Outside view: Change in Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

By Barry Rubin
Outside View Commentator

HERZILIYA, Israel — Egypt is still the Arab world’s most important single state, President Hosni Mubarak is nearing the end of his career with no clear successor, and Cairo’s role in any successful peace process is more important than ever.

So what is happening politically in Egypt, which often seems not inaccurately to be a place where nothing ever really changes?

One thing that has changed is the decline in Egypt’s relative importance in the Arab world. The country’s sheer size and cultural influence assure it of a key voice in Arab councils. Today, however, Saudi Arabia represents wealth and radical-conservative Islam, Syria is the last fortress of traditionally radical Arab nationalism, and Iraq is the place where the great democratic and pluralist experiment is taking place.

What does Egypt stand for? Theoretically, that would be balance of Arab power, moderation toward peace with Israel, a model of stability and the bridge between the United States and the Arab world.

Often, however, it does not work out that way either because Egypt does not wish or cannot play a major role. The roots of this dramatic change go far back. When President Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt dominated the Arab world. Nasser failed badly both at home and abroad, though many or most Arab intellectuals have yet to incorporate this fact into their thinking, at least publicly.

When President Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser in 1970, he understood the need to focus on handling Egypt’s massive problems. The peace agreement with Israel at the end of the 1970s, part of this domestically oriented program, brought an Arab state boycott of Egypt for a number of years.

For its part, the Egyptian leadership seemed to conclude that Egypt’s more energetic and even expansionist strategy was a waste of time and resources. Cairo does have legitimate grievances with the Arab world. For example, the lack of aid it has received from rich oil-producing states is remarkable. We take it for granted but it is nothing short of astounding that it is U.S. taxpayers, not Saudi princes, who finance economic aid to Egypt.

During his quarter-century-long rule, Mubarak seems to have accepted this concept of a lower Egyptian profile in the region, though nothing is said publicly to this effect. Yet in issue after issue, Egypt has played a marginal or at least certainly not a leadership role.

The truth is that neither Riyadh, nor Damascus, nor Baghdad (either during or after Saddam Hussein), nor the Palestinians listen to what Egypt tells them.

Meanwhile, in domestic terms, Egypt has maintained a demagogic political culture even when its policy is relatively pragmatic. By this means, it preserves national interests and mass support, despite the regime’s failure to improve the lives of its people. Much of the rhetoric, by state-owned intellectuals in state-owned media, blames Egypt’s problems on the United States, Israel and the West in general. After all, if these outsiders are at fault the government itself cannot be held to blame.

While energetically, sometimes viciously, suppressing Islamist radicals, the government frequently wraps itself in the mantle of Islam. It also soothingly tells the West, in the most blatantly misleading terms, that it is already practicing democracy and making reforms while intimidating anyone who pushes for real change.

In September, Mubarak comes up for election to a fifth term in office which he will certainly win, his health permitting. He has allowed opposition candidates to run, though only on terms that will ensure they do not do very well. Meanwhile, when the opposition Kifaya — “Enough” — movement tried to have a demonstration in late April, security forces waded in to beat the protesters and arrested at least 75 of them.

But is the opposition the answer? The political culture and long-term indoctrination is so powerful that it is hard to break through it. An anecdote illustrates the problem. Not too long ago, a wealthy Egyptian liberal decided to start a newspaper that would provide a different point of view. When it did not sell so well after a few months, the editors said the only solution was to take the same political line as all the establishment dailies.

Or consider the statements made by some reform movement leaders. Ayman Nour told a Cairo crowd, “We can be for democracy and against the United States.” And the vice-chairman of the Kifaya group is none other than Abdel-Halim Qandil, who is a critic of the regime but is also editor of the sensationalist and radical Arab nationalist newspaper al-Ahali. It is not surprising when he calls for armed Egyptian involvement in attacks on Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq.

In other words, while the opposition includes courageous moderates, it is being infiltrated seriously by radical Islamists and nationalists. These people’s real complaint against the existing system is that it has not gone far enough in what amounts to a disastrously wrong direction. With people like Qandil and the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood posing as the main alternative to Mubarak the prospects for change are hardly attractive.

Mubarak will thus continue to be president until he dies and pass on the office to whomever he chooses. This might be, but probably not, his son, Gamal who, reflecting the ironies of Egyptian politics, has made himself leader of the reform movement within the ruling National Democratic Party. More likely, some former general who has had high governmental posts would be selected.

At any rate, as has so often happened, the prospects for stability in Egypt are good but the likelihood of real improvement is dim.

(Barry Rubin is director of the GLORIA Center of the Interdisciplinary Center. His latest book,” The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East”, will be published by Wiley in September.)