Both Nasser and Sadat had strong and powerful enemies, but Mubarak was different – and Western diplomats were often impressed by his abilities to sum up issues in simple yet clear and deep terms. In other words, great leaders are both a great resource and a great liability.
Mubarak’s fate is curious. He was for some time treated with deference and admiration by his Western colleagues, who were not unwilling to label him a “wise leader”, and sometimes was considered to be an old autocrat, a mediocre tyrant clinging to power. Both assessments now seem exaggerated. He is neither the saint nor the devil people adore or hate.
One thing seems certain: he is not the main person responsible for the decline of Egypt’s leadership. That has a lot to do with Egypt’s internal dynamics and with the rise of other Arab countries.
Egypt’s leadership was partly due to a "vacuum". For a long time, no other country in the Middle East could assume the leadership role. Almost all Arab countries had struggled to achieve independence, were exhausted, undeveloped and had yet to start the modernisation race and the nation-building process.
In the sixties and seventies the conventional wisdom was as follows: nothing can be done without Cairo, nothing can be achieved against Damascus.
The Arabs’ cultural production was a kind of joint venture between Cairo and Beirut, and if Egypt’s media lost their preeminence at some point, this was during Nasser or Sadat’s eras. Al-Ahram is a good illustration of the axis of Egypt/Lebanon: it was founded by a Lebanese family which had emigrated to Egypt.
A colleague reminded me that the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh stayed for a while in Beirut. During the thirties, the forties and the early fifties, the Egyptian press was the most influential in the Arab world and many Lebanese were top contributors. The Lebanese also played a key role in Egypt’s artistic and intellectual life.
The decline of this incredible “soft power” started with Egypt’s authoritarian turn, although it was not immediately obvious, thanks to the sheer talent of the “sons of the liberal era”, the products of the monarchy’s schooling system.
Of course, Mubarak did not try to reverse the trend, which was aggravated by Egyptian intellectuals’ exile during the Sadat era, but also by the birth of Saudi’s London-based newspapers and of Al Jazeera channel. But Egypt did not have the Gulf’s financial clout, and was also hand-cuffed by its marginalisation after the peace treaty with Israel.
As another colleague pointed out during a Lebanese-Egyptian meeting held at Al-Ahram last Sunday, Beirut’s decline, due to the seventies’ civil war, did not benefit Egypt. Quite the contrary. The Gulf and the Maghreb slowly became key “cultural actors”.
Egypt’s internal dynamics also played a role. The relative liberalisation that occurred during the first years of Mubarak’s era allowed things to improve, up to a point. But the trend was soon reversed, with the rising clout of conservative and aggressive bigotry that launched a lot of witch hunts, the most notorious targeting the late Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. Farag Fouda was assassinated by extremists, and Naguib Mahfouz narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.
Egypt’s cinema industry, once prosperous, almost disappeared at one point. Intellectuals had to find a way of dealing with the state’s intervention and its “protection”, and with growing conservative pressure. And they had, like all Egyptians, to find ways to make money.
It is remarkable that despite all this, intellectual life remained vibrant and dynamic, if much less influential than ago. The regime invested a lot in cultural activity, international conferences, considered to be a “vitrine”. This was both a blessing and a curse, like all statist “cultural policies” relying on clientelist networks.
Political developments played a role. The main one, of course, was the peace treaty with Israel. It was, at the time, welcomed by a tired population, but it also was widely unpopular within intellectual circles. During the seventies and the eighties, heated and endless debates tried to assess its impact.
For some, it was and remained the mother of all ills. It had isolated Egypt, it had restricted its sovereignty in Sinai, it has prevented it from playing its “natural” leadership role in the area and it decisively weakened the Arab front. For others, it allowed Egypt to focus on its internal difficult challenges, it had brought back Sinai at no serious cost, thanks to Sadat’s skills, who succeeded in fooling Carter and Begin; it was not Egypt’s fault if Arab fellows failed to understand the brilliant manoeuvre as history proved Sadat right and his foes wrong. Had the Arabs followed Sadat’s track from the very beginning… everything would look different for the region.
Of course, both discourses were based upon gross simplifications of very complex problems, widely different assessments of Egypt’s situation at the end of the seventies, and different evaluations of Sadat’s performance during negotiations.
My own opinion is that the peace treaty with Israel brought Egypt a lot, more than what could be expected from the balance of power between the two countries after the 1975 agreement. But we should add things now look much better than they should. Basically, an exhausted Egypt traded time for space. It gave Israel considerable time and manoeuvring room, and alleviated the pressure on it. But it recovered Sinai--and this is not “peanuts”. I think Israel failed to properly exploit this, committing a lot of blunders…but this is another story.
To be continued