Egypt: The Moment of Change

Egypt: The Moment of Change


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848130210
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 12/15/2009
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Philip Marfleet is associate director of the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging. He is author of Migration, Theory and Culture, and co-editor with Rabab El-Mahdi of Egypt: The Moment of Change.

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The Moment of Change

By Rabab El-Mahdi, Philip Marfleet

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-021-0


State and society

Philip Marfleet

The comedy classic film Al-Irhab wa'l Kebab (Terrorism and Kebab) tells the story of an Egyptian everyman lost in the corridors of the giant Mugamma building in Cairo, the headquarters for much of the country's administration. Bullied by government officials and sent helplessly from office to office to resolve a minor problem, he meets other wronged citizens and finally becomes leader of an imagined people's rebellion. The enduring popularity of the film is itself an insight into relations between the state and the people in contemporary Egypt. For the mass of Egyptians, al-nizam (the order/ the system) is a controlling influence in everyday life. Notwithstanding decades of rhetoric about democratic opening and liberalisation, Egyptians are ruled by an ultra-authoritarian regime which brooks no opposition. Fifteen years after the release of Sherif Arafa's film, people still laugh at its unlikely hero and the figures of authority he confounds. Their mirth is mixed with desperation, however. Egypt is an increasingly unequal society in which more people are poor and insecure, and in which problems of daily survival are more pressing. The people and 'the order' are joined by little except mutual fear and hostility.

At various points over the past hundred years the mass of Egyptians have played a key role in shaping relations with those in authority. After the First World War the level of protest against European rule was so intense that a British historian of the period describes a 'revolutionary' situation in which activists created local 'republican governments' and some villages set up 'soviets'; thirty years later sustained strikes and the demands of 'the street' facilitated a military coup which succeeded in removing occupation forces. But during fifty years of independence, successive regimes – using techniques of both coercion and co-optation – have excluded the people from national politics. Intermittent periods of intense industrial action have sometimes been combined with mass protests, extracting major concessions from those in power. At the same time these episodes have spurred Egypt's rulers to intensify repression, so that relations with the mass of society have become more tense and mistrustful – a development recently accentuated by the commitment of those in power to an aggressive policy of personal profit and material advance. The main characteristics of contemporary politics and socio-cultural life (at least in the 'public' sphere) are an acute sense of alienation and growing anger. This chapter considers relations between the state and the people, and how the current regime maintains its power vis-…-vis an angry and frustrated population.

Low-intensity democracy

The Mubarak regime has much in common with other ruling groups across the Global South which practise 'low-intensity democracy'. Most have close ties to the United States and follow policies integral to the Washington Consensus, favouring neoliberal economic reform and tight control over domestic politics. They include governments in Peru, Colombia, South Korea, Morocco, Kenya, Pakistan, Indonesia and the philippines, and in a series of Central American states. In each there have been periods of political 'opening'; in each, reform has been superficial. Elections take place, sometimes contested by a plurality of parties and with the involvement of media which are notionally free. But systemic fraud and ballot-rigging, combined with more or less open violence vis-…-vis opposition groups and the media, ensure that power remains within a network of privilege, often closely linked to the armed forces.

Egypt is among the more repressive of these regimes. Its 'democracy' is of such low intensity as to be barely detectable. Officially the government is committed to 'democratic development ... deepening of democratic practice, enhancing freedoms and laying down the state of law, institutions and respect of human rights' (State Information Service 2006). Much of its energy, however, is devoted to ballot-rigging, intimidation and electoral fraud. For many years opposition parties and human rights organisations have alleged blatant interference at the polls, recording numerous episodes in which voters have been prevented from polling by the ubiquitous Amn al-Markazi – Central Security, Egypt's riot police. Among incidents reported in 2000 was an attack on voters in the province of Minoufiya, where an opposition candidate had been expected to gather many votes: sixty people were admitted to hospital. A local doctor testified: 'The police opened fire in all directions. They had orders to do that. And they had high orders to prevent people from voting. All the time [there is government talk] about democracy. Where is it?'

During the 2005 parliamentary election people wielding swords and machetes stormed polling stations in Port Said, smuggling in boxes of pre-filled ballots; police meanwhile formed a cordon to prevent voters entering. In Damanhour, 'thugs' were said to have attacked voters, using bayonets, sticks, knives and bottles filled with acid and petrol; the police observed events impassively (Safieddine 2005; Sami 2005).

These practices have embarrassed even the regime's closest allies, who fear an explosion of popular anger which could wreak havoc with their interests in Egypt and the region. In 2008 then-President George W. Bush felt obliged to complain that Mubarak would not permit the most modest political reform, observing (without a hint of irony) that 'too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail' (BBC 2008c). Western media which cheer on the regime's economic strategy express dismay at the vulgarity of its repression. For the Washington Post Egyptian elections are 'a squalid process' orchestrated by a president of 'martial crudeness' (Diehl 2005). The Economist (2008) warns that deficits in political representation could prove disastrous for a regime which has supervised a general crisis of society:

The fact is that most of Egypt's 75 m[illion] people struggle to get by, their ambitions thwarted by rising prices, appalling state schools, capricious judges, a plodding and corrupt bureaucracy and a cronyist regime that pretends democracy but in fact crushes all challengers and excludes all participation. The visitor might well conclude that by damming up the normal flow of politics, Egypt's rulers risk bringing on a deluge.

The journal asks: 'will the dam burst?' (Economist 2008).

Inequality and change

Many Egyptians — perhaps the majority — live at the margin of survival, dependent upon the few staple foods that still enjoy state subsidy. Changes in price or fluctuations in supply have immediate consequences: in December 2007 the Ministry of Social Solidarity unexpectedly lifted subsidies on some grades of flour, leading to shortages of bread and bitter arguments among those desperate for aysh baladi, the loaves which sustain most urban Egyptian families. One local newspaper led its story on 'the bread queue crisis' by quoting a Cairene woman: 'We will soon kill and steal from each other for bread. Where is the country going?' (Nafie 2007). Over the next four months, at least eleven people were killed during conflicts at bakeries (Johnstone 2008).

According to the World Bank the inequality gap is widening. In 1991 the poorest 10 per cent of the population had access to 3.9 per cent of the country's income; the richest 20 per cent received 26.7 per cent. Ten years later, the poorest 10 per cent had access to 3.7 per cent of national income; the richest received 29.5 per cent. These headline figures do not fully capture the reality of recent change, however. Thirty years of economic reform have encouraged private capitalists who during the 1970s were known as the 'fat cats'. They have since been indulged with all manner of concessions including, since 2004, cuts of over 50 per cent in the rate of corporation tax. One outcome is a pattern of social development extreme even by the standards of the poorest regions of the Global South. It is especially glaring in Cairo, where residents of areas such as Misr al-Gedida (Heliopolis), Zamalek and Ma'adi live in glitzty tower blocs and villas alongside marbled shopping malls: nearby in Zeitoun, Bulak Abu al-'Ela or Dar al-Salaam, people are crowded into slum zones in which daily life is ever more precarious. Abaza, who has studied the new urban culture, observes: 'Cairo consists largely of slums. It is the culture of slums opposite a culture of international hotels and shopping malls. I see an increasing contradiction ... you are raising up expectations, dreams and desires.'

Nader Fergany, lead author of the UN's Arab Human Development Report, suggests that government policy has produced inequalities not seen since the colonial era:

There's a vicious circle of a small clique getting filthy rich and the rest getting impoverished. We have returned this country to what it used to be before the 1952 revolution: the i per cent society. One per cent controls almost all the wealth of the country.

In the 1950s and 1960s Egypt had been a model for radical change across the 'Third' world. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser declared for socialism, initiating a (limited) land reform, nationalisations of commerce and industry, and elaborate programmes of welfare and public education (Ayubi 1991). The contrast with recent policies is sharp and has led to increasing nostalgia among many Egyptians about the old order. But the core of the Nasserist state is still intact – and has indeed been integral to processes that have produced today's crisis.

In the 1950s Egypt was among many states of Africa and the Middle East in which anti-colonial movements brought to power 'new men' formally committed to African/Arab 'socialism'. After years of rising protest against colonial occupation, in 1952 the Free Officers finally deposed a pro-British monarchy and announced an agenda for radical change. Nasser and his colleagues were not representatives of the anti-colonial protest movement that preceded 1952, however. They did not emerge directly from the ranks of the activists, nor were they accountable to any of the key political currents within it. They owed their opportunity to the failure of established political organisations to challenge the ancien r‚gime and the forces of occupation. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a Nasser loyalist who became the country's leading journalist and commentator, suggests that the Officers 'only acted to fill a void'. They were in fact radical conspirators – a group of nationalists within the officer corps frustrated by the inability of others to strike a decisive blow against colonialism. Most were opposed to mass political engagement, including involvement of their subordinates in the armed forces: Baker (1978: 25) comments that 'There was to be no revolutionary disruption of the ranks. From its inception the Free Officers movement was elitist, even within the military context.'

When the group launched a coup d'‚tat the monarchy collapsed, its downfall so swift that the Officers were uninterested in even token support in the streets. The group went on to organise its activities secretly, avoiding formal links with civilian allies and reacting to popular manifestations of enthusiasm and further demands for change sceptically and even violently. Among its first initiatives was suppression of a strike in the city of Kafr al-Dawwar and the execution of two of the workers' leaders. Its early policies were contradictory: a land reform introduced in 1952 was said to be a 'revolutionary' measure but affected less than 10 per cent of cultivable land and allowed many large landowners to retain control of their estates (Ansari 1986: 79). It nonetheless succeeded in stimulating enormous expectations among the fellahin: 'peasants deluded themselves into thinking they were entering a revolutionary stage ... many stopped paying dues ... many declared that the army gave them the lands'. The Officers responded with calls to resist 'extremists' (Ansari 1986: 80).

