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Daniel Brumberg Daniel Brumberg is an Associate Professor of Government and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. He also serves as Acting Director of the United States...


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>> more

Adrift in Cairo: Is U.S. watching?

November 12, 2009

Egypt, a country of some 82 million people, once was the intellectual, strategic and political hub of the Arab world. But today, Egypt is adrift. Cairo seems more crowded, more polluted and more chaotic than ever. The country is suffocating under a cloud of political ineptitude, apathy and cynicism, the likes of which I have never seen in Egypt.

I wish I could say that the problem has a clear source or one obvious remedy. Unfortunately, Egypt's malady has many causes and many symptoms. This illness is far from terminal, but left untreated, the patient will only grow more infirm.

Let's start with the government--or the lack thereof. As I mentioned to a long-time Egyptian colleague, the only thing worse than the absence of democratic or accountable government is the absence of governance itself. President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981. After 28 years, during which he was "re-elected" by a parliament stacked with his allies in the National Democratic Party, (a body that is neither a coherent party much less an instrument of democracy), Mubarak is viewed by many Egyptians as a kind of absentee leader.

The prospect of his son Gamal effectively inheriting the presidency, which two or three years ago generated heated debate, no longer seems like a done deal. Instead, a contest has emerged among an expanding circle of palace cronies whose quasi-public squabbles only highlight the perceived weaknesses at the helm of the state.

A lack of effective leadership produces many sins. Consider the totally unnecessary decision to preempt Swine Flu by killing off 400,000 pigs in Egypt. This act produced a mammoth trash crisis, as Cairo's zabaleen (trash collectors) depend on food refuse to sustain the pig-raising industry. The pig slaughter not only upended the livelihood of 70,000 poor Egyptian Copts: it also signaled a gross insensitivity--if not hostility--by the state towards a Christian minority that constitutes 15% of the population.

The perception of state hostility has been magnified by documented reports detailing the failure of Egyptian security forces to stop violent attacks against Coptic worshippers. Human rights activists attribute such events to disarray at the very top: when Egypt's leaders do not lead, the security forces feel they have a free hand to indulge or manipulate sectarian tension. The result, some human rights activists fear, is a kind of creeping "Islamization" that elements within the state abet -- even as the regime expands repression of both secular and Islamist opposition groups.

In the latest example of such cynical divide and rule tactics, Egyptian authorities have banned the country's most prominent secular opposition leader, Ayman Nour, from traveling to the US, citing his plans to attend "political" meetings (God forbid!) as a justification. But Nour's real sin is this: having had the temerity in 2005 to lawfully challenge President Mubarak during Egypt's first technically competitive presidential election--and having spent 3 years in prison for doing so--Nour is now trying to forge a national opposition front to oppose Gamal Mubarak's "inheritance" of the presidential throne.

However courageous--and certainly legal--Nour's actions reflect (and in some ways magnify), long-standing personal, strategic and ideological splits within the opposition. While veteran leaders of the Kifaya ("Enough") Movement are trying to establish a new organization in advance of the 2010 parliamentary elections, there is no consensus as to whether elections should take precedence over other political objectives. Indeed, many secular leaders want to focus on basic human rights issues (such as freedom of speech or religion), rather than expend resources preparing for a poll which, even if only slightly competitive, might strengthen their Islamist rivals. This disarray is like music to the ears of the regime.

Still, the news isn't completely bleak. Well aware of the country's deepening crisis, a new generation of young Egyptian activists is trying to forge a fresh vision of political activism that transcends the old ideological, social and religious divides.

During my recent visit to Cairo, I heard some of these young people during a conference on "Emerging Leaders for Democracy." Listening to them, I realized just how many had been inspired by President Barack Obama's election. Indeed, most looked to his June 4 Cairo University speech as a harbinger of a new U.S. policy, one that they hoped would be based, at least in part, on a frank dialogue about human rights and democracy in Egypt.

Five months later, not a few of these aspiring leaders are now asking whether the President's fine words will be matched by fine actions. Certainly, they know that they must look first and foremost to themselves for answers. But they still wonder if their dreams matter to an administration that is focused on the security challenges emanating from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Israel/Palestine. So far, they can be forgiven for thinking that U.S. policymakers do not seem troubled by the growing chasm between a fragmenting state and a fractious society, many of whose young people yearn to be heard both at home and abroad.