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Will They Be Devoured?

Lee Smith

It’s more than two months since the fall of the man who ruled Egypt for thirty years, and there are still demonstrators out at Tahrir Square, ground zero of Egypt’s latest revolution. Yet it’s unclear whether these young activists, galvanized by social media, are pressing a demand for accountability and democratic reform or pushing Egypt in a different, more dangerous, direction.

Tahrir turned violent again on April 8 when two demonstrators were killed during protests calling for the country’s interim government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to bring former president Hosni Mubarak and others to justice on charges of corruption. Last week Mubarak released a statement promising to prove his innocence. Nonetheless, to mollify the demonstrators and avoid further bloodshed, the army detained an ailing Mubarak in his hospital room in Sharm el Sheikh and put his two sons, Gamal, 47, and Alaa, 49, in jail.

So who is ruling Egypt? If the army is moving to placate the activists, how far will it go? As it turns out, the January 25 revolution raised more questions than it answered: With the authoritarian ruler gone, will Egypt turn into a genuine democracy or tilt toward populism? Will the Muslim Brotherhood come to power? Will the peace treaty with Israel survive? And what’s the lesson for American policymakers? In short, what has the revolution sown and what will it reap?

Right now, all I know for sure is that my friend Hala Mustafa is radiant. She’s sitting in a coffee shop smoking a water pipe and smiling broadly. “This is a great time for us, for Egypt,” she says. Mubarak’s regime made life miserable for her. The editor of Democracy, a quarterly journal published by the government-affiliated Al Ahram Center, Mustafa suffered constant harassment from the old regime. Last year, when she met with the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, she was reprimanded by the press syndicate—even though regime officials and her own colleagues had also met with him, and Egypt has had diplomatic relations with Israel for three decades. Like the millions of Egyptians who exulted at Mubarak’s exit on February 11, she couldn’t be happier to see his regime pass into history. Particularly unlamented are the younger set, the businessmen and financiers associated with Mubarak’s hand-picked successor, his younger son, Gamal, a former banker in London.

Like all those demanding that the pillars of the late regime face their accusers, Mustafa is unimpressed with the supposed economic reformers around Gamal. After it adopted measures to open the economy in 2004, the Mubarak government got high marks from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, but Mustafa argues that the wealth created by the technocrats stayed in their hands and did not trickle down. After all, 40 percent of the country still lives on less than $2 a day. “The regime practiced a distorted form of capitalism,” Mustafa tells me. “It was an oligarchy at the top of the ruling party that was stealing land, while the president himself was getting commissions from foreign companies.”

My own impression is different. I was struck immediately upon touching down in Cairo by how much things have changed since my last visit in 2005. Perhaps to keep up with the influx of foreign investors who came looking for business opportunities in recent years, the airport has acquired several new terminals, as well as a large shopping mall and food courts, bringing hundreds of jobs for middle-class Egyptians.

In 2007, Egypt came in first in the World Bank Group survey “Doing Business,” which evaluates business-friendly reforms. Since 2004, explains Egyptian economics researcher Karim Badr, “Cairo has consistently won high praise from the World Bank and IMF for the better investment climate. A supply-side change in the tax law reduced the tax rate from 40 percent to 20 percent and increased tax revenues.” Badr recites a list of accomplishments bringing international recognition: “There’s the increase in foreign direct investment, the surge in exports, an increase in tourism revenues, higher economic growth, a decline in debts, more room for the private sector, banking restructuring, productivity growth, a lower budget deficit, property registration, and better basic services like water and sanitation.”

Mustafa thinks the economy will stay safely on track once the political situation becomes clearer, and a recent poll shows that 82 percent of Egyptians want their government to continue to liberalize the economy. Still, in the near term, the economy may be in for hard times.

