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Responses to “Mubarak hangs on”
Responses to “Mubarak hangs on”
Having just returned from the better part of a week in Cairo, I share Steven Cook’s pessimistic appraisal of developments in Egypt. Scratch that. I think the situation is a bit worse than he portrays.
Wednesday, April 9,2008 14:04
by Steven A. Cook Blogs.Law.Harvard.Edu

1.  on 09 Apr 2008 at 2:33 pm1 David Schenker

Having just returned from the better part of a week in Cairo, I share Steven Cook’s pessimistic appraisal of developments in Egypt. Scratch that. I think the situation is a bit worse than he portrays.

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 Egypt’s Islamists are making great social and political strides.

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 Cairo suggests that the Brotherhood is winning the battle of ideas on the ground. At least that’s how MB Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib sees it. As Habib told me a few weeks ago, the increased incidence of hijab in Egypt is evidence that “the Dawa worked.”

Making matters worse is the extreme anti-American bent of the Egyptian government-controlled press, the regrettable incident in the Suez Canal last month in which an innocent Egyptian souvenir trader was killed by a U.S. contractor, the situation in Gaza, and the predominantly negative views of the Egyptian Government held by the locals. These elements exacerbate an already potentially explosive situation.

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 Cairo has called in the military as the solution of last resort. In the 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the army to take control of the under-performing transportation sector, and armed forces served for a brief while as the country’s bus drivers.

But trends in Egypt—and in the region—are not what they were, and with political transition on the horizon, there is no solution in sight for Egypt’s perennial maladies. Yes, Egypt has been a remarkable economic success story in recent years, generating 7 percent GDP growth over the past six years or so. But there has been no trickle-down, resulting in a heightened sense of relative deprivation among Egypt’s estimated 24 million impoverished.

Likewise, despite protestations to the contrary, the NDP, Egypt’s ruling party, does not appear to be serious about internal reform, much less any form of power sharing. And with prominent party affiliates like Ahmed Ezz, who controls the monopoly on steel in Egypt, the NDP is not likely to soon shed its corrupt image. Meanwhile, with the notable exception of the MB, there is today no such thing as political opposition in Egypt. Political parties are co-opted, or their leaders are jailed.

At the end of the day, Steven is right. Egypt is not in imminent danger of instability or collapse. But the trend line is not good. The only Egyptians today who are happy and confident of the country’s direction are the Muslim Brotherhood. And that’s because they take the long term view. The worse things get in Egypt, the more support the Brotherhood expects to pick up.

David Schenker is a member of MESH.

2.  on 10 Apr 2008 at 1:20 pm2 Tamara Cofman Wittes

I really appreciate Steven Cook’s and David Schenker’s analyses of the trend lines in Cairo, but I think they are both asking the wrong question. Whether or not Mubarak can “muddle through” this crisis is not a real question: the state’s coercive capacity is significant and the security forces haven’t even warmed up yet. The question Americans should be asking is what it costs us—and Mubarak—when his regime is compelled to fall back on coercion and the reinsertion of the military apparatus into the daily concerns (those bakeries!) of Egyptian citizens.

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 America squarely at the center of the problem—in Egypt and in the region as a whole.

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 Egypt, we may lose even if Mubarak wins.

Tamara Cofman Wittes is a member of MESH.

3.  on 10 Apr 2008 at 9:55 pm3 Steven A. Cook

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 Washington is back to supporting stability, then breathe a sigh of relief because President Mubarak seems to have regained his footing. 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 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq working.” I think Tamara and I are actually on the same page here.

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 Union? Arab Socialist Union? And now the National Democratic Party? To be fair, the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 gave the regime a fair amount of ideological cover. Yet, Nasserism was a house of cards that came tumbling down in June 1967. The defeat ultimately revealed that, by its very nature, the political order the Free Officers founded in the 1950s was based on coercion. The laws, regulations, decrees—the institutions of the state—were built on the logic of compulsion, force, and intimidation.

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 Middle East.

Steven A. Cook is a member of MESH.

4.  on 11 Apr 2008 at 11:14 am4 Michele Dunne

The recent bread crisis and labor riots are just the latest installment in the increasingly fractured narrative of Egypt. On one hand, there is the narrative presented by the Mubaraks and the National Democratic Party of an Egypt making rapid progress toward modernization, global economic competitiveness, and increased political participation. On the other, there is the narrative of collapsing state services, rampant corruption, and frighteningly bad public safety procedures—as seen in recent crises from bread shortages to sinking ferries to fires in trains and theaters that have killed hundreds—told by opposition movements and independent commentators.

Husni Mubarak seems incapable of coping with either of these two Egypts. He stubbornly resists assertive reform measures and is likely to do so even more now out of fears about social unrest as well as the global financial crisis. (Recall how the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s derailed Egyptian economic reform for a good five years.) At the same time, his response to being confronted with the second Egypt (corruption and collapse) is always the same: deny the seriousness of the problem, take a few cosmetic measures (and maybe fire a few people), and then sweep it under the rug and move on as quickly as public sentiment permits. And so this is what we will see for the remaining Mubarak era, which will last as long as his health does (anywhere from one day to several years).

The important question now is whether a new Egyptian leader can possibly look at these two Egypts realistically and put the country on a serious course toward reform and development. It is an enormously tall order in a nation of 80 million. But frankness about the nature of the problems and willingness to broaden political participation in order to solve them would help to generate good will and a more cooperative spirit inside Egypt as well as in the international community.

This is the conversation U.S. officials need to be having now with Egyptians. We cannot (and should not try to) affect the succession process directly, but it is well past time to talk with current and potential future leaders about where the country is going and how Egypt and the United States can work together. This is the only answer I see to the painful situation that Steve and Tamara have identified, in which the U.S. and Egypt still need to cooperate but have come to view each other as burdensome.

Michele Dunne is a member of MESH.

5.  on 11 Apr 2008 at 5:59 pm5 Vivien Pertusot

The bread crisis is unlikely to lead to upheaval in the country. On Sunday, I wandered through the streets of Cairo and found almost all the shops open. No massive demonstration took place; the police made it pretty impossible, especially in downtown. As mentioned above, protests arise from specific groups; demonstrations at the Lawyers’ and Journalists’ Syndicates rumble at a frantic pace. There have been countless articles titled “the war of bread” and “the crisis of bread” in the past few weeks. The impact on the average Egyptian remains marginal. As for the municipal elections, I talked to several Egyptians and was puzzled by the lack of interest. Some did not even know that elections were occurring.

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 United States heighten to the point that Congress sets up conditions for the aid package that would force reforms—nothing is going to change in Egypt.

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 Egypt would require groundbreaking changes that the leadership will never accept under any circumstances—unless a revolution breaks out.

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 Cairo for LeCourant.info. He posted this comment on MESHNet.


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