Egypt: What Went Wrong?

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Aladdin Elaasar* is author of The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age. In this banned book by the Mubarak regime, he predicted the current uprising in Egypt.


Egypt: What Went Wrong?
By Aladdin Elaasar*
Author of The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age
   For many, Egypt stands alone in its historical and cultural mystic. Yet, we sometimes ignore the harsh reality of an Egypt whose iron-fisted government may well be the antithesis of our most fundamental values and beliefs. Like millions of others, my thoughts and opinions of Egypt were largely shaped from the armchair of Western civilization. “Although immensely alluring as a place of cultural and historical interest, the Egyptian political landscape left me with a sense of unease I never fully understood’, says Professor Tate Miller, Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Perhaps this lack of understanding resulted from the over simplified and passing views of Western media, too often pressured to simply report on the immediacy of human drama rather than the potentially cataclysmic events of Egypt’s long term power struggles. Or, perhaps it is the daunting complexity of Egyptian politics, which themselves serve as a deterrent to understanding and dialogue.
In the summer of 2008, MEQ published an article that I authored titled: “Is Egypt Stable?” ironically coinciding with the visit of President Mubarak to the U.S. The article challenged the stability of the Mubarak regime that had been long thought to be a pillar of stability in the region and an essential partner in the peace process. The current events in Tunisia, Egypt, and similar massive demonstrations in other Arab countries Jordan, Yemen and Algeria proved that myth to be wrong.
What went wrong?
Before 1952, political life in Egypt consisted of a myriad of parties like al-Wafd, al-Ikhwan (the Muslim Brothers), Misr al-Fatah, and even a communist party. Egypt had a constitutional monarchy enjoying an exceptional liberal age dubbed as la belle epoch. In July 19952, Colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasser (known as Nasser in the west) led a military coup deposing King Farouk and establishing an authoritarian regime extended through Sadat and Mubarak.
Eradicating these parties led to the concentration of power in the hands of the military institution, and especially the president’s. Egypt has been run by a centralized government with exceptional powers in the hands of the leaders that followed, thereby reducing the masses to mere cheerleaders.
The Pharaoh’s Cult
In his early days as president, Nasser embarked on a more damaging unprecedented practice by nationalizing all the media outlets - that enjoyed a considerable margin of freedom even during the British mandate. Following the military coup, all Egyptian media became owned and run by the state [even Sadat was once appointed by Nasser as an editor-in-chief of a newspaper]. At times, the media fell under the supervision and the administration of the Ministry of Information, previously called the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance. Both ministries were headed by former military officers, a practice that made Egypt fit the profile of an Orwellian police state.
Except for few tabloids, Egyptian media to this day is still controlled and run by the state. The TV and Radio services are a part of the Ministry of Information. There is not a single independent or private TV or radio network in Egypt owned by individuals. The state assumes strict control over what the Egyptians see, hear, or read through several censoring agencies.
In spite of the fact that many Egyptians do have access to the internet and satellite TV broadcasts, their main source of news and information comes from the state-run media. Thus it makes it almost impossible for any political candidate, other than those handpicked by the regime, to reach his/her constituencies. The Egyptian state media has the upper hand promulgating and perpetuating the official government propaganda and even conspiracy theories. The result is that it has become a common practice to idolize the head of the state and praise his every decision or move.
Egyptian presidents have turned into bigger than life figures, demi-gods; a reminder of the ancient Egyptian practice of worshipping the God-Kings of Egypt, whose temples and pyramids were erected to immortalize their image. Today, in Egyptian cities, building-size murals and statutes of Mubarak are common sights everywhere.
Whatever the scenario would be in Egypt in the near future, spillover from what could occur in Egypt in the near future would impact the sum of Arab, Muslim and Mid-Eastern nations. With America already engaged in an Iraq, and another foot in Afghanistan; the un-certainty and anxiety grows among people of the region.
Nothing is more disturbing to political analysts, policymakers and stockowners in the U.S. and Western capitals than waking up one day to the breaking news coming from the Middle East that one of the long assumed allies have been toppled by a coup or a popular uprising of angry masses creating chaos, panic and uncertainty in international markets. Western capitals and observers in the region are keeping tabs on the situation in Egypt, fearing a domino effect in case of a trigger event occurring in Egypt. But none could give an answer to what would be the way out of that bottleneck?
Average citizens and consumers worldwide have been paying the price for conflicts in the Middle East in terms of jacked up oil prices; consequently increasing the prices of gasoline, heat and energy bills and other commodities. Political stability means economic growth, less spending on military conflicts, more cash to social programs, happy voters, and hence high ratings for politicians. It is all one big picture, a cycle of connected events, inevitably and inextricably linked in our ever-shrinking Global Village.
Why we did not get it?
U.S. policymakers are still haunted by the memories of the overnight fall of the Shah of Iran to the Ayatollahs. The Shah, thought to be a strong U.S. ally lost his grip over power to the fanatical clergy, turning Iran from an open society into a closed door medieval ultra-zealous, nationalistic, anti-Semitic and anti-American society sabotaging every American effort for peace and stability in the region. America bet on the Shah with his lavish life- style, who turned brutal on his people in his final days. The Ayatollahs took this as an excuse to turn on America in return.