The stock market has fluctuated since it reopened in late March. Some analysts suspect that the foreign money that once made up 15 percent of the market has fled, while the government quietly bought up stocks to stabilize the situation. Tourism, one of Egypt’s staples, is suffering but should quickly rebound, as it did after Islamists slaughtered 58 foreigners at Luxor in 1997. Food is another matter. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat. If China, afflicted with drought, has to buy the wheat it can’t grow, that might price Cairo out of the market, bringing misery to millions who already have a hard time putting food on the table.

Who, then, I ask Mustafa, is going to govern Egypt? She thinks Amr Moussa will win the presidential election this fall; recent polls suggest the same. As secretary general of the Arab League, Moussa, 74, has name recognition. And as Mubarak’s former foreign minister, says Mustafa, “Moussa is the favorite of the state establishment.” The liberals, she explains, don’t have a chance right now because they’re in disarray. “They’ve been excluded from the political system for decades and manipulated by the regime. They’re fragmented, and there’s personal competition.”

A liberal herself, Mustafa says the liberals need more time to organize. But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seeks a rapid transition; it wants to relinquish overt control of the government. The landslide “yes” vote in the March 19 referendum was a rebuff to the demonstrators but grants the military its wish: Egypt will move promptly to parliamentary and then presidential elections without stopping to write a new constitution—and without giving the young activists who drove the revolution or the older, established liberals a chance to win grassroots support.

The Muslim Brotherhood lined up alongside the armed forces in seeking the “yes” vote—in part because the Brotherhood understood that as the country’s best organized political party it had most to gain from moving quickly to elections, even as it promised to contest only 30 percent of the seats. Standing by the army also means that the Brotherhood can expect more political patronage than it enjoyed from the Mubarak regime.

Effectively shut out of the parliamentary process that they wanted reformed, the young activists, paradoxically, can exert more power by maintaining a presence in Tahrir and making demands on the army than they could ever hope to exercise through parliament. For now, their continued protests seem to be pushing the political system in a populist direction rather than a liberal democratic one.

So where is the democratic change that the revolution seemed to herald, I ask Mustafa. “The change,” she says, drawing languidly on her water pipe, “is limited.”

It is still difficult to figure out exactly what happened during Egypt’s revolution. Unlike the 1919 revolution led by Saad Zaghloul or the 1952 coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the January 25 uprising produced no obvious leader. No single figure owns the narrative describing the events that toppled Mubarak. As for the two existing power centers that can be said to have emerged from the revolution stronger, both the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood are extremely conservative outfits that are happier keeping a low profile. Neither is likely to volunteer its version of events.

The revolution, meanwhile, has knocked another established player off the board: Mubarak’s National Democratic party no longer exists as such. It is perhaps most useful to think of the former ruling party as the umbrella under which clustered a countrywide network of local powerbrokers, businessmen, village sheikhs, and mayors, all of whose patronage systems served the Mubarak regime. These networks aren’t going anywhere—they are the core of the country’s political organization, and in rural areas they’re its social organization as well. But they are no longer unified under the NDP. Whoever wants the support of, say, some clan in a Delta village has a free shot at it, if he can afford to take it.

More important, the NDP was essentially the dummy corporation that Mubarak set up to front for a regime run by the military since 1952. That civilian façade permitted the army to profit handsomely from its many business ventures without too many questions asked. With the uprising exposing the army to unprecedented and unwanted attention—such as a New York Times profile of army chief of staff Sami Enan—senior military officers, like the man who is now the de facto ruler of Egypt, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, are eager to recede once again into the background.

The military regime’s civilian camouflage also explains the apparent contradiction at the heart of the uprising: If the demonstrators were protesting corruption, how did the army—the richest and, therefore, by the protesters’ own lights, the most corrupt institution in all of Egypt—escape their contempt and instead win their affection?

