Egypt's Summer of Discontent

by Mona El-Ghobashy | published September 18, 2003

As the long, hot Egyptian summer of 2003 wore on into autumn, gloom-and-doom scenarios filled opposition papers and daily conversations, warning of a terrible quiet before the storm. Elites and the masses are slowly being pushed together by palpable disaffection at rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, fueled by the government’s January devaluation of the Egyptian pound, and the stagnation in the nation’s political life, symbolized by raging speculation that Husni Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal to succeed him as president.

The decision to float the pound has dealt a further blow to Egyptians’ already meager purchasing power. Officials argued that the depreciation would boost the competitiveness of Egyptian exports, but because 72 percent of consumer goods, foodstuffs and industrial inputs are imported, citizens watched prices skyrocket for tea, cooking oil, sugar, transportation and utilities. Coming on top of a liquidity crisis and recession since 1999, double-digit unemployment and the loss of an estimated $1.2-2 billion worth of exports to Iraq under the UN Oil for Food program, the devaluation hit the vast majority of Egyptians hard, especially the fifth of the population living in poverty.

The regime is still stinging from massive anti-war sentiments unleashed during the US-led invasion of Iraq, which dovetailed with rising discontent at the government to produce the largest street protests since the January 1977 “bread riots,” complete with biting anti-Mubarak slogans, such as: “O Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate him!” The war accelerated a significant trend among elites and masses alike to directly challenge Mubarak, such as a March statement signed by prominent intellectuals disagreeing with Mubarak’s view that Saddam Hussein alone was to blame for the impending invasion of Iraq. In July, prominent lawyer ‘Isam al-Islambuli sued Mubarak in the administrative courts for failing to appoint a vice president. A ruling is set for November 11.

The Rise and Rise of Gamal Mubarak

By far the hottest political issue over the summer was the increasingly public role of Gamal Mubarak, 39, who has taken a prominent position in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and led what the semi-official press called “high-level delegations” to the United States in February and June 2003. With the gradual political promotion of Gamal since 2000 has come the advancement of a group of big businessmen who share a self-described “pragmatic” worldview that seeks to integrate Egypt into the global economy and to strengthen bilateral ties with the US.

In February 2000, Mubarak appointed Gamal to the General Secretariat of the NDP, laying to rest rumors that Gamal was to found a new party called Hizb al-Mustaqbal (Party of the Future), but fueling speculation on his political ambitions. Gamal Mubarak holds degrees from the American University in Cairo and is a former investment banker with the Bank of America in Cairo and London. In November 1998, while chairing a private equity fund, Medinvest Associates, he founded the Future Generation Foundation, an NGO which provides job training to young people. In September 2002, at the NDP’s eighth annual congress, an elaborate political pageant which inaugurated the party’s “New Thought,” Gamal was further promoted to head the newly created Policies Secretariat. The Policies Secretariat is a 123-member core group of relatively young economists, businessmen and academics close to Gamal, but also includes university presidents, heads of government think tanks and professors with no background in politics.

Party members say official NDP candidates’ resounding defeat in the 2000 parliamentary elections convinced its leadership of the need for a housecleaning. Since then, figures like Minister of Youth ‘Ali al-Din Hilal have worked to reinvent the party of the government, instead casting the government as representatives of the party. Glossy literature distributed last September announced the NDP as “the party of positive centrism” and “the party of all Egyptians” in an effort to delink the NDP from the government. The role of the Policies Secretariat is to oversee the transformation of the NDP from a state patronage machine run by old-guard party bosses to a modern majority party managed by a clique of savvy technocrats.

On March 6, 2003, Gamal announced that his Secretariat was introducing a “package of reform bills” to Parliament. The three bills proposed dissolving the state security courts that had drawn international criticism after twice convicting Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, abolishing hard labor as a criminal penalty and establishing a National Human Rights Council to defend Egypt’s human rights record abroad and “deepen the culture of human rights” in the country. The package was railroaded through Parliament in June. Majority NDP deputies heaped praise on the Policies Secretariat for leading Egypt into the twenty-first century with such progressive new legislation.

