Because the current Egyptian government is composed predominantly of technocrats who have no – or little – previous political experience, its members have been frequently charged with political incompetence. A number of political blunders provided the assailants with further fuel for indictment. That President Hosni Mubarak, however, is himself a technocrat has received little attention.
The current Egyptian president is, essentially, an army officer who spent his entire life in the armed forces. Contrary to Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat, he never exhibited any interest in politics or any inclination to political activism. Even though he was 24 in 1952, he was not a member of the some 250 ‘Free Officers’ who overthrew the monarchy and set up a republic.
Under Nasser, he was not affiliated with the officers who constituted the clientele of Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, Nasser’s Defense Minister and the regime’s strong man. Instead, he was, as one scholar pointed out, “principally a military officer accustomed to routine imposed by bureaucracy and chain of command.
After becoming president in 1981, Mubarak did not exhibit any clear or comprehensible vision of the way out of Egypt’s economic and political malaise, thus providing impetus to the notion that he is still groping for a plan. Also, in foreign policy, Mubarak did not demonstrate over more than 25 years in power, that he has any grand vision of how to effectively – and creatively – run Egypt’s foreign relations in a rapidly changing regional and international environment. So by the beginning of the 21st century, a political analyst convincingly concluded that “Egypt is not likely to develop either a grand, encompassing strategy or a regional blueprint for action.Rather, Egypt will develop policies to deal with specific issues and problems as they arise.
By virtue of six years spent as Vice-President, Mubarak’s experience was primarily bureaucratic, not political. He learnt the rules of the Egyptian state, knowing how to balance between the different groups of the Egyptian bureaucracy, how to win the loyalty of people and allegiance of institutions and, most importantly, how to survive.
Needless to say, this does not require unrivaled wisdom or political farsightedness; it needs a manager. Comparing the three post-revolution presidents of Egypt, Al-Arabi newspaper depicted him as an ‘administrator , in contrast to “al-za’im (the leader) and the man of maneuvers (i.e. Nasser and Sadat). In fact, one of Mubarak’s own ministers described him as the CEO of Egypt. Along the same lines, Mohamed Al-Sayed Saeed, prominent scholar and Chief Editor of Al-Badeel, argues that the Egyptian president does not really take politics into consideration. He maintains that the focus on administration and the absence of politics are very much reminiscent of how the Soviet Union was notoriously run under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982).
Mubarak’s acquaintance with the basic rules of economics is not much better than his modest political background. In an illuminating article titled “The Economic Philosophy in the President’s Speeches , the distinguished economist Galal Amin sheds light on the inherent economic logic in Mubarak’s public speeches. Amin explains that Mubarak blindly reiterates what his economic advisors tell him without noticing the intrinsic deficiencies in their logic. He also makes funny comparisons between the economic situation in Egypt and other countries and overlooks some of the basic social realities in Egypt, such as the reason why poorer segments boycott campaigns for birth control.
Mubarak’s limited scope of perspective could be explained by shedding light on his professional career. He graduated from the Military Academy in Heliopolis and spent much of his career at the main Cairo air base, located nearby. His whole life was spent in the womb of the military, particularly in the Heliopolis and Nasr City area, a middle-class neighborhood. With the exception of one year in the Soviet Union, therefore, about 30 years of Mubarak’s life was spent in relative comfort.
In contrast, Nasser and Sadat moved about Egypt at length in their early years and had a long history of contacting, and sometimes even enrolling in the ranks of pre-revolution political forces. Sadat even pursued a career in acting. In contrast, Mubarak’s life has been unlikely to produce a deep and complex personality fired by a sense of historical destiny, explains Robert Springborg in a renowned book on Mubarak s Egypt.
To a ruler, the significance of understanding the country and bonding with the people he is about to lead should not be underestimated. This was well-realized by the legendary Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948).
Upon his return from his prolonged exile in South Africa, some of his aides called on him to become the political leader of the Indian nation. But the prudent and modest Gandhi professed that he could not be a leader of a country he did not know. Gandhi surely did the wise thing when he moved about India extensively before guiding his people to independence and emancipation.
Mubarak roamed his country like Gandhi, albeit from the air, in his capacity as a military pilot. That’s fundamentally different. In one of his famed movies, legendary star Adel Imam (playing the role of a humble lawyer from the countryside) was touched by the captivating view of Cairo from the window of a 5-star hotel. It compelled him to say: this city looks fascinating from the air, but down there it is crowded, hot, and rife with pollution. To be sure, Mubarak is familiar only with the air-conditioned Egypt .
In Heliopolis Club, situated near the Presidential Palace, many veteran military officers spend their long days playing backgammon, reading newspapers and mulling their war memories. They are professional officers worthy of respect. Just like Mubarak, most of them were never politicized, and have a modest understanding of complex political and economic issues.
Then again, they never set foot in the presidential palace.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo.