from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Schmoozing Egypt

May 7, 2012
12:17 pm (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Over the course of the last month, I have had a fascinating conversation with Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, about Egyptian politics and society.  Below please find an excerpt.  You can read a transcript of the entire conversation here.  

Adam Garfinkle: Your new book on Egypt certainly is timely, but we both know that the lead-time to produce a book of this kind, one with history, with real substantive analysis, is quite long. I am of course hereby distinguishing what you have written from the “snap” book of the instant-expert journalist, who is most times no expert at all. So tell me please what you had in mind when you conceived the project, and how events in Egypt and the rest of the region shaped the project as it was being brought to completion.

Steven A. Cook: That’s a terrific question. Thank you for asking it because some people see the title and cover photo of the book and assume it was written in the year since the Egyptian uprising. In fact, I began working on The Struggle in earnest in late 2008 and 2009. I began writing in January 2010 and finished the first draft exactly a year later.

One of my mentors once said to me that there is no point in writing a book unless there is some kind of radical underlying message that an author wants to convey to the reader. For me, there are two such themes that I wanted to emphasize in the book, both of which stemmed from my general dissatisfaction with the prevailing (at the time) narratives about Egyptian politics. Over the course of the past ten or fifteen years, Egyptian politics was portrayed as essentially a two-dimensional struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. This was certainly true, but this picture obscured the ideological richness and dynamism of Egyptian politics. To be sure, the Brothers were and still are a major factor, but the political ferment of the past decade is more closely associated with labor, the Left, old-school Egyptian nationalists and, importantly, liberal activists, including bloggers and journalists, who were at the forefront of social and political critiques of the late Mubarak period. In many ways, these groups spoke out about issues that the Brotherhood—fearing the wrath of the regime and wanting to ensure its longevity—never dared to tread.

This brings me to the second radical message of The Struggle, which is that the struggle for Egypt has been going on for some time and will likely continue. Speaking of radical message, this is where my graduate school reading of Antonio Gramsci had an impact on the book. Egyptians have never been able to agree on a narrative about their country. They have never been able to answer critical questions—about what kind of government they want, what kind of society they want, the relationship between religion and state, what Egypt stands for, what its place is in the region and the world beyond—in a way that makes sense to a vast majority of Egyptians. As a result, the political and social arenas remain very much contested. Nasser tried through what we now call Nasserism; and he was successful for about a decade between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, when the claims he made about social mobility, expanded educational opportunities, economic development and Egyptian power in the region came closest to peoples’ objective reality. Sadat, for his own parochial political interests and the apparent failure of Nasserism after the June 1967 war, sought to “correct” the excesses of the Nasser period by answering Egypt’s antecedent identity questions through what he called the establishment of a “state of institutions”, infitah(economic opening) and a realignment of Egyptian foreign policy. Yet Sadat never intended to actually open the political arena as the phrase “state of institutions” implied. Infitah only befitted a very small group of people, and strategic relations with the United States made no sense to many Egyptians, given that the regime Sadat led was founded on a rhetorical, if not entirely scrupulous, commitment to Egyptian nationalism. As a result, by the time of Sadat’s assassination, Egypt was more contested than ever.

Mubarak, having come of age during the era of the Free Officers and having witnessed Sadat’s assassination first-hand, saw the problems associated with trying to resolve Egypt’s underlying identity questions through some bold ideological vision, and opted for a strategy that he hoped would bind people to the regime through economic and social development. By official measures, Mubarak achieved a lot during his almost thirty-year reign. The World Bank data shows impressive results. The problem is that ideas matter. For Mubarak it was all about “stability for the sake of development” and anyone who dissented from his conception of stability was beaten into submission until they—along with a lot of others who felt the same way but were afraid to speak out—refused to be intimidated. That’s how you got January 25. This was not an uprising about economic grievances, though they played an important role in creating an environment of misery. Rather, people rose up because they wanted social justice, representative government and national dignity. Not surprisingly, these are common themes throughout late 19th-, 20th-, and early 21st-century Egyptian politics.

The question now is whether Egyptians can answer the important identity questions that I raise throughout The Struggle. The quality of Egypt’s recent polling, the presidential election, the handover from military to civilian control will not matter all that much in the grand scheme of things if Egyptians are unable to develop a narrative that makes sense to most of them. Indeed, if they don’t, the struggle for Egypt will continue.

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