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One Foot on the Moon

A widespread disillusion with conventional politics is a central feature of Egypt today. Under Nasser Egyptians had looked to leftist ideas of state planning for their salvation; under Sadat the emphasis was on a limited form of state-approved capitalism, accompanied by much corruption. Now many of them, and not just from the poorer classes, look to the Muslim militants, I was often told, not necessarily because they have acquired a deep and fervent faith in Islam but by way of protest against the status quo. And then what? Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Egypt, there was still widespread hope that peace with Israel would release many of Egypt’s resources for development. Sadat promised Egypt a new age of prosperity. Millions cheered him in the streets upon his return from Jerusalem and Camp David. “Who is for peace? The soldiers themselves!” the popular journalist Anis Mansour, who was Sadat’s semi-official mouth-piece, wrote at that time.

The war has embittered everyone’s life. The war has denied them home, street, and livelihood. Whoever reaches for the telephone and does not get a line, or opens the faucet and the water does not come, or stands in the street for hours and waits for the bus which does not arrive, and when it does there is no space on it, not even on the steps; every young man who does not find work, and if he finds work does not find a home, and if he finds a home can’t afford the rent, and hence can’t marry—all of these do not want war…Peace will bring prosperity for all.

Such hopes were already crushed during Sadat’s lifetime. Sadat was assassinated by a fundamentalist army officer less for making peace with Israel, as is often thought, than for being a “corrupt,” godless “pharaoh”; his “shamelessly” Westernized wife was a “disgrace to Arabism and Islam.” The assassin spoke at great length during his trial, haranguing Sadat and his ministers for their sins. He never once, I was told, mentioned Israel.

Vice-president Hosni Mubarak’s subsequent rise to power was generally greeted in Egypt with satisfaction and relief. Not for long, though. Mubarak was a former air force officer known for his down-to-earth manner. He abolished the crude cult of personality that had surrounded his predecessors. He did not repeat Nasser’s and Sadat’s mistake: he promised nothing. He released Sadat’s political prisoners, and liberalized the press and parts of the political system. In addition to his own National Democratic Party, several opposition parties, including the pre-revolutionary Wafd and the Socialist Labor Party (now led by Marxist Islamic fundamentalists), were allowed to participate in elections even though the results were widely thought to be unrepresentative and manipulated. Several independent non-governmental organizations, such as Dr. Ibrahim’s center, were allowed to function, though at times precariously. There were modest beginnings of a civil society, including organizations that publicly protest against human rights violations in Egypt. They would have been unthinkable in the past.

We live in a pharaonic ‘democracy,”’ a well-known Egyptian journalist told me. “Mubarak runs an authoritarian, highly centralized regime. But he and his ministers are not unaffected by public opinion. In Nasser’s time,” he adds, “if you opposed the regime you were thrown into prison. Under Sadat, you lost your job. Under Mubarak you only get a telephone call. And maybe you don’t get a raise.” (He was, of course, talking only of people who accept the current system’s military and bureaucratic control, ignoring the thousands of Islamic militants who have in fact been arrested.)

The first decade of Mubarak’s rule brought a number of remarkable achievements. The most important was in birth control, which the government encouraged by providing information for women and making available contraceptive devices. Estimates vary, and official figures are thought to be unreliable. But according to one United Nations expert, population growth in Egypt appears to have declined in the past fifteen years from 3.5 to 2.4 percent a year. The population of Egypt, now approaching 60 million, is expected to reach 90 million by the year 2025, a figure considerably lower than the 120–140 million it might have reached had birth rates not dropped as they did.

Military expenditure is also said to have dropped from 16 to 6 percent of GNP. (It had been as high as 36 percent under Nasser.) Thanks largely to United States and European aid, Cairo’s facilities for power, sanitation, and other parts of the infrastructure have vastly improved. Twelve years ago the sewer system in parts of central Cairo was on the verge of collapse. I remember a week early in 1983 when the sewer pipes for the districts of Giza and Mohandessin burst but could not immediately be repaired because the plans for their locations could not be found. (The British were accused of having taken the plans with them in 1952.) Entire streets were flooded, people crossed them on planks and bricks. The army was brought in to help. The papers claimed that the city was “floating on a lake of sewage.” The water, electricity, and telephone systems in central Cairo have since been overhauled, and public transportation, at least in Cairo, has also improved. One no longer sees thousands of people riding on the rooftops of buses and suburban trains, or hanging in clusters out of their open doors, as was common only ten years ago. There is a new French-built metro. Numerous new elevated roads have relieved some of the traffic jams.

