This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 18/02/2011
Egyptians have always known that when a mummy encounters life it disintegrates. This is what happened the other day when President Hosni Mubarak’s regime fell apart in the face of an Egyptian people full of life and youth.
Although we do not yet know how things might turn out in Egypt, one thing is certain: the Mubarak system had reached the end of the road. It had nothing new to offer and was out of sync with a nation that it had helped change over the past 30 years.
The root cause of the regime’s troubles was that it could not turn change, inevitable under all circumstances, into a friend. Thus, change became an enemy of a regime whose policies had become mummified.
The first sign of mummification was Mubarak’s unwillingness or inability to change the top echelon of government, ending up as the head of a geriatric club.
Cabinet ministers could remain in their posts for 20 years. A who-is-who of courtiers, perhaps numbering around 100, rotated in top government positions in a nation of 82 million with great reservoirs of talent.
This led to the emergence of a medieval system in which ministers and heads of major public corporations acted as semi-independent chieftains in their fiefdoms.
Policies were also mummified.
Economic policy was still driven by the “Infitah” (opening) project launched by President Anwar Sadat in 1974.
This encouraged a Wild West-style economic system with few rules to protect public interest. Immense fortunes were made, breeding immense poverty in their wake. With high rates of economic growth, there was no reason why any Egyptian should live on less than $2 a day. But at least a third did.
One trick was to buy government-owned land at derisory prices and then sell it to people for real estate development at exorbitant ones. This drove prices through the roof.
Millions of young Egyptians cannot leave their parents’ homes and build families of their own because they cannot afford the cost of housing.
The irony in all this is that Egypt has experienced an unprecedented economic boom. This disproves the Marxist theory that economics is the foundation of politics. There was no uprising when Egypt was dirt poor. The uprising comes now that Egypt has joined the club of emergent economies.
The Egyptians rose because the nation’s political system no longer reflected their aspirations.
Education policy was also mummified.
Sadat had launched a crash programme to produce graduates in law and economics to serve in his expanding civil service. Mubarak turned that policy into another mummy.
As a result Egypt has produced a vast army of men and women with university degrees but no prospect of employment. They provided the backbone of the Tahrir Square crowd.
At the start of his presidency, Mubarak had declared a State of Emergency, for three months. Thirty years later, when he was leaving, the measure was still in force. The mummified gimmick, which banned meetings of even five people in public, was still law when public gatherings of half a million had become part of Cairo’s daily life.
In early 1990s, to counterbalance pro-democracy groups, Mubarak started wooing Islamists including The Muslim Brotherhood.
State-owned media gave much airtime to religious propaganda. Government money helped build thousands of new mosques and financed hundreds of Koranic schools and theological colleges. Though technically illegal, The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to extend its tentacles throughout society, including the armed forces and police. In the previous general election, the “outlawed” Brotherhood was assigned 80 seats in the parliament.
Not surprisingly, as the pro-democracy movement started calling for change, The Brotherhood opened negotiations with Mubarak to save the mummified system of which suited hem both.
The uprising that drove Mubarak away was, at least in part, an attempt by Egyptians to get away from the suffocating religious mummy created by the regime.
In 2004, under pressure from President George W Bush, Mubarak allowed some space for dissent. That policy, too, became a mummy. Rather than seeing it as a first step, as Bush had advised, Mubarak saw it as the end. As a result, Egyptians were allowed to criticise the regime, even in some newspapers without seeing any change in policy. The message was: you may bark, but our caravan goes on!
Foreign policy too was mummified.
Alliance with the United States became a formal arrangement under which the Americans signed cheques, gave pep talks on human rights, and deluded themselves into believing that Egypt would help achieve their objectives in the Middle East.
Egypt? With some regional allies, tried to destabilise the new in Iraq and ended up helping Al Qaeda there. They tried to reconcile the Palestinian Al Fatah and Hamas factions, and ended up consolidating the latter’s hold on Gaza.
In Lebanon, they ended up retreating when Iran, moving its Hezbollah pawns, decided to seize power in Beirut.
When Mubarak took over, Egypt was in peace with Israel. Mubarak took that peace and turned it into a mummy. He vetoed attempts at promoting people-to-people contacts and building bridges at all levels of society. When he left, there was no peace between Egypt and Israel except on the papers signed at Camp David.
Contrary to claims by his Islamist enemies, Mubarak did nothing to advance peace with Israel.
The Tahrir Square uprising was mainly about domestic issues, especially poverty, corruption and lack of freedom. However, in the filigree was a deep sense of humiliation. Egypt, the largest Arab country and one of three nations to have played a leading role in the Muslim world, had ended up with virtually no foreign policy and, hence, no influence. Instead, statelets like Qatar were claiming to lead Arabs.
With Mubarak gone, the hope is that mummified Egypt will give its place to a new Egypt that is alive and vibrant.
That, however, is still some distance away. On the road, there are many dangers with enemies waiting in ambush.