No one in Cairo seems at all clear about the present direction of Egyptian politics. The signs are contradictory and difficult to read. On the one hand, the press is freer than at any time since 1952 (and perhaps before), there is a wide-ranging public discussion about major issues, and all recognized political groups display considerable energy in the jockeying for position involved in the runup to the 1984 election for the People’s Assembly. On the other hand, President Husni Mubarak’s brief dialogue with what he identified as the country’s “official opposition” is long since over. Major problems, like the attempt to provide a constructive role for the more moderate elements inside the Muslim Brothers, remain. In general, the president seems so hemmed in by the economic policies inherited from his predecessor, the American alliance and the growing political importance of the army that he appears to have little or no opportunity for new initiatives.

In such a situation, most public events become subject to a wide variety of possible interpretations. One instance concerns the regime’s efforts to isolate extremist religious groups. At one point this took the form of televising a weekly confrontation between imprisoned members of Jihad and representatives of the religious establishment. Its aim was clearly to show that the members of Jihad were young, foolish and extremely ignorant of their own religion. The lessons drawn by Egyptian friends varied enormously: Some saw the whole exercise as an undoubted victory for the government, while others were much more impressed by the obvious confidence of the young men and their ability to express a simple strength of faith, uncluttered by the worrisome complications of academic theology. Another example of public ambiguity involves the increasingly vocal identification of the army with the process of national development, together with the growing use of ex-officers to fill senior government and cabinet posts. Hardly a day goes by without some statement about the army’s role in training skilled workers, helping the reconstruction of the Sinai or simply making things work more efficiently. Many are simply unimpressed by this campaign. Others assume that Egypt has already experienced some kind of “silent coup,” or at the very least a return to the period of dual power which characterized the relations between President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Field Marshal Hakim ‘Amir in the two years before the 1967 war.

The freedom of the press itself presents a number of contradictory aspects. There is no sign, as yet, of any criticism either of the army or the president himself. Mubarak has nevertheless given a number of warnings, private as well as public, to journalists about their public responsibility and, in particular, about their duty to avoid any adverse comment on the private life of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, his wife and children. Against this, there is a daily diet of scandals great and small — from the trial of ‘Ismat al-Sadat to the collapse of yet another badly constructed building. There is, in addition, regular comment on such major issues as the nature of democracy, the secrecy of Egyptian officials, and the rules which ought to govern a freer political life. Such is the excitement created by this new journalistic freedom that al-Ahali, the weekly paper of the Tagammu‘, back in publication since May 1982, is virtually impossible to find on the streets three days after publication, even though it is said to have a print run of at least 100,000 copies.

Just as the contradictions within its economic system become increasingly apparent, so many intellectuals feel compelled to abandon just those notions which would allow them best to understand them.

The newspapers are also the stage for a regular ideological confrontation between the supporters of the public sector and the exponents of unrestricted private enterprise. This can be seen, predictably enough, in the many exposes of the widespread shortages of goods like cigarettes and soap. The right blames this on the inefficiency of the nationalized industries and the left on the fact that these factories have been starved of the funds needed to expand production to meet ever rising demand. It can also be seen in the day-to-day reaction to such fast-breaking stories as the links between the Suez Canal Bank (a private institution with major funding from certain public sector banks) and the runaway millionaire, Tawfiq ‘Abd al-Hayy, who stands accused of obtaining huge loans in order to import poor quality chicken meat for public consumption. The left attack this as yet another example of rampant corruption, while important figures on the right, like Osman Ahmad Osman, argue that the private banking system is still too fragile to survive the huge crisis of confidence which such an investigation might bring.

These and other similar stories convey the distinct impression that while the supporters of private enterprise have been placed very much on the defensive over the corruption issue, they are still two well entrenched in the major centers of power — the ruling National Democratic Party, the Economic Committee of the People’s Assembly and the new Maglis al-Shura — to be easily dislodged. The present system of tightly controlled political pluralism still works obviously to the advantage of the bankers, merchants and entrepreneurs with private interests to promote or defend.

This is certainly one main reason for the pessimism prevailing among so many activists on the left. They have been given a certain degree of latitude to criticize aspects of the system, but only from the outside. Not only have they been almost totally ignored by the regime, but they expect no proper voice in determining the rules to guide the conduct of the 1984 general election. Already there has been one suggestion that it should be organized on the principle used in the recent elections for the non-official members of the Maglis al-Shura: Different parties were invited to submit lists of candidates for each multi-member constituency, with the party which got the highest number of votes (almost inevitably the National Democratic Party) taking all the seats. Even if this arrangement can not be repeated, there are plenty of other mechanisms by which the electoral potential of the left, particularly in the big cities, can be neutralized.

