Egypt’s future rests with two familiar powers playing very unfamiliar roles: The military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Prepare for another year of struggle.
January 28, 2012
January 25th and the Revolution Egypt has made.
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?”
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.
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….