A version of this article appeared first in the interest review AmericanDiplomacy.org on May 30, 2011
For decades, Egypt was politically predictable and unchanging. As in past centuries, it seemed again to be ruled by Pharaohs who wielded huge power over a passive public. During the past sixty years, Gamal Abdal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak, all former military officers, one by one presided over a system that seemed to have some of the trappings of democracy that was actually a facade, with no real accountability to the public. Since January 2011, that has changed. But the process of change has not yet run its course, and the precise outcome is unpredictable.
The international press covered the Egyptian uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with graphic live pictures and reports from correspondents from all over the world. The uprising that started on January 25th and continued until President Mubarak’s resignation on February 11 attracted intense international media interest, but it then suddenly subsided. I found in a recent visit however that there is a great deal of continuing turmoil and intense discussion about Egypt’s future that is not being reported outside. The revolution has much to resolve before it is completed.
Most Egyptian analysts agree that the country’s most urgent problems today are (1) security, (2) the economy and (3) the political roadmap.
Security concerns are today paramount in people’s minds because of the recent Muslim-Christian clashes that included church burnings and lethal violence. The May 7 church burning in the Imbaba district of Cairo intensified deep fear among Christians and concern among most Muslims. As one Egyptian professor told me, religious conflict on this scale has not taken place in Egypt in recent memory. Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, have from time to time felt discriminated against but this is different. Last New Year’s Eve there was a hate crime against Christians in Alexandria when a church was bombed, but many people believed that was an isolated incident. And on Sunday February 6th, the protesters in Tahrir Square who were demanding Mubarak’s departure took the time to hold a multi-faith rally. Christian-Muslim expressions of friendship and cooperation were on public display, and Egyptians were optimistic that ending sectarian tension was a fortuitous byproduct of the uprising. But that optimism is now gone. Blame is being placed not on the Muslim Brotherhood but on the Salafis, radical puritanical Muslims who were invisible during the Mubarak era. Salafis have suddenly emerged, some of them reportedly returning from Saudi Arabia, and they have been active in many parts of the country.
The question many are asking is why the Supreme Military Command that holds the ultimate authority in Egypt since Mubarak’s departure three months ago allows the violence to continue. Some speculate that the generals want a certain degree of unrest to justify their continued rule. More likely is the explanation that the army is simply not capable of performing police duties since it has been trained to fight wars and defend the country’s borders, not to patrol streets and stop crime. The generals realize that soldiers have responded slowly when clashes break out, and they have recently assigned five hundred new recruits to special police duty to try to fill this gap. On January 28th, “Angry Friday”, in the middle of the uprising, police stations were burned and the corrupt and hated police suddenly disappeared from the streets; many never returned. So the army was deployed in the streets to restore order, mainly by providing a calming presence as the mob demanded Mubarak’s departure. Now that the army has taken the place of Mubarak as the ruling authority, and the police and Interior Ministry are in shambles, the generals are finding it difficult to perform all the duties of a government, such as civil order. They want to see an elected president and parliament take over those duties as soon as possible so they can move back behind the scenes to act as kingmakers, rather than king.
The second issue Egyptians are worried about is the economy. Businessmen told me the economic situation was a disaster and likely to get worse. Not only has tourism, a vital source of income, stopped, but also foreign direct investment has dried up because the future is uncertain. Factory workers went on strike as Egypt’s regime change allowed more space for labor activism, and pent-up demands for wage and salary increases were unleashed. A popular street rumor is that President Mubarak and his sons and cronies stole tens of billions and when that money is recovered it will be divided up and a share given to each citizen. Such fantasies circulate but no serious national discussion about economic policies and priorities is taking place.
Because President Mubarak, like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, promoted the private sector and encouraged capitalists, some businessmen now fear that the next government will revert to state socialism. Such speculation is fueled in part by the fact that the army has over the past years become directly involved in the economy in very substantial ways. The army owns not only factories that produce military equipment and materials, but also a wide range of civilian products. As Gamal Mubarak seemed to be positioning himself to succeed his father in the presidency, he was not only active in Mubarak’s party and more visible publicly, but he aggressively promoted the private sector with his business friends. The generals reportedly discussed among themselves how to prevent him from taking over, in part because of his involvement in privatization that they saw as a possible threat to the army’s vested interests in their type of state capitalism.
