Elite Ideology

Egypt Table of Contents

A dominant ideology has generally bound the Egyptian political elite, but its content changed significantly over time. Under Nasser this ideology was revolutionary nationalism, but thereafter the ideology of the 1952 Revolution was gradually replaced by a new conservative consensus that reflected the interests of an establishment with no interest in further radical change. Sadat pioneered this ideological transformation in the October Working Paper, which outlined his view of Egypt's new course after the October l973 War; through a "de-Nasserization" propaganda campaign launched in the mid-1970s; and by subsequent efforts to revive the legitimacy of capitalism and to justify his Western alignment. Under Mubarak, Nasser's heritage was symbolically revered, but Sadat's revision of that heritage had by no means been reversed.

Nasserism was built on Egypt's opposition to "imperialist influence" in the Arab world and on a belief in the benefits of pan-Arab unity. Nationalism required the creation of a strong state with a powerful military and a mission to defend the Arab world against imperialism and Zionism. Under Sadat Arab nationalist challenges to Western interests and to Israel were displaced by a stress on cooperation with the Western powers and on regional peace. For a period in the late Sadat era when Egypt's separate peace with Israel isolated the country from the other Arab states, a palpable anti-Arabism radiated from elite circles. Sadat insisted the attempts of the Arab rulers to ostracize Egypt were doomed because the Arab leaders had no practical alternative to Egypt's course and Egypt remained the heart of the Arab world. Egypt's role was now to lead the Arabs to peace, and the treaty with Israel was a first step toward an overall just peace. Under Mubarak the Nasserist vision of Egyptian leadership of the Arabs was again vigorously promoted. But far from being a promoter of radical nationalism, Egypt weighed in on the side of moderation and stability in the Arab world.

The elite's conception of the proper nature of Egyptian society underwent a considerable change after the Nasser era. Under Nasser Egypt was seen as a revolutionary society in which the reduction of inherited inequalities was a major ideal. In the economic sphere, Nasser advocated Arab socialism. This policy laid heavy stress on state planning and the public sector as the engines of economic development and guarantors of national self-sufficiency and economic independence. The state also assumed responsibility for ensuring the basic needs of the people and for an equitable distribution of wealth. Several populist reforms redistributed national resources to the benefit of the middle and lower classes.

Under Sadat socialism was denounced as a vehicle of envy and extremism; instead, Sadat promoted a traditional concept in which society was seen as an extension of the patriarchal family and characterized by harmony among classes and belief in religion. In the economic sphere, the elite argued that the state had assumed too many responsibilities at the expense of private initiative. Capitalism had to be revived and the public sector, no longer seen as the cutting edge of development, had to be reduced to a mere support for private enterprise. Egalitarianism and redistribution were thought to have gone too far, to the detriment of economic growth. Private initiative had to be liberated from stultifying state controls; those who distinguished themselves were to be allowed rewards and individuals with capital permitted to "earn freely without limits." The pursuit of self-interest, formerly castigated, was now relegitimized. Capitalist development, it was argued, would bring "trickle-down" benefits for the masses in place of their dependence on state-supported programs.

This ideological thrust, in part a reaction against Nasserism, was, however, tempered by a more moderate strain of thinking that became more influential under Mubarak. The moderate view was not convinced that laissez-faire was the cure to all of Egypt's ills; it insisted on a continuing role for state regulation and progressive taxation to curb the inegalitarian tendencies of the market and the social conflict and political instability that these tendencies generated. Indeed, under Mubarak a limited Nasserist restoration could be seen in the return to the concept of the state as autonomous guardian of the public interest, in the continuing defense of the public sector, and in a new stress on bringing the excesses of the infitah bourgeoisie under state control. Mubarak sought a balance between liberal and statist factions in the elite, rejected calls to dismantle the public sector, and called for an "equal partnership" between the public and private sectors. Generally, the elite agreed on the need to avoid both the "anarchic individualism" of unregulated capitalism and the class conflict promoted by Marxism.

Finally, in the political sphere, Nasser had created a powerful authoritarian state; this concentration of power was legitimized by the charisma of the leader and the revolutionary mission of the country. Under Sadat the legitimacy formula was changed. On the one hand, it was retraditionalized as Sadat sought to infuse his office with patriarchal authority and the aura of religion. He promoted himself as the "believing president" and was constantly seen at prayer; more and more, the state sought to legitimize its authority in Islamic terms. But on the other hand, both Sadat and Mubarak also sought to root legitimacy in constitutionalism and democracy. Egypt had moved, Sadat declared, to a state of laws and institutions rather than to one of people. Under Mubarak democratization became the main legitimacy formula. Nevertheless, it was limited. The masses were held not to be prepared for fullblown democracy; lacking sufficient responsibility and consciousness, they were susceptible to "alien" (leftist) or "fanatical" (fundamentalist) ideas. Strong presidential tutelage, the careful channeling of political discourse through regimemanaged institutions, and limits on overt attempts to "incite" the masses were needed for the sake of social peace. By the Mubarak era, this new conservative consensus seemed to bind the elite, effacing ideological divisions. But the consensus did not prevent elite rivalries over personal power or disagreements over specific issues.

More about the Government and Politics of Egypt.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress