created a lethal and combustible cocktail.

Add to this mix a stagnant political reform process and the lack of confidence in basic government services, including justice, and you can understand the frustration among many Egyptians.

Every few months there is an explosion of violence. The flames are put out by promises of reform or sometimes sheer exhaustion on the part of the protesters but the spark — deep and serious socio-economic problems — remains and that's why we see a repeat.

On Wednesday, Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi was on a day trip to Germany despite the fragile security situation in his country.

Turbulent years

The urgency of his mission — to secure economic assistance and assure the international community that this crisis is resolvable — underlines the deeper problems fueling the country’s cyclical unrest.

The immediate trigger for this week's clashes was a convergence of emotion surrounding the second anniversary of the revolution and anger at the passing of a death sentence on 21 defendants on trial following a soccer stadium riot last year.

With each round of violence, the call for Mohamed Morsi to step down continues.  But most of the country just wants stability - with or without Morsi. Egypt has undergone two of the most turbulent years in its modern history.

The majority of Egyptians will tell you what they want is to feel physically and financially secure. The country is still a few years away from achieving that security.

There is a serious lack of leadership from either the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government or the so-called opposition, whose divisions and failure to connect with the demands of the street is making it increasingly irrelevant. The opposition carries no political clout, even if its grievances are legitimate.

Time and money

Morsi has several options to resolve this crisis. Most are short-term measures that could defuse some of the anger and mistrust that has built up between his regime and the opposition and the protesters.

Longer-term measures to ease social pressures, particularly among the country’s youth, will take time and money — including international investment.

Egyptians tried the ballot box, but have not yet seen the change they yearn for.  So they are turning to the street to express their dissatisfaction.

Until the government finds a way to absorb and deal with the root cause of people's issues, unrest will continue putting yet more strain on the fragile economy.

In short, this is a race against time in which Egypt, first under the rule of the military, and now under the Muslim Brotherhood, has already wasted two years.