Former President Mubarak
Businessmen expect that the uncertainties over economic policy will last for several years. Meanwhile most talk about the economy is focused on the past. Criticism is widespread of the purported wide-ranging corruption of the Mubarak family and their cronies in government and business. The generals have detained Mubarak and his sons as well as close associates to investigate charges of personal aggrandizement at the public’s expense. Government contracts, land sales, privatization arrangements and other economic activities of the previous regime are under close scrutiny. Already members of Mubarak’s inner circle have been detained and questioned about alleged personal gain from their positions or connections. Ahmad Ezz, who owned 70% of the steel industry and 50% of the ceramic industry, and has an estimated net worth of close to two billion dollars, was a senior official in President Mubarak’s party and a close associate his son of Gamal. He was arrested February 17th, is being investigated by the authorities and may well go to jail for corruption. Already in February the public focused their anger on Ezz, trashing and burning one of his Cairo buildings to express rejection of the fallen president’s wealthy cronies.
And Habib Adly, who was Mubarak’s Interior Minister for 13 years, has also the target of public wrath and official scrutiny. He has just been tried and convicted of economic crimes. The judge fined him $2.5 million, seized all his assets, and gave him given 12 years in prison. Now he will now also be tried for his role supervising the police, when they were ordered to fire on innocent citizens during the 18-day uprising, leaving 850 citizens dead.
The investigations of former officials have however also swept up a number of people who are regarded as unlikely to be guilty of any crimes, such as former Minister of Foreign Trade and Finance Rashid Rashid. He had been the highly paid chairman of Unilever before he took a large pay cut in 2004 to join Mubarak’s cabinet and it is hard to believe that he enriched himself in that government job. Another official who has come under suspicion by the generals but is thought to be clean is Yusif Butros Ghali, an MIT PhD who became Mubarak’s Finance Minister in 2004. On February 11, the day Mubarak left office, he decided to take no chances and left Egypt for Beirut with his family, not wanting to risk the possibility of an unfair trial for corruption. The popular enthusiasm for retribution against the previous regime is intense and the generals are investigating many former senior officials with the outcome uncertain.
Uncertain political roadmap
The third major issue occupying the attention of Egyptians is what kind of political system to build on the ruins of the Mubarak regime. This is an opportunity that has not come since 1952 when the monarchy was overthrown.
For decades, Mubarak presided over a strict authoritarian system behind a façade of sham democracy. Egypt had an elected parliament but Mubarak rigged the elections so that his party got 69% of the seats in 2005 and then 81% in 2010. Some judges were independent; others were not. Most of the media especially radio and television, were tightly controlled. The police, under long time Interior Minister Habib al Adly, were corrupt, brutal and hated.
On February 11, after 18 days of widespread popular uprising, Mubarak left the presidency and the army, that had protected him but finally decided to have him leave, took over the government as the Supreme Military Command (SMC). The generals in the SMC keep their own counsel and issue decrees that have the force of law. They have ordered arrests and trials, including in military courts. But it seems clear that they want withdraw as quickly as they can from ruling Egypt directly, by helping to set up an elected civilian government. They probably want to remain behind the scenes as kingmakers, not as king.
As Egyptians focus on the election of the new post-Mubarak parliament, which is expected to be free and fair for the first time in decades, some two dozen political parties have emerged with ambitions to win seats. A few are parties that survived under the Mubarak regime, such as the leftist Tagammu’, the centrist al Wafd, and the newer al Ghad. They had all contested earlier elections without much success. Other parties have spring up overnight because Mubarak’s departure left political space for almost anyone to organize politically. Several liberal parties claiming to represent both Muslims and Christians were newly created, and four of them held a joint rally May 14th that attracted huge interest: more than one thousand people crowded into a hotel ballroom and hundreds more were turned away for lack of space. That public enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the recent past, since under Mubarak any opposition party that held a public event would normally only attract a tiny audience. The Mubarak years were characterized by deep public political apathy, with urban voting usually in the single digits. That has already changed, as the record breaking turnout for the recent constitutional referendum showed. Egyptians now believe their votes will count.
