January 25th, 2012
10:01 AM ET

Cook: Egypt and its demons

Editor's Note: Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The following is an excerpt from his new book, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

By Steven Cook, Foreign Affairs

Ain Sukhna is stunningly beautiful. After a two-hour drive east from Cairo through the featureless desert, the road rolls toward the steel blue waters of the Gulf of Suez. Nestled beneath ocher-colored hills, the town is a string of industrial buildings, ramshackle half-built structures, and the weekend villas of Cairo's well-heeled. This is where the falool - the former officials, businessmen, and intellectuals who, for almost three decades, rationalized for the Mubarak regime - fled when their leader fell. With its manicured lawns, pristine infinity pools, and towpaths to the beach, Ain Sukhna couldn't be more different from the threadbare and creaking Egypt that former President Hosni Mubarak bequeathed to his people.

The falool remain convinced that Mubarak's fall was a tragic error that will bring lasting ruin to their country. They still believe the refrain that was so familiar on the eve of the uprising - that Egypt was an emerging democracy with an emerging economy. They cannot understand how their fellow Egyptians failed to grasp how good Mubarak was. According to their circular logic, Mubarak's progressive politics brought about his demise: had Mubarak not been a modernizer and democratizer, the protests never would have been permitted in the first place. Hence Suzanne Mubarak's furtive phone calls to her courtiers, reportedly asking, "Doesn't anyone see the good we did?"

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Indeed, the Egyptian people do not. But the despot's wife might be forgiven for thinking that the numbers were on her side. Between October 14, 1981, when Mubarak first assumed the Egyptian presidency, and February 11, 2011, when he stepped down, the country ostensibly made progress. Foreign direct investment increased. Gross domestic product grew. According to the World Bank, life expectancy, child immunizations, household expenditures, and the number of telephones per household all rose, suggesting that Mubarak's reign made Egyptians healthier and wealthier.

Any vindication the former first lady might find in the raw numbers, however, would be profoundly hollow. The World Bank's surveys used data provided by Egyptian officials, whose methods and rigor were subject to politics. There have long been rumors that the World Bank kept two sets of books on Egypt - one for public consumption, statistics that backed claims that Egypt was at the economic takeoff stage, and another that revealed a far more complicated and challenged country.

That was the heart of the problem: the gap between Mubarak's manufactured reality and the real Egypt. What did it matter when Egyptian officials touted 2008 as a banner year for foreign direct investment if, at the same time, Egyptians were forced to stand in long lines for bread? Mubarak's patronage machine could hold conference after conference trumpeting reforms and the coming transition to democracy. But when the People's Assembly (the lower house of Egypt's parliament) repeatedly renewed the country's decades-old emergency law, bloggers, journalists, politicians, judges, and activists of all stripes rushed to tell the tale of an Egypt in which life was far more circumscribed by the iron grip of a national security state. That story resonated. Few, if any, believed the regime's happy talk. And those who pointed out its contradictions were subject to brutality.

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Mubarak, for his part, pushed back hard. Harking back to October 1973 and the heroic crossing of the Suez Canal, he said that he would propel Egypt's "crossing into the future." But his rhetoric stood in stark contrast to the rattan canes and metal truncheons he unleashed on his critics. Isolated at the presidential compound in Heliopolis, or at his retreat in Sharm el-Sheikh, Mubarak never appreciated the irony that his repression only reinforced the arguments of his critics. With each crackdown, he only widened the gap between principle and practice.

This week, a democratically elected parliament chose its first speaker, Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, opening a new chapter in the country's history. But a year after the uprising began, distortions from the past haunt the future. Egyptians are learning what social scientists have long understood: uprisings can bring down leaders, but changing institutions is hard. It is not just redrafting laws and regulations but also reforming those uncodified norms that have been derived from decades of practice. For instance, in Egypt there is neither a constitutional article nor an official decree that links the armed forces to the presidency, yet that office has always been in the hands of the officers. For all the change that has come to Egypt in the last year, the people vying for leadership are all too familiar, and many of the restrictive laws constraining NGOs and the press remain firmly in place.

Egypt's activists are certainly correct in saying that their revolution remains unfinished. Even as Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa, and a raft of lieutenants, including the former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, are all on trial, others are on the run in London, Dubai, and Beirut. This perverse political order in which institutions are rigged to serve the elite remains intact.

Yet how to finally finish the job? The instigators of the uprising have taken a principled stand against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, because they believe the military is a counterrevolutionary force. But the activists' permanent revolution has had diminishing returns. They may have started the revolt, but as the first phase of Egypt's transition comes to a close they are finding themselves marginalized.

