Some Comments on the Situation in Egypt

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IDI Vice President of Strategy Dr. Jesse Ferris reflects on the arrival of the Arab Spring in Cairo and makes a preliminary assessment of its origins and implications for Egypt.

In 1962, Gamal Abdel Nasser was President of Egypt and Husni Mubarak was a thirty-three year old squadron commander in the Egyptian air force. Mubarak’s men were being trained by Soviet instructors on the long-range Tupolev 16 bomber at the time a civil war in Yemen broke out. When Nasser decided to intervene militarily in that war, Mubarak was one of the first to fly bombing missions over northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia.

Egypt was very different back then—less populated, more rural, and much more assertive in the conduct of its foreign policy. But it is still recognizable through the mists of time. Mubarak is only the fourth in a chain of military officers who have assumed the Presidency since the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in the revolution of 1952. The structure of the regime has remained largely unchanged since the days of Nasser. A small cast of ex-officers stands atop an enormous bureaucracy intertwined with a bloated national party apparatus, all three of which are sustained in power by two parallel security structures: the military and an assortment of internal security forces. Although it has not seen action in decades, the military remains the most significant power broker in Egypt, and its power has been magnified over the years by the construction of a vast military-industrial complex that is thoroughly entangled with the civilian economy.
The main goal of the military leadership now must be to preserve as much of its power base as possible. To this end, the National Democratic Party—just like the one-party structures that preceded it in the Nasser years: the Liberation Rally, the National Union, and the Arab Socialist Union—will prove dispensable and may even disappear. Whether or not a genuine multi-party system emerges from the present impasse is difficult to predict. The odds are against it. From a democratic standpoint, the most hopeful but still realistic scenario would be one that resembled the situation in Turkey after the elections of 1950, in which for the first time the ruling Republican Party ceded power to the opposition, yet effective control continued to be wielded from behind the scenes by the armed forces. A less appealing but not implausible scenario is one in which an elected government fails to make sufficient headway to satisfy Egypt’s restless population, opening the way for renewed dictatorship of a secular or Islamist flavor. 

What can we learn from the transformation underway in Egypt today? First, that structures and trends matter. Many of the fundamental problems that afflict Egypt today and are causing the current groundswell of popular discontent already existed in less acute form in the 1960s. Rapid population growth, scarce natural resources, a chronic shortage of wheat, insufficient exports—all these plagued Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Fast forward 50 years and these same problems—magnified over time—have become crippling handicaps with revolutionary potential that will make the life of any future government extremely difficult.

Does this mean that the revolution was predictable? Perhaps, although knowing that an event will happen is not the same as predicting when it will happen. And it is here that human agency enters the picture. Such imbalances as exist in Egypt today can be sustained indefinitely as long as people are held back by fear and the government remains unrestrained in its use of terror. Who could have foreseen that a spark in Tunisia would be transmitted over the television and the internet to households across Egypt, releasing millions from their fears and setting them loose onto the streets of Cairo and Alexandria? And who would have predicted that the Egyptian security forces would react, as they have up till now, with such restraint? In retrospect, it may seem obvious that a combination of regime-fatigue and dependence on American aid made it difficult for Mubarak to respond to the present protests as the Chinese had done at Tiananmen Square in 1989 or as the Syrians acted in the city of Hama in 1982. But hindsight is the prerogative of the historian. And history is moving very quickly these days. 

Jesse Ferris is Vice President of Strategy at the Israel Democracy Institute.