From Steven A. Cook
For those too caught up in the drama of on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Iraq and/or Iran debates, and Lebanon’s political paralysis to pay close attention, Egypt seems like the one part of the Middle East that is not teetering on the brink. The team that Husni (and Gamal) Mubarak put in place to transform the Egyptian economy has produced impressive results. Many of Egypt’s macroeconomic indicators are pointing in the right direction, BusinessWeek included Egypt as one of its top emerging markets in 2007 (total FDI was $11 billion), and “Egypt Day” on the New York Stock Exchange was, by all reports, a big hit. Indeed, senior government officials have been positively buoyant about their new $100 billion economy, arguing that Egypt was at the “takeoff stage.”
Politically, the leadership is no longer on the defensive, having weathered the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy, deflected the demands of Kifaya!, emerged from the judges’ protests of May 2006 relatively unscathed, and worked assiduously to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood through thousands of arrests. The record is clearly bad news for Egyptians who want to live in a democracy, but if the democracy agenda is out and Washington is back to supporting stability, then breathe a sigh of relief because President Mubarak seems to have regained his footing. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is safe, U.S. warships will continue to be able to transit through the Suez Canal at short notice, and thousands of gallons of Egyptian jet fuel will keep the logistical tails of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq working.
Yet, while everyone was off debating what Anbar’s sahwa really means or the number of centrifuges the Iranians can run simultaneously or Mahmoud Abbas’s staying power or whether the violence at Nahr al-Bared would kick off a new civil war in Lebanon, they may have missed deeply troubling developments in Egypt. For example, while Sharm El-Sheikh may be the “Egyptian Riviera” (as the ads on CNN International claim), the residents of Sinai are practically in open revolt over everything from limited economic opportunities and virtually no government services to the heavy hand of the security forces. In addition, bombings in Sharm and other resort areas like Dahab and Taba suggest that a return of the low-level extremist insurgency that targeted Egypt’s tourist industry in the mid-1990s is entirely possible.
The leadership has effectively contained the political agitation of the last four years, but it has not been able to shut down or roll back the discourse concerning reform. This is a good thing. After years of stagnation, politics is clearly back in Egypt. As a result, government has had to contend with protests from the usual suspects including journalists, lawyers, intellectuals and human rights campaigners who all travel in elite circles. It’s highly unlikely that these advocates can do much to alter the orientation of Egypt’s authoritarian regime. Yet a new element has been added into the mix of activism. In recent months, petty bureaucrats from various government ministries have staged sit-ins and other job actions. This is a more powerful group than some might suspect. After all, they do the government’s bidding and have historically been a bastion of support for the National Democratic Party, such as it is. The very fact that Mubarak can’t buy off the government’s legion of bureaucrats suggests that something is afoot in Cairo.
Even more troubling for the leadership are the wildcat strikes of the state-owned industrial sector in the past 18-24 months. Indeed, Mahalla al-Kubra—the center of Egypt’s textile industry—has become a rallying cry for a wide spectrum of political activists who hope that these labor stoppages are the precursor to a wider movement demanding political change. The workers, it seems, have less lofty dreams, limiting their demands to increased wages, better working conditions, and more representation in local and national unions. It remains to be seen whether these parochial pocketbook demands will transform into broader political goals questioning the source and legitimacy of power in Egypt. If the workers do press a wider agenda, Mubarak would likely have significant trouble on his hands.
Taken separately, the defenders of the Egyptian regime clearly have the wherewithal to deal with these issues, but they are coming together as the price of bread is skyrocketing. A repeat of the 1977 bread riots seems like a distinct possibility. It is at moments like these when the gap between objective reality and the dominant narrative becomes so wide that political entrepreneurs emerge and play on the anger, hopelessness, and fears of a beaten-down population. An Egyptian analogue to Lech Walesa may yet emerge from Egypt’s Gdansk of Mahalla al-Kubra and bring down the political order.
Let’s not get carried away, though. This is Egypt after all. Although the cross-cutting pressures and problems buffeting the Egyptian regime seem more acute than ever, it is entirely possible that we’ve seen some variation of this movie before. The Egyptians have a limitless ability to muddle through. Let’s not forget all the calamities that analysts thought would bring down the political system founded by the Free Officers in the 1950s: massive defeat in 1967, wide-scale riots (1977 and 1986), assassination, economic stagnation, and a low-level insurgency. Indeed, given this track record it is not at all clear that the Egyptian state is on the verge of collapse.
To confront the present troubles, Mubarak has ordered bakeries under the control of the Armed Forces, Interior Ministry, and the Ministry of Investment to bake more bread. (Forget for the moment why these entities control bakeries in the first place.) If the additional baking capacity can meet demand, the immediate crisis will likely be averted. To deal with the broader problem of growing opposition to the regime, Mubarak will do what he has almost always done: resort to coercion. Sunday’s threatened “general strike” was met with large numbers of paramilitary forces occupying Mahalla al-Kubra and state-run television carrying threats from the Interior Ministry for those missing work. Threats of violence and actual violence, although clearly the least efficient means of political control, do tend to work, and the leadership has few other options. Patronage only goes so far and normative appeals to support the present political order withered long ago.
Most important, however, is the fact that not a single element of the regime’s central constituencies has peeled away. For big business, the political elite, regime-affiliated intellectuals, and officers of both the police and the army, the costs of defecting from the regime and the benefits of sticking with the present political order are too great. As long as Mubarak remains the master of this politically and economically influential group, it’s likely that he’ll hang on.
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