Egypt Over the Brink

The author of a prescient book warning of an Egyptian uprising says to expect a mad scramble for power in the months ahead.

When Tarek Osman published Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak last fall, few expected that the country would erupt in popular anger only months later. In the book Osman weaves the tale of an increasingly divided and oppressed land and examines the social, cultural, and economic factors that have led to a perfect revolutionary storm -- one of the most significant movements in modern Arab history. From his home, Osman tells Foreign Policy that in the crucial days ahead, it won't be the Muslim Brotherhood or liberal capitalists who determine the country's uncertain future, but Egypt's often overlooked middle class.

"What we are seeing is eruption, which by definition is not going to shape the future," he says.


Foreign Policy: Your book was published last November. Did you think in February you would be sitting here seeing these events unfold?

Tarek Osman: The honest answer is no. I certainly saw, and I think many others saw, that some sort of eruption would happen and that that eruption would certainly come from the wider middle classes and be led by young Egyptians. But it was not in my mind that it would be in January or February. I didn't expect it to happen at such a fast pace.

FP: What finally made Egyptians mobilize? What drove the momentum?

TO: First and foremost, there was a major change in the Egyptian middle class over the past three decades. Hundreds of thousands of families in the '50s and '60s in Egypt were relatively comfortable. But over the past few decades, they have suffered significantly. Many segments were basically downgraded within the middle class over the past 35 years. That transformation within the middle class led to many tensions. And these tensions, suppressed for many years, needed to be released.

The second thing is that the nature of the regime over the past 60 years since the coup/revolution of 1952 has effectively centered on the military establishment ruling Egypt through one of its trusted sons leading the nation. Egyptians have accepted that for many years. There were no free elections over the last 60 years, but there was consent of the people that the military establishment is the ruling establishment represented by a president who has taken a civilian role in society. All of that has changed in the last 10 years as new economic and financial players entered the regime. They started to grab areas of influence and control. And these areas of control were areas that affected ordinary Egyptians' lives. That merger between power and wealth displeased the Egyptian middle class that has been suffering since the 1970s until today, as well as gradually eroding the legitimacy of the regime.

You also have to take into account the lack of a national project for more than three decades. It's an extremely important issue for a very old country like Egypt. For the past 200 years, every single era has something that would make Egyptians passionate, from Muhammad Ali (the founder of modern Egypt), who wanted to build an army and revive this country, to Khedive Ismail (his grandson) who wanted to build a modern Egypt modeled on Europe, to the liberal experiment led by the Wafd Party in the '30s and '40s that aimed to have a constitutional democracy, to Nasser and Arab nationalism (a highly ambitious political project that inspired millions in Egypt and across the Arab world). What was there in the past 35 years? Effectively there was nothing. This has left a feeling for the young that they are living in a political void, that they have inherited a number of political failures, and that they need to fashion a new national project.

Then the final variable that led to mobilization was demographics. In this country, 45 million people are younger than I am -- that's less than 35 years old. If you add these forces together, it's a no-brainer to me. You needed to have some sort of an eruption.

FP: Do you think Egyptians are starting to conceive a new national project?

TO: My thesis is that we don't have a unified movement. What we have here is a catalyst that brought to the surface dynamics that were simmering for decades and that leads every single political force in the country to try to position itself for a future that is certainly different than the present. But we don't have a movement that is trying to revive Arab nationalism, or give rise to political Islam, or revive Arab liberalism. What we have is a very fluid situation.

FP: Who are the major players?

TO: Which political players did you have in Egypt before the last two weeks? You had the regime, which was effectively a merger between power, military establishment to some extent, and wealth. You had political Islam and, at its heart, the Muslim Brotherhood. You had the liberal movement, very fragmented, though recently it benefited from the momentum that the emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei has created. Then you had small players here and there.

So, what's left in the regime now? The military establishment, which commands respect and very wide support among the Egyptian middle class. The regime (in the sense of the military establishment that has ruled Egypt for the past 60 years) is actually stronger than it was before the 25th of January.

The second player, political Islam, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, has gained and lost something very valuable. What they gained is that today they're sitting with the vice president at the same table and discussing the future of Egypt. They are no longer the banned group. They are in the national dialogue.

But what they have lost is that the demonstrations that have shaken the regime have been secular and nationalist. We haven't seen Islamist slogans. The Muslim Brotherhood benefits from a strong organizational capacity on the ground, but they don't have the sophistication and political savvy and leadership to really leverage this opportunity.

The third player is the liberal movement, which is very fragmented. They are still not coalescing around one person. ElBaradei added dramatic momentum to the liberal movement, but I haven't seen so far a structure around him that can be put forward to the Egyptian middle class as a framework to rule. That certainly could happen, but so far, it has not.

I go back to who really was behind the turmoil in Egypt of the last two weeks. It was the middle class that was at the center, the core, of the demonstrations.

FP: But many people think the middle class has largely eroded in Egypt.

TO: People say it has eroded, but I completely disagree. Look at the Egyptian demographics. Roughly 35 to 40 percent of Egypt's population earns less than $2 a day. And you have roughly 2 million people who are extremely rich. What's in between is the middle class -- in its wider definition.

