Fouad Ajami. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 5. September 1995.
Egyptians are nostalgic for their bourgeois past, still wanting to believe that their country is not just a state but an idea and a historical movement. But in their odyssey through liberalism, pan-Arabism, nationalism, and Islamicism, their dreams of greatness have been continually disappointed. Today, President Mubarak leads a country with an exploding population, a fraying infrastructure, and a violent fundamentalist fringe. The sorrows of Egypt lie not in any one adversity but in the decline under the military regime of a once vibrant civil life. The state is all that remains.
A Tale of Two Men
A generation after that day of October 6, 198l, when Anwar al-Sadat was struck down, a strange bond has been forged between Sadat and his assassin, Khalid Istanbuli. A place has been made in the country’s narrative for both men. The history of Egypt, her very identity, is fluid enough to claim the wily ruler who swallowed his pride to deal with Israel and the United States, and also the assassin appalled by the cultural price paid in the bargain. In a sense, Sadat and Istanbuli are twins, their lives and deeds one great tale of the country’s enduring dilemmas and her resilience amid great troubles, about the kind of political men Egypt’s history brought forth when her revolutionary experiment of the 1950s and 1960s ran aground.
It is not hard for Egyptians to recognize much of themselves and their recent history in Istanbuli, the young lieutenant who proclaimed with pride that he had shot the pharaoh. He was in every way a son of the Free Officer Revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser, of July 23, 1952, when Egypt cast aside her kings and set out on a new, nonaligned path. Istanbuli was born in 1957, a year after the Suez Crisis, during what seemed to be a moment of promise in the life of Egypt. He was named after Nasser’s oldest son. His father was a lawyer in a public-sector company that was a product of the new, expanding government. He was ten years old when calamity struck Egypt in the Six Day War, and the Nasser revolution was shown to be full of sound and fury and illusion. The country had been through a whirlwind and Istanbuli’s life mirrored the gains and the setbacks.
He had not been particularly religious; he had attended a Christian missionary school in his town in Middle Egypt. Political Islam entered his life late in the hour, not so long before he was to commit his dramatic deed of tyrannicide. An older brother of his, a religious activist, had been picked up in a massive wave of arrests that Sadat ordered in September 1981. All sorts of political men and women had been hauled off to prison: noted men and women of the elite, from the law, journalism, the universities, former ministers, Muslims and Copts alike. The wave of arrests had been a desperate throw of the dice by Sadat and it had backfired. It broke the moral contract between Sadat and his country. In taking revenge, Istanbuli did what normal society could not do for itself. “Khalid,” an admiring author wrote in tribute to the assassin, “I spoke and you did, I wished, and others wished, and you fulfilled our wishes.”
But Sadat too has a place, and an increasingly special one, in the country’s memory. Sadat, it is true, had died a loner’s death. Presumably victorious in October 1973 in the war against Israel, he was yet judged a lesser figure than his predecessor, who was defeated in 1967. But a certain measure of vindication has come Sadat’s way: he had broken with Arab radicalism, and the years were to show that Arab radicalism’s harvest had been ruin and bankruptcy. He had opted for peace with Israel; the Palestinians and other Arabs, so many of them shouting treason and betrayal, had followed in his footsteps. The crafty ruler, to his fingertips a wily man of the countryside with a peasant’s instinctive shrewdness and wisdom, was able to see before it was evident to others that the Soviet Union was no match for American power.
It has not been lost on his people that Sadat had foreseen American primacy and had placed his bets on American power, making the sort of accommodation with America that his proud predecessor would have never been able to pull off. Then there is of course the gift he bequeathed his country: the liberation of the land that his legendary predecessor had lost in 1967. Indeed, ten days after Istanbuli was put to death with four of his fellow conspirators on April 15, 1982, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty,
This tension in the psyche and politics of Egypt will persist: between Sadat’s world, with its temptations and its window on modernity, and Istanbuli’s world, with its rigors and its furious determination to keep the West at bay. A fissure has opened, right in the heart of Egypt’s traditionally stoic and reliable middle class. A wing of this class has defected to theocratic politics. The rest are disaffected and demoralized. There is no resolution in sight for this dilemma.
