Recollections on Egyptian leadership (Part Three)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 27 Oct 2016

A distinction can be drawn between Egyptian leaders who had a grand design, and those who focused on "equilibrium management." Nasser and Sadat belonged to the first category, King Farouk and Mubarak to the second

I was always perplexed: equilibrium management is wise, but some issues deserve stronger intervention — a plan, will power, and relentless and sustained action. Equilibrium management can sum up widely different approaches. Farouk’s approach (if we exclude the first years) was “each force will have its time”. Mubarak’s was, “I’ll find a playfield for everybody.” Mubarak tried to banish politics. Farouk was fond of this game and could be, when he devoted time to it, a subtle player. Farouk was bent on self-destruction, Mubarak on self-preservation.

Regarding “grand designs,” I tend to consider them necessary and I’m worried for democracies that are unable to produce them. But in authoritarian regimes, they can be a blessing, and they can be a curse. For the analyst, assessing them is a difficult task, especially if you are not indifferent. There are further difficulties: how to decipher this grand design?

Consider Sadat. We can say “de-Nasserisation” was his main priority. To a great extent, he achieved it — albeit with the use of Nasser’s tools (state intervention, state hegemony over the public sphere, exclusion of foes). We can also say he wanted an anti- Soviet, pro-American and deeply conservative and traditionalist Muslim society, not averse to modern sciences. His main slogan was “the state of science and faith.”

And then you can ask: science, in this slogan, precedes faith — is this an accident? Is it relevant? Last, and maybe not least, he frequently said he wanted a “social democracy” looking like Kreisky’s Austria. This proclaimed goal was not “translated” into facts on the ground. Does that mean he was not serious?

This, of course, could be the topic of an endless discussion. Let me start from a different point – a discussion with a top Mubarak official, in February 2007.

He ignored King Farouk (and former President Naguib). He said Nasser and Sadat had in common many features. First, they had very clear ideas on who were their “friends” and “enemies”, both on the local, regional and international scenes. For Nasser, friends were the middle classes, petit bourgeoisie, the poor, non-aligned leaders and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union. The enemies were “reactionaries,” old regime elites, great landowners, the Muslim Brotherhood, grand capitalists, traditional and conservative Arab regimes, former colonial powers, Israel and the United States.

For Sadat, foes were Nasserists, leftists, Pope Shenouda, the Soviet Union, Israel (yes), Baathist regimes and Qaddafi, intellectuals and the restive urban petit bourgeoisie. Friends were Arab traditional monarchies, the US, the middle classes that repudiated Nasserism, self-made powerful businessmen, countryside notables, and the poor who made some money in the Gulf. For him, the Muslim Brothers were both an ally, a tool and a potential threat, which became “real” after the peace initiative.

Second, both Nasser and Sadat did not like Egypt’s recent history and knew very well how they envisioned Egypt’s future. In other words, both aimed at a radical “reset” of Egypt’s evolution. Of course, Nasser was, for Sadat, a part of the hated past. As strange as it may sound, Nasser wanted a democracy, and I mean a real one. He considered himself to be a transitional leader who destroyed by forceful, brutal and authoritarian ways privileges, and who empowered the poor, so they could become citizens who could vote and decide without being prisoners of binding clientelist ties. He also hated elites that had close ties with foreign powers, Western or communist.

I understand many readers will not believe me, but the documents and testimonies are eloquent. Nasser was serious and did not seem to think that his “road to democracy” was odd. He noted that “national liberation” required a “national union” hostile to pluralism, and that “social liberation” required social conflict. His solution was to “nationalise” both! His aim was to neutralise old elites and to replace them by elites that agreed on national independence and on the destruction of privileges and, to a lesser extent, on strong “state capitalism.”

This did not work – either because this goal was an impossible one, or because war delayed everything. I would opt for an explanation that combines the two elements.

Mubarak was different. Nasser and Sadat had a tendency to think, “if you are not with me, you are against me.” Mubarak thought, “if you are not against me, then you are with me.” Of course, he knew he had internal enemies, but his approach to the problem was “placate, coopt, corrupt as much as you can.” Or “give them a playing field.”

He would let Islamists seize control of some syndicates; he would give them seats in parliament. He would let the leftists control the Ministry of Culture; he would consult them on, say, foreign policy (and sometimes on economic issues). Of course, the stick was also here, if hidden.

He had few ideas, if any, regarding Egypt’s history or future, and was not interested in intellectual debates. This was both a blessing and a curse. Nasser and Sadat were good readers, with a propensity to “punish” “dangerous writers.” Mubarak seemed to be unaware of the importance of ideas, or unwilling to intervene.

The more I think about him, the more I tend to believe he did not like the idea of a “political lif.e. This was a luxury Egypt could not afford. So his main approach was the question, “how to cool down the temperature?" The country faced tremendous challenges, it had to focus on development, on infrastructure, on “scientific solutions.” The fact that any development, any project, is also a “political statement” entailing social choices did not seem to occur to him.

Moreover, “managing equilibrium” might be a sound approach on many issues. On some, like education or the fight against corruption, it was insufficient and even counter-productive.

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