Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A journey in Egyptian studies II

Western scholars have put forward various explanations for the longevity of the former Mubarak regime in Egypt, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

In this series I have been trying to do two different things: to discuss the assumptions of “Western” academia and to recount my own recollections. They may or may not be significant. When I was admitted to doctoral studies at the Paris Institute for Political Studies, the institute did not have a department for Arab studies. I studied something else, and this was both a blessing and a curse. For this and other reasons, I never became an “insider”, and my early years in the profession worsened the problem.

One general assumption of French academia, which never disappeared, was that the “Egyptian regime should be doomed.” Even those who claimed that the Arab brand of authoritarianism was successful, stable and able to deliver, recognised formidable challenges. They claimed that “the proof the formula is stable resides in the fact that it has remained intact for so long despite the plausibility of predictions claiming it was about to collapse.”

Reviewing those challenges would take a book. It is enough to say here that dealing with Egypt’s demographic explosion entailed a pace of growth and job creation that was unsustainable, even with an optimally efficient regime. Egypt needed investment, observers said, and its own savings could not do the job. Former president Hosni Mubarak may have succeeded in diversifying the economy, but it was still too dependent on external factors. 

Egypt also had to face water shortages, Islamist violence, and so on. Things were made worse by huge inequalities, corruption, incompetence, excessive centralisation and an absurd economic system that completely distorted markets and prices, subsidising losers and paralysing winners. All these things were aptly described by many foreign commentators.

Many people, both Egyptians and foreigners, who had a strong dislike for the regime, also had an easy explanation for the fact that it had lasted despite the incredible challenges. Egypt was too important internationally, they said, and neither Israel nor the United States nor the Gulf monarchies could afford the luxury of abandoning it. I remember a French academic workshop in 1985 or 1986 in which all those present, both Egyptian and French researchers, gave a very bleak picture of the situation and its prospects. But the director of the workshop, Jean-Claude Vatin, said that “all that is correct, but Washington will keep pouring the money in as the country is crucial for the regional system.”

This perception was widely shared, and you did not need to believe that the regime was an American puppet in order to buy it. Even the regime’s supporters agreed with this analysis. I often heard members of the Egyptian middle classes saying during the 1980s that the genius of former president Anwar Al-Sadat had been that he had “created a situation in which nobody could afford to see Egypt collapse”. Some Western academics went as far as to say that Egypt had a major interest in ensuring that the Middle East continued to be unstable, giving it a pivotal role in the security system. 

This was an implausible view, however, as Egypt also needed, and needs, markets for its goods and workers. It needs to help ensure that the Gulf is rich and prosperous. 

I partially agreed about the role played by the massive foreign aid to Egypt. It was clear that the major blunder committed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, had been a blessing for Egypt, as people discovered the importance of Egyptian participation in the international coalition put together in response to it.  Egypt’s choice in joining the coalition was generously rewarded, though some Egyptian experts claimed at the time, and some still think, that Cairo could have extracted a bigger price for its position. 

However, many were also aware that this episode was miraculous and that miracles do not occur twice. This does not mean that the invasion did not create huge security problems, as millions of Egyptians had to leave Iraq as a result, but on the whole the episode was a boon for Egypt as it led to the cancellation of most of its foreign debts.

Many Egyptians at the time were irritated by the assumption that the regime was doomed. Their arguments were often weak, but the relative stability supported their views. Egypt had been blessed by God, they said. It was stable, and it had dealt with many upheavals. Statistics were unreliable. The Egyptians were richer than people supposed, as they had mastered the art of hiding their true incomes. Nobody really knew what was going on in the informal economy or how much money had been hidden at home. 

The regime relied on coercion, such people said, but also on consultation. Academics constantly underestimated the knowledge of the society held in higher circles, just as they underestimated their skills, their ability to hear, and their capacity to be heard. A long war with Israel had not led to the regime’s fall. If you looked only at the challenges, you would be frightened, they said. But if you took into account what had been achieved, the picture became less murky.

Some brought up the complex relationship the Egyptians had with political violence. Many did not buy the argument that the “Egyptians are naturally docile.” The country had experienced its fair share of political assassinations and upheavals, they pointed out, before adding that “the Egyptians are a violent people who are frightened by their own violence. The worst outbursts do not last very long, and those who commit them soon backpedal.”

The complex anti-doom narrative went like this: Egypt faced formidable challenges, but formidable challenges also meant formidable opportunities. For now it has been able to cope with these challenges in ways that we do not fully understand. Most observers of conditions in the countryside said that living conditions had improved despite long periods of stagnation. The countryside was now “better connected”, they said. It was true that the state was dysfunctional and inefficient. But people had learnt how to skirt it and to use the few resources it brought.

Paradoxically, the state’s inefficiency, according to the anti-doom narrative, strengthened the regime. People lowered their expectations of it and learnt how to improve their lot without the state’s help and despite its racketeering. Nobody wanted to topple the regime, as nobody wanted to govern a state that was powerless, inefficient and unpopular. 

Such arguments were partly wrong, as many segments of the population still longed for the kind of welfare state that had been introduced by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and these had been angered by post-Nasser social policies. The Islamists thought that Egypt was a society that had been corrupted by Western habits imported by the state, which in turn was governed by Western agents. If this course was to be reversed, they said, they would have to seize power.

But the arguments were also partly right, if we change their formulation, as the terrible challenges faced by Egypt were also a strong incentive for stability. The fall of the regime could not be allowed to lead to the state’s collapse, many people said, as Egypt could not afford to waste time on internal feuds. A lot of people followed this line of reasoning.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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