But we misconstrue Egypt’s reality and the nature of its malady if we see it as another Islamic domino destined to fall, if we lean too hard on the fight between the regime and the Islamicist challengers. For all the prophecies of doom and the obituaries written of the Egyptian state, the custodians of political power have ridden out many storms. This is a country with a remarkable record of political stability. Only two regimes have governed modern Egypt over the last two centuries: the dynasty of the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali, the soldier of fortune, who emerged in the aftermath of the chaos unleashed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the country in 1798, and the Free Officer regime of Nasser and Sadat and their inheritors. The sorrow of Egypt is made of entirely different material: the steady decline of its public life, the inability of an autocratic regime and of the middle class from which this regime issues to rid the country of its dependence on foreign handouts, to transmit to the vast underclass the skills needed for the economic competition of nations, to take the country beyond its endless alternation between false glory and self-pity.
The Theocratic Challenge
We must not exaggerate the strength of the theocratic challenge or the magnitude of the middle class’ defection. In our fixation on the Iranian Revolution—the armed imam chasing Caesar out of power—we have looked for it everywhere and grafted its themes and outcomes onto societies possessed of vastly different traditions and temperaments. There never was a chance that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian preaching fire and brimstone in Brooklyn, would return to his land, Khomeini-like, to banish the secular powers and inherit the realm. Even the men who gunned down Sadat were under no illusions about their own power in the face of the state. No fools, these men knew the weight of the state, the strength of all they were hurling themselves against. They sought only the punishment of “the tyrant,” sparing the lives of his lieutenants (Hosni Mubarak included), who stood inches away on the reviewing stand. Sadat’s inheritors, the assassins hoped, would be humbled by what they had seen; they would refrain from playing with fire and from the kinds of violations Sadat (and his wife Jihan) had committed against the mores of the land.
Nor should we project Algeria’s descent into hell onto Egypt. Look at Algeria with its terror and counterterror: armed Islamic groups campaigning against all perceived Francophiles, secularists, and emancipated women, reprisals by the state and its “eradicationists” who pass off their violence as the defense of modernity itself, state-sponsored killer squads, the ninjas with their ski masks. This politics of zeal and cruelty, so reminiscent of Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, is alien to the temperament of Egypt. The chasm between the Francophiles and the Arabo-Islamicists at the root of the terror in Algeria has no parallel in the experience and the life of Egypt. Contempt for the government there is aplenty in Egypt today, but the political and cultural continuity of the place has not ruptured. No great windfall was squandered by the Egyptian elite the way the nomenklatura in Algeria blew the oil revenue of the last three decades. Most important, unlike the shallow roots of the Algerian state—a postcolonial entity that rose in the 1960s—central authority in Egypt reaches back millennia.
The recent troubles began in 1992 when a small war broke out between the state and the Gamaat Islamiyya, the Islamic groups, as the loosely organized underground of the forces of political Islam call themselves. The armed bands treated the country to a season of wrath and troubles. But the state fought back; it showed little mercy toward the insurgents. It pushed their challenge to remote, marginal parts of the country, provincial towns in Middle and Upper Egypt, the country’s poorest areas. There, beyond the modernity of Cairo and Alexandria, away from the glare of publicity, the running war between the police and the Islamicists degenerated into the timeless politics of vengeance and vendettas, an endless cycle of killings and reprisals. The campaign of terror against foreign tourists, the targeting of men of letters, the killing in the summer of 1992 of Farag Foda, a brave secularist commentator, the attempt on the life of the venerated and aging Naguib Mahfouz two years later—all played into the hands of the state. Men of the regime were also targeted by the insurgents. In 1983 there were three separate attempts, over the space of some six months, on the lives of the minister of information, the minister of the interior, and the prime minister.
Thus faced with a relentless campaign of subversion, the regime responded by showing no mercy. The state apparatus was given a green light to root out armed Islamic groups and to do it without the kinds of protections and restraints a society of laws honors and expects. The governors and police officers dispatched to Middle and Upper Egypt, the hotbeds of religious strife, have invariably been men know for their willingness to use force. Massive searches and arrests have been routine there, as they have been, when deemed necessary, in the poorer and more radicalized parts of Cairo. The military tribunals were swift. Nearly 70 death sentences were decreed and carried out.
Tough police work was one side of the response to the terror of the Islamicists; the other was a discernible retreat on the part of the regime from secular politics and culture. Historically the agent of social change, the one great instrument for transforming this old land and pushing it along, the state now seems to have slipped into a cynical bargain with some devoted enemies of the secular idea. It granted these preachers and activists cultural space as long as the more strictly political domain (the police power of the regime, its hegemony over defense and foreign affairs) was left to it.