The middle class respects -- some of them love -- the military establishment. On the other hand, there are liberals that command respect and inspire the vigor of the intelligentsia, but I'm not particularly sure they have much beyond that. And then you have political Islam, which resonates nicely with the religious middle class but is very much at odds with the idea of Egyptianism.

So my assessment is that the major winner is the military establishment, not only because it now has hold on the system but because it is the only force in the country able to ensure stability. The vast majority of [the] middle class would probably accept it because they don't have an issue with it like they might with political Islam. And unlike liberal Egyptians, many religious segments of the middle class would have some worries about real liberalism.

FP: How will religion shape political reform in Egypt?

TO: What we need to look at are the options and preferences of the middle class who make up the real voting bloc. Today those people we are seeing demonstrating are very liberal, national Egyptians. They are not saying we are Muslims or Christians. And that's a weakening or negative point for the Brotherhood. But the question in six or 12 months down the line, when they are voting and if they have a very liberal agenda in front of them, is: Will they endorse a truly liberal agenda? I have doubts.

But I don't think they'd endorse a very Islamist narrative put forth by the Muslim Brotherhood either. People in a period of political turmoil return to their comfort zone. And the comfort zone for Egyptians over the past 60 years has been a nationalist rule that ensures stability, that they're comfortable with, that protects them.

FP: Where are we now? Are we on the brink, over it?

TO: What we are seeing is not a movement, but a catalyst. What we are seeing is eruption, which by definition is not going to shape the future.

I believe Egypt has benefited from what has happened. There was massive uncertainty in and outside Egypt about what will happen after Hosni Mubarak. I think we are now living that. And to a large extent, every day brings slightly more security and stability. So it seems that the scary scenarios about the post-Mubarak era are receding. We're post-climax, to some extent. We are still in a transitional limbo, but it's relatively safer than it was six months ago because the uncertainty is receding.

FP: What can we expect in the next year or so?

TO: I don't know what will happen in the very short term, but what I'm sure of is that you now have shaken the very stable [system] that we've had in the past 10 or 15 years and now every political force in the country is trying to position itself to lead.

The liberals today in Egypt are not theorizing intellectuals or writers sitting with Naguib Mahfouz in Khan el-Khalili talking about novels. The Islamists are not raising empty slogans such as "Islam is the solution." We've seen some of them reach out to the world in intelligent ways. They wrote articles explaining their positions in secular Egyptian newspapers and communicated with international observers. All the players, from the liberals to the Islamists to the military establishment, are much more sophisticated now. This means to me everybody wants power and is trying intelligently to position its movement to rule this country.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


The General Wants Back into His Labyrinth

Pakistan's former military leader has announced he's returning from exile and wants his old job back. Here's what he would do differently -- and why he wouldn't want Hamid Karzai as his counterpart next door.

On any given day, Pakistan tops the list of states on crisis alert. But this week has been rocky in the south Asian country, even by that low standard. On Monday, the country's government looked like it might imminently fall; the prime minister's ruling coalition shattering as its second-largest party pulled out. Then on Tuesday, one of the country's most moderate politicians -- Punjab Governor Salman Taseer -- was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards.

So it's perhaps not surprising why some in Pakistan are looking with a bit of nostalgia to the government of former president and military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country for nine years. Musharraf, who has been in a self-imposed exile in London since 2009, has leaped at the chance to come back to politics, announcing on Jan. 3 that he'll be back in Pakistan with his newly formed political party in time for the next round of elections. Late last year, prior to his announcement, Foreign Policy spoke with the former president about what he would do, if given a second shot at ruling Pakistan. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You once said that being in charge of Pakistan may well be "the hardest job in the world." But you have just announced that you are going back into politics. Why?

Pervez Musharraf: [It's about offering] another alternative to the people of Pakistan. At this moment, they are stuck between two alternatives: the [ruling] People's Party and PML-N, the party of former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. If you look at both of them, [they are] dysfunctional.

I call Nawaz Sharif a closet Taliban. He's a man who is -- who has been -- in contact with Taliban. He is a man who, today, appeases the clerics and mawlawis [Sunni Islamic scholars] -- the extremists. Moreover, he has tried [his hand at leadership as prime minister] twice in the past -- and he has failed. Why are we giving him a third chance to destroy Pakistan? My new party is an alternative to the people of Pakistan with the hope of changing the conditions of the people of Pakistan and the state.

At this moment, there is such hopelessness, and there is such a sense of despondency in the people of Pakistan. It's worrisome. People are quitting Pakistan. They want to leave the country. There's a leadership vacuum, and no political party has the wherewithal to meet this challenge. What I've done really is to present to the people of Pakistan with "here's another, an alternative." [And] I have been tested also for nine years.  

FP: Why should Pakistanis give you another chance if they weren't happy with you at the end of your presidency?

PM: I came into office on a very high pedestal; people wanted a change. Until 2007, I was very popular. And now with the situation that Pakistan is facing, my [favorability] graph has again gone up. Because Pakistanis now see what is happening. The poor man is seeing what is happening. Essential items' prices have gone up about four to five times [since I left office]. Wheat flour, rice, and pulses [legumes] -- everything is now five times higher. People have realized what has hit them. And a lot of people are calling me back, [saying] they want me back to save Pakistan. If you see my Facebook [page], which I launched eight months back, I have a fan [base] of 350,000 now today.

