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Mubarak’s Egypt as an Uncivil Pharaonic Soft State

May 8, 2012

The economic decline, autocratic politics and disempowerment of civil society groups were not three problems but three symptoms of the same problem, writes Hamdy Hassan. And that’s why Mubarak had to go.

There were economic, political, and social problems that Egypt faced under Mubarak, and which were contributing factors to the revolution of 2011. These are summarized by Hamdy Hassan, professor of political science at Zayed University in Dubai in his paper “Civil Society in Egypt under the Mubarak Regime.”  There is little new in this paper, but it provides a handy and readable summary of the generally accepted critiques of the Mubarak regime.

Soft State Economics

The problem with the economy, Hassan argues, can be boiled down to the theory that Egypt was a “soft state,” in which the rule of law was not respected by the elites, who were able to enrich themselves through loopholes in the law unavailable to others.

“The privileged people have money and power to protect themselves when they break the law, and the unprivileged protectors of laws are obliged to receive bribes to turn a blind eye on breaching the law.”

This situation is exacerbated by the distribution of wealth in the country. Most of Egypt is poor, and (as of 2008) at least 20% of the population lives underneath the international poverty line.  The fact that the primary means of achieving significant wealth in Egypt (at least since its commitment to “privatization” at the request of international financial institutions), is though the seizure of state funds by (and for) private interests, only served to increase anger and resentment among the majority of the population, which was one of the main causes of the revolution of 2011.

Pharaonic Politics

Hassan divides Egypt’s political problems under Mubarak into three.

The first is the “Pharaonic political system,” in which, “[t]he ruler or head of state in Egypt always enjoyed unlimited authority that borders on deification and the legal and constitutional framework of the Egyptian state endorses this situation from 1971.”  Egypt was essentially ruled by Mubarak’s whim for thirty years, which allowed him to cripple any organization that displeased him, and prevented him from being held accountable for his actions.

This is closely connected to the second problem, the lack of real opposition parties.  Though technically there were 24 opposition parties under Mubarak, Hassan writes:

“The opposition parties are very weak, and only a handful exercise a limited political influence.  The remaining parties are simply hollow structures devoid of any content, some of which may have as little as 100-400 members.”

The lack of any real opposition meant that Mubarak was accountable to no one but himself, which is one reason why the many demands with which people entered into Tahrir Square eventually coalesced into the one slogan: Mubarak must leave!.

The third factor is a consequence of the elite domination of the economy and the lack of checks on the regime: the endemic corruption of the Egyptian political system.  The main focus of Mubarak’s regime became the enrichment of himself and a small elite, which was different from the previous regimes of both Nasser and Sadat.

“The ruling elites in the Mubarak era did not have political experience before assuming power… They have a complete loyalty to the system like their predecessors, but they lack an interest in politics and public affairs, and they never pose any challenge to the real policy makers in Egypt.”

The reason that the elites stayed close to Mubarak was because the system gave them the ability to enrich themselves at the expense of the infrastructure of the state, which again was one of the main factors in the anger of the Egyptian people that exploded on January 25th 2011.

Uncivil Society

Hassan argues that Egypt’s primary social problems involve the lack of truly independent civil society organizations.  There were a large number of NGO’s operating in Egypt, but most lacked any real agency, especially those that advocated for human rights, and they were routinely harassed (and shaken down) by the forces of the regime. Without recourse to laws that bound the regime and its security forces, NGOs were powerless to generate any real change.

This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the most effective civil society organizations were generally religiously oriented, the largest being the Muslim Brotherhood, which many Egyptians looked to (and continue to look to) to provide various social services that the regime did not.

However, Islamist organizations were illegal under the old regime. Mubarak wanted to marginalize the influence that the Islamist would have on the population, and he wanted to stay in the good graces of the United States, which tended to see any Islamic organization as potentially dangerous. As a result, the organizations that were best equipped to promote civil society in Egypt were ostracized in pursuit of the national and to international political interests of the regime.

One of the most interesting things about this paper, clearly written in the months before the uprisings began, is that Hamdy also briefly reviews the three main lines of protest movements, notes the domination by young people, and speculates that if they come together the regime will not be able to contain them.

And that’s what happened.

Hassan, Hamdy. 2011. Civil Society in Egypt under the Mubarak Regime. Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 2(2.2):

Oweidat, 2008. The Kefaya Movement A Case Study of a Grassroots Reform
Initiative. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, Nadia. National Defense Research

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