At the same time, however, the economy began to stagnate under Mubarak’s tired, uninspired rule. Cairo is full of jokes about Mubarak. He is described as “the man who never ties his shoelaces,” a reference to his hesitating, heavy gait and his reluctance to make clear-cut decisions. At the gates of paradise, another joke goes, the guardian angel asks him to state his talents and abilities. He answers “None.” The guardian angel says, “Ah, you must be Mubarak.”

In his third term of office Mubarak has still not picked a vice-president. The reason for this, according to another typically bad joke, is that throughout Egypt he could not find a man dumber than himself. Before the recent referendum granting Mubarak a third presidential term a story made the rounds that Clinton presented Mubarak with a monkey saying: “I’ll double your aid program if you make this monkey laugh and cry.” Soon after, the monkey laughs and cries. “How on earth did you do this?” Clinton asks. “I told him that I am president,” Mubarak says. “He laughed. Then I told him that I am trying for a third term. And he cried.” The cynicism about Hosni Mubarak was especially apparent after the clearly phony official results of the 1993 referendum approving his continuing presidency were made public. In a country where most voters are not even registered, 84 percent of the entire electorate were said to have participated in the referendum, of which 96 percent voted “yes.”

Just to keep its head above water, Egypt’s economy should grow at 6 to 8 percent a year as it did in the mid-Seventies. But growth is said to have fallen in 1993 to between 1.5 and 2 percent, and to less than 1 percent in 1994. The per capita income fell from some $730 to $630 annually. During the same period the prices of basic foodstuffs rose sharply. The poor grew poorer and more numerous and the rich, at least in Cairo, have become visibly much richer, perhaps very much richer than before. The middle and lower middle classes have been especially hard hit and many among them seek consolation—or express their rage—by joining the fundamentalists.

Since the days of King Farouk and his collection of Rolls-Royce cars and diamond-studded cravats, there has never been so much conspicuous spending in Cairo as there is today. One encounters staggering contrasts. In the narrow slum streets, the crowds stoically make way for long luxury cars, costing up to half a million dollars, as they pass through the dust, their dark tinted windows rolled up to make the air-conditioned interiors completely invisible from the outside. According to a recent report in Al-Ahram some of the posh weddings one can observe nightly in the five-star hotels cost up to two hundred thousand dollars. The new super-rich are widely rumored to be Mubarak’s personal friends and relatives. Official corruption is said to have tripled since the days of Sadat, whose sons and in-laws were also rumored to have amassed millions.

I remember some years ago talking about Cairo’s astonishing contrasts to Boutros Boutros-Ghali—at that time Egypt’s deputy foreign minister. How long would people tolerate such enormous differences between rich and poor? “Your mistake,” Boutros-Ghali said, “is that of many intellectuals. They believe that because something is bad, it simply can’t last.” “Yes,” I said, “but revolutions are always made by those nasty intellectuals who cannot stand seeing evil. When will there be such an intellectual in Egypt?” “Don’t compare Cairo to Rome or Paris,” said Boutros-Ghali, “Compare Cairo to Calcutta or Caracas, and Egypt to other countries of ancient culture, like India or Mexico. Compared to them our situation isn’t so bad.” This is still a view one hears from official spokesmen, and it may be correct, as comparisons go. But the Islamic militants do not make comparisons. They rage at what they see before their eyes.

People in private business are no longer as disdained by Egypt’s power elite as they were in the decades after Nasser’s confiscation of private property in the Fifties and Sixties. Some of the more prosperous among them have even been supporting their own private institute, the Middle East Research Center, headed by a retired army general. The center, undoubtedly created with the government’s approval, is dedicated to finding new national strategies different from, and more open-minded than, those of the other, semi-official research institute, the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which was founded after the 1967 war, and is still staffed largely by Nasserites. Many of them still advocate a boycott of Israel and will not visit it even though they write about it a lot. The new institute deals with a wide range of regional problems from Sudan to the Gulf; it has attempted to help break the Al-Ahram Center’s boycott by setting up meetings with Israeli scholars and businessmen. It recently sponsored round-table meetings between Israeli politicians and leading Egyptian intellectuals.

The private sector in industry, banking, commerce, and tourism has grown in recent years. But the economy of Egypt, according to a World Bank expert, is still largely a “Soviet-style command economy. There isn’t a country in Eastern Europe today where 80 to 90 percent of GDP is still generated by the public sector.” Publicly owned or controlled companies still dominate most industries, ranging from textiles and food to electric power and cement and including the manufacture of shoes and household goods.

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