Reviewed by Serpil Açıkalın
Author: Alaa Al-Din Arafat I
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Among all of the Arab countries, Egypt has a privileged position with its people, history and political life. It was the first country in its region to gain independence from colonial rule and has been the cradle of Islamist politics since the late 19th century. One point of interest is that many issues in the country have given birth to another result: for example, the variety of people has stemmed from the government’s nationalist, socialist and liberal ideologies, and the Islamist politics have resulted in the improvement of oppositional and confrontational culture. Egypt’s choice to have a peace agreement with Israel led to its isolation, but opened other doors for the country such as becoming a leading ally of the U.S. and Israel in its region.
Yet all of these factors have not provided the expected life standard for most Egyptians, and their minds have been confused by the government’s mixed applications of democracy and authoritarianism. While compared to some other Arab countries Egypt can be classified as a country that has more seeds of opposition, independent media and syndicates, it still cannot be considered a democratic country because of its semi-authoritarian structure.
Recently, Egypt has fallen into a discussion about the candidacy of Muhammad El-Baradai for the presidential election of 2011, and there are rumors alleged by newspapers about parties collaborating with the regime against El-Baradai. All of the news coming from Egypt related to the new political atmosphere is much more clear after reading Alaa al-Din Arafat’s book, The Mubarak Leadership and Future of Democracy in Egypt, as he writes in depth about the history and structure of the National Democratic Party (NDP), whose more than three-decade existence deserves to be explored. As an Arab scholar, Arafat gives many details about the Mubarak government’s structure and the mutual relationships among the interest groups in the country ranging from ministries to MPs and businessmen loyal to the regime.
In his work, Arafat states his belief that Egyptian governments have been establishing “party bodies and their parasitic elites” and expect their survival by using their functionalist role. These tools of the regime have been applied since the monarchy in the country. The author says that parties in Egypt, including the opposition, have only been instruments of regimes and they have not been representing an ideology. And of course when we become aware of that approach, it is not so difficult to understand one of the regime’s current pretexts for not allowing the establishment of parties being that the parties do not represent a different ideology. The author also claims that Hosni Mubarak also followed a strategy of dividing the opposition; it was mainly seen in the 2005 presidential elections when Noman Goma ran against the Wafd Party’s Ayman Nour, and it was alleged that the regime promised seats in parliament to Goma in return for him running against Nour to decrease Nour’s votes.
To explain the current NDP structure and political environment of the country, the author begins with talking about the Nasser and Sadat terms and how their ideologies were oriented with the illusion of a multi-voiced society. During the Nasser term, the multiparty system was lifted, and the Liberation Rally (LR) was established in 1953 to provide the continuation of the interest groups’ functioning role. Although Sadat was representing himself as a more democratic leader, Egyptians began to get used to that when their leaders talked about democratic transition they in general intended economic liberalism to be a part of their strategy. The author argues that even when Sadat was encouraging the establishment of platforms and later parties from the mid-1970s on, he was actually not trying to rotate his power; it was the beginning of the country’s semi-authoritarian governing aiming to empower the regime and moderate dissidents. Actually the below quoted words of Arafat explain that logic very well:
…Therefore, the main purpose of Egyptian pluralism is not to move the state all the way over to democratic rule, but to stop at the point of semi-authoritarianism….To conclude that, the NDP is not a real party, nor is it an ideological trend. It represents only those who wish to be linked to the state…(p. 18-19)
The author says that Hosni Mubarak had began his term by claiming that he was different from his predecessors; however, the dynamics and catalysts of the current politics in Egypt still put its protected elites at the center. Moreover, in discussing the NDP’s past and its strategy of approaching elites, Arafat mentions Gamal Mubarak’s rising power in the NDP.
The author says that as a person who does not have an ideology, Hosni Mubarak has chosen some people from the former Nasserist bloc, such as Al-Sharif and Al-Mahgub, to distance himself from his predecessor and recruited some flexible politicians who can adjust themselves to any ideology, such as Wali and Al-Shazli, and businessmen. Yet, according to Arafat, all of these people were mainly chosen to gain the majority’s support for the NDP. Apart from that, Arafat claims that the NDP has no clear program and its members are only looking to increase their interests. Arafat goes further by saying that as the regime blocks peaceful ways of transformation, even a coup d’état or revolution are other alternatives, and warns that if he becomes the next president, Gamal may be more challenged with political reform than his father has been.