Years of rising expectation had created pressures that the Officers could not resist. They struggled to deliver welfare promises whilst restraining the movement that had facilitated their rise to power and that now continued to seek wide-ranging change. The imperative of control was decisive and soon a new political formation was in evidence – one in which senior military men and technocrats were dominant. They declared for state socialism, anti-imperialism, non-alignment and for commitment to an independent 'third' world. The state itself – led by the army – would enact progress, they maintained, using further agrarian reform, nationalisations of foreign capital and assets, and control of trade to modernise Egyptian society. Landowners, merchants and entrepreneurs of the colonial era were indeed forced to accept a reduced status, though significantly they remained part of the networks of influence: Zaalouk (1989: 41) comments that they became a lobby for private capital within a new 'state bourgeoisie'.

Nasser stimulated much personal loyalty: he was identified with removal of the monarchy; the expulsion of occupation forces; land reform; industrialisation; nationalisation of the Suez Canal and subsequent humiliation of Britain, France and Israel; and the Palestinian cause. At the same time he alienated each and every political current that enjoyed genuine relationships with the people, including the Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose activists were incarcerated and tortured and among whom some were executed. Increasingly he ruled by concentrating power among a small group of loyalists within the armed forces, and by controlling the new corporations and cooperatives which now dominated economic affairs. He expanded the police and intelligence apparatus, developing a network of informers which monitored workplaces and communities on the model of the Stalinist state. In the late 1960s came an inevitable break, as the patience of the mass of Egyptians was finally exhausted. When the army failed catastrophically during the 1967 war with Israel, workers and students demanded change: the regime itself had failed, they argued, and it was time for the people to participate in shaping an alternative. The former communist Anouar Abdel-Malik argued that the Officers betrayed those who had ushered them to power. Egypt had fallen into the hands of 'a devouring bureaucracy ... let loose with the immunity of autocracy'; the people had been subordinated to the interests of a military-bureaucratic elite which 'determined the objectives and modes of national action': the people were present merely 'to supply the manpower' (Abdel-Malik 1968: 366).

Infitah and after

This was the system inherited by President Anwar al-Sadat on Nasser's death in 1970. He soon used the apparatus of repression to marginalise powerful rivals and, bolstered by partial military success in the 1973 conflict with Israel, launched a programme of radical economic change – the infitah ('opening'). This aimed to reinstate the private sector and to attract foreign capital. Businessmen who had left Egypt for the Gulf states were urged to return and facilitate new relations with economies of the West. Meanwhile Sadat encouraged a 'de-Nasserisation' campaign, through which his own supporters attacked the repression of the former regime and argued for political reform.

Initially infitah brought rapid change. There was a surge in imports as for the first time in over twenty years consumer goods produced aboard entered Egypt freely. Arab and Western businessmen arrived with what Baker (1978: 143) calls '"gold rush" excitement', prompting a property boom. Leading members of the regime assured them that change was to be permanent: the role of the state would be reduced and private capital would be encouraged by all means. In fact there was little meaningful investment from abroad and many business adventurers promptly retreated. Meanwhile conditions of the mass of people deterioriated: in 1976 one estimate suggested that 80 per cent of the population were worse off than when the new policy had been announced just three years earlier. The main beneficiaries had been commission agents and profiteers:

Contractors, real-estate speculators, and merchants flourished on the economic boom: importers, partners and agents of foreign firms, tourist operators, lawyers and middlemen who helped investors negotiate bureaucratic tangles, thrived on the cuts they took from the resource inflow ... Officials reaped commissions on state contracts and engaged in widespread corrupt practices. Together, these groups were forming a 'parasitic bourgeoisie' living off Infitah. (Hinnebusch 1985: 69–70)


Excerpted from Egypt by Rabab El-Mahdi, Philip Marfleet. Copyright © 2009 Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Rabab El-Mahdi & Philip Marfleet
1 State and society Philip Marfleet
2 Economic policy: from state control to decay and corruption Ahmad El-Sayed El-Naggar
3 The land and the people Ray Bush
4 Workers' struggles under 'socialism' and neoliberalism Joel Beinin
5 The democracy movement: cycles of protest Rabab El-Mahdi
6 Islamism(s) old and new Sameh Naguib
7 Torture: a state policy Aida Seif El-Dawla
8 Mubarak in the international arena Anne Alexander
Conclusion: What's next? Rabab El-Mahdi & Philip Marfleet

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