The army is loved—unlike the internal security forces, which are a constant and fearedpresence in Egyptian life. The army occupies a privileged place in the national imagination, admired for its self-proclaimed triumph in the 1973 war with Israel (a war Egypt actually lost). Some Egyptians, including the Tahrir revolutionaries, are becoming uncomfortable with the military’s governing role. Even so, the corruption trials announced so far will target only the upper echelons of the NDP. It is partly because the military is untouchable that the demonstrators, like most of Egypt, have chosen to ignore the reality that they are ruled by the army and to believe, rather, that their problems stemmed solely from a cabal of self-interested businessmen.

The peculiar thing is that somewhere along the way, the NDP became more than just a mask for the regime. It took on a life of its own, thanks to the businessmen and financiers associated with Gamal Mubarak. There was Egypt’s most despised billionaire, Ahmed Ezz, the NDP’s secretary for organizational affairs. Less conspicuous but perhaps equally influential was former finance minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali, nephew of the former U.N. secretary general, who seems to have been responsible for most of the highly praised economic reforms. These figures and other pillars of the NDP were almost certainly corrupt. But corruption is structural in a country with a bureaucratic tradition 5,000 years old. Nothing gets done here without connections, or wasta.

The young technocrats fought turf wars with the NDP’s old guard. Much more dangerously, they challenged the military’s exclusive right to rule and make money. When Mubarak—or, as rumor has it, his wife Suzanne—put forth Gamal as his successor, the army balked. The problem was that Gamal and his set represented an affront to the military’s privilege. When the protesters filled the streets this winter, they and the army worked in tandem to dismantle an upstart political dynasty theyboth resented.

There were broad hints all along as to who really ran Egypt, but even the intelligentsia ignored them. For instance, according to Egyptian journalists with the independent media, the official redlines regulating what it was possible to say in the press had greatly weakened over the last few years, so that it was even possible to criticize President Mubarak by name. The only redline that remained absolute was the one protecting the military and its budget, available to anyone who reads the U.S. press but censored in Egypt on grounds of national security. Now, activists are angry that the army is using military courts to put bloggers in jail for criticizing the interim rulers. Some of them may be starting to get wise.

And yet it is this same Egyptian kabuki show—the pretense of a civilian republic—that allowed the military to step in as an “impartial” institution and assume control of the country in a relatively peaceful manner in the second week of February. But if the military tires of meeting the demonstrators’ demands, the January 25 revolution may move into a more violent phase. It will become evident that the people and the army are not really, as the banners in Tahrir read, hand in hand.

Not all of Egypt’s middle-class youth were won over by the revolution. I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking downtown—Tahrir is in the near distance—talking with Amr Bargisi, senior partner in a local NGO, the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth (EULY). “If you’re not with the revolution, you’re not a man,” Bargisi says friends told him. The EULY offices must comprise the highest concentration of Egyptians of the social-media generation who were not seduced by the cause. Bargisi, 27, and his colleagues, none of them over 30, were ostracized. “Some of us got de-friended on Facebook,” he says, relishing the idea that a revolutionary movement driven partly by social media would use the same means to shut out dissenting voices. He had his own criticisms of the Mubarak regime; he just didn’t think that the protesters’ rallying cries had much merit. “The referendum,” Bargisi explains, “was about the legitimacy of the revolution. The demonstrators called for a ‘no’ vote, but 77 percent of Egyptians voted ‘yes.’ Which means that the demonstrators did not speak for all of Egypt, as they claimed.”

Bargisi grew up in a small town in the Nile delta, where he taught himself English and wound up studying abroad, at the University of Chicago with Leon Kass. It was his love for his homeland and admiration for the United States that drew him back to Egypt two years ago to promote political and economic liberalism. His concern is that Egypt has no liberal roots. As a result, the revolution may turn the country over to forces that are even more illiberal than the late regime. Bargisi’s views make him part of a tiny minority, one that saw merit in Mubarak’s economic opening.