FP: You said this fall that Pakistan is doing enough to fight terrorism, despite international criticism to the contrary, especially from the U.S. and some European governments. Does that mean you think that President Asif Ali Zardari has been doing a pretty good job in the war against terrorism?

PM: One has to give the entire credit to the military, which is involved in fighting terrorism, fighting al Qaeda and Taliban. It has suffered about 2,500 deaths [in doing so]. It is the military which is doing very well.

Now, whether we can win or we are winning -- well, I think we are not losing. The important thing is not to lose there. And we will not [lose] if we show resolve. On the Pakistan side, I am reasonably sure that we can win.  

I think that the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which is the second-line force, needs to be reinforced substantially with more manpower and with tanks and guns to be able to [keep] all the tribal agencies' law and order. The Army should remain as a backup. [But we need] to relieve the pressure now on the Army. The Army is dealing with al Qaeda and Taliban in the West, and the Army has to watch the borders on the east, because the Indian military orientation is towards our border. And then when things like this terrible flood [happen], the Army again has to go for flood-relief operations. The Army is overstretched.

When [the West] blames the Army [for not doing enough, they also] blame the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency.]. But the ISI itself has suffered about 250 people deaths in bombing attacks. So, on one side the Taliban are attacking them; on the other side the West thinks they are in league with the Taliban.  

FP: Is it true, however, that some parts of the state security apparatus has sympathies with the Taliban -- as they did in the past?

PM: Yes, yes, that's right. Elements who have sympathy toward Taliban or al Qaeda in the past were there. They must still be there. But to blame the Army or the ISI is just having a very negative impact. As I said, the Army is there doing their job; it has suffered so many casualties. If anyone thinks that [there are rogue elements] at a strategic level -- at the level of the government or the Army headquarters or the ISI headquarters -- that there is an instruction being given down to cooperate with the Taliban -- this is absolutely baseless.

There may be some elements who are [cooperating with the Taliban]. But even there, we must understand and differentiate between strategy and tactics. Strategically, we have to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the moment [the West starts to] micromanage how to do that, we are in conflict with those [security forces] that are operating on the Pakistan side.

FP: What advice would you give Barack Obama today about AfPak?

PM: I'm against this idea of setting a timeline for withdrawal [from Afghanistan]. We have to install a stable, legitimate government in Afghanistan before we quit the area. So, to that extent, I do not agree with what he has decided. If they were to quit, all of a sudden in 2011 or start quitting, it may lead to problems in the area -- destabilization of the entire area. Announcing [a pullout] is [also] a bad idea because the moment you announce it, you put new forces into play. The Taliban and al Qaeda get encouraged. Time is on their side. They lie low and they come up again in 2011. So, therefore announcing this time schedule -- I wouldn't say it's a wise step that was taken.

Other than that, the advice that I would certainly like to give him is to give importance to Pakistan and to be conscious of the sensitivities of Pakistan in his political dealings in the region.

FP: What should the Americans be doing in Afghanistan?

PM: [The Americans and NATO] must show resolve and bring about a legitimate government in Afghanistan. But Karzai is not the right man, which he has proved. Who's the next is the question. [We need to] wean away Pashtuns, [the primary ethnic group from which the Taliban derive] from the Taliban and put them in government. We are [also] looking at dealing with moderate Taliban. We have learned after eight years to go in and deal with moderate Taliban -- something I was saying in 2002 and 2003.

FP: If you are elected back to office, how will your approach to fighting terrorism change?

PM: We have to use the military, the political, and the socioeconomic -- a three-tiered strategy. We have to wean away the people from the Taliban. In the past, we [thought that we] needed to gradually get [the regions] away from the tribal culture and bring the government into play -- provincial government, local government, and national government. But the demand of the day is very different now. We need to empower the ex-tribal maliks to counter al Qaeda and the Taliban because those tribal maliks were the ones who held sway over the tribes. If the Sept. 11 attacks had not happened, one would have preferred elections and local government to do away with the tribal culture. But now, with the Taliban being there, we need to get that same tribal culture back and ask the tribal maliks to take charge against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Educating the masses in the tribal agencies, especially the women -- that is very, very important. We should introduce education into the provinces, into the tribal agencies, and get the people educated. It's a long-term strategy of transforming the tribal agencies and integrating them with the rest of Pakistan.

Let Pakistan handle its situation in Pakistan, and you [Americans] handle the situation in Afghanistan. All the blame for whatever is happening in Afghanistan, including the cross-border activity, is put on Pakistan. Why? Why isn't the cross-border activity blamed on the coalition forces, the Afghan National Army, the Afghanistan government -- why is it not their fault? Is Pakistan responsible for every movement across the border? Doesn't anyone else also have a responsibility, also? If Pakistan is failing to stop al Qaeda and the Taliban from going across the border, then the coalition forces, the United States, Afghan government, Afghan National Army is also failing to do that.