Egypt in Transition: Perspectives on a Rapidly Changing Society

Document Type


Publication Date

December 1988


Egyptians are active discussants of politics but not political activists. Almost everyone is interested in certain aspects of domestic and international politics; few, however, participate in political-party activities and even fewer in social causes. This is because the early buds of popular participation in the public process, which were manifested in the Nationalist movement between 1907-1952, were nipped by the Nasser regime, particularly after 1956. At that time it was reported that some 26,000 persons had been jailed as enemies of the regime. The imprisoned spanned the entire political spectrum from communists to Muslim Brothers with every political shade in between. The Nasser regime's political repressions and intimidations eliminated all forms of free political activity. Only those who were part of the newly created one-party system, which went through several name changes, remained active. They were usually well-rewarded. Even public demonstrations, which could only take place at the government's request or behest, brought some rewards to the masses of demonstrators, who either got a holiday from work or were paid to be present. There were exceptions, such as the March 1954 student and labor union demonstration, which started at the University of Cairo in response to General Mohammed Nagib's ouster from the Presidency and the Revolutionary Council by Colonel Nasser. But that was the last nongovernment-sponsored demonstration until June 1967 when, after the military defeat, Nasser offered to resign, accepting responsibility for that tragic event. At that time, a demonstration took place, urging Nasser to remain. By most accounts, it was largely spontaneous, an expression of national dignity. Nasser was not to resign in defeat, nor abandon his responsibility as the leader who brought defeat upon Egypt. He was genuinely loved and admired, and in defeat the people stood by him, if for no other reason than not to give Egypt's enemies the satisfaction of seeing him leave power in disgrace. Free political activities were never witnessed in Egypt between 1952 and the early 1970s until [Sadat] opened the door, however slightly at first. It was not until 1978 that a law was passed on the establishment of political parties. Since then the door to free public participation in the political process has been widening, though both Sadat's and [Hosni Mubarak]'s succeeding governments have kept close control of the process. The election laws of 1986 insured a two-thirds majority to the ruling party. The constitutionality of this law is questionable, and a case is now pending before the Constitutional Court to invalidate it. The problem is that the Constitution provides that the president is to be nominated by two-thirds of the members of Parliament (Majlis al-Shaab). Thus to hold the election law unconstitutional is to cast doubt on the validity of President Mubarak's election, and that is not likely to occur. As a result of the 1986 law, the full political spectrum is not represented in the Majlis, since the left (Tagamoh) has not obtained the necessary percentage of the popular votes to have any representation whatsoever. The religious right, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, used the Labor party (Amal) in the 1987 elections to get their representatives elected after abandoning the center-right New Wafd party, with which they had linked up in the last election. Of the 448 elected representatives, 360 are from the National Democratic party, and 88 are from the three opposition parties. The political Muslim representatives now have 43 members in the Majlis. Ten members are also appointed by the president.The new Egypt-U.S.-Israel triangle has damaged Egypt's standing in the Arab world and in the Third World.[57] It has also hurt its national pride. The $2.3 billion dollars that the United States gives Egypt every year cannot cure that.[58] In time, of course, wounds heal, and Egypt's gradual reentry into the world of Arab politics, for better or worse, has already occurred. But its lost prestige and leadership have not yet been regained. Many in Egypt's ruling elite think this is for the best, but an Egypt without leadership in the region loses much international standing, and that has its disadvantages. But the people overwhelmingly aspire to Egypt's resumption of its historic role as the Arab world's leader.