“People say that the corruption at the top prevented the wealth from reaching the lower rungs,” says Bargisi. “But I can tell you from anecdotal evidence that if it reached the village where my mother was raised, it hit everyone. In my mother’s village the houses went from mud-brick to stone, and everyone has cell phones. The country’s inequality index stayed the same while the economy grew steadily at 7 percent, which means that everyone’s situation improved at the same time, rich and poor alike.”

It is true that poverty did not diminish, says Karim Badr, the economics researcher. “It was reshuffled. This is what happens in transitional economies.” But for many of the protesters, the issue was precisely the yawning disparity between rich and poor denoted in the phrase “social justice.” A leftwing slogan with Islamist overtones (Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb published Social Justice in Islam in 1949), this is also a populist rallying cry, and given Egypt’s modern history, populism is a more likely and immediate concern than an Islamist regime dominated by the Brotherhood.

To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood is bound to play a role in post-Mubarak Egypt. But it will bide its time. It has little to gain by claiming ownership of the country’s daunting economic problems. Those who do want to become Egypt’s rulers, meanwhile, are already playing the populist card. Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a likely contender for president, says that if the Israelis attack Gaza, Egypt will declare war on Jerusalem—a warning that Iran might very well read as an invitation to accomplish a longstanding strategic goal by trashing the Camp David accords. Recent calls for the U.N. to impose a no-fly zone over Gaza were spearheaded by Amr Moussa, the front-runner for president.

Many press accounts reported that there was precious little anti-Israel sentiment in Tahrir Square. The fact remains, however, that Egyptian officials know this is a powerful card they can play to win support. And the issue is not simply opposition to Zionism or Israeli policies. It’s anti-Semitism. This is the subject of much of Bargisi’s work with EULY. He considers anti-Semitism the telltale sign of an illiberal society. His own grandfather, Bargisi explains, had a business partner who was Jewish, and his father remembered him as a good man. His father “didn’t like all this hatred of Jews, and he despised Nasserism.”

It was Nasser’s dynamic style, his interference in regional affairs, and his desire to strut on the world stage that Mubarak veered away from, soberly maintaining the peace treaty that Sadat had signed. It may be that the Egyptian Army has no stomach for another war with Israel—and polls show that Egyptians don’t want another war—but the decisions of Egypt’s rulers are only one factor among many that will determine the country’s regional profile. There are international dynamics, such as possible competition with Iran and Turkey, that may shape its new foreign policy. More significant are the domestic dynamics embodied in the young activists, who are already pushing the army in uncomfortable directions, forcing it to detain its former commander in chief. Populism and pan-Arabist demagoguery are recurrent in modern Egyptian history, furies manipulated by rulers who finally cannot control them.

The strange thing is that while Mubarak was the picture of stasis—his timidity and mediocrity were the premise of much Egyptian humor during his reign—it was under his rule that Egyptians enjoyed the relatively dynamic economy of the last few years. Bargisi and his colleagues blame the government for failing to explain the economic reforms so as to get the middle class on board. But rising expectations often precede political upheaval—which is to say that human beings seldom fit the mold of homo economicus and often act against what seems to be their rational self-interest.

Politics is based on sentiment as often as reason, and one of the driving emotions of the January revolution was anger: anger at a regime that kept in place an emergency law adopted in 1967; that tortured prisoners and imprisoned opposition leaders, bloggers, and journalists; that flaunted its wealth and cornered too many businesses, especially the business of politics; anger at a ruler who overstayed his welcome. The regime could no longer sustain its legitimacy, founded on the myth of victory in the 1973 war. Mubarak, who commanded the air force in that war, became increasingly vulnerable as fewer and fewer Egyptians remembered it. His chosen heir had no legitimacy at all, either with the Egyptian people or with the constituency he needed most, the army.

In Tahrir Square, all that anger, combined with the freedom to express it, unleashed violence that caught both Egyptians and outsiders by surprise. Though Egypt’s revolution is sometimes said to have been peaceful, it left at least 365 dead. “If this was a white revolution,” says Bargisi, “I don’t want to see what a black one looks like.”

