The President and the Power Elite

Egypt Table of Contents

The actual use of presidential power has evolved through the changing relationship between the chief executive and the rest of the power elite. The style of presidential leadership determined how the president controlled the elite. Nasser headed and ruled through a tightly knit team of officer-revolutionaries with a certain shared vision. Moreover, as a charismatic leader with wide popular support, he stood above and balanced off the elites and frequently used his popular support to curb them. Thus, he was able to make the presidency a highly activist, interventionist office in the service of a revolution from above that ran roughshod over the interests of the dominant classes. He did have to contend with a certain intraelite rivalry. The other senior Free Officers who had helped him make the revolution were entitled to be consulted in decision making; many of them served as powerful vice presidents, overseeing ministers in various sectors of government activity. Field Marshal Abdul Hakim Amir, Nasser's close colleague and the number-two man in the regime, came close to making the army his personal "fiefdom." But in the end, those who challenged Nasser were purged, and generally he enjoyed nearly unquestioned presidential authority.

Sadat transformed the charismatic, activist presidency into a sort of "presidential monarchy." His formation of a kind of "royal family" of influential relatives in his entourage; the traditional legitimacy he resurrected; the essentially conservative objectives of his policies; and the use of clientelism and corruption, traditional techniques of rule all amounted to a traditionalization of authority. The main issue of intraelite politics under Sadat was resistance inside the establishment to the president's drive to reverse many of Nasser's policies. The popular support won in the October 1973 War gave Sadat a free hand during the crucial period of redirection (1974-76). He also built a strong client network of politicians allowed to enrich themselves by often illicit manipulations of the economic opening his policies afforded and hence, they had a big stake in his course. His shrewd patrimonial manipulations--the constant rotation of elites in and out of office while playing them against each other--also helped him dominate the elite. The authoritarian political structure was crucial to Sadat's enterprise; the regime, lacking traditions of mass participation, largely kept the major decisions inside elite circles where the presidency was the dominant force. But Sadat's support also rested on a kind of tacit "social contract" with his elite and upper-class supporters under which he had to curb the arbitrary power of the state and the presidency. On one hand, Sadat retained freedom in foreign policy, where personal impulses often seemed to override professional advice, and the ultimate powers of the authoritarian presidency were never overtly challenged. On the other hand, Sadat relaxed the state's control over society and the political arena and curbed the interventionist role the presidency had played under Nasser. Although Sadat retained the last word, he refrained from intervening in many domestic policy matters, allowing the bourgeoisie growing scope to advance its interests. Thus, a hybrid of traditional and legalrational authority emerged: a presidential monarchy presiding over a power-sharing alliance between the state and its bourgeois constituency. Sadat's patrimonial excesses and his occasionally arbitrary imposition of major policies retarded the consolidation of this power-sharing experiment, but it was institutionalized under his successor.

Under Mubarak, the authoritarian presidency remained the centerpiece of the state, although he was a less dominant figure than his predecessors. He did not create an elite core comparable in power to the ones they created; he lacked the mission and revolutionary comrades of a Nasser and the patronage network of a Sadat. Indeed, he came to power amid at least two power centers, the military and the "Sadatists" in the elite. Although he lessened his dependence on them by bringing in conservative Nasserites, backing technocratic elements in the bureaucracy, and encouraging the political opposition, he carried out no massive purge of the elite.

Mubarak has used his power in the least activist way of Egypt's three presidents. In contrast to Nasser and Sadat who sought to reshape Egypt, Mubarak sought stability and incremental change and lacked the ideological vision and political will to tackle boldly the country's intractable problems. Much more than his predecessors, Mubarak governed by intraelite consensus, a cautious balancing of contrary pressures and demands. He also delegated considerable authority to his ministers; indeed, he sometimes remained above the fray, refraining from personally identifying with or, in the face of opposition, strongly backing some of his own government's policies. In the running of government, a pragmatic managerial style stressing legality and technocracy replaced the patrimonialism and personalism of Sadat's rule. Foreign policy, made in consultation with professional diplomats, was no longer the victim of presidential impulse. In some ways, Mubarak's caution made him a man appropriate to a time of rising constraints on state power. Having no "mission" comparable to that of Nasser or Sadat, Mubarak could afford to be more tolerant of opposition, and because his legitimacy rested squarely on legality, he had a greater interest in respecting the law. The scope of presidential power clearly narrowed, but, being less threatening, this power was also less challenged than under Nasser and Sadat. Indeed, Mubarak's personal integrity and genuine commitment to limited democratization made him the most widely acceptable leader in a regime enjoying little popular trust.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress