Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Truthiness in Cairo

by Steven A. Cook
October 18, 2010

Cairo – It used to be that Egypt did big things based on big ideas. The Aswan High Dam, unity with Syria, Nasserism, the Crossing (of the Suez Canal), infitah, and peace with Israel, to name just a few. Some of these initiatives were better than others, of course, but they were all done to capture the imagination of the average Egyptian—to embed in his/her mind that the regime could not only deliver, but also that its practices matched its principles. This, in turn, would infuse the political system with legitimacy.

I am posting from Cairo (see above picture for last night’s dinner), and, to state the abundantly obvious, the era of big ideas is over and it has been for some time. Lacking legitimacy, the defenders of the regime do not seem to care whether they enjoy widespread public support. Rather, the leadership seems interested in appealing only to a relatively small, but powerful constituency for autocracy—the military, security services, regime-affiliated intellectuals, certain members of the press, the bureaucracy, and big business. I used to think that the regime elicited the support of these groups through patronage, weapons, contracts, and access to name just a few. I wasn’t wrong, but the relationship is more complicated than just delivering goodies. The regime’s supporters need a narrative to help them make sense of their world.

This narrative can’t be based on outright lies, however. There are creepy things about Egypt, but we aren’t talking about North Korea, after all. So instead of lies you get truthiness: “Egypt is an emerging democracy with 24 legal political parties and 250 newspapers and magazines. The fact that people are asking questions about succession is indicative of how far the leadership is willing to go to reform Egypt. The development of democracy will take a long time; things are not perfect, but Egypt’s come a long way in the last 10 years. President Hosni Mubarak is a transitional figure.” With the exception of the last one, each of these statements contains an element of truth even though they hardly tell the whole story. Still, it seems to be enough for the regime’s constituents. What does it matter really when one’s profits are up 30 percent a year or your ministry’s share of the state budget grows bigger or those shiny new F-16s arrive or you get to be a media personality?

From the perspective of Egypt’s leaders who harbor nothing but disdain for their own people, these circumstances may be all for the better. No need to take into account demands from below, when you can satisfy the wishes of a small group of powerbrokers. Yet how long can that last? There are hints that as the country is in suspended animation waiting for “it” to happen: fissures and divisions among the elite are beginning to develop. This may be typical political struggles as one era comes to an end, but without a clear successor or well-developed political institutions, truthiness may not be enough to keep the authoritarian coalition going.

Stay tuned.

Steven

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    As a friend and well-wisher of Egypt I am concerned that feeding people with half-truths can, at times, be worse than telling lies. In retrospect Nasser’s dream of Pan Arabism was nothing but an insincere fantasy; the Arab world in general and the wonderful people of Egypt in particular, are still suffering the pain resulting from that pipe dream.

  • Posted by Craig Charney

    What you report they’re saying in Egypt now reminds me of what people were saying in Mexico in the 80s, when there was a sham multi-partism shielding authoritarianism but that still opened the way to democratic rule. Could something similar happen there? It’s not just a long way from North Korea, but also from the days of the Arab Socialist Union!

  • Posted by sara

    Lack of institutions is the common problem of nearly all Middle Eastern countries. sometimes I wonder is that because of the lack of culture of collective task or the latter itself is the outcome of the institutional limits?

  • Posted by Ihab Elbadawy

    Good Blog Steven & your analogy & conclusions are right on the money. I add that: Even though a Father/ Son succession seems imminent at this point, The Status-Quo is not going to last much longer without a serious constitutional reform & a visible separation between money, political power & the exposed ruling party with both guards new & old. (Same dilemma has been going on for nearly a decade in the Eastern European Model & there seems to be no silver bullet for such a separation – yet put into consideration the cultural & poverty level differences) Meanwhile: you can kiss the little freedom of expression in Egypt Good Bye until the new establishment is up & running. Have fun & don’t eat too much Koosharie :) (Sent from my iPhone)

  • Posted by Ihab ElBadwy

    Even though a Father/ Son succession seems imminent at this point, The Status-Quo is not going to last much longer without a serious constitutional reform & a visible separation between money, political power & the exposed ruling party with both guards old& new. (Same circusshas been going on for nearly a decade) Meanwhile: you can kiss the little freedom of expression in Egypt Good Bye until the new establishment is up & running.

  • Posted by James

    I’ve never heard the “Hosni Mubarak is a transitional figure” line before. Where have you heard that?

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