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Mubarak hangs on
Mubarak hangs on
For those too caught up in the drama of on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Iraq and/or Iran debates, and Lebanon’s political paralysis to pay close attention, Egypt seems like the one part of the Middle East that is not teetering on the brink. The team that Husni (and Gamal) Mubarak put in place to transform the Egyptian economy has produced impressive results.
Saturday, August 2,2008 10:00
by Steven A. Cook, Middle East Strategy at Harvard

For those too caught up in the drama of on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Iraq and/or Iran debates, and Lebanon’s political paralysis to pay close attention, Egypt seems like the one part of the Middle East that is not teetering on the brink. The team that Husni (and Gamal) Mubarak put in place to transform the Egyptian economy has produced impressive results. Many of Egypt’s macroeconomic indicators are pointing in the right direction, BusinessWeek included Egypt as one of its top emerging markets in 2007 (total FDI was $11 billion), and “Egypt Day” on the New York Stock Exchange was, by all reports, a big hit. Indeed, senior government officials have been positively buoyant about their new $100 billion economy, arguing that Egypt was at the “takeoff stage.”

Politically, the leadership is no longer on the defensive, having weathered the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy, deflected the demands of Kifaya!, emerged from the judges’ protests of May 2006 relatively unscathed, and worked assiduously to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood through thousands of arrests. The record is clearly bad news for Egyptians who want to live in a democracy, but if the democracy agenda is out and Washington is back to supporting stability, then breathe a sigh of relief because President Mubarak seems to have regained his footing. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is safe, U.S. warships will continue to be able to transit through the Suez Canal at short notice, and thousands of gallons of Egyptian jet fuel will keep the logistical tails of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq working.

Yet, while everyone was off debating what Anbar’s sahwa really means or the number of centrifuges the Iranians can run simultaneously or Mahmoud Abbas’s staying power or whether the violence at Nahr al-Bared would kick off a new civil war in Lebanon, they may have missed deeply troubling developments in Egypt. For example, while Sharm El-Sheikh may be the “Egyptian Riviera” (as the ads on CNN International claim), the residents of Sinai are practically in open revolt over everything from limited economic opportunities and virtually no government services to the heavy hand of the security forces. In addition, bombings in Sharm and other resort areas like Dahab and Taba suggest that a return of the low-level extremist insurgency that targeted Egypt’s tourist industry in the mid-1990s is entirely possible.

The leadership has effectively contained the political agitation of the last four years, but it has not been able to shut down or roll back the discourse concerning reform. This is a good thing. After years of stagnation, politics is clearly back in Egypt. As a result, government has had to contend with protests from the usual suspects including journalists, lawyers, intellectuals and human rights campaigners who all travel in elite circles. It’s highly unlikely that these advocates can do much to alter the orientation of Egypt’s authoritarian regime. Yet a new element has been added into the mix of activism. In recent months, petty bureaucrats from various government ministries have staged sit-ins and other job actions. This is a more powerful group than some might suspect. After all, they do the government’s bidding and have historically been a bastion of support for the National Democratic Party, such as it is. The very fact that Mubarak can’t buy off the government’s legion of bureaucrats suggests that something is afoot in Cairo.

Even more troubling for the leadership are the wildcat strikes of the state-owned industrial sector in the past 18-24 months. Indeed, Mahalla al-Kubra—the center of Egypt’s textile industry—has become a rallying cry for a wide spectrum of political activists who hope that these labor stoppages are the precursor to a wider movement demanding political change. The workers, it seems, have less lofty dreams, limiting their demands to increased wages, better working conditions, and more representation in local and national unions. It remains to be seen whether these parochial pocketbook demands will transform into broader political goals questioning the source and legitimacy of power in Egypt. If the workers do press a wider agenda, Mubarak would likely have significant trouble on his hands.

Taken separately, the defenders of the Egyptian regime clearly have the wherewithal to deal with these issues, but they are coming together as the price of bread is skyrocketing. A repeat of the 1977 bread riots seems like a distinct possibility. It is at moments like these when the gap between objective reality and the dominant narrative becomes so wide that political entrepreneurs emerge and play on the anger, hopelessness, and fears of a beaten-down population. An Egyptian analogue to Lech Walesa may yet emerge from Egypt’s Gdansk of Mahalla al-Kubra and bring down the political order.

Let’s not get carried away, though. This is Egypt after all. Although the cross-cutting pressures and problems buffeting the Egyptian regime seem more acute than ever, it is entirely possible that we’ve seen some variation of this movie before. The Egyptians have a limitless ability to muddle through. Let’s not forget all the calamities that analysts thought would bring down the political system founded by the Free Officers in the 1950s: massive defeat in 1967, wide-scale riots (1977 and 1986), assassination, economic stagnation, and a low-level insurgency. Indeed, given this track record it is not at all clear that the Egyptian state is on the verge of collapse.

