Hosni Mubarak: Between democrat and autocrat

Hosni may be a semi-authoritarian ruler, but he also takes his legacy seriously and has a genuine vision for a democratic future for , argues Carlos Tiny*

“We are here today to say that real democracy and freedom of speech are not grants from the ruling party to the people,'' proclaimed Egyptian actor Khaled el-Sawy at an August rally of the Writers and Artists for Change Movement. “These are our given rights and we need no permission to practise them.”

If only this were true.

In fact, the Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) continues to control every stage of the political process. There is no doubt that Hosni Mubarak will win a fifth presidential term in September's election. As opposition parties and various civil groups have never tired of pointing out, the entire process was skewed from the start: the constitutional amendment that enabled the election stacked the deck against effective opposition participation, the state-owned press lavished attention on Mubarak while virtually ignoring other candidates, and the balloting once again lacked real transparency or credibility.

The election is a symbol of a larger political reality. From setting economic policy to pushing through legislation and wrestling the judiciary, with an illusion of public consultation and participation, and his closest allies in the NDP will determine who gets which rights when.

The pessimism of much of the opposition, westerners in Arabist blogs and European and US op-eds, and ordinary Egyptians is understandable. Caution and semi-authoritarianism have led the NDP to disappoint many times before. But while a healthy scepticism is certainly called for, knee-jerk pessimism misses the point. Mubarak sees a democratic future for Egypt, and he has the power to see this through.

Models for change

It is important to keep in mind that the NDP cannot maintain its hegemony forever. To a certain extent, the decay in its power is inevitable. Experiences with democratisation in southern and eastern and Latin America, and more recently in Georgia and the Ukraine, show that political reform quickly becomes irreversible, with the momentum passing from a unified authoritarian party to a new discourse between citizens hungry for more and quicker change and regime reactionaries anxious to snatch back control.

The possible scenarios are narrowed to revolution, conservative/military coup, and a more or less stable transition to some form of democracy. The generally technocratic regime ‘progressives' that start the process do not have the option of halting it without losing out themselves, since to do so would be both to yield to the argument of the reactionaries and to risk civil unrest from below. Instead, their goal becomes that of controlling the pace of the transition and defining its terms so as to preserve a place for their leadership.

Of course, it is difficult to box Egypt tidily into this model, mainly because Mubarak does not face nearly this many challengers. There is, for example, little risk of revolution. The only conceivable vanguard, the Muslim Brotherhood, is far more diffident than many western observers fear, and has long hedged its bets through tacit agreements with the government. The deep penetration of the security services and a certain lack of foreign support would seem to suggest that a Kirgiz or Lebanese-style ‘popular revolution' is unlikely to form, or at least to succeed. The kind of slow, surface changes already made to the political process have the potential to co-opt enough public opinion to take the wind out of any attempt to stir an uprising.

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Pre-emptive reform

The current regime has plenty of reactionaries, but to a large extent, they have already been neutralised. The appearance of the Ahmed Nazif government has been seen as primarily of economic significance, but at the same time it was a pre-emptive political coup. Along with Atef Obeid, old guard leaders former Information Minister Safwat al-Sharif and Minister for People's Assembly Affairs Kamal al-Shazli were sidelined.

The NDP's influential policy committee was stacked with ‘reformists' like the president's son Gamal Mubarak and Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohieddin, while the cabinet was filled with free market technocrats. Having earned Mubarak's confidence with relatively competent economic policies that bought the regime additional credibility with western governments, the NDP of the ‘new thinking' has marginalised the old school party hacks. Without serious allies in the military, the old guard poses no threat to the regime from the right.

For all their noise, civil opposition groups like Kifaya! (Enough!) and its numerous, sometimes subsidiary, sometimes independent, groupings are merely a distraction. They get a lot of western press because they talk in terms (and languages) we understand, but they lack cohesion and domestic credibility. Indignant press releases, photogenic demonstrations, and the adoration of bloggers pose no long-term threat to anyone.

Mubarak, the de-militariser

That leaves the big one. But there are definite signs that Mubarak is working, very cautiously, to dislodge the armed forces from . The Egyptian military exerts its (non-military) influence in five principal ways. In increasing strategic importance, these are: 1) its privileged access to public bank loans, and the intricate networks this has engendered between officers and the more kleptocratic members of the private sector, 2) its use of state-owned companies as private fiefs and pastures for retired officers; 3) its direct control of many provincial governments (and local security forces) through appointed governorships of active and retired officers; 4) the involvement of current and former officers in large strategic business deals, especially in the energy sector; and, 5) its establishment of more or less clear red lines in national politics.

