Egypt: the blinkers of expertise

About the author
Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

Egypt is in vogue among many foreign observers and analysts. The Economist has covered developments in the country in more than ten issues in 2009 alone. The American Interest published a long study on the country in autumn 2008 (see Michelle Dunne, "A Post-Pharaonic Egypt", The American Interest, September-October 2008). The International Crisis Group has tackled "potential disruptions" in the country in a number of its reports. The United States House of Representatives committee on international relations has since 2006 devoted several hearings and testimonies to conditions there. The west's policy-journals and think-tanks frequently focus on Egypt (see, for example, Aladdin Elaasar, "Is Egypt Stable?", Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009). The unlikeliest sources call Egypt "the country to watch".

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)

"China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt" (7 August 2008)

"Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

"Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

"The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid" (15 May 2009)
All this is in its way natural and appropriate: Egypt is indeed a major Arab country that in many ways remains pivotal to the future of its region. It is one of the key states in the middle-east's political processes (from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the crisis over Iran). The country is also an increasingly important economic player in the region; the second largest market (after Saudi Arabia), and the base for some of the region's most innovative companies (the most successful telecoms operator, construction conglomerate, investment bank, and private-equity firm).

At heart, however, the impulse for such attention is fear as much as positive engagement on such grounds: even a sense of peril about the possibility of social disruption and / or political chaos in this land of 82 million people.

An explosion in Egypt would indeed shake the region and the world. The country is the birthplace of modern militant Islamism as well as the driving force of Arab nationalism; it still has the momentum to drive great political movements across the region - the inspiring (the modern Arabic cultural renaissance between the 1920s and the 1960s), the exhausted (Arab nationalism) and the regressive (militant Islamism) alike. Egypt is, after all, also a "spillover" country: its tremors pulsate far and wide.

This importance and potential notwithstanding, the international coverage of Egypt has become rather formulaic. A surprising number of reports repeat the same formula. They start by highlighting the dire socio-economic situation of everyday Egyptians; go on to lament the regime's aloof and passive stance; portray the entire society as moribund, weighed down by its burdens and trapped in anger and despair; refer to others' contribution to Egypt's failures (from the United States's misguided policies to Iran's meddling); and conclude by speculating whether Gamal Mubarak (son of the president, Hosni Mubarak) will succeed to the leadership or whether an army general will seize power and terminate the long Mubarak era.

This standard formula, with its myriad of outlets, contains elements of reality (it could hardly be otherwise). But overall there are enough missing or skewed elements as to suggest the need for a more complex picture.

The three gaps

The first misunderstanding is about stasis in Egyptian society. The picture of this society as stagnant misses the fact that throughout the 2000s, it has undergone major changes (see "Egypt: the surreal painting", 14 May 2008).

For example, the private sector in Egypt now employs more Egyptians than the public sector. That significant shift coincides with the regime's subtle but consistent lifting of the social safety-net that Egyptians have enjoyed since the 1960s. This means that staple-food prices are increasing (which provoked serious demonstrations and riots in early 2008); healthcare is effectively becoming privatised; the government's guarantee to create job opportunities for new graduates is all but null; and the dominant operating mode of the entire economy is unmistakably capitalist.

Many observers highlight the corruption and vast income differentials that are among the by-products of these changes. As important, however, is the emergence as a result of a new and broad-based class of engaged economic agents who are participating in and have stakes in the country's economic system. These businesspeople are economically independent of the government's and the public-sector's machinations, and this encourages a much more assertive and outspoken attitude towards the elements holding the country back.

It is common for observers to hail new media and the internet, satellite TV channels, and greater openness to the outside world as central to the wave of political activism that Egypt has witnessed since 2003-04 (involving the active professional syndicates, the effervescent universities, and a multitude of bloggers). All true, but arguably more fundamental is the factor of self-assurance that comes from being economically independent.

The spreading realisation among many young Egyptians that they will never work for the government or the public sector - because these are no longer the main provider in Egyptian society - has been the  trigger of the new activism. That trend is now irreversible - and is gaining momentum. One of the most important dynamics in Egypt today is how (no longer if) the private sector and its agents will transform their economic power into political power.