To confront the present troubles, Mubarak has ordered bakeries under the control of the Armed Forces, Interior Ministry, and the Ministry of Investment to bake more bread. (Forget for the moment why these entities control bakeries in the first place.) If the additional baking capacity can meet demand, the immediate crisis will likely be averted. To deal with the broader problem of growing opposition to the regime, Mubarak will do what he has almost always done: resort to coercion. Sunday’s threatened “general strike” was met with large numbers of paramilitary forces occupying Mahalla al-Kubra and state-run television carrying threats from the Interior Ministry for those missing work. Threats of violence and actual violence, although clearly the least efficient means of political control, do tend to work, and the leadership has few other options. Patronage only goes so far and normative appeals to support the present political order withered long ago.

Most important, however, is the fact that not a single element of the regime’s central constituencies has peeled away. For big business, the political elite, regime-affiliated intellectuals, and officers of both the police and the army, the costs of defecting from the regime and the benefits of sticking with the present political order are too great. As long as Mubarak remains the master of this politically and economically influential group, it’s likely that he’ll hang on.

7 Responses to “Mubarak hangs on”

  1. on 09 Apr 2008 at 2:33 pm1 David Schenker

Having just returned from the better part of a week in Cairo, I share Steven Cook’s pessimistic appraisal of developments in Egypt. Scratch that. I think the situation is a bit worse than he portrays.

Not only is there a severe food crisis, an exponential increase in construction material costs, a restive labor force, and ongoing repression of regime opposition, the state is about to embark on its first political transition in generations. These developments are occurring at precisely the same time as Egypt’s Islamists are making great social and political strides.

It’s not just that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won an unprecedented 88 of 444 elected parliamentary seats in 2005 and likely would have done well in the April municipal elections if the Government hadn’t intervened. The striking number of muhajibat—and women wearing niqab—in Cairo suggests that the Brotherhood is winning the battle of ideas on the ground. At least that’s how MB Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib sees it. As Habib told me a few weeks ago, the increased incidence of hijab in Egypt is evidence that “the Dawa worked.”

Making matters worse is the extreme anti-American bent of the Egyptian government-controlled press, the regrettable incident in the Suez Canal last month in which an innocent Egyptian souvenir trader was killed by a U.S. contractor, the situation in Gaza, and the predominantly negative views of the Egyptian Government held by the locals. These elements exacerbate an already potentially explosive situation.

As Steven notes, though, Egyptians have a “limitless ability to muddle through.” Things have looked pretty bad before, and the regime has persevered. Indeed, the bread crisis isn’t the first time Cairo has called in the military as the solution of last resort. In the 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the army to take control of the under-performing transportation sector, and armed forces served for a brief while as the country’s bus drivers.

But trends in Egypt—and in the region—are not what they were, and with political transition on the horizon, there is no solution in sight for Egypt’s perennial maladies. Yes, Egypt has been a remarkable economic success story in recent years, generating 7 percent GDP growth over the past six years or so. But there has been no trickle-down, resulting in a heightened sense of relative deprivation among Egypt’s estimated 24 million impoverished.

Likewise, despite protestations to the contrary, the NDP, Egypt’s ruling party, does not appear to be serious about internal reform, much less any form of power sharing. And with prominent party affiliates like Ahmed Ezz, who controls the monopoly on steel in Egypt, the NDP is not likely to soon shed its corrupt image. Meanwhile, with the notable exception of the MB, there is today no such thing as political opposition in Egypt. Political parties are co-opted, or their leaders are jailed.

At the end of the day, Steven is right. Egypt is not in imminent danger of instability or collapse. But the trend line is not good. The only Egyptians today who are happy and confident of the country’s direction are the Muslim Brotherhood. And that’s because they take the long term view. The worse things get in Egypt, the more support the Brotherhood expects to pick up.

David Schenker is a member of MESH.


  1. on 10 Apr 2008 at 1:20 pm2 Tamara Cofman Wittes

I really appreciate Steven Cook’s and David Schenker’s analyses of the trend lines in Cairo, but I think they are both asking the wrong question. Whether or not Mubarak can “muddle through” this crisis is not a real question: the state’s coercive capacity is significant and the security forces haven’t even warmed up yet. The question Americans should be asking is what it costs us—and Mubarak—when his regime is compelled to fall back on coercion and the reinsertion of the military apparatus into the daily concerns (those bakeries!) of Egyptian citizens.