The custodians of the state drew a line between the legitimate and moderate Islamic groups and the armed Islamicists. While the regime hunted down the latter, it made its peace with the former. A regime anxious for religious credentials of its own and for religious cover bent with the wind. Preachers and religious activists drawn from the ranks of the old Muslim Brotherhood, an organization now sanitized and made respectable in comparison with the younger, more uncompromising members of the Gamaat, were given access to the airwaves and the print media and became icons of popular culture. They dabbled in incendiary material, these respectable sorts, careful to stay on the proper side of the line. They advocated an Islamic state but said they would seek it through legitimate means. They branded as heretics and apostates noted secular figures in politics and culture. (One such influential preacher, Sheikh Muhammad Ghazali, a figure of the original Muslim Brotherhood and its clone, so branded all believers in Western law.) They hounded the Copts and made no secret of their view that the best the Copts, a community of no less than six million people, could hope for in a would-be Islamic state was the protected but diminished status of a subordinate community. To all this the state turned a blind eye.
The country’s leading center of Islamic learning and jurisprudence, al-Azhar University, has been given greater leeway and authority than it has possessed at any time this century. Where al-Azhar had been on the defensive during the Nasser years as an institution that had to be modernized and reformed, it now speaks with self-confidence on the social and cultural issues of the day. A wide swath of the country’s cultural life is now open to the authorities of al-Azhar. The theological alternative has seeped into the educational curriculum. Until the state caught on a year or two ago and set out to reclaim some of this lost ground, whole schools had been ceded to the Islamicists. There the advocates of political Islam, their apparent zeal and devotion a marked contrast to the abdication all around, had gone to work, weaning the young from the dominant symbols and outlook of the secular political order. In schools captured by the Islamicists the national anthem and the Egyptian flag were banned for they were, to the religious radicals, the symbols of an un-Islamic state. “Political Islam had been checked in its bid for power,” the shrewd analyst and observer Tahseen Basheer said, “but the Islamization of society has gained ground.”
It did not come on the cheap, this victory of the state over the political Islamicists. The country feels trapped, cheated, and shortchanged in the battle between an inept, authoritarian state and a theocratic fringe. The tough response of the state did its work, but important segments of the population in the intellectual, political, and business classes drew back in horror at the tactics. Some of the very men and women sheltered by the regime against the fury of the Islamicists were taken aback by the number of executions ordered and the speed with which they were carried out. “Mubarak orders the executions but loses no sleep over them,” a prominent figure of the opposition said to me. It has come down to this because the regime has little else in its bag. It is no consolation to Egyptians that they have been spared the terror visited on less fortunate places like Syria or Iraq or the Sudan. This is a country where lawyers and the rule of law had an early footing, a society with a rich syndicalist tradition and associational life and an independent judiciary with pride in its legacy. The terror had given Mubarak a splendid alibi and an escape from the demands put forth by segments of the middle class and its organizations in the professional syndicates—the lawyers, the engineers, and the journalists—for a measure of political participation. Mubarak had done order’s work; it had become easy for him to wave off the tangled issues of economic and political reform.
In Arcadia Ego
At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment. The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its accomplishments. The dismal results are all around: the poverty of the underclass, the bleak political landscape that allows an ordinary officer to monopolize political power and diminish all would-be rivals in civil society, the sinking of the country into sectarian strife between Muslim and Copt, the dreary state of its cultural and educational life.
A country of 60 million people, the weekly magazine al-Mussawar recently revealed, now produces a mere 375 books a year. Contrast this with Israel’s 4,000 titles, as the magazine did, and it is easy to understand the laments heard all around. Al-Ahram, the country’s leading daily—launched in 1876 and possessed of a distinguished history—is unreadable. There is no trace of investigative journalism or thoughtful analysis on its pages, only the banal utterances of political power. No less a figure than the great novelist Naguib Mahfouz, a product of the ancient regime (he was born in 1911), has spoken with sorrow and resignation about this state of affairs. “Egypt’s culture is declining fast,” he wrote. “The state of education in our country is in crisis. Classrooms are more like warehouses to cram children in for a few hours than places of education. The arts and literature are barely taught in these institutions, which are run more like army barracks than places where cultural awareness and appreciation can be nurtured.” In more apocalyptic terms, the commentator Karim Alrawi warned that the modernizing imperative that has dominated and driven Egypt since the early 1800s after its encounter with Europe is being reversed.
It is out of this disappointment that a powerful wave of nostalgia has emerged for the liberal interlude in Egyptian politics (the 1920s through the revolution of 1952), for its vibrant political life, for the lively press of the time, for the elite culture with its literati and artists, for its outspoken, emancipated women who had carved a place for themselves in the country’s politics, culture, and journalism. Some of this is the standard nostalgia of a crowded, burdened society for a time of lost innocence and splendor; some, though, is the legitimate expression of discontent over the mediocrity of public life. Egypt produced better, freer cinema in the 1930s than it does today. Its leading intellectual figures were giants who slugged out the great issues of the day and gave Egyptian and Arabic letters a moment of undisputed brilliance. When the critic and writer Louis Awad, a Copt, a prolific and independent man of letters born in 1915, died in 1990, an age seemed to come to a close. The Egypt of the military has produced no peers for Awad and Mahfouz and their likes.
Curiosity about this bourgeois past and about its contemporary relevance led me to the home of Fuad Pasha Serageddin, a nearly legendary figure of that era, born in 1908, a man of the ancien regime, who was the boy wonder of his time, rising to become a minister at age 32. On the eve of the Free Officer revolt, he was the ancient regime’s largest landholder: he was secretary-general of the Wafd Party, the repository of bourgeois Egyptian nationalism from 1919 until the military revolt of 1952. The Free Officer regime had imprisoned and then exiled him; he had returned in the 1970s when Sadat opened up the life of the country; in no time his political party, under its revered old name, the Wafd, became a force to reckon with. It was in many ways a natural home for the professionals and the Copts and the men and women of private industry and commerce. Sadat had derided the Pasha, had called him Louis XVI, but the figure from the prerevolutionary past made a place for himself in the new political order.
The Pasha—the country knows him by no other name—lives in a palace in Garden City, one of Cairo’s neighborhoods that still has patches of what the city was in more quaint and less crowded times a half-century ago: villas once grand but now shabby and covered with dust, homes with gardens where the great bourgeois families once lived secure in their sense of place and order. The Pasha’s palace, built by his father in 1929, speaks of bygone splendor. Dark and decaying inside, with the threadbare furniture of the era, it has the grand enhance and the marble columns of its time. The staff and servants, too, old and bent by the years, must have been with the Pasha’s household since better times.
A scent of old Egypt, the Egypt of the grand tour, the country celebrated by Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet, blows in with the Pasha when he enters the reception room. He has spanned decades and worlds of Egypt’s contemporary history. Nostalgia and a scathing judgment of the military regime drive the Pasha’s vision. He ridicules the government-controlled press; he now reads al-Ahram, he says, for the obituaries of his old friends; there is nothing else to read in the subservient press. He has a jaundiced view of the American role in Egypt. The Americans, he believes, feel quite comfortable with authoritarianism. The American fear of a fundamentalist takeover, he observes, plays into the hands of Mubarak’s regime.
The Pasha’s world, the world of his Wafd Party, has deep roots in this conservative land. But after a moment of genuine enthusiasm, the Wafd lost much of its lure. A bargain it made to contest the parliamentary elections back in 1984 in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood seemed like a betrayal of the party’s secular heritage. The Pasha’s age was another handicap. The memories his presence evoked were increasingly his alone. He reintroduced into the political world a measure of courage in the face of the state and launched a daily paper infinitely better than the official organs of the regime, but Egypt’s troubles seemed beyond his scope. Sixteen million people have been added to the population since Mubarak came to power in 1981. This increase alone is more than the combined total populations of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The facts of Egypt’s poverty and need are so well known that one hardly need state them. One set of figures reveals the trouble: 400,000 people enter the job market every year; 75 percent of the new entrants are unemployed; 90 percent of these people have intermediate or higher education diplomas. That is why some of Mubarak’s critics concede the burden the regime has to carry. The task of keeping the place afloat and intact is like plowing the sea. This crowded land has gone beyond that pleasant bourgeois age and its houses with gardens.
The Past Is Another Country
In one of the country’s best recent works of fiction, War in the Land of Egypt, Yusuf al-Qaid, a novelist of the younger generation, expresses the sense of siege and failure among his contemporaries:
Every generation has a particular fate, and our fate, we the sons of Egypt, is that our ambitions were greater than our possibilities. We stepped forward but we found no ground underneath us; we lifted our heads to touch the clouds and the sky disappeared from above us. And at the very moment we divined the truth of our time our leader [Nasser] deserted us with his death right when we needed him. Let us look carefully at our land and our country. It is a strange place, at once dangerous and safe, hard and accommodating, harmonious and full of envy, satiated and hungry. The age of wars has ended; in Egypt today it is the age of words, and because words feed off one another the land of Egypt will only know the reign of words.
This is a jaded country that has known many false starts and faded dawns. Modern Egyptian history telescopes easily: from the time Napoleon Bonaparte’s armada turned up off the coast of Alexandria in the summer of 1798, Egypt’s history has in the main been its Sisyphean quest for modernity and national power. The ease with which the modern artillery of the French shredded the Mamluk soldiers who had conquered and possessed Egypt was the great dividing line in Egypt’s history and the great spur of its political class. A quintessential romantic who knew texts and understood the power of memory, Bonaparte evoked Egypt former splendor and greatness: “The first town we shall come to was built by Alexander. At every step we shall meet with grand recollections worthy of exciting the emulation of Frenchmen,” he told his soldiers. From Cairo, in a later dispatch, the great conqueror noted a paradox: “Egypt is richer than any country in the world in corn, rice, vegetables, and cattle. But the people are in a state of utter backwardness.”
The paradox the outsider saw may have been the self-serving justification of a commander who had happened onto a foreign adventure that had gone badly for him and was seeking a way out. But it would be fair to say that this paradox has engaged Egyptians over the last two centuries. Egypt has thrashed about in every direction, flirted with ideologies of all kinds—liberal ways, Marxism, fascist movements, Islamic utopias—but the urge for national progress, and the grief at being so near and yet so far, have defined the Egyptian experience in the modern world.
Dreams of national power and deliverance have visited Egypt no less than four times in its recent history, and they all ended in frustration. Muhammad Ali (who ruled 1805-1848) made a bid of his own, a classic case of revolution from above, but he overreached and ran afoul of his nominal Ottoman masters and of Pax Britannica; his attempt to build a powerful state and a national manufacturing base came to naught. His descendant, the vainglorious Ismael Pasha (who ruled 1863-1879) gave it another try when cotton was king and a windfall came Egypt’s way. Ismael built boulevards, railways, and an opera house; he declared on one occasion, “My country is now in Europe; it is no longer in Africa.” But Ismael’s dream ended in bankruptcy and ruin and led to the British conquest of Egypt in 1882.
The liberals of the 1920s and 1930s had their moment, flirted with a native capitalist path and parliamentary politics of sorts. But theirs was a fragile liberalism, prone to corruption, outflanked by collectivist ideologies (it was here in this period, in 1928 that the Muslim Brotherhood was formed), a liberalism in the shadow of an occupying foreign power. Then came Nasser’s bid, perhaps Egypt’s most heartbreaking moment of false promise: import substitution, pan-Arabism, a place in the nonaligned world, a national army that looked imposing and fierce before the whole edifice of Nasserism came crashing down.
Egyptians who know this narrative by heart see all these bids as brushes with success. This is part of the country’s self-image. To rule Egypt is to rule against the background of these expectations and disappointments. Pity the air force officer who now presides over a country groaning under the weight of its numbers, scrambling to pay for its food imports, reconciling its claims to greatness with the fact of its dependence on American power and largess. Egyptians are not blind to what has befallen their country. They can see the booming lands in Asia, countries that were once poorer than Egypt, digging out of the poverty of the past. No way out has materialized for Egypt. The dreams of liberal reform, the hopes for revolution from above, the socialist bid of Nasser all withered away. The country drifts. No Lee Kuan Yew has risen here to make the place orderly and efficient even at a price in political and cultural freedom. The economy remains a hybrid. It combines a wild form of laissez-faire capitalism for the sharks and fat cats who raid the place with subsidies for the poorer classes. There is endless talk of economic reform. But the state has chosen the path of least resistance and stays with the status quo. The push for privatization that raised the share of the private sector from 23 percent of industrial output in 1974 to 30 percent a decade later has stalled. Four decades of positioning the country for foreign assistance from the Soviet Union, the Arab oil states, and the United States have done terrible damage to Egypt. A political economy and a mentality of dependence have set in.
Chroniclers OF the Mubarak regime may look back at his rule as ten good years followed by lean years of trouble and drift. By his own early accounts and self-portrayal an ordinary man with no claims to greatness, Mubarak appeared to heed the fate of his predecessor. A cautious man, he drew back from the precipice, stitching back together as best he knew how the fault line between the state and the mainstream opposition. He rebuilt bridges to the Arab world burned by Sadat; he gave every indication that the fling with America and the West that had carried Sadat away would be reined in, that a sense of proportion and restraint would be restored to Egyptian politics. He presented himself as a man with clean hands who would put an end to the crony capitalism and economic pillage of the Sadat era.
But Mubarak was no great reformer bent on remaking the political landscape. To begin with, he labored against the background of an adverse set of changes. in the economic domain. The 1980s proved to be a difficult decade for Egypt’s economy. The rate of annual growth plummeted; in 1989-90 the economy grew a mere two percent, less than the growth in the population. Egypt dropped from the World Bank’s group of lower-middle-income countries to its lower-income category; inflation rose and the real income of industrial workers eroded. A regime unable to reverse this decline fell back on its powers of coercion when the Gamaat took on the state.
In retrospect, the choice that mattered was made by Mubarak with his coronation for a third term in 1993. A modest man (a civil servant with the rank of president, a retired army general of Mubarak’s generation described him to me) had become president for life Mubarak had broken a pledge that he would limit himself to two terms in office. Though outsiders may have a romantic view of Egyptians as patient fellaheen tilling the soil under an eternal sky, in veritable awe of their rulers, in fact a strong sense of skepticism and a keen eye for the foibles of rulers pervade Egyptian political culture. No one had the means to contest Mubarak’s verdict; a brave soul or two quibbled about the decision. An open letter was sent to Mubarak by Basheer, one of the country’s most thoughtful and temperate public figures, questioning the wisdom of the decision. Autocracy prevailed, but a healthy measure of the regime’s legitimacy seemed to vanish overnight.
That keen eye for the ruler’s foibles now saw all Mubarak’s defects. He had hung around too long. An inarticulate man, he had done it without bonding worth the country. The national elections he presided over became increasingly fraudulent and transparent. Worse still, Mubarak ran afoul of his country’s sense of propriety by refusing to designate a successor or help develop a process of orderly succession. His two predecessors, much larger historic figures with far greater claims to political legitimacy, their personal histories deeply intertwined with their country’s, never dared go that far. Supreme in the political domain, Nasser always ruled with a designated successor in place. And Sadat had chosen Mubarak in homage to generational change. Mubarak had no claim to inheritance when Sadat picked him from a large officer corps; it was Sadat’s will that made him. In contrast, Mubarak rules alone: the glory (what little of it there has been of late) and the burdens are his. He stands sentry against the armed Islamicists, but the expectations of the 1980s—modernizing the polity, giving it freer institutions, taking it beyond the power of the army—have been betrayed. At heart he is a gendarme determined to keep intact the ruler’s imperative. Is it any wonder that those rescued from the Math and the reign of virtue promised by the Islamicists have no affection for the forces of order and feel no great sense of deliverance?
The defects of a political system without an orderly succession in place and reliant on the armed forces as a last arbiter were laid bare last June when Mubarak, in Addis Ababa to attend a meeting of the Organization of African Unity, escaped unhurt from an armed attack on his motorcade. He rushed back home full of fury against the Sudanese whom he accused of masterminding the attempt on his life; he was eager, as well, to tell of his cool under fire, the man of the armed forces who had known greater dangers. The play of things was given away in the scripted celebrations of Rubarak’s safety. The men of the religious establishment hailed Mubarak as a just ruler who kept the faith. The military officers renewed their pledge of allegiance and warned that they were there to ward off the dangers to the regime. The minister for municipalities said that the crowds from the provinces who had wanted to come to Cairo would have covered the “face of the sun.” The one obvious lesson that was not drawn, the danger that went unexamined and unstated, was the vacuum, the uncertainty, that would have been left behind had Mubarak been struck down in Ethiopia. Egyptians were no doubt relieved to have Mubarak back: that is not the kind of tragedy they would want for him or for themselves. But no staged celebrations and no display of bravado on the Egypt-Sudan frontier could hide the stalemate of the Egyptian political order.