The second misunderstanding is that the Egyptian regime is passive, reflexive, and reliant on continually blaming others. In fact, the Egyptian regime's opposition to Iran, Hizbollah, and other "radical" players in the region is part of a coherent foreign-policy doctrine that sees Egypt as a pillar of a Pax Americana in the middle east. This view has guided Egyptian foreign policy since the later 1970s. Its shape and future, and its ability to meet Egypt's security interests, are beyond the scope of this article; but the point is that the regime is hardly passive.

The regime's activism is even clearer internally. Again, many analysts derive from the view that President Hosni Mubarak (now 81 years old) is increasingly elderly and detached the conclusion that the regime's pace as a whole has become slow and sluggish. This view too is wrong.

Since the early 2000s, and especially after the installation of the 2004 government, the president's son Gamal Mubarak and an elite of liberal capitalists have acquired great influence over decision-making in a number of areas. There has, in effect, been an element of rejuvenation - reflected both in some of the major economic changes referred to above, and in more friction with the regime's classic as well as new challengers (the Muslim Brotherhood, but also more assertive women's groups and young bloggers). This internal regeneration complements and to a degree attempts to offset the challenge from the new class of economic agents outside the regime.

The third misunderstanding is the depiction of young Egyptians (and almost 70% of the population is under 30 years old) as angry, frustrated, disillusioned, and increasingly violent. Here, what observers ignore is their impressive and increasing cultural creativity, social interest and political engagement.

There are also areas where the new Egyptian capitalism is meeting young people's creativity and thirst for change. For example, three investment funds have been launched in 2009 that focus solely on Egypt's poorest and long-ignored region, Al-Saeed; all are managed by 30-something young Egyptians who have returned to the country from New York and London. There is a fusion here of personal incentive and social improvement that is a potential source of development and progress.

The military and Islamism

The fourth fallacy concerns Islamism. There is a recurring tendency among analysts who consider the prospects for post-(Hosni) Mubarak Egypt to focus on the likelihood of Egypt's next leader being Gamal Mubarak or an army general, or whether political Islam will be able to wrest control from the regime. The question is valid. But the line of thinking it reflects is somewhat tired, and often fails to grasp the subtleties of the forces it is referring to.

The dominant view of the military establishment in Egypt tends to invoke the potentiality of "a general becoming Egypt's next president" without engaging with the complicated relationship between the regime and the military establishment (as did, for example, Robert Satloff's study of The Army and Politics in Mubarak's Egypt [Washington Institute of Near East Policy, 1988]).

In similar vein, the analysis of Islamism in today's Egypt can simplify the role of the Muslim Brotherhood - which is not (as is often stated) the most important or pervasive Islamic force in the country. This description more accurately defines the Salafist movements.

Salafists, who regard early pious Muslims and their communities as exemplary models, command major followings on the Egyptian "street". They are not politically active, and that is why they are tolerated (and sometimes encouraged) by the regime; that is also why they do not feature in news-bulletins or reports on the country. Their influence, however, is many times more than that of organised political Islam.

Salafist thinking, which has been expanding and proliferating in Egypt for more than three decades, is based on a religious view of life; a strict and highly conservative social code; and inherently advances an Islamist foreign policy. The accumulating influence of this significant Salafist influence on Egyptian society could be to make many young Egyptians more anti-secular, anti-liberal, and anti-west. After three decades of domestic and foreign efforts to align the country with the United States and the west, including around $100 billion of American (and western) investment in and aid to Egypt, this outcome would be a colossal policy failure. The Salafi phenomenon receives far less attention than it deserves.

The plethora of new media has put Egypt under the spotlight. But the speed with which this media's clicks cover the country allow for too little close study and critical observation. Such hurried coverage risks failing to detect the real trends that are shaping tomorrow's Egypt.

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Also in openDemocracy on the Arab world in 2009: