Egyptians pride themselves on their historic endurance and their ability to survive under almost all conditions. But even before the Gulf crisis erupted in August, there had been a great sense of worry and uncertainty regarding the future. The juncture of a new century with a new millennium is noticed in a nation used to counting its age in thousands of years. [1]

In the ongoing debate, one current argues that Egypt’s future rests in its historic stability, political and otherwise. An opposing current questions the “validity” of the political system, declaring that this “stability” is nothing but a dangerous and lulling inertia.

The illusive character of this stability stands exposed when crises erupt. It is noticeable in daily life as well, with its juxtaposition of mass apathy and elite violence — the violence of political radicals, in particular certain Islamist groups, as opposed to mass insurrection. This apathy conveys a sense of tranquility and stability. But regimes are stable when their people participate in public life, not when they are dormant.

In Egypt, a neoliberal regime has been in formation since 1976. Masses of people took to the streets on a large scale once, in January 1977. Since then there have been several disturbances among industrial workers, most recently the major strike of the iron and steel workers in Helwan in 1989. Students, too, have been in sporadic confrontation with the authorities. The riots by the riot police, the Central Security Forces, in February 1986 had to be put down by the army. Elite violence, by cadres of political groups, has continued sporadically since 1974, when Islamist militants tried to seize the military academy. The landmark of this elite violence was the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981.[2]

This elite violence has the potential to spark mass disturbances in connection with sectarian strife, which has assumed serious dimensions in Upper Egypt in 1990. Despite ceremonial television images of Muslim and Christian men of religion shaking hands in harmony, and repeated official declarations about “national unity,” sectarian conflict has persevered over the lifetime of a whole generation now. It might take another generation for this conflict to manifest itself more broadly, but even a unified country like Egypt is not immune to the Lebanese syndrome.

The policy and practice of the state’s internal security vis-à-vis these tensions is a matter of contention between government and opposition, and serves to alienate ordinary citizens from the regime. To serve the regime’s purpose of suppressing Islamist militancy, former Interior Minister Zaki Badr confronted almost all segments of the population over a four-year period with his police forces and with his notoriously vulgar tongue: Peasants were forced to deliver crops; one steel worker was killed by police at the Helwan strike; journalists and university professors were arrested and detained; police ransacked a judge’s apartment; and the minister verbally and physically assaulted opposition MPs inside Parliament. The brunt of Badr’s approach to security was borne by the Islamists inside and outside prison, and by ordinary Egyptians in their daily dealings with the state. Ironically, when the minister was deposed in February 1990, his nasty tongue was cited as the reason.

The appointment of ‘Abd al-Halim Musa, ex-governor of Asyout, where Islamism and sectarianism are most prevalent, was widely welcomed in the country. He seemed to represent a different political consciousness. But confrontations have continued, and some opposition circles now speak of him as representing the same approach.

Latest Blow

On the economic front, Egypt faces a structural dilemma comprised of debt, unemployment and inflation. The government has relied on a balancing troika of oil revenues, Suez Canal tolls and worker remittances to keep the national economy afloat. These fluctuate with the regional and international developments. Remittances had begun to decrease well before the present Gulf crisis, and Suez Canal revenues declined after its outbreak. The collapse of “Islamic” finance companies in 1989 devastated a large pool of small depositors. The recent flood of expatriate workers from the Gulf is only the latest blow to the country’s economic viability.

The International Monetary Fund has been pressing the government to formulate a structural adjustment program as part of negotiations to reschedule a foreign debt estimated at $60 billion. The regime fears the political repercussions of austerity; there is no consensus between government and opposition on this, nor even within the opposition itself. The economic problem has become more and more pressing, and manifests itself in rising rates of crime and drug addiction, and social tensions in general.

Reform of the political system has become a preliminary requirement to facing economic problems. Democracy, in the broad sense, is everybody’s slogan and banner. The difference is between a government that is complacent and an opposition that is complaining.

The pivot of the Egyptian political system is the presidency, and behind the presidency is the armed forces. [3] Even though there are qualms and criticism about the performance of the president, street jokes about his character, and sporadic refusal to accept what he says or does, the presidency remains above political conflict and its legitimacy rests intact. The opposition directs its arrows at the cabinet, minister by minister, at the system of parliamentary elections, and at the ruling party.

Presidents of Egypt have so far all been military men; in choosing them, citizens can only say yes or no through sole-nominee referenda. The only institution to discuss the decision to send Egyptian troops to the Gulf before the decision was made was the general command — no parties, not even the ruling party, nor the cabinet, and certainly not the parliament.

