Institutional Weakness & Egypt’s Future

Events in Egypt are developing quickly. Predictions are a dangerous business, but even if the Mubarak regime can ride out these protests, something profound has changed. In a region where l’etat c’est moi is the standard for the rulers, ripping down the giant posters of President Mubarak is a profound symbol of the public’s disaffection.

Facts about economic stagnation and reports of human rights abuses can tell the story of Egypt’s decay under Mubarak – but perhaps this newsbrief best encapsulates the situation:

Egyptian security forces detained a schoolboy for several hours after he wrote in an exam that President Hosni Mubarak was a tyrant who ruled over cowards, an Education Ministry official said on Monday. Safwat Hassan, 17, wrote in his end of high school exam in the southern city of Luxor that Mubarak was “a tyrannical leader” and Egyptians were “a cowardly people,” the official in Luxor told AFP. The official said the boy wrote the answer in a maths exam because he was convinced that he was going to fail as he comes from a poor family that could not afford treating school staff to the customary meals during exam time. Egyptian teachers are notoriously badly paid and almost always have to take on private classes and accept gifts to make ends meet. Hassan was questioned for several hours by local security forces and “might be charged with defamation,” the official said, without being able to say how security services found out about the boy’s answer. The teenager has been barred from taking more exams this year and will have to retake them all next year, the official said.

I think this story speaks for itself, shedding light on the Egyptian government’s ability to provide services, the pervasive police state, and the economic prospects for most Egyptians. This revolt was long in coming. The United States should have been pressing for reform in Egypt for decades (as I discuss here in this article discussing the ideas of Egyptian liberal writer Tarek Heggy.) But, in fairness to policy-makers and implementers pressing for reform in other countries is not so easy to do (as I learned while researching the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.)

Predictions in a situation like this are impossible – but a few observations are in order.

First, there have been innumerable calls for the United States to support the protesters and align its policy with democracy in Egypt. This is probably the least bad course of action. But there should be no illusions on several points. For the vast majority of Egyptians, the United States is inextricably linked to the hated regime. Nothing the White House or Foggy Bottom does can change that in a few days, weeks or months. Also, the ability of the U.S. to influence events is limited. It does appear that Secretary of State Clinton’s call for the Egyptian government to not respond with violence did send a message to Egypt’s generals that the U.S. would not support a violent crackdown. (A not dissimilar message was sent to Iran’s generals as the Shah’s regime was falling.)

Second, it has been observed many times that the protests are secular and the Muslim Brotherhood is not the driver. This is probably true. But there are no institutional mechanisms for a power transfer. If the regime falls, there is no opposition in the wings to take power. Effective institutions and political parties are essential for democracies to function. One of the major failings of the post-war planning for Iraq was that Iraqi institutions were reasonably functional and that there would not be a massive governance vacuum. In that chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood might prove to be the best-organized player and be well positioned to take charge.

Another possibility is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not the organizational weapon that it was when founded in the 1920s. The MB’s banned but tolerated status may have given them enough benefits to take the edge off of their organizational prowess. That is not to say that they have moderated – this question remains open, but there are ample reasons for skepticism. But it could be that the leadership is not terribly aggressive. However, as chaos expands, radical “Young Turks” within the MB may assert themselves.

The Egyptian Army is looked to as a stabilizing force. It may play that role. However, in an >article I wrote several years ago about the Egyptian military for the Journal of International Security Affairs, one fact that came up was that the Egyptian military did not promote officers based on competence. Loyalty was essential. Innovative, creative officers are also officers that can plot coups – thus they were not promoted. Further, steps were taken to reduce cohesion within the officer corps. The military may not be able to run the country and may find itself outmaneuvered if it governs jointly with the MB.

The same goes for El-Baradei. He may appear as a moderate, internationally acceptable figure – his local support is only just beginning to form. He may also be outmaneuvered or isolated in a chaotic situation.

Finally, an important reality is that Egypt is going down the tubes. The population is growing fast, while water supplies are stagnant. The economy has posted strong macro numbers, but that hasn’t translated into new jobs for most Egyptians. There are no policies that can quickly change any of this. Infrastructure and public services are a wreck, and the public has been fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories. When the revolution (assuming it comes – and it probably will, if not now in a few years) cannot address these problems popular frustration will mount. This is when regimes cast about for enemies. No doubt they will find plenty.

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3 Responses

  1. "One of the major failings of the post-war planning for Iraq was that Iraqi institutions were reasonably functional and that there would not be a massive governance vacuum. "

    As I recall, the army was disbanded and members of the BAATH party were banned from participating in government.

    Surely, these blanket actions did much to create a governance vacuum.

  2. First, thanks for your comments (I love being praised.)

    Davod – Excellent point. Could the Iraqi government have continued if the Baath party were allowed to continue? Unknown, to what extent was it a creature of Saddam and to what extent was it an institution in its own right. Also, could it have been permitted to keep going after Saddam's removal. (The army probably could have been.)

    Can the NDP continue without Mubarak and with much of the public holding it in contempt? Unknown. For years after the first Gulf War, analysts speculated that Iraqi generals would remove Saddam out of self-interest. But the generals were all solidly under Saddam's thumb. It appears that Egypt's generals are also tied to Mubarak (at least at the very top.)

    Lots of questions about what might be next in Egypt – not so many answers. Thanks again for the great comment.

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