Similar scenarios took place in several parts of the world, namely in South East Asia in the Philippines and Indonesia. Two old military dictators considered strong U.S. allies fell to the angry and hungry mobs. The Marcos and the Suharto families oppressed their people, looted the national treasury, and established a highly corrupt and ruthless system, where only the elite benefited. Their end was inevitable. Anti-American sentiments were promoted by the regimes that followed these two dictators. In the case of the Philippines, America had to close one of its biggest bases in the world. In Indonesia, ethnic violence directed against Chinese and Christian minorities - thought to be the beneficiaries of Suharto‘s cronyism - erupted throughout the country. Killing, burning, looting and raping were carried out by angry mobs.
But why we did not get? For some observers of the Egyptian scene, it was only a matter of time before the implosion of the Egyptian society. We had many warning signs and messages, but once again we failed to act upon these warnings. For example: in 2005, author Thomas Barnett, a former professor at the Naval War College wrote a long article for Esquire warning about Egypt, saying: ―Let me give you the four scariest words I can‘t pronounce in Arabic: Egypt after Mubarak. Mubarak‘s emergency rule dictatorship is deep into its third decade, making him one of Egypt‘s most durable pharaohs.
Georgetown University Professor Michelle Dunne, an expert on Arab politics and U.S. policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also wrote warning of the inevitability of the collapse of the Mubarak regime three years ago: ―When it happens, it will rock the world; octogenarian Mubarak, will leave office, either by his own decision or that of Providence. So far, few in the West have paid much attention. But Egyptians certainly are getting ready, and we should do so as well. (1)
Former CIA operative for 25 years in the Middle East, Robert Baer wrote four years ago: “Egypt is the next domino to fall”. Egyptian opposition and journalists have been warning about the collapse of Egyptian society for some, at least for economic reason. (2)
But how did Mubarak manage to survive for three decades? It was no secret that western governments knew very well the nature of the Mubarak regime. The US State department, along with many other human rights organization, has been harshly criticizing the Mubarak regime for many years for stifling democracy and grave human rights abuses. Transparency International has been ranking his regime as one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Several US administrations have tried repeatedly to pressure the Mubarak regime into introducing genuine reform in Egypt. President Bush had hoped for a New Middle East and Winning the Hearts and Minds of People in the Region.
Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr., who has served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Middle East Institute since 2001, following a distinguished diplomatic career which included Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (1999-2001), and Ambassador to Egypt (1994-97), criticized ―the duality of [Mubarak’s] policy written broadly, which can be called having its cake and eating it too. But at the same time it plays to its domestic audience through the media, officially sponsored clerics, and the educational system. The regime blames all its shortcomings on imperialism, Zionism, the West, and the United State, and uses that to build domestic support.. The Mubarak regime plays this game very well. They really get away with it with virtually no cost in terms of U.S. or Western relations and to a large extent their audience still accepts it. It is a brilliant, well-handled maneuver.
In her last visit to Egypt, Secretary Condoleezza Rice at the American University in Cairo June 20, 2005, demanded that ―the Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people and to the entire world by giving its citizens the freedom to choose. Egypt’s elections, including the Parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election.
But the Mubarak regime has survived, regardless of all the criticism by the effective use of the fear factor. On that explains Newsweek columnist Fareed  Zakaria in his widely read article post-9/11, How to Save the Arab World.. He describes the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt in the following: ―It is always the same splendid setting, and the same sad story. A senior American diplomat enters one of the grand presidential palaces in Heliopolis, the neighborhood of Cairo from which President Hosni Mubarak rules over Egypt. The two men talk amiably about U.S.-Egyptian relations, regional matters and the state of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Then the American gently raises the issue of human rights and suggests that Egypt‘s government might ease up on political dissent, allow more press freedoms and stop jailing intellectuals. Mubarak tenses up and snaps; If I were to do what you ask, the fundamentalists will take over Egypt. Is that what you want? The diplomat demurs and the conversation moves back to the latest twist in the peace process, says Zakaria. (3)
The Ticking Time Bomb
Mubarak survived on the notion and myth that it is either him or the terrorists. And we bought it. Politics are not that simple. He capitalized on our fears and phobias. But we ignored the ticking time bomb in the Egypt and several Arab countries. Egypt has an overwhelmingly young population: 37 percent of the population is below fifteen-years-old, and 58 percent is younger than twenty-five, (4) and the working-age population is increasing by 3 percent per year. A quarter of young men and a whopping 59 percent of young women are unemployed. (5)
The problem transcends the economic and can have profound social ramifications since many Egyptian men can neither afford to rent nor purchase an apartment, let alone marry, (6) is a dangerous phenomenon. Amidst this affordable housing crisis, developers have constructed luxury complexes for the affluent, a jarring irritant to the dispossessed.
The Middle East and North Africa, MENA (7) stands out as the region with the highest rate of unemployment in the world. With an unemployment rate of 23.2 %, the Middle East is ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the world, which has the second highest rate of unemployment, 19.7 %. The Arab League Economic Unity Council estimates unemployment in the Middle East (members of the Arab League only) at 20 percent. The number of unemployed people in MENA is particularly puzzling because the oil producing countries employ 7-8 million expatriate workers transmitting perhaps as much as $22 billion a year back to their home countries.
Unemployment is a grave source of hopelessness that drives people to extremes. This was clearly demonstrated in the twentieth century in the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Unemployment has the great potential of being a source of political instability and even violence, and it is to no one‘s advantage to treat this economic dislocation with equanimity. Klaus Schwab, the president of the World Economic Forum, warned that unemployment in the Middle East is a time bomb that would require the creation of 100 million new jobs in the next 10 years to defuse it. (8)
A sense of frustration and hopelessness seem to be haunting Egyptian youth and the older people as well, who are struggling to make ends meet. The result has impacted Egyptian society in terms of the high rate of drug and alcohol use, divorce, domestic violence, road rage, sex crimes, human trafficking, and corruption. Egyptian sociologists refer these waves of uncommon behavior to political oppression. In spite of the fact that Egypt has a number of opposition parties and one ruling party, yet most officials serving in the government are handpicked by the president from his own party that has more than ninety percent majority in the parliament.
The ticking bomb that the Egyptian government has been oblivion to is the existence of a great number of young, unemployed, unmarried people that constitute a large segment of the population. Since the introduction of Sadat‘s Infitah policies in the late seventies, Egyptian society has faced an unprecedented crisis in housing. Young people seeking simply to marry and start a family can not find a place to live in. The sign apartment for rent has simply vanished from Egyptian society and has become a thing of the past.
Making a connection between living under harsh economic conditions and violence, Fareed Zakaria adds―They [terrorist acts] are a response to living under wretched, repressive regimes with few economic opportunities and no political voice. And they blame America for supporting these regimes. The reasons were the same; people disliked the regimes that ruled them and they saw America as the benefactor of those regimes’.
The Arab world has no institutions evolved by common consent for common purposes, under guarantee of law, and consequently there is nothing that can be agreed upon as the general good, says author David Pryce-Jones. ―No mechanism exists so that people may participate in whatever is being decided and performed in their name, a handful of absolute despots oppress and attack with every available stratagem all those within reach. The rich and strong mercilessly bully and exploit their inferiors... from the proudest power holder down to the humblest family, all are engaged in pillaging whatever they can for themselves, or at best for their tribe and religion, rather than considering the public interest and constructing a common wealth. Politics in practice is reduced to the black arts of applied force, and in any emergency, of terror, in all relationships, domestic, private and public, internal and external, violence is therefore not only customary but also systematic and utterly impervious to piecemeal reform or amelioration‖, author David Pryce-Jones explains. (9)
Dictatorship or Democracy?
―If we could choose one place to press hardest to reform, it should be Egypt…. In Egypt, we must ask President Mubarak to insist that the state-owned press drop its anti-American and anti-Semitic rants, end the glorification of suicide bombers [in his state media] and begin opening itself up to other voices in the country. Egypt is the intellectual soul of the Arab world. If it were to progress economically and politically, it would demonstrate more powerfully than any essay or speech that …Arabs can thrive in today‘s world, Zakaria added.
Maye Kassem, political scientist at the American University in Cairo says that: ―Political stability, peace, and development in the Middle East, like anywhere else, can best be achieved through reform rather than revolution ... Foreign support may protect and prolong the lifespan of an authoritarian regime, but it cannot maintain such a regime indefinitely. It is in the interest of all parties concerned, including authoritarian regimes and their international patrons, to opt for political reform rather than risk the imposed and unpredictable transformation of dissent. The U.S. ...should recognize that it should pressure friends into genuine reforms. (10)
(Excerpts by permission of Beacon Press, publisher of The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age. For inquires contact
   Aladdin Elaasar* is author of The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age. In this banned book by the Mubarak regime, he predicted the current uprising in Egypt. In 2005, Elaasar was nominated as a candidate for president of Egypt. Email: omaraladin@aol.com. Cell: 224 388 1353.
(1)               Michele Dunne, A Post-Pharaonic Egypt? American Interest, September/October 2008.
(2)               Robert Baer, Egypt After Mubarak: A Speculative Research Project, Nov 29, 2009
(3)               Fareed Zakaria, How to Save the Arab World, Newsweek, December 24, 2001.
(4) World Tribune.com (February 10, 2003) and Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 26, 2006.
(5) Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 26, 2006.
(6) UNDP, pp.52-53.
(7) The Middle Eastern and North African countries covered in the report are: Bahrain, Djibouti, Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Yemen; the North African countries include Algeria, Egypt, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia.
(8) Al-Hayat (London), February 10, 2006.
(9) David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circuit, An interpretation of the Arabs, Harper & Row, 2002, p.402.
(10) Maye Kassem, Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule, Lynne Rinner publishers, 2004.