Mubarak hangs on
|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
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
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
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
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
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
Let’s not get carried away, though. This is
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”
Having just returned from the better part of a week in
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
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
Making matters worse is the extreme anti-American bent of the Egyptian government-controlled press, the regrettable incident in the
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
But trends in
Likewise, despite protestations to the contrary, the NDP,
At the end of the day, Steven is right.
David Schenker is a member of MESH.
I really appreciate Steven Cook’s and David Schenker’s analyses of the trend lines in
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
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
Tamara Cofman Wittes is a member of MESH.
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
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
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
Steven A. Cook is a member of MESH.
The recent bread crisis and labor riots are just the latest installment in the increasingly fractured narrative of
Husni Mubarak seems incapable of coping with either of these two
The important question now is whether a new Egyptian leader can possibly look at these two
This is the conversation
Michele Dunne is a member of MESH.
The bread crisis is unlikely to lead to upheaval in the country. On Sunday, I wandered through the streets of
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
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
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
I guess one question
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
The Egyptian government has a very suspicious habit of pointedly arresting folks like Essam ElErian, precisely the type of people that the
Jet fuel can be purchased elsewhere.
Blake Hounshell is Web editor at ForeignPolicy.com, before which he spent over a year in
I think the exchange on
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
Chuck Freilich is a member of MESH.