Critics in Parliament, the opposition parties and civil society dismissed the reforms and the Policies Secretariat as vehicles for the political rise of Gamal Mubarak, noting that his September promotion coincided with a high-profile “anti-corruption” campaign by the government which aimed to portray Gamal as a fresh-faced reformer. In the same month, the right-hand man to old-guard NDP powerhouse Yusuf Wali was charged with accepting bribes to import carcinogenic French pesticides into Egypt. At the party congress, Wali was shoved out of his post as NDP secretary-general to make room for Information Minister Safwat al-Sharif, another Mubarak crony. The critics pointed out that the law abolishing state security courts, whose verdicts were subject to appeal, leaves intact emergency state security courts whose verdicts are subject only to presidential review. They added that the hard labor penalty has not been applied for 30 years. In August, the government referred five anti-war activists to an emergency state security court on charges of “reviving a communist organization,” and the latest roundup of Muslim Brothers on September 8 included ousted MP Gamal Hishmat.

During the summer months, Gamal’s public visibility continued unabated. His statements received front-page coverage in the semi-official press, and the evening news often showed him delivering slick PowerPoint presentations to enraptured audiences. The board meetings of his NGO were televised, he was once filmed sitting unobtrusively in a corner during a cabinet meeting, and during his father’s annual talk before university students, he was shown sitting between presidential foreign policy adviser Usama al-Baz and chief of staff Zakariyya ‘Azmi. Gamal and members of his Policies Secretariat visited the US in February and June, meeting with Dick Cheney and others. In June, the delegation was to push for a bilateral free trade agreement, but Trade Representative Robert Zoellick poured cold water on the request, declaring that an agreement “isn’t going to be handed to them just because Egypt is a big and important country.” Observers theorized that the comment came in retaliation for Egypt pulling out of a US-sponsored lawsuit against the European Union for prohibiting the import of genetically modified foods.

Asked by interviewers whether he had his eyes on the presidency, Gamal has said, “There are rumors that I am being groomed for the post, but they are baseless and have nothing to do with reality. Scaling down my activities is not an option; I want to encourage the youth to be active and I will not alter the role I believe in.” He has also said, “I’m pretty much satisfied with what I’m doing now.” Much as many Egyptians may wish to believe him, Gamal’s unmistakable ascendancy has convinced them that a surreptitious process of inheritance of power (tawrith al-sulta) is underway and must be resisted.

Sense of Outrage

Since September 2002, tawrith al-sulta has become a main motif in Egyptian political discourse. Anti-war demonstrations in March and April condemned the apparent father-son succession scenario, and a recent internal party document of the leftist Tagammu‘ party attacks “hidden attempts to bequeath the regime to President Mubarak’s 39 year-old son, Gamal.” The most consistent and explicit anti-succession pulpit is the weekly Nasserist al-‘Arabi, which has morphed from a shrill, predictable and marginal broadsheet into a bold and entertaining political forum, earning positive mention in the influential annual review put out by the quasi-governmental al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. The NDP congress that midwifed Gamal’s rise breathed new life into al-‘Arabi, and under the editorship of ‘Abdallah al-Sinnawi and ‘Abd al-Halim Qandil, the weekly newspaper has run a constant Gamal watch, skewering the president’s son in editorials and maintaining a sense of outrage over the prospect that Egypt could turn into another Syria.

Every Sunday, al-‘Arabi crosses the “red line” against direct criticism of the president. In May 2003, on Mubarak’s birthday, the newspaper’s main headline blared, “President Mubarak, on your birthday we ask you: Are you democratic?” In June, the front page featured a now infamous photo of George W. Bush at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit driving a golf cart with Arab leaders in the passenger seats. The accompanying headline read, “Arab rulers in Bush’s cart.” On the fifty-first anniversary of the July 1952 coup, best-selling novelist Alaa El Aswany wrote a page-long fictitious dialogue between Presidents Nasser and Mubarak in which the former comes back from the dead to advise Mubarak to reassure citizens once and for all that his son will not assume power, and to implement democracy as soon as possible. In September, Qandil began his column, “The desired change begins with President Mubarak himself, begins with the head.... These are constitutional basics.” The newspaper has run countless op-eds heavily criticizing the Mubaraks, and its gifted satirists Gamal Fahmi and Akram al-Qassas write laugh-out-loud funny appraisals of Egypt’s ruling class.

Beyond political shock value, the pages of al-‘Arabi offer a coherent critique of Gamal Mubarak and Company’s “pragmatic” worldview that seeks to relieve the state of providing social services beyond subsidies of basic foodstuffs. On foreign policy, Gamal’s group favors a regionally isolationist stance that puts “Egypt first,” while downplaying Egypt’s Arab orientation and role in regional power dynamics. At home, the NDP policy mandarins favor what they call “development of political culture” rather than constitutional reform, free elections and the direct election of the president from among several candidates -- all major demands of independents and the opposition.

Two Visions

Ironically, the fact that Gamal is Husni Mubarak’s son may be a distraction. While he parrots his father’s stance on Egypt’s pro-US orientation and has no plans to liberalize the country’s political life, the younger Mubarak is emblematic of an influential new class that has mushroomed in the past 15 years. Its members have close economic ties to the US (many are the Egyptian agents of American companies) and merge business interests with political influence; many are MPs or protégés of politicians. They advocate free-market policies while retaining an elitist, cautious attitude when it comes to extending democracy to the masses. As Mubarak fan and Policies Secretariat member Hala Mustafa wrote, addressing herself to US policymakers pushing political reforms in the Arab world, “Certainly there is a danger latent in the excessive emphasis on democratic processes. Free elections, for example, could well bring victory to populist or totalitarian forces that would subvert the future of democracy in the region as soon as they came into power.”

Al-‘Arabi’s writers question the younger Mubarak’s claim to represent the aspirations of new generations and call for a serious rethinking of Egypt’s “strategic relationship” with the US, proposing a much more autonomous Egyptian foreign policy. They dispute that the free market is the solution to Egypt’s grave economic ills and blame neoliberal economic policies for the shrinking of the middle class and the alarming increase of poverty. On domestic politics, they favor allowing the Islamists to establish legal political parties, and call for truly free elections where all compete on a level playing field. Instead of only airing the views of Nasserists and Arab nationalists, as it has done in the past, the newspaper includes the views of Islamists and independent voices brought together by shared alienation from the status quo. While occasional Nasser nostalgia still appears in al-‘Arabi’s pages, it is of a qualitatively different kind from the reflexive hero worship peddled by the newspaper not so long ago. Now, reflections on Nasser’s achievements are laden with bitter comparisons to a defeated present, when Egypt seems devoid of effectiveness on the international stage or dignity and justice at home.

Thirst for Change

The scale of disaffection with the regime manifests itself in extra-parliamentary politics. On July 30, Egyptian journalists elected the first non-government chairman of their union in 22 years and a board dominated by independent journalists, sending a clear message that thrilled many and perturbed some: We’ve tried the government and look where it got us. Newly minted Chairman Galal ‘Arif’s election-day motto was simply: “Change.” Turnout was 77 percent of 4,332 eligible voters, and 53.6 percent chose ‘Arif in a heated battle whose outcome was genuinely uncertain. Egyptian professional syndicate elections have long been far more contested affairs than parliamentary or municipal elections, a trial run for what Egyptian democracy might look like if the state lifts its heavy hand. In light of Egypt’s sclerotic leadership in both government and opposition, the journalists’ choice was an obvious call for turnover in executive positions.

Contributing to ‘Arif’s success was the government’s candidate, Salah Muntasir, a lackluster septuagenarian scribbler for the semi-official al-Ahram with no record of activism in union politics. Muntasir was the eleventh-hour choice when al-Ahram editor-in-chief Ibrahim Nafie, union chairman for eight years (1993-1997, 1999-2003), bowed out after first announcing he would run despite union bylaws prohibiting reelection after two consecutive two-year terms. Before the elections, a series of court rulings and counter-rulings invalidating and revalidating previous election results would have given Nafie an opportunity to run. But a day before a final court ruling on July 7 confirming previous election results, Nafie announced his withdrawal from the race, while keeping the door open to a candidacy in 2005.

