Egypt Over the Brink

The author of a prescient book warning of an Egyptian uprising says to expect a mad scramble for power in the months ahead.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

When Tarek Osman published Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak last fall, few expected that the country would erupt in popular anger only months later. In the book Osman weaves the tale of an increasingly divided and oppressed land and examines the social, cultural, and economic factors that have led to a perfect revolutionary storm — one of the most significant movements in modern Arab history. From his home, Osman tells Foreign Policy that in the crucial days ahead, it won’t be the Muslim Brotherhood or liberal capitalists who determine the country’s uncertain future, but Egypt’s often overlooked middle class.

"What we are seeing is eruption, which by definition is not going to shape the future," he says.


Foreign Policy: Your book was published last November. Did you think in February you would be sitting here seeing these events unfold?

Tarek Osman: The honest answer is no. I certainly saw, and I think many others saw, that some sort of eruption would happen and that that eruption would certainly come from the wider middle classes and be led by young Egyptians. But it was not in my mind that it would be in January or February. I didn’t expect it to happen at such a fast pace.

FP: What finally made Egyptians mobilize? What drove the momentum?

TO: First and foremost, there was a major change in the Egyptian middle class over the past three decades. Hundreds of thousands of families in the ’50s and ’60s in Egypt were relatively comfortable. But over the past few decades, they have suffered significantly. Many segments were basically downgraded within the middle class over the past 35 years. That transformation within the middle class led to many tensions. And these tensions, suppressed for many years, needed to be released.

The second thing is that the nature of the regime over the past 60 years since the coup/revolution of 1952 has effectively centered on the military establishment ruling Egypt through one of its trusted sons leading the nation. Egyptians have accepted that for many years. There were no free elections over the last 60 years, but there was consent of the people that the military establishment is the ruling establishment represented by a president who has taken a civilian role in society. All of that has changed in the last 10 years as new economic and financial players entered the regime. They started to grab areas of influence and control. And these areas of control were areas that affected ordinary Egyptians’ lives. That merger between power and wealth displeased the Egyptian middle class that has been suffering since the 1970s until today, as well as gradually eroding the legitimacy of the regime.

You also have to take into account the lack of a national project for more than three decades. It’s an extremely important issue for a very old country like Egypt. For the past 200 years, every single era has something that would make Egyptians passionate, from Muhammad Ali (the founder of modern Egypt), who wanted to build an army and revive this country, to Khedive Ismail (his grandson) who wanted to build a modern Egypt modeled on Europe, to the liberal experiment led by the Wafd Party in the ’30s and ’40s that aimed to have a constitutional democracy, to Nasser and Arab nationalism (a highly ambitious political project that inspired millions in Egypt and across the Arab world). What was there in the past 35 years? Effectively there was nothing. This has left a feeling for the young that they are living in a political void, that they have inherited a number of political failures, and that they need to fashion a new national project.

Then the final variable that led to mobilization was demographics. In this country, 45 million people are younger than I am — that’s less than 35 years old. If you add these forces together, it’s a no-brainer to me. You needed to have some sort of an eruption.

FP: Do you think Egyptians are starting to conceive a new national project?

TO: My thesis is that we don’t have a unified movement. What we have here is a catalyst that brought to the surface dynamics that were simmering for decades and that leads every single political force in the country to try to position itself for a future that is certainly different than the present. But we don’t have a movement that is trying to revive Arab nationalism, or give rise to political Islam, or revive Arab liberalism. What we have is a very fluid situation.

FP: Who are the major players?

TO: Which political players did you have in Egypt before the last two weeks? You had the regime, which was effectively a merger between power, military establishment to some extent, and wealth. You had political Islam and, at its heart, the Muslim Brotherhood. You had the liberal movement, very fragmented, though recently it benefited from the momentum that the emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei has created. Then you had small players here and there.

So, what’s left in the regime now? The military establishment, which commands respect and very wide support among the Egyptian middle class. The regime (in the sense of the military establishment that has ruled Egypt for the past 60 years) is actually stronger than it was before the 25th of January.

The second player, political Islam, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, has gained and lost something very valuable. What they gained is that today they’re sitting with the vice president at the same table and discussing the future of Egypt. They are no longer the banned group. They are in the national dialogue.

But what they have lost is that the demonstrations that have shaken the regime have been secular and nationalist. We haven’t seen Islamist slogans. The Muslim Brotherhood benefits from a strong organizational capacity on the ground, but they don’t have the sophistication and political savvy and leadership to really leverage this opportunity.

The third player is the liberal movement, which is very fragmented. They are still not coalescing around one person. ElBaradei added dramatic momentum to the liberal movement, but I haven’t seen so far a structure around him that can be put forward to the Egyptian middle class as a framework to rule. That certainly could happen, but so far, it has not.

I go back to who really was behind the turmoil in Egypt of the last two weeks. It was the middle class that was at the center, the core, of the demonstrations.

FP: But many people think the middle class has largely eroded in Egypt.

TO: People say it has eroded, but I completely disagree. Look at the Egyptian demographics. Roughly 35 to 40 percent of Egypt’s population earns less than $2 a day. And you have roughly 2 million people who are extremely rich. What’s in between is the middle class — in its wider definition.

The middle class respects — some of them love — the military establishment. On the other hand, there are liberals that command respect and inspire the vigor of the intelligentsia, but I’m not particularly sure they have much beyond that. And then you have political Islam, which resonates nicely with the religious middle class but is very much at odds with the idea of Egyptianism.

So my assessment is that the major winner is the military establishment, not only because it now has hold on the system but because it is the only force in the country able to ensure stability. The vast majority of [the] middle class would probably accept it because they don’t have an issue with it like they might with political Islam. And unlike liberal Egyptians, many religious segments of the middle class would have some worries about real liberalism.

FP: How will religion shape political reform in Egypt?

TO: What we need to look at are the options and preferences of the middle class who make up the real voting bloc. Today those people we are seeing demonstrating are very liberal, national Egyptians. They are not saying we are Muslims or Christians. And that’s a weakening or negative point for the Brotherhood. But the question in six or 12 months down the line, when they are voting and if they have a very liberal agenda in front of them, is: Will they endorse a truly liberal agenda? I have doubts.

But I don’t think they’d endorse a very Islamist narrative put forth by the Muslim Brotherhood either. People in a period of political turmoil return to their comfort zone. And the comfort zone for Egyptians over the past 60 years has been a nationalist rule that ensures stability, that they’re comfortable with, that protects them.

FP: Where are we now? Are we on the brink, over it?

TO: What we are seeing is not a movement, but a catalyst. What we are seeing is eruption, which by definition is not going to shape the future.

I believe Egypt has benefited from what has happened. There was massive uncertainty in and outside Egypt about what will happen after Hosni Mubarak. I think we are now living that. And to a large extent, every day brings slightly more security and stability. So it seems that the scary scenarios about the post-Mubarak era are receding. We’re post-climax, to some extent. We are still in a transitional limbo, but it’s relatively safer than it was six months ago because the uncertainty is receding.

FP: What can we expect in the next year or so?

TO: I don’t know what will happen in the very short term, but what I’m sure of is that you now have shaken the very stable [system] that we’ve had in the past 10 or 15 years and now every political force in the country is trying to position itself to lead.

The liberals today in Egypt are not theorizing intellectuals or writers sitting with Naguib Mahfouz in Khan el-Khalili talking about novels. The Islamists are not raising empty slogans such as "Islam is the solution." We’ve seen some of them reach out to the world in intelligent ways. They wrote articles explaining their positions in secular Egyptian newspapers and communicated with international observers. All the players, from the liberals to the Islamists to the military establishment, are much more sophisticated now. This means to me everybody wants power and is trying intelligently to position its movement to rule this country.

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