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Egypt at the Tipping Point?

September 17, 2010 // 12:00pm1:30pm
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With the Hosni Mubarak era nearing its close, the political future of Egypt is one of the most topical issues in Middle East politics today. Despite all the social and economic changes Egypt has experienced in the last decade under Mubarak, the country has not, according to journalist David Ottaway, undergone the sort of political change that would make easily predictable greater democracy or major change in the existing authoritarian style of rule as a result of forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

On September 17, 2010, the Middle East Program hosted a discussion entitled, "Egypt at the Tipping Point?" with David Ottaway, a Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center and former Cairo Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Ottaway presented findings gathered during his most recent visit to Cairo that demonstrated the ways in which the city, its inhabitants, and its society have changed and stayed the same. He first touched on the continued willingness of Egyptians to endure abject socioeconomic conditions without resorting to mass protest. He remarked that Egyptians preferred to make light of their problems through jokes rather than "throwing stones." Ottaway attributed this to Mubarak's ability to keep the population minimally satisfied and the political opposition under control. His regime has been able to effectively contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition group, and since the 2005 elections has succeeded in gradually driving them out of the political arena. Ottaway stated that the regime has clearly decided that the success once enjoyed by the Brotherhood will not be repeated.

Though such repression may seem to indicate the regime has changed little, its strategy regarding freedom of the press, according to Ottaway, has changed significantly since today there are 26 private newspapers. The government, which has traditionally cracked down on critical voices, is allowing debate to proceed at an unprecedented level. Furthermore, the role of the state in the economy has also changed. When Ottaway was living in Cairo in the early 1980s, two-thirds of the Egyptian economy was under state control. Today, the same proportion of the economy lies in private hands and, since 2004, has begun to take off. These private interests are also heavily involved in government—Cairo's "oligarchs."

By Ottaway's estimation, these trends indicate that Egypt is not on the brink of revolution. He remarked that despite poor living standards, a widening gap between rich and poor, and continued repression, the kind of popular fervor that produced the color revolutions in Eastern Europe does not exist here. Egypt will surely change when Mubarak leaves office, he said, but it seems that with his son Gamal groomed for leadership, the scope of such change will not be great. Unlike his father, Gamal is not a military man but instead a business elite, and it is assumed that Gamal's affinity is for the status quo.

One factor that could tip the scale in the direction of more dramatic change is Mohammad ElBaradei, former IAEA chief and current challenger to Egypt's top office. Ottaway speculated how Mubarak would deal with a challenger with such international prestige. Though ElBaradei has in the past been perceived as out of touch and too mild-mannered to succeed, Ottaway indicated that more and more people believe he is a legitimate contender. If ElBaradei is able to ignite enough popular sentiment, then perhaps Egypt will change more than expected in the next year.

By Luke Hagberg, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program

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