TCS Daily

The Slow Rot of Hosni Mubarak

By Michael Totten - January 5, 2006 12:00 AM

CAIRO - To those who are easily and perhaps willingly fooled, Egypt's ruler Hosni Mubarak appeared to cry "uncle!" after sustained U.S. pressure to open up his one-party state and hold real elections. But the reforms are a farce -- and hailing his just-kidding charade as a sign of progress in the Middle East is both naïve and reckless.

Human rights activists and independent politicians -- most famously Saad El Din Ibrahim and, more recently, Ayman Nour -- continue to be harassed, arrested, and booked on trumped up charges. And since kicking around his opponents during "campaign season" isn't enough to guarantee victory, Mubarak works over the voters as well.

In early 2005 he announced that he would allow candidates other than himself to run for president. Millions of Egyptians were ecstatic. Finally they would have an actual choice in an election -- a first-time experience for everybody. Yet no one who wasn't already registered to vote under the old system, where Mubarak was the only candidate, would be allowed to vote in the supposedly real election at the end of the year.

The Egyptian government knows better than to imitate the Syrian and Iraqi Baath Parties by claiming to get 99 or even 100 percent of the vote. That doesn't mean Mubarak actually won a normal election. It only means he's a tad less obvious about it.

"Rigging elections is a sport here," American political scientist and long-time Cairo resident Josh Stacher told me in his office. "There are 2,000 different ways to do it, and the methods vary by constituency and region. When all else fails they just physically block people from voting at all."

All else failed in the Nile Delta during the third round of elections in December, including the physical blocking. Military police fired not only rubber bullets but also live ammunition at voters. At least eight people were killed and more than 100 were wounded.

Mubarak's regime doesn't fail merely in politics. It spectacularly fails in every way a state can possibly fail. The economy is moribund -- even downright Latin American. The habitable regions of Egypt are so overpopulated that cemeteries and garbage dumps have been transformed into slums packed with millions of people. Barely half the population can read or write. The state is a mafia with an army; its grubby paws stifle and profit from practically everything. Cairo is bigger than New York City, but most of it looks and feels like a bloated and vertical North African village blown out of its proper proportion by desperate urban migration. Just walking around I felt hopeless depression and dread like a dead weight. 

It has been this way for some time in Egypt. But before Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Arab Nationalist revolution in the 1950s, things were different.

Fifty years ago Cairo was a relatively wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan jewel of North Africa and the Middle East. When I squinted at certain parts of the city in or near the old urban core I could see the former grandeur behind the peeling paint, the grime, and the decay. The city looks good in some photographs as long the sprawling slums aren't included. Their smaller-than-life size conceals the backwardness, the gloom, and the depressed condition of the place since Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak took out their blunt instruments and went to work on it.

In the 1950s Nasser purged Egypt of its tolerance, its riches, its openness, and its variety. He brought in Soviet advisers, ramped up the secret police, and ruthlessly smashed everyone who opposed him. Nearly all the Greeks, Jews, and other minorities were expelled in his attempt to make Egypt into a monolithically Arab country. His nationalization of industry and private property turned the economy into an incompetently micromanaged catastrophe.

Egyptian English-language blogger Big Pharaoh told me he explicitly blames Nasser for the beginning of Egypt's decline. "His biggest crime was not establishing democracy when he took over," he said. "Back then, Egyptian people were liberal. It would have worked then. But not now."

Mubarak has hardly changed a thing during his quarter century rule, which means Egypt is still circling the drain. "He is a horrible horrible man," Big Pharaoh said. "He is the reason we are in this thing. He has oppressed all the liberals."

Oppressing the liberals is a bad idea if Mubarak cares a whit about Egypt maintaining itself as a secular country with or without him. The Muslim Brotherhood, while banned, still manages to get its message out in the mosques. Dissidents like Ibrahim and Nour can't possibly put that kind of infrastructure together in Mubarak's police state environment. So when the Brotherhood says "Islam is the solution" and that they want to build an Islamic state, their message gets traction. It is much harder to force them underground than it is the independent secular parties who can easily be infiltrated and broken apart.

The democratic opposition parties only won three percent of the seats. It all went according to government plan, then. Kicked-around democratic parties like al-Wafd and al-Ghad have no better chance of beating Mubarak at this game than the Green Party has of winning the White House any time soon in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood won 71 seats in parliament, bringing their total to 88. And they only ran candidates in 120 races out of 444. If they had run for every seat in the country they may have won an outright majority, especially if Mubarak and his goon squad didn't cheat.

The voting booth isn't the only place in the country where the Muslim Brotherhood makes an impact. I could see that Egypt is more Islamicized than many other Middle Eastern countries just by showing up.

