Hard to believe that you can survive six assassination attempts, but that is exactly what Hosni Mubarak has done. With the help of Egypt’s ruthlessly efficient security service, he has stayed atop the powder keg on the Nile for 27 years – and counting. Today the competing currents – Islamic fundamentalism, a neoliberal offensive, a restive working class, grinding poverty, and a majority of young people (54 per cent of the population is under 35) who are alienated by corruption and lack of opportunity – are growing sources of instability over which he manages to maintain his precarious grip. Of course it helps to have a State of Emergency (in effect now for 26 years) to fall back on.
Photo by World Economic Forum
Hosni Mubarak is the last in a line of Egyptian political bosses that have led the Arab world’s most populous country since Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power from a corrupt monarchy in the 1950s. Mubarak has held his post since 1983, making him the longest-serving head of state in modern Egyptian history. He comes from a tradition rooted in the Arab version of secular nationalism that was born at the time of post-World War Two anti-colonialism. Critics refer to this tradition as ‘Pharaonic’ because of its authoritarian style and intolerance of any opposition. But Mubarak is a pale imitation of his two predecessors, Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
Nasser was a larger-than-life character of varied intellectual interests, with a grand vision of both Egypt’s place in the world and of an Arab renaissance. In his heyday Egypt was the centre of anti-colonial development – clearly seen when he nationalized the Suez Canal and built the Aswan Dam. Sadat moved Egypt skilfully out of the Soviet orbit and had a charisma almost entirely lacking in Mubarak. The current President remains a remote, colourless figure, far removed from the lives or affections of most Egyptians – a technocratic ribbon-cutter appearing at official functions and identified with a faceless and arbitrary bureaucracy.
Given this pedigree, it is little wonder that the US has had to pump in $60 billion of economic and military assistance (1979-2006) to keep Mubarak afloat. This makes Egypt second only to Israel as a beneficiary of such imperial largess. It is this kind of dependence that probably obliged Mubarak reluctantly to allow other candidates to run against him in the 2005 Egyptian elections. For the first time, Egyptians were offered a choice at the polls. However, the vote was marred by major irregularities, including vote buying, counting illegal votes, and manipulating public employees. The candidate who finished second, the moderate Dr Ayman Nour, was beaten and imprisoned for five years for supposedly forging papers to get his party registered.
Like Nasser, Mubarak rose to prominence out of the military – in his case, the air force. After Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by fundamentalists (for signing a peace deal with Israel), Mubarak was well positioned within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to take his place. The main opposition to secular nationalism in Egypt has always come from the Islamic fundamentalists, whose main political organization is the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. These two groups have contended for influence since before World War Two. Egypt is in many ways the centre of the global Islamic fundamentalist revival, with activists like the influential intellectual Sayyid Qutb earning their bitterness in the cells of its state security forces. Mubarak has been able to play the card of Islamic conservatism in his attacks on Egypt’s liberal intelligentsia and Coptic Christian minority.
With the increasingly unpopular Mubarak now 80 years old, the question of succession obviously looms. His son, Gamal, like his father a shadowy figure, is part of an up-and-coming wealthy business group with a neoliberal market orientation that is increasingly influential in the NDP. But the idea of a family succession is likely to meet a lot of opposition and will probably only be possible if the entire issue can be resolved at the top. Already Mubarak’s other son, Alaa, has caused offence by being favoured in government tenders and privatization deals. Corruption of government officials, and the police in particular, is a constant source of frustration for ordinary Egyptians – the NGO Transparency International’s corruption index gives the country a rating of 2.8 out of a possible 10 (where 10 indicates freedom from corruption).
The huge rich-poor divide in Mubarak’s Egypt and the despair in both middle- and working-class communities manifest themselves in many ways: voter apathy – just 27 per cent of the population bothered to turn up for a constitutional referendum that strengthened presidential powers in 2007; a desire to leave – tens of thousands of young Egyptians have left for the Gulf States or register for the US Green Card lottery that is held every year; and worker militancy – strikes and demonstrations are now a daily occurrence, escalating from 222 in 2006 to 580 in 2007. There is political activism too – youth groups like the Kifaya protest movement or the more radical Youth for Change are increasingly daring in their confrontations with the plain-clothed agents of state security, who are often armed with nasty-looking short black rubber truncheons and commonly described as baltagiya – thugs.
In a part of the world rent with political turmoil, Mubarak may be ‘the last Pharaoh’, the end of the NDP ascendancy. It could be a case of ‘après moi, le déluge’. If Washington’s main pillar in the Arab world topples, the reverberations will be widely felt indeed.