At the beginning of June, a new, heavily armored Mercedes arrived in Cairo. It had been ordered for the new US ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner. Just a week earlier, in the heart of the crowded capital, a group calling itself Egypt’s Revolution had ambushed a car carrying three US Embassy staff, including the chief of embassy security. The attackers raked the car with automatic gunfire. Some good defensive driving allowed the Americans to escape with only superficial wounds. Security experts dispatched from the US described the attack as “very professional” and “well-planned.”
There were two similar attacks against prominent Egyptians. Makram Muhammad Ahmad, editor of the government-controlled magazine al-Musawwar, escaped with only minor injuries when gunmen shot up his car as he drove through the city center on June 3. Former Minister of Interior Hasan Abu Basha was not so lucky. A rifle bullet shattered his hip in a May 5 attack. Circumstantial evidence points to Islamist militants as responsible for the attacks against Ahmad and Abu Basha. There are reports from the Abu Basha investigation of fingerprints implicating one of the hundreds who had been jailed after Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. The government has arrested as many as 6,000 militants in response to the attacks, according to some Western estimates. Those who attacked the US embassy car represented another perspective. They issued a warning to the government not to go through with planned joint military exercises with US forces in August, and called for “free and honest elections under the supervision of the United Nations.”
The attacks have Egyptian and American officials worried. Paul Jabber, who runs the Middle East program for the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote last summer that for the Egyptian government “an economic crisis is almost inevitable in the near term, and a major political explosion only slightly less likely.” Jabber worried aloud that economic reforms of the sort demanded by Western creditors would “[set the stage] for a social and political eruption of a magnitude to threaten the regime.”
Behind the immediate conjuncture of Egypt’s political and economic difficulties, there are unanswered questions that are basic to understanding the structural dynamic of Egyptian politics and society today. What are the class forces at work and what is their relative strength? What is the social base of the Mubarak regime, and that of potential opposition forces? Why has the oppositional movement of those who have suffered the most under the “open door” — workers, poor peasants, low-level bureaucrats and others — remained sporadic and unorganized?
The elections and the campaign revealed the isolation and immobility of the left. Despite their influence in shaping ideological debate and political discourse, the organized left has been unable to forge either a broad opposition front or a narrower class-based movement. In this issue Bertus Hendriks discusses some of the reasons, notably the rural character of many large urban neighborhoods populated by recent migrants from the countryside. The left, traditionally based among urban workers and radical intelligentsia, has not yet developed ways of bringing this constituency within its reach. By contrast, these same rural migrants seem to provide an important social base for the Islamist political groups. All the opposition forces use imagery promoting “return” to better days — parliamentary democracy for the Wafd, Nasser’s Arab socialism for the left. Of these, only the Islamist call for a return to an uncorrupted Islamic society possesses much novelty.
Robert Springborg sees the major dynamic today in a personal rivalry of Husni Mubarak and his defense minister, ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala. Do they in fact represent a split between civilian and military-oriented sectors of the bourgeoisie? This conception is widely embraced in Egypt, where the public sector and its top managers appear to be aligned with Mubarak. This may partly explain why Mubarak has resisted demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rapid restructuring of the economy. The public sector still produces the great bulk of Egypt’s industrial output; its managers and workers comprise a constituency that cannot be ignored.
One dimension that separates Mubarak and Abu Ghazala and the rest of Egypt’s rulers from both the left and Islamist opposition involves the role of the United States. Although Washington evidently pressured the IMF to avoid demanding specific budget cutbacks in the latest agreement, it has otherwise made life steadily more difficult for the government. A string of incidents — complicity in the October 1985 Israeli air raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis; the Achille Lauro hijacking aftermath; the April 1986 bombing of Libya; the supply of arms to Iran — added up to a virtual declaration that Washington could care less about Egypt’s political requirements for maintaining an alliance with the US. Mubarak and Abu Ghazala, like Sadat before them, share a notion that the US-Egyptian relationship is a strategic one. They once hoped it would rival that between the US and Israel. Yet Washington refuses even to reschedule Egypt’s $4.3 billion military debt — in pointed contrast to the Soviet Union’s readiness to do just that. Even prominent figures in the regime, like foreign affairs advisor Usama al-Baz, compare Egypt’s present situation with the time of Khedive Isma‘il more than a hundred years ago, when the country’s ruinous debt led it straight down the road to colonial occupation. One likely outcome today will be Egypt’s disengagement, either gradually under Mubarak or sharply under a more radical successor, from its alliance with Washington. Mr. Wisner’s bulletproof Mercedes may soon be running on empty.