Only one other component of the system — the judiciary — is taken seriously. The high court has recently been midwife for the birth of five out of nine existing political parties, parties which had been denied legal recognition by the state Political Parties Committee but won recognition on appeal. (Even the judiciary, though, refused to grant legal status to a new Nasserist party.) Judges also instigated the parliamentary elections in 1987 and again in mid-1990 by ruling that the existing parliaments had been unconstitutionally seated. Given the rigidity of the executive, the ineffectiveness of opposition parties and the scale of mass apathy, people see the judiciary as pivotal in any reform of the political system.

In the latest of these judicial interventions, opposition lawyers got the courts, halfway through the term of parliament, to rule that some 70 members of Parliament had been illegally seated. These MPs rejected the ruling, asserting that other laws made the parliament “the master of its decisions” (which led the opposition to nickname the speaker “Mister Master”). A subsequent ruling voided the composition of Parliament altogether.

The ruling caught the government unawares; it was not ready for a new round of elections. Mubarak appointed a committee of legal experts to rectify the parliamentary law in a way that would avoid future rulings of unconstitutionality. The opposition aimed at more structural reform, and prepared a joint version of electoral law. The judges, too, proposed a number of guarantees for securing sound elections under their supervision. The government — i.e., the presidency — looked for a while as though it was willing to broaden the legitimacy of the regime vis-à-vis the combined threat of Islamist militancy and economic austerity.

Slide Toward War

The Gulf crisis imposed a new atmosphere and ended serious emphasis on reform. Minor changes were introduced into electoral laws and a routine referendum in October set the ground for parliamentary elections scheduled for November 29, contested on the basis of individual candidacy instead of party slates. While promising clean elections, the interior minister forecast the decrease of opposition seats. [4] His preposterous declaration that 9 million voters had turned out at the referendum — the number was surely far smaller — sounded an ominous note for government intentions regarding the elections themselves, which most opposition parties have now boycotted. [5] The Gulf crisis offset the embarrassment felt by the government at the beginning of the electoral crisis. But the price has been high: The events since August have challenged Egypt’s regional role as never before, and may end up undermining the regime at home as well.

Prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Egypt had reached the height of its return to the Arab fold following the post-Camp David boycott. Cairo restored diplomatic relations with all Arab countries in sequence, Syria last. Together with Iraq, Jordan and Yemen, Egypt formed a regional power bloc, the Arab Cooperation Council, to parallel the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Maghrib Union.

But regional stability, as viewed from Cairo, was built on shaky foundations. Many Egyptians were sympathetic to the Palestinian intifada despite formal relations with Israel and sporadic anti-Palestinian campaigns in the official press. The central issue of Palestine had reached a deadlock: The intifada had failed to stimulate radical change; the Israeli extreme right was ensconced in power; the “exploratory” American-Palestinian dialogue had broken down. The Lebanese deadlock persevered, while a Sudanese deadlock emerged.

On top of all this, Egypt’s good offices failed to halt the slide toward war in the Gulf and it was forced to take sides. Did it take the right side? Did it fight an honorable war with the other side? President Mubarak won credit domestically for his early call for an Arab summit. But from the minute the Cairo summit had ended, Egyptian policy toward the Gulf crisis has been a matter of controversy inside and outside Egypt.

The summit communique called for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and endorsed the Saudi invitation to American troops. A proposal for the simultaneous withdrawal of all troops was inexplicably dropped from the agenda. This fueled anti-American sentiment in much of the Arab world, creating an impression of popular support for Iraq. Saddam Hussein adroitly manipulated slogans of “just distribution of oil wealth” and “solving all the problems of the region together,” while US pronouncements about new regional security systems reminded people of the military pacts and bases of yore. The Iraqi invader thus assumed the guise of liberator.

Having taken the American side, Egyptian authorities had to engage in an anti-Iraq campaign to mobilize, if not to neutralize, Egyptian public opinion, especially after sending Egyptian troops to the Gulf. This official media campaign focused on the invasion and its brutality, together with the plight of Egyptians and others driven away from the Gulf, Iraqi despotism and the person of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. An anti-Palestinian subtext was also apparent.

The impact of all this has been paradoxical. Egyptians, hitherto apathetic, began to show an interest in public affairs, especially concerning the Gulf crisis. The return of many Egyptians working there, with the losses they incurred, made it a domestic issue. In the early days of the crisis, the vast majority clearly supported Mubarak’s approach, but as days went on and the crisis escalated this support turned half-hearted and has given way to perplexity and ambivalence.

