Can Egypt change?: political institutions need reform

Sometimes it seems that the only things that change in Egypt are the police uniforms. In November, when temperatures dip into the 60s, they don black woolen outfits. A few months later, generally March, when it starts getting quite warm again they switch back to their white cotton duds. Everything else seems to be just ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes it seems that the only things that change in Egypt are the police uniforms. In November, when temperatures dip into the 60s, they don black woolen outfits. A few months later, generally March, when it starts getting quite warm again they switch back to their white cotton duds. Everything else seems to be just about the way it always was — my one-eyed barber sitting in the same chair today as the day I met him a decade ago; the guys from the baqqel across the street from where I used to live doing just about the same things as they did when I bid them farewell all those years ago; my doorman is still lording over his corner of Mohamed Mazhar street, and Hosni Mubarak is still the president talking about "stability for the sake of development."  Yet, the president, who has worked with five U.S. counterparts, three of whom served two terms, is sick.  Official denials aside, the timeline for succession is more likely 12-18 months rather than the three-to-five years that had been the working assumption until the president’s hospitalization in Germany last March. Mubarak’s imminent demise has prompted analysts, policymakers, journalists and other observers to ask, "Can Egypt change?" While the question seems apt at the twilight of the Mubarak era, it nevertheless seems oddly ahistoric. 

Of course, Egypt can change. It changed in July, 1952 when the Free Officers deposed King Farouk and a short time later disposed of their own initial efforts at reforming Egypt’s parliamentary system in favor of building an entirely new political order. Egypt changed in 1970 when Anwar Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser. Out went the statism, the "non-aligned alignment" with the Soviets, the Arab nationalism, and war with Israel.  Change came again in October, 1981 with Sadat’s assassination. Mubarak split the difference between his two predecessors — hanging onto Sadat’s economic liberalization or infitah, moving Cairo back toward the Arab mainstream (while not repudiating Sadat’s separate peace with Israel), and keeping Washington at arm’s length while continuing to secure its largesse. Beyond the big issues of Egypt’s foreign policy and ideological orientation, there have been less noticed social and socio-economic changes in Egypt. When Mubarak took the oath of office on October 14, 1981 the Egyptian population was 45.5 million, or slightly more than half of what it is today. Egypt’s gross domestic product was approximately $40 billion; it now tops $145 billion. There were only 430,000 telephone lines in the entire country, now there are approximately 11 million. The life expectancy of the average Egyptian was 57 years old; it is now 70. The World Bank reports that in 1981 the literacy rate was less than 50 percent, now 66 percent of Egyptians can read. By a host of measures, life in Egypt has changed radically and for the better over the course of the three decades.

Yet in the category of "if everything seems so good, why do I feel so bad," even with all the important socio-economic changes that have occurred, the country’s trajectory nevertheless seems flat. Indeed, in the abstract, Egypt today looks much like the country the Free Officers took over 58 years ago — poor, dependent on a global power, and authoritarian. The central problem is the nature of Egypt’s political institutions. Nasser and his associates developed a set of political institutions — rules, regulations, and laws — in response to the internal political challenges they confronted consolidating their power in the months following the July, 1952 coup.  These rules, regulations, and laws were inherently anti-democratic, rigged to serve the interests of the officers along with their civilian allies, and formed the basis for subsequent institutional development. Those who benefitted from this political order — the armed forces, regime intellectuals, bureaucracy, internal security services, and big business (after infitah in 1974) — have become a powerful constituency for autocracy. As long as the collective welfare of these groups remain connected to the regime, the kind of institutional change necessary for a more open and democratic political system is unlikely. That’s why the ruling-National Democratic Party’s "New Thinking and Priorities" was never intended to do anything other than institutionalize the power of the ruling party under the guise of political change. Reform conflicts with the worldview and material interests of Egypt’s leaders and their constituents.

It is not just the formal institutions of the state, however, but a whole series of unwritten rules that shape the way Egyptians calculate what is in their best interests. To be sure, this is hardly unique to Egyptian society, but it nevertheless provides some insight into change and Egypt’s apparent resistance to it. There is a curious tendency for some reform-minded young professionals to throw their lot in with the regime, despite a professed desire for a fundamental transformation of Egyptian politics and society. Protestations abound about the desire to effect change from working within the state apparatus, but reality is that the Egyptian regime manifests a powerful system of reward and punishment that encourages a measure of political conformity for those not willing to take their risks with Egypt’s vaunted internal security services.

The inevitable question, "What can we do about this?" is the sine qua non of all Washington policy discussions.  The answer is precious little. Institutional change is rare because it is hard and almost always associated with some sort of dramatic disequilibrium — defeat in war, revolution, or economic collapse. Yet, there are some things that outsiders can do particularly in the context of Egypt’s looming succession so that when Hosni Mubarak does take his last sail up the Nile, Washington has made it clear that it is on the side of transparency, free and fair elections, and non-violence. Still, these kinds of declarations of principle say more about the United States, which is a good thing, than the likelihood they will influence the thinking of Egypt’s new leader who will be seeking to consolidate his hold on power and thus dependent on the very same groups who have an abiding interest in maintaining the status quo. 

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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