The first of these is already under threat by even the slow pace of reforms put into motion by Nazif's government and the second will suffer from longer-term banking and financial reforms and good governance drives. Especially if rumours that Mubarak will appoint intelligence chief Omar Sulayman as his vice president are true, then he will be targeting the remaining poles of military influence. Allowing freer local elections would be one way to get rid of the military stranglehold on provincial authority while releasing popular pressure and without posing a serious threat to the regime. The remaining powers will persist until really major economic and political reforms are successfully implemented. But even without these reforms, Egypt's political-military relationship would look little different from Turkey's.

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Furthermore, the drive to lessen military influence is unlikely to meet stiff resistance from the armed forces as an institution. The military is first and foremost the embodiment of Egyptian nationalism. From its perspective, the coup that would ultimately be required to address its loss of more direct power would be against the national interest. And, in any case, delays to democratisation would have little effect on the economic reforms that will limit the military's day-to-day influence. The one caveat is that the reform process cannot allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power. Of course, this view of a transition jibes very closely to the cautious version espoused by Mubarak himself.

Mubarak, the visionary

But what is his view, exactly? If Mubarak is in a uniquely powerful position to define the terms of a democratic transition, does he actually intend to go through with it? This is where pessimism most seriously fails to produce a useful analysis. Mubarak genuinely wants democracy for Egypt. All it takes is a look at his motivations to see that this vision is genuine.

First of all, there is little doubt that Hosni Mubarak is a nationalist. His semi-authoritarianism is not simply a means to enrich himself and his family and friends, but is also a result of a strong feeling that he is the only person that can bring Egypt into the future. Of course, that does not mean that his goals are the right ones, or that he will even make the right decisions to achieve those goals, but it does mean that he takes his legacy seriously.

Second, Mubarak realises that he is operating in a changed world. In his cautious attitude towards change, he will find American support. To an extent, he will reap the benefit of nearly three decades of Egyptian co-operation with US foreign policy in the region. But Mubarak knows that US foreign policy has been fundamentally transformed, and US support will have its limits.

There is a genuine realisation in the US government that, to paraphrase Condoleeza Rice's speech in Cairo this summer, its policy of allowing stability to trump democracy no longer holds any hope of bringing either. As in all major foreign policy shifts, implementation will take time, but patience with Mubarak will last just as long as it takes the US to accommodate itself to the ramifications of its new convictions.

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People power

Third, this changed environment is not limited to Egypt's relations with the US. Popular opinion has long been a red line in economic policy, but this is now starting to be true of politics, as well. Egypt is not Syria; Mubarak cannot simply pass on the presidency to his son Gamal without risking the kind of unrest that a halfway subtle leader could avoid. While Mubarak faces little serious domestic threat to the regime, this could change quickly during a period of crisis or transition. With expectations raised and external actors also focused on popular opinion, political stasis is now more likely to threaten stability than to maintain it.  

Finally, and most importantly, Mubarak sees a controlled transition to a controlled democracy as the most certain way to maintain the influence of his family, his political and business allies, his party, and his vision of development. His lack of opposition within and without the NDP will not last forever, nor will he. Over the last few years, he has developed an NDP whose policies reflect a very specific, technocratic view of economic and social development that has much international support and actually seems to be making some gains.

In fact, the ‘reformist' wing of the NDP is beginning to resemble an actual political party. Add in its patronage networks, which it is not about to abandon in a fit of liberalism, and you have the ingredients for success in a cautious democracy. On the other hand, if the NDP does not continue its move towards political partydom, it can expect to be discredited even more than it already is, and faces the very real threat of dissolving into clannish factions following Mubarak's death.

Crucially, the election, however flawed, has greatly increased the risk of any attempt to maintain the status quo. It has brought up far too many questions about Egypt's future. Mubarak himself delivered a long list of campaign pledges that, whatever the chance of their transparent implementation, at least acknowledge the entirety of the democratic deficit.

In short, Mubarak and his allies continue to determine when to grant civil rights, but once given, they cannot take them back without risking disaster. Democracy – a dirty democracy, an unstable democracy, perhaps a Turkish, Russian, or even a Bolivian democracy – is the inevitable result. The only question is how long it will take.


*Carlos Tiny is a London-based American analyst. He writes here under a pseudonym.


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