February 12, 2011
How Much in Egypt Has Really Changed? Less Than It SeemsBy Barry Rubin
The story of Egypt is in a very real sense totally different from the narrative being portrayed today. The same regime is still in place. Only one man has left. The regime that has ruled Egypt for sixty years sacrificed one man, who it didn't want any more, to preserve itself.
In doing so, it has staged one of the most effective public relations' maneuvers in history, transforming itself from hated to beloved in a single day without sacrificing anything. Remember, not everything political is visible. No new government can purge the army or cut its budget.
The way it is being portrayed, 30 years ago an evil dictator named Husni Mubarak seized power in Egypt -- some wrongly think with U.S. help -- and repressed the people until this week. In fact, the military -- the same military in charge at this moment -- has ruled Egypt for 60 years. This was not a one-man dictatorship. Egypt is not a small Latin American country.
Today, the dominant narrative is that Egypt was a nice democratic country. Suddenly, this money-hungry monster seized power. But now this one bad man has left and so things can get back to normal. Indeed, though, when Mubarak came to power Egypt had already gone through thirty years of dictatorship. And before that, there was overwhelming dissatisfaction with the multi-party democratic system under the monarchy. The end of democracy in 1952 was celebrated with celebrations as big as the ones we're saying now.
During its 60 years in power the regime has gone through different phases but it has always successfully responded to conditions. Consider the example of the Muslim Brotherhood.
When it came to power in 1952, the regime worked with the Muslim Brotherhood. When it became too aggressive, the regime broke the organization. In the 1970s, President Anwar al-Sadat faced a leftist faction within his regime, he allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to reemerge as a counterweight. Sadat was assassinated by Islamists -- though not by Muslim Brotherhood members -- and this gave Mubarak (who was sitting next to him) the feeling that Islamism might just be a problem.
So the question is this: are we at the end of a 60-year-long period of rule by a regime based on the military or are the names merely changing?
The current debate, then, is misleading. The majority says that now Egypt will be a great democratic country with freedom and in which everyone will be happy. The minority says that the Muslim Brotherhood might take over and Egypt will become an Islamist state.
A more accurate assessment is this: Will the regime continue under a different label, with civilian politicians as front men with limited power, or will an elected government be able to break with the regime and do whatever it chooses?
Either way, for all practical purposes, Egypt is going to move from a "pro-U.S." to a "neutralist" stance in regional issues. That means it will not be of any help in combating Iranian influence (except possibly in the Gaza Strip) or working against Iran getting nuclear weapons, or on promoting the peace process or on any other regional issue. An area to watch especially will be what happens with Egypt-Syria relations.
Internally, there will be more Islamization. The Christian minority has a lot to worry about. The Mubarak government didn't protect them. What can one expect from a government based on needing to remain popular with the overwhelmingly Muslim electorate?
The current revolution could set off a long-term process that might one day produce a Muslim Brotherhood takeover but that would take many years. The Brotherhood is cautious. During the next phase it will try to Islamize the society, get government money and patronage to build its base, and displace establishment clerics with its own people.
How much freedom will there be? That depends on how stable things remain. It is quite possible that ex-Muslim Brotherhood radical groups will start terror attacks against Western, Christian, and other targets. During the 1990s, 1000 people were killed in a war involving Islamist terrorists. If such disorder happens again, the army will crack down. If things get too bad, it will step in.
But there will be such an increase in freedom over what prevailed in the Mubarak era -- why should the army and establishment care as long as people are cheering them? -- that it should keep people happy for a while.
In material terms, though, Egyptians can't expect much. Egypt is a vast machine in which stability and short-term benefit are traded against long-term benefit. The vicious circle goes like this: the money goes into food and other subsidies plus creating useless jobs. If jobs or subsidies are cut, the result is instability. This revolution is related to higher food prices. Yet this is all unproductive.
Egypt has some oil, the Suez Canal, not enough arable land, low labor productivity, restrictive social rules (which will now become worse), and too many people. U.S. aid isn't going to increase. There is no source of massive international aid in sight. The Saudis are not going to bail out a government that it views as hostile. There is no hope -- especially given current economic conditions -- of producing more wealth.
So what happens when expectations cannot be met? Historically, this has meant ideology, radicalism, anti-Western, and anti-Israel hatreds to soak up public anger. This is one great danger. Another is if the army and establishment themselves change, deciding that they must once again shift gears to stay in real power.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center's site is www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.