Egypt on the Brink: from Nasser to Mubarak
Yale University Press
An ageing leader about to disappear without a clear or legitimate successor, a close-knit club of mega-businessmen running the show, a secular-leaning minority lost in the religiously inspired mass, and all hell waiting to break loose. This is the image of Egypt one gets from the global news media. So what can Tarek Osman, a virtually unknown writer, add to it? Surprisingly, a lot. Egypt on the Brink, from Nasser to Mubarak achieves a level of lucidity that is both fair-minded and ruthlessly candid.
Before reading this book, take a moment to ponder your favourite villain in the Egyptian story. For many, Abdel Nasser is the obvious choice, with his poor selection of friends and army commanders, his termination of democracy and good architecture, and his contempt for anything that was not proletarian. For others, it is Anwar Sadat, with his French-tailored suits, boring television appearances, and endless ability to antagonise anyone who was not American or just plain silly. Or do you go for King Farouk, or the Muslim Brotherhood? Egyptians may have had trouble getting the right leaders or disposing of the wrong ones, but taking the wrong turn and immediately regretting it comes naturally to them.
In the past 200 years, Egypt has turned from monarchical and despotic about it to monarchical and almost-liberal about it; from pan-Arab and hard-nosed about it to pan-Arab and bloody-nosed about it. In the last 30 or 40 years, the country shifted from being pro-American and perplexed about capitalism to pro-capitalist and perplexed about Americanism. And there has always been enough time to regret everything and find someone to blame. Then along comes Osman, with an unsettling absence of bitterness, to give credit where it is due.
For him, every leader had something good going for him. And he describes the merits of each in great detail, before tearing them to pieces. Abdel Nasser had a project and inspired people, even while oppressing them. Sadat opened up horizons of hope, before summoning the demons of political and non-political Islam. And Hosni Mubarak offered calm to a nation tired of upheavals, before drowning it in the stagnant waters of stability. A few chapters on, he turns his attention to Gamal Mubarak.
The heir-apparent to the Egyptian presidential throne may have made friends among successful businessmen and not-so-successful academics. But aside from his presumed following in cyberspace, the majority of his real-life supporters look computer-generated, handsome and generic, a mix of hotel receptionists and event organisers. Among Cairo's cool crowd - the Kefaya movement, the human rights lobby and so on - it just isn't done to mention Gamal without a snigger. In polite political company, praising the presidential son is considered poor taste. But Osman does just that - before shredding him.
Osman offers a sober assessment of Gamal's credentials, portraying him as forward-looking, assertive, capable, and occasionally inspiring. Then the axe falls. On the downside, he notes, Gamal's legacy hinges on liberal capitalism. He has no popular mandate and no army to back him. Even if the military deigns to support him, he will still need the masses on his side, and they will never give their support to his "brand Egypt" ideas. That's where the danger is. At some point, if he succeeds his father, Gamal will be tempted to ride the waves of public anger. The hyper-nationalism he exhibited in the football game against Algeria a few months ago may turn out to be a sign of things to come. As Osman puts it, a Gamal-led administration may find itself "compelled to respond to pressure applied by the masses (including the Islamists)". In the process, the pragmatic foreign policy which was the hallmark of his father's era may be ditched. To be replaced with what? Not even Osman seems to know.
The author of this book is not well known. Of the three major English-language commentators I asked, one hadn't heard of him, another speculated that he may be using a pseudonym, and the third had heard of his book but knew nothing about his background. So here is the little that is known. Osman studied business administration at the American University in Cairo and international relations at Bocconi University in Italy. He has worked as a consultant in Cairo, London, and Dubai, a pedigree indicated by his tendency to use "incentivise" in place of "encourage" or "prod", a habit one might pick up during PowerPoint presentations at petroleum-financed gatherings.
His book starts with Mohammad Ali's era, but it is with Gamal Abdel Nasser that it gets good. Osman calls Abdel Nasser's time the "most comprehensive political upheaval in Egypt's history since Napoleon's campaign at the end of the 18th century". Then he proceeds to offer knowledge that newcomers to the region often miss, which is that the bulk of Abdel Nasser's early reforms were suggested by previous politicians, all of whom he unceremoniously banished from political life.
Land reform, one of Abdel Nasser's pet schemes, was proposed by Egyptian parliamentarians almost a decade before the 1952 revolution put it into effect. "Land reform was not Gamal Abdel Nasser's brainchild. Makram Ebeid Pasha, in September 1945, presented to the government a fully drafted bill aimed at enhancing the percentage of fertile land owned by small landowners," Osman says. Pan-Arabism, the hallmark of Nasserism, is as old as the First World War. And it was first coupled with socialism in the writings of Michel Aflaq, the Sorbonne-educated Syrian Christian who founded the Baath Party in 1941. Abdel Nasser embraced it 20 years later, his charisma turning it into an unquestioned creed.
Fundamentalist Islam is usually blamed for the erosion of Egypt's liberal and secular values. With typical fair-mindedness, Osman notes that the country's liberal values were already on the decline by the time the Islamists found their voice in the 1970s. Abdel Nasser had ruthlessly ended western-style liberalism, and Sadat didn't have much use for Abdel Nasser's legacy of secularism.
The picture Osman paints of the Mubarak years is disheartening. As poverty persisted among the majority, an up-and-coming elite, born of Sadat's open-door policies, got more confident and self-absorbed, amassing wealth and power but failing to rally the country around a national project. Osman uses the term "national project" - common in Arabic but less so in English - to refer to the vision that unifies a nation, to a set of ideals that gives everyone hope, not just the rich and powerful.
Abdel Nasser had a national project and Sadat did to some extent, too. Not Mubarak. For him, stability was enough. Because of his connections to the military, Mubarak had a claim on legitimacy. Had his quest for prosperity trickled down to the poor, Mubarak may have even developed an inclusive vision of his own. But this was not to be. Under Mubarak, Christians were sidelined, the nation lost its bearings, the Islamists won hearts and minds without getting anywhere, and a new class of technocrats and business moguls modernised the economy without much thought for the majority.
So what is the verdict? Can Egypt survive Mubarak, or would his death usher in unforeseen misery? According to Osman, Mubarak's policies have no chance of surviving him. His "distorted form of liberal capitalism" is likely to crumble under the weight of widespread poverty, and his "relentlessly realist world outlook" is bound to be swept away in "an avalanche of rejections and resentment".
Osman's book is encyclopaedic in its scope and discomfiting in its revelations. Despite the occasional lapse into consultant-speak, it is highly readable. For newcomers to the region, the repeated references to cinema and theatre, poetry and music offer useful insight into the popular psyche. Diplomats, businessmen, and journalists would be advised to use this book as a primer. And the region's leaders, especially the young, should find it useful. Who knows, perhaps they'll be inspired to come up with their own national projects.
Nabil Shawkat's book, Breakfast with the Infidels, is published by Dar Merit.