A Pan-Arab wind, a pan-Arab temptation, has lately emerged in Egypt. It is the return of an old consolation that brought Egypt failure and bitterness. From her pundits and intellectuals can now be heard a warmed-over version of the pan-Arab arguments of the 1960s, a disquiet over the country’s place in the region. And for all the vast aid the United States has poured into Egypt over the last two decades, there is in the air as well a curious free-floating hostility to American ideals and interests, a conviction that the United States wishes Egypt permanent dependency and helplessness, a reflexive tendency to take up, against America’s wishes, the cause of renegade states like Libya and Iraq, a belief that the United States is somehow engaged with Israel in an attempt to diminish and hem in the power and influence of Egypt. The peace with Israel, we know, stands, but it is unclaimed and disowned by the professional and intellectual class in the country, the pharaoh’s peace, concluded by Sadat a generation ago and kept to a minimum by his inheritors.
This new version of pan-Arabism, we are told, would be pragmatic whereas the old movement led by Nasser was romantic and loud and strident. Egypt would lead other Arabs, she would help defend the security of the Persian Gulf states (against Iran) and set the terms of accommodation with Israel, but she would do all this without shrillness, without triggering a new ideological war in the Arab world. She would use her skills and her vast bureaucratic apparatus to balance the power of Israel.
In truth, the pan-Arabism that the Egyptian state (and the intellectual class) wishes to revive is a mirage. Egypt’s primacy in Arab politics is a thing of the past. Arabs have gone their own separate ways. Egypt was the last to proclaim the pan-Arab idea, the first to desert it. If Egypt succumbs again to that temptation as a way of getting out of its troubles, the detour will end in futility. To borrow an old expression, pan-Arabism will have visited twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Egypt cannot set the terms or the pace of the accommodation in the Fertile Crescent between Israel and each of its neighbors. These terms will be decided by the protagonists. The irony was not lost on the Jordanians when the Egyptians began to deride them for their forthcoming peace with Israel. It was under Egyptian command during those fateful six days in 1967 that Jordan lost the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Jordan then had to wait on the sidelines for an entire generation after the Camp David accords as Egypt garnered the wages of peace and the vast American aid that came with it.
Egypt cannot render services that are no longer in demand: her doomed and quixotic campaign, waged earlier this year, against the extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty and the attempt to hold the treaty hostage to new controls over Israel’s nuclear capabilities offers a cautionary tale. The campaign rolled together Egypt’s panic about its place in the region, the need to demonstrate some distance from American power, and the desire to reassert Egypt’s primacy in Arab politics. The regime threw everything it had into the fight. For months it was high drama: Egypt against the elements. But it was to no avail. There were no Arab riders anxious to join the Egyptian posse. The passion had gone out of that old fight.
Nor is there a special assignment for Egypt in securing the sea-lanes of the Persian Gulf or defending the Arabian Peninsula. To balance the two potential revisionist states, Iran and Iraq, the conservative states of the gulf will rely on American power and protection. This is an assignment for an imperial power; it is now America’s, as it had been Britain’s. In that kind of work Egypt has a minor role, as it did in Desert Storm, providing an Arab cover for American power. There could be gains for Egypt here, but they are at best marginal ones.
Egyptians who know their country so well have a way of reciting its troubles, then insisting that the old resilient country shall prevail. As an outsider who has followed the twists of the country’s history and who approaches the place with nothing but awe for its civility amid great troubles, I suspect they are right. The country is too wise, too knowing, too tolerant to succumb to a reign of theocratic zeal. Competing truths, whole civilizations have been assimilated and brokered here; it is hard to see Cairo, possessed of the culture that comes to great, knowing cities turning its back on all that. The danger here is not that of sudden, cataclysmic upheaval, but of the steady descent into deeper levels of pauperization, of the lapse of the country’s best into apathy and despair, of Egypt falling yet again through the trap door of its history of disappointment.
Some two decades ago, in the aftermath of the October war of 1973, the influential journalist Mohamed Heikal, Nasser’s main publicist, set out to explain to Henry Kissinger that Egypt was more than a state on the-banks of the Nile, that it was an idea and a historical movement. Yet that is all that remains. Both the Mediterranean temptation of Egypt being a piece of Europe and the pan-Arab illusion have run aground. To rule Egypt today is to rule a burdened state on the banks of the Nile and to rule it without the great consolations and escapes of the past.