The death on Tuesday morning of Hosni Mubarak is a reminder of where Egypt’s authoritarian regime stands. The man whose figure overshadowed Egypt for 30 years, whose death has been the subject of speculation for nearly 20 of them, has passed away quietly, years after he lost relevance.
I am from the generation that was in high school when Anwar Sadat was president. Sadat was hailed internationally as a modernizer, a courageous Arab leader who brought peace. But for the people of Egypt, he was an egocentric tyrant who imprisoned his opponents, presided over a corrupt regime that enriched the privileged and was more interested in impressing foreign audiences with fake signs of modernity while the country reeled in decay. When he was assassinated, many Egyptians of my generation let out a sigh of relief.
Mubarak’s first years in power confirmed this sense of relief: Political prisoners were released, presidential pomp was abandoned, corruption symbols were neutralized and there was a reassuring focus on overhauling the economy and ailing infrastructure. But this feeling was short-lived. The political regime Sadat presided over, and Gamal Abdel Nasser before him, remained intact.
Mubarak was well aware of Egypt’s limited capabilities and never tried to pursue his predecessors’ grandiose ambitions. Yet he was also aware of Egyptians’ deep sense of pride. Instead of seeking to restructure his authoritarian political system to expand Egypt’s potential, he opted for the easier solution: to keep the country afloat and fill the gap between its pride and its reality with the appearance of grandeur.
This is why Egypt under Mubarak didn’t take serious steps in any given direction. With a rigid political system that failed to translate the society’s capital and strengths into sustained development, staying in place became the safest bet.
And this was precisely the trouble with Mubarak’s reign: Egypt’s problems were left unattended while its population doubled and the people’s expectations and attitudes changed. The political system Mubarak inherited was not only incapable of developing the country but also too narrow to contain its political and social conflicts. And in a regime obsessed with avoiding difficult decisions, the inadequacy of the political system kept being pushed aside.
In a way, the country was in a permanent mode of crisis management, never having the time to do anything meaningful, consider a change of course, or consider deep economic, social or political reforms.
But social and cultural change accelerated significantly after 1990. Television satellites and, later, the Internet broadened the socialization process for new generations and broke the national monopoly on forming social and political attitudes. The open connection to the world exposed the youth to a whole different set of norms, values and rules — including the reality that free elections were taking place even in countries under occupation, but not in Egypt. The gap between the political system and the majority’s expectations from it became too wide. The regime stayed afloat by selective repression, abandoning control over certain areas of society, selective co-optation and the continued threat of Islamist radicalism.
Grievances continued to grow, resentment piled up and conflicts accumulated outside the institutional framework. Finally, a tipping point was reached in February 2011, when Mubarak was forced to resign, ceding his powers to a military leadership council. This happened again in 2013 when President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military after just one year. Ironically, the regime that was the source of the problems all along continued to survive.
While the Egyptian authoritarian regime today is as incapable of performing its vital functions as it was in 2011, it is kept in place by harsh repression and the fear of its alternatives. The military, which has controlled governance in Egypt since 1952, knows that Mubarak’s strategy for keeping the country afloat is no longer viable. But instead of reforming the political regime that led to this collapse, it has adopted an aggressive strategy to restructure society to fit its inept authoritarianism.
Like Mubarak, Egypt authoritarianism lost its relevance many years ago. The question is when we get to bury it.
Ezzedine C. Fishere is The Post’s second Jamal Khashoggi fellow. He is the author of “The Egyptian Assassin” and a senior lecturer at Dartmouth College.