Most of the violence was attributed to people paid by the regime, either plainclothes security officers or freelancers. A Western NGO executive who works on democracy promotion in the Middle East told me that the men on camels and horses who laid siege to Tahrir were sent by a businessman who owns all the stables at the Pyramids. “Maybe,” says Bargisi, “but that doesn’t make their anger any less genuine. People may want to dismiss them as baltageya, street thugs, but we’re talking about 20 percent to 30 percent of urban Egyptians. They’re not bad guys—they’re day laborers who do odd jobs, sometimes plumbing or carpentry, and sometimes they carry a knife for pay. The demonstrations virtually shut down Egypt. These guys couldn’t put food on their table. They wanted the demonstrations to stop and the country to go back to normal, so they took matters into their own hands.”

All of a sudden, the same street toughs who’d battled the police the first few nights of the revolution turned on the protesters. They harassed anyone they saw who looked like a protester, calling them agents of Israel and the United States or stooges of Hamas and Qatar. They beat some demonstrators. “One night these two guys escorted one of the girls from our group back to our apartment from Tahrir, and we offered them some tea,” says Bargisi. “One guy’s standing there with a big knife in his hands, which is not a nice thing in a small apartment, and he’s explaining that he doesn’t want to mug people, but he has no money.”

When the camels and horses came to Tahrir, it wasn’t the army that protected the protesters but the Muslim Brotherhood. The notion that the Brotherhood had little to do with the revolution runs counter to the evidence of modern-day Egyptian political activism. The Brotherhood has a showing at almost every political protest in Egypt; if they were not conspicuous in Tahrir, it is because they have been around long enough to know when to keep their heads down and their beards shaven and to watch as events take their course—but also when to step in. Islam Hassan, a 25-year-old colleague of Bargisi’s, explains that he was in Tahrir every day filming events and saw the Brotherhood at work.

“They brought in the food, the blankets, they took care of people,” says Hassan. “When night came, it was the Brotherhood who camped out at Tahrir, not the young middle-class activists. At first they denied that the Brother-hood was there, but then after the camels, it became impossible to deny. The Brotherhood protected the activists, and they got a lot of credit for it. And all of a sudden the rhetoric changed. Now it was okay that the Muslim Brotherhood was there, so long as they served the same objectives, even though the young activists had no sense of how they’d deal with the Brotherhood after the revolution.”

U.S. policymakers worry about the Brotherhood’s increasing role in Egyptian politics, especially its implications for the peace treaty with Israel. “The West is obsessed with the Islamists,” says Bargisi. “For the West everything bad is about Islamism, and all that’s good is about democracy.” But the main problems and promises of the January 25 revolution are not about the Islamists or Israel.

Around the region, Mubarak’s successors and peers have drawn their own lesson from the Egyptian revolution. To wit: When the Americans tell you to reform, tell them to jump off a cliff, because regardless of your standing with the World Bank, the White House will abandon you when your own people rise up. Accordingly, a month after Mubarak resigned, the Bahrainis rejected the Obama administration’s demands for reform and national dialogue and instead invited in a Gulf Cooperation Council Force to quell their Shiite population. The Saudis turned a deaf ear to calls for reform and simply bribed their population with $93 billion in pay raises, subsidies, housing benefits, and so on. As it happens, that medieval monarchy can afford the bribe; pity the Syrians, whose cash-strapped regime can barely pay for the bullets it uses to shoot its own protesters in the street—reform Damascus-style.

That some of the hopes born in Tahrir Square have faded is only natural. Three turbulent weeks that brought down a pharaoh may prove in the long run to be only a shift in the breeze. Yet the revolution has brought to the fore a force that’s long been dormant in Egypt, a rising generation—its young activists as well as its liberal skeptics, both of whom want something better for their country. What they and their countrymen will be able to achieve, given the pathologies of Egyptian political culture, remains to be seen.

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