Mubarak is falling back on coercion at a moment when U.S.-Egyptian strategic cooperation—in the peace process, in combating terrorism, in confronting Iran—is more important and more prominent than ever. And this plays right into the hands of the Brotherhood—and their more-extreme comrades-in-resistance. The narrative of the Brotherhood—that Egypt’s government doesn’t care about the people, but prostitutes itself to Israel and the United States—has more and more resonance to Egyptians, especially given that the regime has shut down every other political alternative. That narrative puts America squarely at the center of the problem—in Egypt and in the region as a whole.

Steven says that, with Mubarak holding on to the reins, America need not worry: “The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is safe, U.S. warships will continue to be able to transit through the Suez Canal at short notice, and thousands of gallons of Egyptian jet fuel will keep the logistical tails of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq working.” In fact, we should worry—because the longer Mubarak holds on through the use of force, the harder it will be for him (and for us) to sustain that kind of strategic cooperation. If things get bad enough in Egypt, we may lose even if Mubarak wins.

Tamara Cofman Wittes is a member of MESH.


  1. on 10 Apr 2008 at 9:55 pm3 Steven A. Cook

Thanks to David Schenker and Tamara Cofman Wittes for taking the time to respond to my post. Since David and I essentially agree, I’ll focus my attention on Tamara’s post.

First, perhaps it’s the medium or maybe I did not make myself clear, but Tamara misunderstood the profound cynicism associated with the statement, “if the democracy agenda is out and Washington is back to supporting stability, then breathe a sigh of relief because President Mubarak seems to have regained his footing. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is safe, U.S. warships will continue to be able to transit through the Suez Canal at short notice, and thousands of gallons of Egyptian jet fuel will keep the logistical tails of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq working.” I think Tamara and I are actually on the same page here.

Second, I am slightly confused when Tamara suggests that Mubarak is “falling back” on coercion. Oppression and cruelty have always been the Egyptian leadership’s MO. Egyptian efforts to establish political control through normative appeals, hegemonic ideas, and patronage have long been quite limited. Remember the Liberation Rally? National Union? Arab Socialist Union? And now the National Democratic Party? To be fair, the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 gave the regime a fair amount of ideological cover. Yet, Nasserism was a house of cards that came tumbling down in June 1967. The defeat ultimately revealed that, by its very nature, the political order the Free Officers founded in the 1950s was based on coercion. The laws, regulations, decrees—the institutions of the state—were built on the logic of compulsion, force, and intimidation.

Finally, I don’t understand why I am asking the “wrong question” when I inquired whether the regime is teetering on the edge, but investigating the costs of supporting Mubarak is the “right question.” It seems to me that they are just different. I am interested in understanding the nature of the Egyptian regime—what makes it tick? Is it strong or is it weak? What are the conditions under which it might unravel? These are first-order issues that analysts and policymakers need to understand before they can assess costs and benefits and, in turn, formulate a policy. We didn’t have enough of this in the last seven years, which is a precisely why we haven’t had too much success in the Middle East.

Steven A. Cook is a member of MESH.


  1. on 11 Apr 2008 at 11:14 am4 Michele Dunne

The recent bread crisis and labor riots are just the latest installment in the increasingly fractured narrative of Egypt. On one hand, there is the narrative presented by the Mubaraks and the National Democratic Party of an Egypt making rapid progress toward modernization, global economic competitiveness, and increased political participation. On the other, there is the narrative of collapsing state services, rampant corruption, and frighteningly bad public safety procedures—as seen in recent crises from bread shortages to sinking ferries to fires in trains and theaters that have killed hundreds—told by opposition movements and independent commentators.

Husni Mubarak seems incapable of coping with either of these two Egypts. He stubbornly resists assertive reform measures and is likely to do so even more now out of fears about social unrest as well as the global financial crisis. (Recall how the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s derailed Egyptian economic reform for a good five years.) At the same time, his response to being confronted with the second Egypt (corruption and collapse) is always the same: deny the seriousness of the problem, take a few cosmetic measures (and maybe fire a few people), and then sweep it under the rug and move on as quickly as public sentiment permits. And so this is what we will see for the remaining Mubarak era, which will last as long as his health does (anywhere from one day to several years).

The important question now is whether a new Egyptian leader can possibly look at these two Egypts realistically and put the country on a serious course toward reform and development. It is an enormously tall order in a nation of 80 million. But frankness about the nature of the problems and willingness to broaden political participation in order to solve them would help to generate good will and a more cooperative spirit inside Egypt as well as in the international community.

This is the conversation U.S. officials need to be having now with Egyptians. We cannot (and should not try to) affect the succession process directly, but it is well past time to talk with current and potential future leaders about where the country is going and how Egypt and the United States can work together. This is the only answer I see to the painful situation that Steve and Tamara have identified, in which the U.S. and Egypt still need to cooperate but have come to view each other as burdensome.

Michele Dunne is a member of MESH.


  1. on 11 Apr 2008 at 5:59 pm5 Vivien Pertusot

The bread crisis is unlikely to lead to upheaval in the country. On Sunday, I wandered through the streets of Cairo and found almost all the shops open. No massive demonstration took place; the police made it pretty impossible, especially in downtown. As mentioned above, protests arise from specific groups; demonstrations at the Lawyers’ and Journalists’ Syndicates rumble at a frantic pace. There have been countless articles titled “the war of bread” and “the crisis of bread” in the past few weeks. The impact on the average Egyptian remains marginal. As for the municipal elections, I talked to several Egyptians and was puzzled by the lack of interest. Some did not even know that elections were occurring.

Reform is not around the corner, and unless something particularly staggering and extraordinary happens—e.g., Mubarak dies and his son Gamal is unable to take over the presidency, or tensions with the United States heighten to the point that Congress sets up conditions for the aid package that would force reforms—nothing is going to change in Egypt.

Growing anger from the population favors the Brothers, but I doubt this is likely to drive reform or change. Gaining popularity and support through social involvement is one thing, and the Muslim Brotherhood has done a tremendous job. But winning elections and shaping a new landscape in Egypt would require groundbreaking changes that the leadership will never accept under any circumstances—unless a revolution breaks out.

Besides, the MB is experiencing a potential life-changing crisis. Nathan Brown and Amr Hamzawy demonstrated in a recent Carnegie report that the Muslim Brotherhood is at a turning point following the draft of a political platform last year. It has split the organization into two groups, by clarifying points that had previously remained vague, especially on the role of Shariah. The draft weakened the unity of the organization, and it will be interesting to see how it copes with internal dissension.

No need to mention that the opposition parties are nowhere near being able to force reforms either. They have neither the funds nor the manpower nor the public support to do so. They can make the headlines now and then (as Kifaya! did recently) but that’s about it.

Vivien Pertusot writes from Cairo for LeCourant.info. He posted this comment on MESHNet.


  1. on 14 Apr 2008 at 2:39 pm6 Blake Hounshell

I guess one question U.S. policymakers had better be asking themselves is, can we live with a Muslim Brotherhood government?

Because, while I think it’s correct to say that—at least for now—Mubarak has a firm grip on power, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen when he dies. Would the MB seize the moment to mount an all-out bid for power? Will Egyptians reject Gamal en masse, assuming he follows his father?

Because these questions are fundamentally unknowable, a prudent course of action would be for the U.S. government to support serious, quiet “track II” talks with the Brothers. At the same time, it would be wise think about ways to strengthen the “good” wing of the MB over the “bad” wing.

The Egyptian government has a very suspicious habit of pointedly arresting folks like Essam ElErian, precisely the type of people that the United States could probably work with. The United States ought to condemn such arrests, if not by name then in general. Stop focusing exclusively on Ayman Nour.

The Suez Canal is one thing, but I would also note that the Egyptians’ influence on the Israel-Palestinian front is declining by the day. I don’t think we should consider the Mubarak government such an asset there.

Jet fuel can be purchased elsewhere.

Blake Hounshell is Web editor at ForeignPolicy.com, before which he spent over a year in Cairo working for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.


  1. on 23 Apr 2008 at 1:35 pm7 Chuck Freilich

I think the exchange on Egypt misses the truly essential question. The real issue is not whether Mubarak succeeds in riding out the current wave of domestic difficulties, through time-tested means of oppression. He will. But what happens if he fails to hand over the reigns to Gamal or some other member of the ruling junta? The consequences of this are potentially dire, especially if, as seems likely, the result is the emergence of a radical Islamist Egypt.

For the United States, this will mean the collapse of its fundamental Mideast strategy since the early 1970s, in which Egypt has been the linchpin. That strategy, an unsung success in many ways, has enabled the United States to walk a virtual diplomatic tightrope—to improve relations with moderate Arab states, contain the radicals (including two wars, numerous sanctions and more), develop a strategic alliance with Israel and promote the Middle East peace process, all at the same time.

For Israel, an Islamic Egypt portends the end of the peace agreement with Egypt, which may lead to the unraveling of the agreement with Jordan, as well. This will almost certainly mean the final death knell for the “peace process,” a potential return to multi-front threats and a fundamental transformation of Israel’s entire strategic posture.

For the region as a whole, it would mean a severe change for the worse in the balance between the “moderates” and “radicals,” further instability, and an end to virtually any hopes for reform.

Ensuring a smooth and successful succession in Egypt is one of the preeminent issues of our time in the region, no less than the Iranian nuclear threat or Iraq, and more so than the Israeli-Arab conflict. Worrying about human rights abuses and democracy (very worthy issues in and of themselves)—which are nothing new in Egypt—is not going to solve the truly strategic issues, of historic import, that we face.

Chuck Freilich is a member of MESH.

 

 

 


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