This ambivalence reflected primarily the impact of the scale of American military build-up in the area and fears of Egypt becoming an accomplice in the destruction of another Arab country, even an aggressor. Iraqi slogans against rich oil sheikhs found resonance among poor Egyptians who witnessed the extravagant behavior of wealthy Gulf citizens visiting Egypt, and the sense of Egypt’s isolation vis-à-vis the more populous Arab states. Some Egyptians expressed reservations about the way the official media cheered the American parade as it marched through to settle scores in the Gulf, but none of this has evoked any militant opposition on the part of ordinary Egyptians, who seem to be supportive of official policy by a ratio of about three to one. [6]

Washington’s Shadow

Mubarak’s line, resting as it does in the shadow of Washington’s line, is the biggest gamble of his reign. It incorporates the classic rivalry between Egypt and Iraq for leadership among the Arab states, this time with an extra dose of personification that allows the survival of one man, Mubarak or Saddam, only at the expense of the other. Ordinary Egyptians pragmatically lean with the winner, glorifying him if he is their man and coexisting with him if he is the adversary.

At the elite level, Mubarak got the support of the liberal right as represented by the Wafd party. Its daily, al-Wafd, led the pictorial exposure of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait and played down the issue of the American build-up, even though it disassociated itself from proposals for military pacts. Two of its leading columnists, including the Wafd secretary-general, Nu‘man Gum‘a, stopped contributing because of reservations they had concerning the party’s and the paper’s line.

The other two poles of opposition, the Islamic movement and the left, stood broadly against the official policy, after initially denouncing the Iraqi invasion. The split within the ranks of each of them grew in tandem with the scope of the American build-up. Some prominent figures in the Tagammu‘ Party closed ranks with liberal and right-wing politicians and intellectuals to establish the Egyptian Committee for the Defense of the Kuwaiti People. The leader of this group is ‘Amr Muhi ai-Din (a professor of economics and brother of Tagammu’ leader Khalid Muhi al-Din), who resigned from the Tagammu‘ because of the party’s “mild” denunciation of the Iraqi invasion.

The split is even more sharp in the case of the Islamist movement. A radical segment is represented by many young militants and the bulk of the leadership of the Labor Party, particularly ‘Adil Husayn, who has become the fiercest critic of official policy. On the other side is the clearly pro-Saudi segment which dominates the other Islamic weekly, al-Nur, and is publishing books denouncing Saddam.

If the Gulf crisis takes a longer course, these splits augur for a reconfiguration of political forces in Egypt, and leave an imprint on the form and substance of future politics in Egypt. Some parties may disappear, eclipsed by newer formations. This will affect not only domestic politics, but also Egypt’s role in the region.

Broadly speaking, Egypt’s official attitude toward the Gulf crisis and sponsorship of the American program there has yet to deliver the goods. The outcome depends on how the crisis is ultimately settled. Egypt wants to be appreciated as the leader and savior of the Arab world, but the prospect that the destruction of Iraq is the price for this to happen would give Egypt’s triumph a bitter taste, and the regime risks opprobrium as an American accomplice. Had Egypt better kept a mediating role and opted for a compromise? Did it have the choice? Was it promised a fair price for its stance? The slim sums of foreign support revealed so far, and the American offer to waive the $7 billion military debt, suggest the riskiness of the situation.

The answers to these questions and many others may well rest at the White House rather than at ‘Abdin Palace. The responsibility for providing answers, though, still falls on the shoulders of the Mubarak government. No one should expect an answer until there is in Egypt a government that is accountable to its people.


[1] See, for example, the proceedings of the conference on “Egypt and the Challenges of the 1990s,” Center for Political Research, Cairo University, December 1989.
[2] See Kamal Abbas et al, Epic of the Steel Workers (Cairo: New Egyptian House, 1990).
[3] See Ahmed Abdalla et al, The Army and Democracy in Egypt (Cairo: Sinai Publishers, 1990).
[4] Interviews in al-Musawwar, October 5, 1990 and al-Ahram, October 10, 1990.
[5] See “Egypt: Election Concerns,” News from Middle East Watch, November 15, 1990.
[6] No opinion polls are conducted, except one on a tiny sample by al-Ahali, August 22,1990, affirming this estimate.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Abdalla "Mubarak’s Gamble," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).

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