A second cause of pessimism is the difficulties experienced by the Tagammu‘ in its leaders’ efforts to create a broad oppositional front. Joint activities aimed at hammering out a program of cooperation with the other elements of the secular opposition — notably the Socialist Labor Party and the New Wafd — have revealed the extent to which the latter are little more than small groups of intellectuals and journalists centered round a single newspaper rather than proper political organizations with a capacity to mobilize supporters and run campaigns. Meanwhile, overtures to the more moderate religious groups, which are also opposed to many of the basic tenets of current regime policy, have more or less broken down due to the obvious unwillingness of major religious figures to be associated in any way with the Tagammu‘ platform. This was seen with special clarity when a dialogue in al-Ahali with ‘Umar Talmasani, the main spokesman of the Muslim Brothers, received such a barrage of criticism in the religious newspapers that Talmasani himself was forced to issue a public statement that his comments did not commit him to anything.

One response seems to have been to strengthen the movement of a number of the more radically-inclined intellectuals towards a more overtly religious style of discourse. They combine the argument that the major contradiction in the Middle East is between nationalism and imperialism with an appeal to the notion of an Islamic civilization under dire threat from American influence. Such an approach obviously plays down the importance of the idea of classes engaged in struggle, but can still accommodate an attack on the corruption of those led astray by the easy pickings which were part and parcel of Sadat’s liberal economic policies. The fierce newspaper attacks made just before Christmas on Egyptian academics accused of working for American interests seems definitely part of this trend. Whether or not such a language can be used as a bridge towards moderate religious thinkers remains an open question. It may well affect the thinking of those large numbers of Egyptians who find it difficult, if not impossible, to embrace either an exclusively religious or a purely secular view of the world, or who believe that notions like capitalism, socialism and class are too closely associated with a now devalued and irrelevant political vocabulary. It is an irony which Egypt shares with many other parts of the world: Just as the contradictions within its economic system become increasingly apparent, so many intellectuals feel compelled to abandon just those notions which would allow them best to understand them.

For the time being, until or unless there is a major crisis or a major new policy initiative, groups which hope to play a serious role in the Egyptian political process must inevitably seek to prepare themselves for the 1984 election and engage directly in the debate surrounding the rules by which it will be run. President Mubarak is very obviously seeking to pump some semblance of life into his own National Democratic Party by holding regular meetings with its senior members and starting a party paper for Egyptian youth. Egypt’s politicians have had to take account of the widely expressed desire for a greater degree of political participation and freedom, which has already taken the form of the establishment of countless small groups in the universities and elsewhere for the purpose of discussion and debate. The refusal of the authorities to allow Sayyid Yasin, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and others to register their proposed muntada (forum) — an Egyptian version of the British Fabian Society — may have dealt this movement a small setback. But so long as the issue of democracy and freedom remains a major public concern, such groups will continue and perhaps even form the basis for new political organizations.

There is, in all this, an admittedly optimistic reading of current trends which argues that President Mubarak is genuinely anxious to proceed further along the road to a more democratic form of political life. Some have suggested that it is obviously in Mubarak’s own interests to try to counter the powerful impression that policies of infitah as presently practiced simply mean freedom for the well-connected to get richer, without providing the other classes in Egyptian society with any greater ability to protect their own interests or to improve their own lot. In another version, just because the president has so little room to maneuver in other directions, he has been persuaded that the promotion of democracy is the one area where he can make real progress.

It doesn’t take much foresight to understand how easily all these hopes could be dashed. The power of religious fundamentalism is certainly not yet spent. There is also the uncomfortable awareness that in a genuinely free election the older organizations like the New Wafd and the Muslim Brothers are still better placed to organize a truly national campaign than any of their more recent rivals. Just as important, there are a whole number of sensitive issues — the peace treaty with Israel, the role of the army, the widespread corruption — which may well be considered too delicate and divisive to be submitted to public debate. Finally, there is the ever present prospect that a sudden deterioration of economic conditions — perhaps due to a huge fall in the remittances sent back by Egyptian workers in the Gulf — will lead Egyptians back to the streets long before they get anywhere near the ballot box.

How to cite this article:

Roger Owen "Egypt Gropes for Political Direction," Middle East Report 116 (July/August 1983).

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