The party platforms of the four liberal parties at the May 14th rally were difficult to distinguish from each other. All supported policies that would be entirely compatible in a Western context, but they also all stressed their inclusion of both Muslims and Christians. Millionaire businessman Naguib Suwairis, a Copt who never before showed any political ambition, made the case for his new party, but leaders of the other three parties all went out of their way to express their respect for him. They all agreed that their preferred presidential candidate was El-Baradei. And they all said that members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), now disbanded, should not be allowed any political roles in the future. Like our debaathification in Iraq in 2003, and our denazification in Germany in 1945, these new politicians want to purge the system of anyone who had any connection with the old regime.
But that will not necessarily happen. A former senior member of the NDP, who was in fact NDP Secretary General until just before Mubarak departed, told me that he has founded a new party he calls Misr al Nahda (Rising Egypt) and is was busy collecting petition signatures so he can apply for a license and run again. He claims there are millions of voters in rural areas who still have an allegiance to the NDP and he hopes to tap into that group.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Another unknown is how the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) will now fare in the political process. The Brotherhood has a long history. It was founded in 1923, became militant, was persecuted by the Nasser regime, and then during the Mubarak decades was attacked verbally and physically, but it retained a following among the Egyptian public that experts estimate to be only around 15%. Since 1970 it has disavowed violence and sought to participate in the democratic process. Formally banned under Mubarak, members ran as independents and won 20% of the seats in the 2005 election because of their strong grass roots organization. But in the highly rigged 2010 election they won only one seat. Since the new parliamentary election will be held in September before the newer parties have had much time to organize and campaign, the MB is expected to win 30% or more and be the largest party in parliament.
It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is deliberately presenting a face of restraint and modest goals because its leaders are aware that many Egyptians fear they might take advantage of the post-Mubarak open era to dominate the political landscape and impose conservative Islamic practices. MB politicians have now established the “Freedom and Justice Party” and declared that they would contest 50% of the parliamentary seats but they would not support a candidate for president. (One former MB leader Abdul Futuh wants to be president but is not running under the MB banner.) It seems that what the MB leaders want, at least in the near term, is to be the most powerful voice in the opposition rather than taking the lead.
Some speculate that there is collusion between the generals now in power and the Muslim Brotherhood. The evidence presented is that the MB is the party that will benefit most by early elections because it is the best-organized political group. But the generals privately deny they want the MB to succeed. So the field is fragmented. The older established parties were discredited by operating under the Mubarak regime; while the brand new liberal parties have not yet had a chance to develop their constituencies and they are hampered by early elections.
What about the thousands of young people who came together in Cairo in Tahrir Square and in other cities and towns and stayed there until they brought down Mubarak on February 11th? It was their victory over the old order, but are they following up? Some have taken leave from their studies or their jobs to help start political parties, but they have no experience doing that so they depend on older people to take the lead and participate in the debate. Yet they are having an impact because they are coming out to show their support for the new parties, and also because they have developed the habit of gathering every Friday in Tahrir Square to voice complaints about one specific issue or another. If Tahrir fills up some of them move a few blocks away to the television building to demonstrate, because that guarantees media coverage. One complaint they have expressed is that the Supreme Military Command issues decrees without consulting much at all with the Egyptians who started the uprising in Tahrir Square or those who joined it and now want to help lead the country. The SMC occasionally responds to these street protests. For example when it announced that parliamentary elections would be held in June, many asked for a delay because they wanted more time to prepare; the SMC agreed to postpone elections until September, although some said this was still too soon.
