Egypt is the land of pharaohs, both ancient and modern. Its complex and multi-faceted society has always thrived under strong central leadership. Under the rule of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has played a crucial role in the Arab world as a military powerhouse and an intellectual leader. Both Arab Nationalism and Islamism have roots in Egyptian society. In recent years, however, the Egyptian state has been marginalized, and it no longer exerts the influence it once did in the Arab world or over its own people.
Egypt’s decline is readily apparent in many ways. It is no longer a military power in the Arab world, nor can it influence its neighbors with soft power. Its intellectual movements stem from populist sources rather than the heads of state. Mubarak has now clung to power for twenty six years at the expense of economic progress and democratic freedom. To understand this quiet decline we have to look at Egypt’s past.
Gamal Abdul Nasser championed revolutionary Egypt as the military power of the Arab world. Under his rule Egypt fought five separate wars, four of them against Israel. He nationalized much of the Egyptian economy and was a firm supporter of non-alignment, oscillating between superpowers as he saw fit. His charisma spread Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East and he was the embodiment of this pan-Arab movement.
Anwar Sadat broke from his predecessor after the Yom Kippur War. He reversed many of Nasser’s domestic policies with the al-infitah program that opened Egypt’s economy to foreign investment and bolstered the business class. He aligned himself closely with the United States and took on Western values for himself. His gravest sin for the Arab nations was to break from the pack and make a separate peace with Israel in 1979. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 launched Hosni Mubarak to power.
Mubarak has neither the charisma of Nasser nor the rebellious flair of Sadat. The moderate course he has charted for Egypt has resulted in the mediocrity of the once major power. Domestically, Mubarak has struggled with the joint public/private sector economy. Al-Infitah created a wealthy entrepreneurial class that stands in stark contrast to the thousands of poor government employees working in inefficient national industries. Egypt’s economy is still unable to incorporate hundreds of thousands of people, leading to rampant unemployment. The City of the Dead, a cemetery that houses nearly a million people who have difficulty finding space in Cairo, is a glaring example of the poverty facing the majority of Egyptians.
Mubarak has dropped the overt affection for the United States that Sadat had, but he has maintained close ties to ensure the steady flow of foreign aid. He has also managed to uphold the controversial peace with Israel, while at the same time mending strained ties with the Arab nations. Under Mubarak, Egypt has resumed diplomatic ties with many Arab nations that cut them in 1979, the Arab League headquarters has moved back to Cairo, and Egypt has been readmitted.
Egypt’s resurgence in the Arab scene did not, however, return it to the position it once knew. The Iranian Revolution, Syria’s embroilment in Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia’s economic ascension have all altered the balance of power in the Arab world. Mubarak did not exert the influence of his predecessors during any of these developments. While Nasser was capable of captivating the Arab people, Mubarak struggled to contain the aspirations of his own people. Egypt’s most recent intellectual contributions to the Arab community have come in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamic groups, the very organizations that challenged Mubarak’s rule.
Two major radical Islamist groups, Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya and Tanzim al-Jihad, have adopted a more militant stance than the Muslim Brotherhood and advocated violence against the Mubarak regime and Western influence. Their attacks targeted government officials, secular intellectuals, and Western tourists. Their most infamous attack was a raid near the city of Luxor where they killed sixty tourists, and Egypt’s tourist industry suffered heavily for it. Mubarak responded with both carrot and stick. He imposed a brutal crackdown on the groups through mass arrests and torture, but followed up by sending moderate Muslim scholars from Al-Azhar University to engage and pacify the extremists. His overtures and crackdowns showed progress when Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya issued a statement of nonviolence in 1997. Many agreed that Mubarak had successfully defused a radical Islamic Jihad.
He faces a greater threat from the vastly more popular moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1929, the Muslim Brotherhood became a popular front for those disenfranchised by the Egyptian government. The Muslim Brotherhood is illegal in Egypt but the three pharaohs took varying approaches to them. Nasser suppressed them and executed one famous author, Sayyid Qutb; Sadat opened Egyptian politics to them as a counter to revolutionary leftists. Mubarak has increasingly restricted them after early years of liberalization.
The Muslim Brotherhood preformed very well in the 1984 elections, which were the freest in Egypt since 1952. After their victory Mubarak regulated and restricted future elections until 1990. In 1995 the Islamists won only one seat in parliament. He has also periodically carried out mass arrests. Recently, the Muslim Brotherhood has tapped the angry poor neglected by the government, earning the support of the majority of the population.
What are we to make of this moderate Islamism? The Muslim Brotherhood has denounced violence, except against Israel and the Ba’ath Regime in Syria, and it advocates democratic Islam. However, it still strongly opposes America as Mubarak’s main supporter through aid. Perhaps we should accept it for the progress and moderation it has accomplished, while still hoping for further shifts towards a more compatible relationship with America and Western values. Egypt’s leaders may no longer possess the influence they once did, but the people can sway the balance in the Middle East either in favor of or against moderation; the choice is increasingly theirs to make.