Cairo's streets are overwhelmingly male dominated, much more so than in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey where I also have spent some time recently. Very few women go outside without wearing a scarf over their hair or even a veil over their face. I saw more men with bruises on the foreheads -- they acquire these bruises while placing their heads on the floor during prayer -- in one hour in Cairo than I've seen in six months in five other Muslim-majority countries combined.

I have an apartment in Beirut where I've learned to love the muezzin's haunting call to prayer from the tops of mosque minarets. Muezzins sing from the Koran, and the good ones sound like angels unchained from this world. I'm not religious, and if I were religious I would not be a Muslim. But I still feel a sometimes powerful spiritual uplift when the Koran is beautifully sung from the rooftops in my neighborhood.

Platonic admiration of Islam is harder to manage in Cairo.

I left my hotel room on Friday, the Muslim holy day, and set out looking for lunch. From just down the street I heard an angry voice bellowing from loudspeakers that someone set up in the neighborhood. It sounded to my ears like a potentially dangerous political rally, as if one of Fidel Castro's bombastic speeches in Havana's Revolution Square had been translated into Arabic and broadcast full blast. But I was wrong. It wasn't a political rally. It was a religious sermon held on the street, only the first of many that I saw that afternoon every couple of blocks. Egypt is so far the only place where I have seen religious services held outside mosques, and the tone of voice used by the broadcasting imams sounded anything but uplifting and spiritual. Egypt is an unhappy place, and more people than ever are turning to religion as an answer to the state's colossal incompetence.

Washington describes Mubarak as a "moderate" and an "ally." His government receives two billion dollars a year in aid from the United States. To a limited extent he's "our sonofabitch," as a certain kind of American "realist" likes to put it. And that's precisely the problem.

Josh Stacher explained how it looks to Egyptian eyes. "Mubarak's NDP [National Democratic Party] fires tear gas at people who line up to vote. 'Made in the USA' is stamped on those canisters. When this sort of thing happens, lots of people here compare themselves to Palestinians living under foreign occupation."

The popular Egyptian notion that Mubarak is an American "puppet" is understandable up to a point. The U.S. government is far too cozy with this man. But it's also outrageous even if it does happen to line up with what the foreign policy realists have to say. His state-run media organs propagandize relentlessly and hysterically against the United States, arguably more so than any other newspapers and TV stations in the Middle East.

The U.S. is frequently compared to Nazi Germany. (At the same time, Egypt's media wallows in Holocaust denial.) Al Qaeda's man in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is described as an American agent. Colin Powell, according to government weekly Al-Ahram Al-Ahrabi, accused the Sudanese government of genocide in Darfur as part of an American plot to steal oil. Just a few months ago Al-Mihwar TV had the audacity to air an interview with an Egyptian general who claimed Dick Cheney admitted the September 11 attacks were hatched by rogue elements in the White House. These are mere samples of what Mubarak's government-controlled media cranks out on a regular basis. No one who airs and publishes this kind of nonsense can honestly be counted as a friend or an ally, let alone a "puppet."

It's true that Mubarak fights Islamists instead of Israelis. And that's great. But he also fights the people in Egypt who are absolutely crucial in winning the war of ideas against Islamists: the liberals. It's time to dump the bastard. He can't even deliver benefits on realpolitik grounds.

The Bush Administration, to its credit, has pushed for democratic reforms in Egypt. But it's not good enough. Gently prodding a dictator who is otherwise treated politely and as a friend doesn't work. Patronizing and even subsidizing one of the guard houses of what Lebanon's Ghassan Tueni calls "the great Arab prison" is not only morally bankrupt -- it's dangerous. Mubarak's regime, which is really just a continuation of Nasser's, is what got Egypt into its current mess in the first place.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS contributor based in Beirut, Lebanon. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log at

1 Comment

Hosni Mubarak
I returned from Cairo at the end of November after a seven month stint there to study Arabic. Egypt is everything that Michael Totten describes it as. Cairo is, for the most part, an enormous slum full of Soviet-style apartment blocks. During my time there I traveled with my Egyptian friend to the polls for the presidential elections and was appalled by the number of times he was shuffled back and forth across the town from one polling station to another before he was finally told that he was in the right place. It was also sad to note that there were so very few people voting in a city of so many. My friend said, "I am taking you with me so that if the President and his party say that the people supported them you will see that it is not true. More people would come out for a sale of chickens than to vote." Cairo is a festering hole of resentment, superstition and blame. I spoke everyday with Egyptians about their feelings regarding the situation and if I were to sum up the feeling in one word I would use "nauseated". Corruption is a rampant and the political culture is one of bribery and nepotism. That is nothing new to anyone acquainted with the region. However, the amount of money the US sends to Egypt to maintain this shabby state of affairs is appalling. Our country is between a rock and a hard place in terms of implementing policy in Egypt but it seems an awful waste of money to receive so little return on our Egyptian "investment."

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