The identity of the next president is unclear. Since 1952 an army officer has been president, and some speculate that the new president could even be an army officer, but that is not at all certain. The army was key to the departure of Mubarak on February 11th but they may be content with a civilian now. Presidential candidates include former foreign minister and Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa, and former international civil servant Muhammad El-Baradei. The well known television presenter Buthaina Kamel, who dramatically resigned during the uprising and declared her opposition to Mubarak, has declared her intention to run for president, the first female ever to do so in Egypt. (The MB in principle opposes female presidents). El-Baradei told me he was hesitant about the campaign because the SMC decision-making process was “opaque”, and the rules of the game are unclear. He is considering running for president but as he said, “How can I apply for a job if I have not seen the job description?”
The ultimate fate of the Mubarak family is also uncertain. The former president and his two sons have been taken into custody, something that six months ago was unimaginable. Mubarak had been in office longer than almost all of the Pharaohs, and he seemed to be on track to stay there until he died a natural death, to be followed by his son Gamal as president. Now the investigation and the courts may find them guilty and punish them, perhaps severely. Some Egyptians favor punishment as retribution, others favor punishment as a warning to future presidents. But still others believe that the Mubarak family has been punished enough by being brought down and humiliated as they were, and unless they actually broke laws, they should not face execution or even jail time. Even Saad al Din Ibrahim, the outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime, who went to jail and then into exile for his opposition activities, told me in a private conversation that he opposes revenge against his former tormentor.
It is not clear what the army wants to happen to the Mubarak family. For many years they had fully supported President Mubarak and then on February 11th they listened to the people’s demands and told him to leave office. It may be that they too will not want to seek revenge for a man they were close to, but only agree to punishment if the charges can be proven that he was corrupt or ordered police to fire on innocent civilians.
A striking characteristic of the current political situation in Egypt is the almost complete absence of any discussion of the United States or indeed of any foreign policy issue.
During the Mubarak years, criticism of the United States was a regular feature of the Egyptian media. Much of the public blamed Mubarak for not being tougher on Washington, and many were uncomfortable with the Israeli peace agreement. Since the start of the January 25 uprising, Egyptians have focused almost entirely on internal affairs and not paid attention to the outside world because so much is going on at home.
When the uprising began, the U.S. embassy was concerned that it might spill over into hostility toward America, as Middle Eastern events often do. The embassy evacuated nonessential personnel and two hundred American Special Forces troops arrived to protect the embassy compound, only one block away from Tahrir. But the demonstrators basically paid no attention to the embassy. There was one incident during the uprising when 23 embassy vehicles were stolen from a parking lot and one of them went careening through a crowd of demonstrators, running some over. Some bystanders thought the United States was joining with Mubarak’s thugs to try to put down the rebellion. But the embassy explained that the vehicle was stolen and the matter was forgotten.
More recently, after Egyptians heard the news of bin Ladin’s death, 200 people went to the embassy to protest. But in the context of tens of thousands gathering regularly in Tahrir on a regular basis, 200 protesting was insignificant. When the embassy held a briefing to explain the bin Ladin story to invited Egyptians, some walked out for lack of interest. Almost no one in Egypt cared about bin Ladin or his fate.
A small gathering on May 15th to protest the 1948 founding of Israel formed in Tahrir and then walked to the Israeli embassy. But that gesture seemed pro forma and minor, given everything else that was happening. Most Egyptians were paying close attention to internal problems and discussing them passionately. They did not want to be distracted by foreign concerns. There are no calls now for abrogating the treaty with Israel.
More to be done
Thus a number of issues vital for Egypt’s future — all of which are internal — remain unresolved, even though more than three months have passed since the dramatic downfall of President Mubarak. Egyptians are worried about Muslim-Christian clashes that have not been stopped. They are concerned about their very bad economic situation but they have not found a practical formula to deal with it and they are not sure of the overall direction the country will take now after it has tried socialism and state capitalism. And they are excited about the prospect of free elections not predetermined by the ruling party, and they are trying to get ready for them, but many are concerned that September is too soon for an orderly electoral process and they are not at all certain how it will come out. Most are pleased with what was accomplished by the uprising, but they know many problems remain to be resolved.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.