Political Elites in Egypt

Between the Moderate Islamists and the Liberals

In his detailed analysis, Gamal Abdelnasser takes a look at possible future developments of Egypt's political elites and explains why Amr Mussa is likely to step up as Mubarak's successor.

photo: AP
Amr Mussa could work in between the moderate Islamists and the liberals, says Gamal Abdelnasser

​​In the second half of the twentieth century, Egypt experienced two thorough elite changes. Following defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, a socialist-military elite abolished Egypt's monarchy in the Free Officers Revolution of July 1952. Anwar Sadat, with his historic 1977 visit to the Knesset, made possible by the October 1973 war, once again reoriented politics and economics.

Subsequently a pro-U.S., pro-Camp David, and pro-capitalist new elite replaced its predecessors. Both changes were carried through by two different generations – the so-called July generation and the October generation.

In effect, the two regional wars (1948 and 1973) have shaped the common experiences of both generations, the military pattern of elite replacement in Egypt and the legitimacy of leaders from both generations which was built first of all on military exploits.

In the 1948-49 war of Palestine, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Zakariyya Mohieddin, who would later become Nasser's vice president, had gained prestige in the famous siege of Falujah. In the 1973 war Hosni Mubarak was a career air force officer.

Three pillars of legitimacy

The October generation under Mubarak has built its legitimacy on three pillars: the rapprochement with Arab and Muslim states after the shock of the bilateral peace treaty with Israel; the return of Taba in 1989, the last piece of Egyptian territory held by Israel since 1967; and the geopolitical rent stemming from Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and lately the participation in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

This last element prevented the collapse of the Egyptian economy and allowed the government to invest in infrastructure and basic utilities.

Generational change ahead

By now the October generation is starting to retire. The president, his prime advisers, the key ministers, the speakers of both houses of parliament, the leaders of the political parties, the leading trade unionists, the heads of the national press and the leading intellectual figures have all reached their seventies. The question who will emerge within the core elite and who will replace the October generation is evidently urgent.

Although military and security officers and diplomats do not have the active or passive right to vote, and therefore do not participate in formal politics, they highly influence strategic decision making.

Security apparatus strengthened by terrorist threat

Some observers argue that the role of the military in Egyptian politics is diminishing, but it does not mean that its members are being excluded from forming the inner elite circles. The possibility of terrorist attacks has strengthened the political weight of the security apparatus.

But demilitarization is still the underlying matrix for politics today: "Whereas the military supplied one-third of the ministerial elite and filled 40 percent of ministerial positions under Nasser, in Sadat's post-1973 'infitah government,' military representation dropped to about 10 percent, and it remained limited under Mubarak's rule as well.

The role of the foreign ministry

Diplomats have gained in importance during the Mubarak era. Under Amr Musa the Foreign Ministry developed into an entity that regards itself not only as a state organ for implementing decisions, but also as an institution that takes decisions.

Its importance rose with the seeming (initial) success of the Oslo and Barcelona processes. As Waterbury points out "[t]he Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to be the most hybrid public agency in Egypt, drawing its experts from the faculties of political science, intelligence, the military, and other parts of the administration."

Most members of the inner politically relevant elites are in their sixties or early seventies by now. They were deeply marked by the experience of the 1973 October war and the peace process following the Camp David Accords. For the last thirty years they have operated as a nearly congruent "working team".

The oldest minister in the cabinet is the Minister of Justice with 76 years. The youngest Minister is Youssef Boutros Ghali with 46 years. In terms of age there is no generational gap within the elite.

The members of the second and third ranks who are in their fifties and forties are the emergent elites. They have been heavily influenced by the Islamicization of politics and society that took hold in the early 1980s and the events leading to the Oslo agreement as well as its demise.

The second and third military ranks did not participate in the October war or for that matter in any war against Israel.

The man behind the president

Although Hosni Mubarak has not nominated a vice president, there has always been a "number two" strongman in the state: Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazzala, defense minister and advisor to the president from 1981 to 1993, and Amr Musa, foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 and currently secretary general of the Arab League, may be regarded as such.

Gamal Mubarak needs to be added to this list as Member of the NDP's general secretariat since 2000 even if we cannot call him "second strong man" but he as well as the other two have been subject at one time or another to the public debate centring around the succession.

These three personalities represent three important institutions in Egypt: the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the next generation in the NDP.

As noted, two institutions – the military and the foreign service – are officially exempt from politics. In reality, however, they play decisive roles in influencing Egypt's political agenda. Furthermore, both are channels for the promotion of future elites along with the NDP.

The role of the party is often disputed, but it must be included because of the weight of parliamentary members, 85.5 percent of whom belong to the NDP and will nominate the next president in October 2005.

The violent/pessimistic scenario

Four options for presidential succession are thus thinkable: A violent/pessimistic scenario results from an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. war on terrorism. It assumes that relations between Egypt and Israel will devolve to their status before Camp David. The danger here is not only that the complete demise of the Oslo process, but the possibility that the region as a whole will be thrown back decades.

Whereas nationalist ideologies – Zionism and pan-Arabism – have driven politics in the region in the twentieth century, a political roadblock by the religious and nationalist elements in Israel could lead to a similar military-religious response on the Arab side.

A military elite adhering to a populist-isolationist, Islamist outlook could take over. Egypt would be governed by someone capable of presenting himself as a "heroic figure" in the ideological mold of Khalid Islambouli, Sadat's assassin. The face of such a government would be the Muslim Brotherhood.

The compromise between the radical wing of the Brothers in prison and the parliamentary wing will read as follows: First, the external enemy must be defeated. If the violent Islamist current becomes dominant, its first step will in all probability be to reverse the established U.S.-European-Egyptian platform in favor of strengthening ties with other Muslim countries, especially in Asia.

But a violent scenario is not considered as realistic here for two reasons: First, the Muslim Brotherhood entered the political game in the 1990s and already changed its slogan from "Islam is the solution," which they adopted in the 1980s to "Respect for the constitution" in the 1990s.

Secondly, the assassination of Rabin and the subsequent stalemate in the peace process prompted the radical Islamist currents to orient themselves towards the "external enemy" rather than their own governments which culminated in the September 11th attacks.

The moderate/Islamist scenario

A second, more moderate but still Islamist scenario, is the ascendence of the Islamic awakening generation. The up-coming generation was mostly born in the fifties and emerged at the end of the seventies as leaders in the students' movement parallel to the Islamic revolution in Iran.

Today they occupy important positions in many professional syndicates (esp. the bar association, the union of journalists, medical doctors or engineers) and dispose of powerful NGOs. In 2000 they returned to parliament as independent candidates, tripling their seats. Their agenda is to a large degree pro-capitalist but against what they call "Westernization" in the political and socio-cultural sense.

Their discourse, in addition to being Islamist, is populist and anti-liberal. Their historical imprints are the Oslo process until its breakdown and the Islamicization of state and society. Their rise would be comparable to that of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey.

The economic/political liberalism scenario

In the third scenario elites that propagate political and economic liberalism move into central posts within the next ten years. One can expect the appearance of a number of new parties with varied interests. The liberal agenda will take up the demands that are currently being voiced by the whole array of political opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Their presidential candidate will open a dialogue between the various political currents, with debate centering around the legal framework of governmental and nongovernmental politics.

But this requires opposition unity. It is difficult to make statements about the military's position in this scenario. The generation of today's incumbents are the former classmates of Khalid Islambouli, but they have also profited from the peace and stability of the last twenty years. The state of emergency will be lifted and the rule of law enforced.

The liberal/nationalist scenario

The fourth and most plausible option reflects a compromising attitude between the different ideological trends within the upcoming generation, i.e. a liberal-nationalist current.

In this scenario the Brotherhood would be recognized as a political party and act as a conservative-religious backstopper for the regime. There are personalities on both sides of the scale who can moderate the different political power players.

The most important task of the next president is to manage the debate about constitutional reform. It will be necessary to bring up the issue of consecutive presidential terms and to amend the constitution in order to have direct, multi-candidate elections of the president.

A charismatic personality such as Amr Musa is an intermediate between the October generation and the younger generation. In terms of ideological outlook he could work in between the moderate Islamists and the liberals.

Known for his pan-Arab views, Moussa is currently serving as General Secretary of the Arab League, which he brought back as a political broker. What was regarded as a weakening of Moussa's position and as a result of Mubarak's fear of his strong Foreign Minister might as well be regarded as a measure to exit him during times of a political bottleneck in order to bring him in again at an appropriate moment in time.

Moussa is regarded as a brilliant and charismatic personality. There have already been signs of "Musa Mania" in Egypt.

Gamal Abdelnasser

© Gamal Abdelnasser

A longer version of this article appear in: Volker Perthes (ed.), 2004: Arab Elites. Negotiating Politics of Change. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 164-188.

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