The Day After: Egypt

God's Choice.

The disarray in post-Saddam Iraq offers a sharp reminder that ridding a country of a despotic regime is a lot easier than figuring out who or what comes after. In that spirit, FOREIGN POLICY speculates on the Day After in several oppressed nations. From Fidel Castro's Cuba to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, what groups are likely to come out on top when the Big Man goes down? Which are most likely to embrace democracy and pursue economic reform? What role will each nation's diaspora have in rebuilding and reengineering its society? Sadly, almost all of our contributors note that any sudden regime change will first yield only chaos and greater hardship. But by identifying the forces most likely to shape these countries' futures, our authors also open the possibility of transcending the tragedies of the past.

The disarray in post-Saddam Iraq offers a sharp reminder that ridding a country of a despotic regime is a lot easier than figuring out who or what comes after. In that spirit, FOREIGN POLICY speculates on the Day After in several oppressed nations. From Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, what groups are likely to come out on top when the Big Man goes down? Which are most likely to embrace democracy and pursue economic reform? What role will each nation’s diaspora have in rebuilding and reengineering its society? Sadly, almost all of our contributors note that any sudden regime change will first yield only chaos and greater hardship. But by identifying the forces most likely to shape these countries’ futures, our authors also open the possibility of transcending the tragedies of the past.


As a people, Egyptians are often accused of excessive political apathy. That is unfair. Egyptians are as passionate as any citizens regarding affairs of state. But their own incomparably long history, marked as it has been by the enduring dominance of a ceaseless procession of new, and often alien, ruling castes, has produced a reflexive skepticism toward the game of politics. When a Cairo taxi driver told me a few years back, “We do not change our rulers, God does,” he was stating the facts of the case.

Since the 1952 revolution that replaced an effete constitutional monarchy with an equally corrupt but far less liberal military oligarchy, power at the top has alternated only three times. Twice the cause was the death of the incumbent. The accompanying changes in political sloganeering — from, for example, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialism to Anwar Sadat’s “open door” policy, or from the ostentatious piety of Sadat’s “the believing president” to Hosni Mubarak’s preference for a secular image — represented important evolutionary shifts yet scarcely affected the underlying structure of the regime. Key personnel remained or were replaced by others of a similar background — namely, lower middle-class graduates of Cairo’s military academy and the upwardly mobile group identified by the distinguished Arab historian Hanna Batatu as “descendants of lesser rural notables.” The chief criterion for joining the establishment remained loyalty rather than competence, and the main policy goal stability rather than innovation.

The increasing inertia and ideological bankruptcy of this system, along with the aging of the leadership (President Mubarak is now 75) and the growing difficulty it faces in recruiting from within its own class, all suggest that Egypt is approaching an important moment of transition. At the same time, forces outside the regime are exerting new pressures. Powerful Western creditors are keen to “promote” democracy as a foil to extremism. The globalized flow of information has provoked a growing sense among ordinary Egyptians that their country is falling behind and is ripe for an overhaul. An enduring economic slump has deepened the gloom, with youth unemployment at rates of more than 20 percent, plunging investor confidence, and a surge in capital flight that has sharply eroded the value of Egypt’s currency.

Will Egypt soon join the worldwide trend toward democratization? The answer can only be a hesitant maybe, and with it a caveat that the model of government Egypt ultimately adopts could be closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than to the gentler norms of the West.

True, the Egyptian state is not totalitarian, but it is nonetheless extremely centralized and characterized by the absolute dominance of a president who is, behind a veil of constitutional niceties, accountable solely to centers of power within the ruling establishment. Broadly speaking, there are four of these: the executive office itself (with its own associated intelligence and military bodies, such as the Republican Guard); the army; the internal security apparatus; and the patronage machine of the ruling National Democratic Party. The four circles overlap — for example, the powerful minister of information is a former intelligence officer and current senior official in the ruling party. Each sphere also has strong links with private business. A typical relationship might see a retired general being granted a preferential loan from a state bank to create a private security firm that feeds information to the Ministry of Interior.

This web of ties has stifled the growth of an independent business constituency. Less subtle controls, including the emergency laws in force for the last 22 years, have crippled other independent actors, such as trade unions and advocacy groups. Political parties remain stunted. The only one with a broad base is the Muslim Brotherhood, but despite its ability to mobilize crowds on occasion, this moderate Islamist party has failed to elucidate serious policy alternatives or even to generate popular leaders. Indeed, 50 years of crushing state dominance have effectively eradicated the whole class of professional politicians. At the same time, the maintenance of a government monopoly on broadcasting, of state tutelage over the vast majority of academia, and of censorship of the written press have muted political debate. Key issues for Egypt’s political evolution, such as relations between Islam and the state, have never been resolved.

Given this context, political change in Egypt is likely to take the form of a competition for influence between the establishment’s own ruling circles, sparked, in all probability, by a sudden power vacuum at the top. Early signs of such maneuvering are already apparent, such as moves by President Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to build a constituency inside the ruling party and among pro-Western business leaders. Quiet resistance from the regime’s old guard, bolstered by public distaste for the notion of dynastic succession, has hampered this effort, however, leading many to predict that other contenders will emerge, perhaps from within the security apparatus.

Should one group take the lead, it would seek to trim the power of rival circles while securing allies in society at large and the backing of foreign powers such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. The process could provoke serious instability. One risk would be “contamination” by radical Islamist or extreme nationalist forces, in the event that power-seekers attempt to bolster their legitimacy by appealing to some form of chauvinism. Another risk is that whatever person or group seizes power may resort to blunt tools to secure their position, such as silencing opponents by force or peddling influence to the rich.

The rosiest potential scenario is one whereby a cohesive group — for example, the army — gains power quickly and then capitalizes on the inevitable goodwill that would accompany a change of regime to initiate deeper reforms. Simple gestures, such as banning torture, opening the airwaves to real debate, or liberalizing the constitution, could easily prolong the new rulers’ honeymoon — perhaps even long enough for them to consider holding real elections. In time, such a “normalized” political contest could see the consolidation of the underlying political forces that have long been buried by the state’s enforced consensus. Following an initial explosion of small political parties, the trends most likely to survive would be Islamist-conservative, nationalist-socialist, and liberal-capitalist. Many are betting on some diluted form of Islamism. And so, in his own way, God could still be choosing Egypt’s rulers.

EGYPT
Leader:
President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, 75
Years in Power:
22
Experience with Democracy:
None
Population:
74.8 million
GDP per capita:*
$3,990
Asylum Applications: **
22,771
Political Prisoners:
13,000 to 16,000
Population Under Poverty Line :

17 percent
Military Expenditures:
4.1 percent of GDP
*GDP per capita estimates in purchasing power parity
**Asylum applications submitted in 37 countries, 1980-2001

Sources: Amnesty International; Central Intelligence Agency; Migration Policy Institute; United Nations Development Programme; World Bank; The CIA World Factbook; U.N. Human Development Indicators 2003; World Development Indicators 2003  

Max Rodenbeck is based in Cairo as the Middle East correspondent for the Economist.

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.