Regime power brokers in the syndicate scrambled to find a replacement and came up with Muntasir, who later said he was “sitting in the shade” when he was informed of his candidacy. He ran a pathetic campaign that angered many journalists, not least women, for his position that female journalists with small children should stay at home rather than go to work. Two days after his candidacy was announced, Muntasir had an audience with Prime Minister ‘Atif ‘Ubayd after which he proudly proclaimed that ‘Ubayd had generously granted journalists a 40 pound hike in their monthly paychecks. Many journalists were offended by this unsubtle attempt to buy their votes. But Muntasir’s real Achilles’ heel was his position advocating normalization with Israel, having visited the country twice in the 1990s in violation of resolutions adopted by the union’s general assembly. Muntasir protested, “I thought there was peace,” and affirmed that as chair he would prohibit any journalist from visiting Israel.

By contrast, ‘Arif is a veteran union activist who almost defeated Nafie in 1993 and was instrumental in key battles between the union and the government, notably the struggle over a press law imposing hefty fines and a two-year prison sentence for slander. A journalist at the other leading state-owned publishing house al-Akhbar, ‘Arif had a campaign platform centered on abolishing the law and regaining the syndicate’s independence after 22 years of government control and masked bribes to journalists in the form of perks such as reduced rates on cell phones and summer resorts. Though ‘Arif beat Muntasir by only 370 votes, he took the majority of votes of all the state-owned publishing houses and 29.6 percent of al-Ahram votes, a significant precedent given the pressure on journalists at the state-owned outfits to vote for the government’s man. Nine seats on the 12-seat board were captured by independent journalists, all of whom work in the state-owned press. The only journalist from an opposition newspaper to win a seat was al-‘Arabi’s Gamal Fahmi.

Four Islamists won seats on the board, notably Muhammad ‘Abd al-Quddous of al-Akhbar who garnered the highest number of votes of any candidate. Four Nasserist-leaning candidates also won, leading to triumphal columns in al-‘Arabi hailing a supposed Islamist-Nasserist alliance. Yet, on election day journalists did not appear to be voting for political trends so much as trusted individuals with track records of union service and credible promises of taking back the syndicate from government control. Veteran journalists also pointed out that many were simply casting a protest vote against the government. Pro-government writers, on the other hand, warned that unfettered democracy brings in “undemocratic forces,” as putatively liberal columnist Rida Hilal at al-Ahram opined. He argued that the journalists had made a “suicidal” choice they would later regret. The majority, however, hailed election results as examples of real change in contrast to other developments on the political scene and in the economy.

Fed Up

Six months after the depreciation of the pound, prices on basic foodstuffs have risen by 40 percent. By the government’s own count, 6.8 million government and public-sector employees have lost half the value of their salaries, while more than half of household budgets go to cover the cost of food and drink. Pensioners learned that higher delivery fees would be taken out of their meager checks. Traditional garbage collectors saw their livelihoods being taken over by private European sanitation companies, while households were suddenly informed that sanitation fees would be calculated according to their electricity consumption. Citizens sued, but the court ruled in favor of the incomprehensible new system.

In his recent book The Arabs Confront Aggression, public intellectual and ex-judge Tariq al-Bishri theorized that Egypt was witnessing a yawning gap between government and people and a growing rapprochement between socio-political groups in the opposition and civil society. Recent events bear out his thesis. The Egyptian regime, its new policy elite and their American patrons appear ever more isolated from majority sentiments. Ambient anger at crushing economic conditions and the Egyptian government’s tepid stances on Iraq and Palestine unites disparate strata of society. A fin de siecle mood fills the air, with vast social inequalities bringing back memories of the days before the 1952 coup, as colloquial poet Ahmad Fouad Negm says.

Housewives, ex-judges, centrist columnists, garbage collectors, unemployed university graduates and civil servants with diverse grievances are ranged against an indifferent and incompetent government that seems to have dispensed with even the pretense of responding to public needs. Time will tell if the Egyptian state’s vaunted powers of cooptation are coming apart at the seams, or if 2003 is merely a turbulent transitional period where traditional alliances are being reshuffled and new social alignments formed.

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