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The central drama of Egyptian politics turns on two familiar players that find themselves in very unfamiliar roles: the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo is rife with rumors of deals between the officers and the Islamists meant to bring an end to the democratic promise of Tahrir Square in favor of more banal politics. What makes the rumors credible is that the generals do not have much to work toward other than the preservation of their rule as the ultimate source of power and authority. Whoever is willing to ensure it is a potential partner; worldview is not a concern.

But an alliance with the Brothers would not last. There is a reason why Egyptian presidents repressed the Brotherhood on and off for the better part of the last sixty years: it a legitimate contender for power. Both the officers and the Brothers claim to be nationalists, par excellence. In their formative years, the Brotherhood and the Free Officers both diagnosed Egypt's problems as corruption, foreign domination, and a lack of social justice.

Against the record of Egypt's three leaders since 1952, the Brotherhood looks to many Egyptians like a bright alternative. Its reputation for being "clean" (read: not corrupt) is unrivaled. It has appropriated the rhetoric of reform and progressive politics, and has been uncompromising in its nationalism, having consistently opposed the deal with Washington that brought American arms and largesse to the military in exchange for a historic accommodation with Israel in 1979. The Brothers have explicitly stated that ties between Egypt and the United States have rendered their country a "second-rate power," thus positioning the group as more authentically Egyptian, and a better steward of the new Egypt, than the military. That the Brotherhood couches this in a religious vernacular resonates with Egyptians all the more.

Yet the generals will not give up without a fight. After all, the military brass is made up of sons of the 1952 revolution. They consider themselves the "backbone of the regime" and will protect the vested interests that come with their lofty position. The Brothers understand this; accordingly, they have floated the idea of amnesty for the officers as the Brothers seem to be telling the military that it can keep its ill-gotten gains - and the Brotherhood will take what the Egyptian people have granted through the ballot box.

Drafting the constitution comes next. Procedures and content are supposed to be written by early summer; the coming year will be one of dispute and struggle. Egypt's foreign, economic, and social policies will all be subject to the vicissitudes of politics in a society deeply polarized between different conceptions of the relationship between citizen and state, religion and state, and what Egypt stands for. The Brotherhood-dominated parliament will begin its hard negotiations with the military. This is not all bad, of course. Democratic politics thrives on conflict, so long as the weapons can be kept at bay. Egyptians are exorcising their demons.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Steven Cook.
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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    The seeds of the current Revolution in Egypt began with the assumption to power of Anwar Sadat back in 1970 following the death of Gamal Abdul Nassar. Sadat began to privatize everything from public housing to utility services and alligned Egypt with the West in 1972. As a consequence of all this, the living standards in Egypt began to plummet bigtime and this continued under Hosni Mubarak!

    January 25, 2012 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      But of course! If Sadat continued Nasser's line of pro-soviet orientation the Egyptians people would be as rich as the people of Coba and North Korea...

      January 25, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Reply
      • Deep Blue

        Cuba is a bad example. They are crippled by sanctions. North Korea is really more Fascist than Communistic I think. If you want to look at public ownership, look at socialist governments in Europe for comparison.

        I think Egypt is struggling economically because of low literacy rates and significant amounts of government corruption, not because of private or public ownership.

        January 25, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
      • Thinker23

        DeepBlue... Cuba and North Korea are much better examples that socialist Europe for the simple reason European states are peaceful democracies while Egypt is an Arab dictatorship.

        January 26, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    One year on Egypt's political geometry has got a new shape, a triangle: the Islamists, the Revolutionaries and the Army. Unfortunately they don't make a perfect match. The Islamists emerge as winners of the elections and determine the direction of their political path. The unfinished revolution of last year left many of the young urban disillusioned and they are leaderless. The army is trying to safeguard its vested interests and ensure that no future civilian government will scrutinise its budget or question its privileges and ill-gotten gains.

    January 25, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Unlike it's geometry cousin this political triangle is inherently unstable and will not last long. Sooner rather than later it will be replaced by a single ruling power and it will be either the military or the Islamists. A coalition between the two is very unlikely and this means that we're going to see a (possibly bloody) power struggle.

      January 25, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
      • Deep Blue

        The Muslim Brotherhood is has a fairly secular platform. They are running women candidates (and not just because they are legally required to). They don't want any laws that will deter western tourism. I think they are much more likely to form a coalition with the rising groups that began the revolution. The military wants a figurehead government to avoid taking responsibilities for Egypt's problems, so they will back down some. I don't foresee a civil war or major coup.

        January 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
      • Thinker23

        DeepBlue... Can you NAME ONE COUNTRY where the ruling Islamist group formed a coalition with other secular parties and encouraged tourism and I'll agree with you...:-)

        January 26, 2012 at 6:14 am |

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