In the eyes of the author, semi-liberalized Gamal Mubarak will probably be the inheritor of the presidency. After his occupation of the Party’s Secretary-General position, the neoconservative cadre, which the author refers to as the “Big Eight”, occupied governmental positions to help the succession of Gamal in the future. Surprisingly, veteran traditional politicians of the NDP, such as Wali and al-Sharif, were replaced by businesspeople, and these replacements led to cracks among the factions of the NDP.
As there is no doubt that Egypt was quite affected by the US policies in the region, one of the very interesting parts of Arafat’s book is about the US’ failed projects in the Middle East. It is sure that the most heated word for the Egyptian opposition is ‘stability’, as it has been over-emphasized by the Egyptian regime and has long represented a tacit agreement between Egypt and the US. The author mostly talks about the post-September 11 approach of the US and the reactions of the Egyptian government. While the US’ reform initiatives were not welcomed by Mubarak, the Iraqi regime’s experiment forced Egypt to make reforms in the country, though the author believes that most of these reforms were no more than cosmetic shows. Yet it is also a known fact that Mubarak generally refers to economic improvements when he uses the word ‘reform’.
Arafat emphasizes that the Iraq war in some ways destroyed the American strategy of democratization in the Middle East. First, it led to a change in Egyptian perceptions and increased doubts towards the US. Second, according to the author, the war demonstrated that a similar power vacuum would be repeated in Egypt. Another tactic Mubarak used to convince the US was his warming relations with Israel during the years of US pressure to show again his useful function in the region by referring to the possible relations between Israel and the most likely alternative Egyptian party, the Muslim Brotherhood, if it were to come to power.
Another issue emphasized by the author is the fragmented and weak opposition, which empowers his argument on the nature of opposition under authoritarian regimes. Although he believes that solidarity is needed for the rescue of the country by convincing Mubarak to appoint a vice president and other changes, unfortunately the opposition has not shown a sign of a collective action front to manage change in Egypt and they only play a role of showing a pluralistic appearance in the country. Even the Kifaya Movement with its very exciting beginning could not manage more than kindling a fire to begin a protest culture in Egypt that had been forgotten after the bread protests of the 70s. Yet other movements calling for change also could not go further because of their lack of comprehensiveness stemming from rivalry among party leaders and their exclusive policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
The author believes that liberal parties and powers may be an alternative; however, he also accepts that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only rival of the NDP because of its organization, social presence and influence. Although he cites the Brotherhood‘s pragmatic behaviors in the past, he also mentions the real agenda of the Brotherhood for the future. In addition, Arafat gives the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development Party) as an example of integration for the Muslim Brotherhood, but the difference between societies in Turkey and Egypt must not be forgotten. Moreover, these groups do not see similarities between themselves, and although the Egyptian constitution clearly indicates Islam as its primary source, Turkey’s unchangeable constitutional articles indicate the country’s secular structure.
According to Arafat, pro-democracy groups must use the advantages of satellite TVs, the internet, blogs and telephones to organize and to promulgate their demands. Moreover, although the US had negative experiments with Algeria, Hamas and Iraq, Arafat sees the intervention and pressure of the US as necessary for Egypt, but he warns that it must be different from the support of the status quo and should contribute to human rights and democracy in the country.
With his very comprehensive work Arafat manages to give detailed analyses of contemporary Egyptian politics. Although his approach is not so optimistic about the future of Egypt, many of the facts touched in his book help us to understand the current discussions in Egypt. The comprehensive information given about the 2000s makes this an indispensible volume for researchers of Egyptian politics.
Some things seem to go on so long that we take them for granted. Egypt’s Mubarak regime has that timeless quality, but in truth it nears the end. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, if not sooner, and the aged Mubarak will likely step aside. His son Gamal waits in the wings, seemingly alone. But the regime comes under many pressures, both foreign and domestic, to bring democratic reforms and free and fair elections to Egypt. A hereditary succession would be highly suspect, and in all probability destabilizing and illegitimate. Furthermore, as a key Middle East power and crucial US ally, Egypt’s transfer of power has profound implications for the region and must be managed with the utmost care. Meanwhile, the threat of an Islamist regime lurks in the background, as the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved a grudging parity with the weakening Mubarak regime since 2005. The push for democratic reform is thus tempered by the perceived need for stability. Meanwhile, the Egyptian people long for democracy, and the thought of a Gamal Mubarak regime stretching across two more decades is crushing to contemplate.