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Egypt after Mubarak

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Egypt’s Enduring Challenges: Frustrations with Governance

June 22nd 2011

Egypt - Bye bye Mubarak

The end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 marked a watershed for the Middle East. Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and the attendant unrest directed toward other autocrats and their corrupt and cruel regimes—shook the region to its core, raising popular expectations and challenging status quo politics. While the longer-term trajectory of these developments remains unclear, the uprisings and their reverberations are the region’s most consequential such events since 1979, when the Islamic Revolution ushered in theocratic rule in Iran.

Among these remarkable developments, the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stands out. While Mubarak’s tenure in office did not match the longevity of Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi or the brutality of Tunisian president “for life” Zine al- Abidine Ben Ali, compared with other regional shifts, the ramifications of regime change in Cairo are potentially more profound. With 83 million people, Egypt is the most populous Arab state and historically has served as a regional trendsetter.

More important still, Egypt has served as a pillar of Washington’s security architecture in the Middle East since the late 1970s. What happens in Egypt will have an impact both on the region and on U.S. interests. In the short term, it is not clear that Washington will benefit.

Leadership changes in Egypt are remarkably rare. Since gaining independence from the British in 1952, Egypt has had only three leaders: Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and, for the past thirty years, Hosni Mubarak. Two of the last three transfers of power—to Nasser and Sadat—led to dramatic shifts in Egyptian policy. And we have little reason to believe the present transfer of power will be different.

Regardless of who inherits the Mubarak mantle, Egypt’s next government will face a host of regional and domestic policy dilemmas, and the pressure to solve these problems will be intense. Significant internal pressure will also be exerted on the next government to repudiate the policies of the longtime president. In short, whether Egypt’s next government is liberal, Islamist, or some combination of the two, it will almost certainly look to recalibrate its relations with the United States. No doubt, Egypt will remain a friend—and a recipient of U.S. foreign assistance dollars—but it will unlikely remain the reliable ally to which Washington has become accustomed under Mubarak.

At the same time, a democratic Egypt would presumably have a foreign policy based on national consensus rather than the dictates of a few, making that policy more sustainable. The Mubarak regime was remarkably timid on foreign affairs, having made little effort to project Egyptian influence beyond its borders. Perhaps a democratic government would be bolder. Notwithstanding the possibility that Cairo will distance itself from Washington, the toppling of Mubarak was a remarkable achievement for Egyptians. Yet the success of the democratic project is far from assured. Specifically, the military’s transition plan could fail or it could instead seek to impose a modified version of the old system. Even if the democratic experiment works and liberals do manage to be elected, their failure to alleviate poverty and reform the economic system could result in a defeat by illiberal Islamists during the next elections.

As Egypt navigates this transition, Washington should be helping to move Cairo toward a better future in tandem with its U.S. partner. The hard work of consolidating democracy in Egypt is just beginning, but the stakes could not be higher. Egypt is a regional bellwether: if things go well there, other states in transition will fall into place.

The new Egypt will face enduring challenges in the coming years. Mubarak may be gone, but debilitating problems remain that, unless remedied, will continue to prompt public dissatisfaction, anger, and, potentially, instability. This study attempts to describe some of the more pressing issues facing Egypt as it enters its first period of political transition in a generation. While many of these problems are viewed as products of the former regime, in reality they have become endemic to Egypt and will continue to shape national politics regardless of who holds power.

To provide a sense of the scope of challenges associated with Egypt’s transition, this monograph covers a broad range of topics. Chapter 1 discusses problems of governance, including corruption, incompetence, and institutional prejudice. Chapter 2 looks at local politics, the longtime monopoly held by Mubarak’s party machine, and the landscape and prospects of the opposition that engineered the revolution. Chapter 3 provides an overview of the Egyptian economy, perhaps the most intractable of the myriad troubles on the new government’s slate. Chapter 4 deals with Egypt and the Middle East, including the nation’s unstable neighbors, emboldened rivals, and relations with Israel. Chapter 5 discusses the future trajectory of U.S.-Egypt relations. And finally, Chapter 6 offers policy recommendations for how Washington can best approach this sensitive period of transition to preserve the partnership with Egypt and protect U.S. interests in the region.

Frustrations with Governance

While the Papyrus Revolution was undoubtedly driven by a broad range of grievances, the demonstrators’ immediate target was Egypt’s governance. Decades of misrule and repression had contributed to unprecedented expressions of popular dissatisfaction against the authoritarian regime. Frustration in Egypt had few channels for expression, fueling a sense of powerlessness. The upheaval in Tunisia provided the spark that ultimately mobilized Egyptians to surmount their fears, exposing a brittle Mubarak regime. Excesses by the security apparatus and other governance missteps by the National Democratic Party (NDP) had only exacerbated a vicious cycle, depleting Egyptian’s legendary reservoir of patience.

Notwithstanding a postrevolution process of “de- Baathification,” in which certain members of the former regime are being held to account for corruption, incompetence, brutality, and other excesses, governance problems will almost certainly continue to vex the new government. Given extremely high expectations among Egyptians in the post-Mubarak era, such carryover problems will likely constitute a significant source of frustration for the population, affecting political dynamics.

Governance

Egypt’s dismal human rights and governance record under Mubarak has been well documented by multiple international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Freedom House, for example, described Egypt as “not free”; Amnesty International noted that laws in the state “facilitate[d] arbitrary detention, torture, and unfair trials”; Transparency International ranked Egypt 111 out of 180 countries in its corruption perception index.

Despite a calculated effort by the Obama administration to hit the reset button and end the bilateral tensions that prevailed during the Bush presidency, including initially avoiding comment on Egypt’s democratic politics, it too eventually joined the chorus. In July 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to Egypt as a state employing a “steel vice … slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit. The secretary’s speech lumped Egypt together with North Korea, China, and Russia.

Egyptian governance problems are rooted in the 1981 emergency law—passed following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants— which gave the state carte blanche to incarcerate individuals without charges, detain prisoners indefinitely, and curtail freedom of expression and assembly. In 2010, despite popular protests at home and censure from abroad, the Mubarak regime extended the law. Knowing the emergency law had become a source of embarrassment for Egypt internationally, but unwilling to give up the legal foundation it provided domestically, in 2007 the government incorporated its most draconian provisions directly into the constitution. The amended Article 179 of the Egyptian constitution gave the regime broad authorities in terrorism-related cases to bypass due process, try suspects in military courts, and violate privacy protections.

Prior to the demonstrations that shook the state, the regime had been poised to assimilate the powers incorporated in Article 179 into a supposedly less offensive antiterrorism law. When Mubarak was pressed by the protesters—and just before his resignation—he vowed to revise Article 179. It was only after the president’s ouster that Egypt’s High Military Council, just before instituting martial law, issued a communiqué pledging to scrap the hated emergency law.

Political Exclusion

The combined aim of the robust legal framework encompassed by the emergency law and Article 179 was to ensure that no person, group, or organization could mount any sort of challenge to the state, which until February 2011 had remained the monopoly of the ruling NDP. Islamists and liberal reformers alike were systematically excluded through constitutional clauses from meaningful participation in Egyptian politics. As one leader of the pro-democracy Kefaya movement observed, these constitutional conditions were so onerous that they required opposition candidates to extract “milk from a pigeon.”

Compounding legal barriers to participation, elections in Egypt were neither free nor fair. During the 2005 presidential elections, al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, the only candidate beside Mubarak on the ballot, was imprisoned on what are widely believed to have been fabricated charges. The parliamentary elections that followed two months later also lacked transparency, and although the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won 20 percent of the seats, widespread irregularities prompted many to question the results. Indeed, after the MB had performed so impressively in the parliamentary elections, it strained credulity that two years later, the party failed to garner a single seat (out of 88 seats up for grabs) in the Shura Council elections. All told, as of December 2010, when the military dissolved the parliament, the MB controlled not one of the 508 seats in Egypt’s upper house. As for the 2008 municipal elections, they too reflected the government’s track record of manipulation.

In the prelude to those local elections, the MB planned to run 10,000 candidates for the 53,000 available seats. But in the weeks before the election, Cairo undertook a sweeping campaign of arrests, incarcerating at least 150 Brotherhood candidates. By April, the harassment, arrests, and bureaucratic delays had taken their toll: fewer than 25 of the Brotherhood’s 10,000 candidates had managed to get on the ballot. Days prior to the voting, the Brotherhood announced that it would boycott the election. The NDP—running virtually unopposed, with only 1,221 nonregime candidates on the ballot—secured well over 90 percent of the seats.

In addition to political harassment, Egypt’s Islamists—as well as the secular opposition—were subjected to routine human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings, the absence of due process, and a denial of freedom of assembly. The dissemination of such incidents on the internet contributed to the spike in outrage that eventually led to revolution in Egypt.

Depoliticization and Public Anger

Limits on political participation combined with human rights violations represented a significant source of grievance for Egyptians, but these realities also alienated Egyptians from the political process. Only a reported 5 percent of Egyptian voters turned out for the June 2010 Shura Council elections. The systematic exclusion of opposition candidates from parliament and policymaking undermined the credibility and effectiveness of Egyptian institutions, a trend exacerbated by Mubarak’s history of humiliating members of Egypt’s legislative bodies.9 Instead of contesting the vote, Egyptians abandoned the electoral process in favor of other methods of social and political action.

A contributing factor to frustration with NDP politics and the regime was increasing awareness among the population—perhaps thanks to new media sources— of the excessive force used by the government to repress political dissent. This heightened awareness was showcased following the murder on June 7, 2010, of a twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria businessman named Khaled Sayyed by security officials. Images broadcast on Facebook and a gruesome YouTube video provoked such an outcry in Egypt and abroad that Gamal Mubarak—the president’s son and at one time his heir apparent—took the unprecedented step of making a public statement, touting the NDP’s insistence on the “accountability of any wrongdoer within the framework of justice, transparency and the rule of law.”10 Following an earlier episode in November 2009 involving the arrest and torture of three members of the April 6 opposition movement, Gamal reportedly opened a “dialogue” with the group.

Whether a product of increased reporting or an uptick in violent incidents, the Egyptian state security apparatus had come under unprecedented public scrutiny at the same time that political and labor-related protests were on the rise. Not only did these protests reflect heightening popular frustration, Egyptians’ increased willingness to demonstrate suggested a diminished fear of possible consequences. Regime efforts at damage control were woefully ineffective at countering the new media. The Facebook page established for Khaled Sayyed eventually proved a galvanizing force in the demonstrations that toppled the regime.

Protests and Strikes Proliferate

The combination of increasing poverty, under- and unemployment, diminishing subsidies, corruption, rising expectations, and government incompetence ultimately proved explosive.

In 2008, rising global prices for wheat and rice had a particularly harsh impact in Egypt, where the government has long subsidized bread, a staple of the Egyptian diet. Until the crisis, low bread prices had created soaring demand among not only the poor but others as well. Farmers reportedly purchased bread—which was less expensive than feed—for their livestock.13 Worse still, bakeries gleaned more of a profit by selling flour received almost for free than by actually baking bread. In effect, the government subsidy policy was promoting corruption and inefficiency.

Then, over the course of a few months, the cheapest subsidized loaf of bread doubled in price from five to ten piasters (one to two cents). In March 2008, nearly a dozen Egyptians were killed in fights while waiting in three-hour lines for the increasingly scarce commodity. Although the more expensive, unsubsidized bread remained widely available, it cost up to ten times as much as the cheaper loaves, making it prohibitive for most Egyptians.

Responding to the public outcry, President Mubarak announced in late March 2008 that the military would take control of baking subsidized bread. He also banned the export of rice, another staple for which the international price had doubled in the months leading up to the crisis.

The increase in bread prices sparked widespread protests in al-Mahalla al-Kubra, the epicenter of Egypt’s textile industry, where wages in governmentowned factories remained tied to pay rates established in the 1980s. At the heart of workers’ demands was a tenfold increase in monthly salary, but they also sought greater security regarding their jobs and pensions, both of which had become increasingly uncertain due to government efforts to privatize largely unprofitable state-owned industries.

In the days leading up to the April 8, 2008, municipal elections, the al-Mahalla protests turned violent. Egyptian police arrested large numbers of protesters and used live ammunition and rubber bullets to suppress the riots, killing a teenager and wounding hundreds. The demonstrations produced stunning and then-unprecedented images of workers pulling down—and trampling—a giant poster of Mubarak. In an effort to defuse the situation, the government announced on Election Day that it would give the workers an extra month’s salary.

The al-Mahalla events were not an isolated example of worker discontentment but rather the culmination of nearly a decade of labor strikes and work stoppages geared toward increasing depressed wages. Between 2004 and 2008, the state witnessed some 1,900 strikes and protests involving more than 1.7 million Egyptians. 14 In 2009 alone, nearly 800 strikes were held. The year started with a strike of 55,000 railway workers that left Egyptian tracks quiet—and passengers stranded— for hours. Over the rest of the year, lawyers, tax collectors, quarry workers, truck drivers, and health employees also stopped work to win government concessions.

Events during the summer of 2009 paint a picture of rising dissatisfaction and employee ferment. In June, hundreds of postal workers converged on Cairo to demand improved working conditions and wage parity with employees of the Egyptian Telecommunications Company. At about the same time, journalists from al-Badil, al-Shaab, and al-Masaya petitioned the government—appealing to then NDP secretary-general Safwat al-Sharif directly—to raise salaries, stem layoffs, and reverse legislation designed to merge newspapers.

In August, dozens of physicians from the Association of Young Doctors gathered on the steps of the Doctors’ Union to demand an increase in salary from three hundred to a thousand Egyptian pounds (LE) per month.

Nothing indicates that this trend toward collective action will subside now that the Mubarak regime is gone. In fact, the week after he was deposed, Egyptian workers ignored calls from the military to return to their jobs and launched dozens of labor strikes, in industries ranging from banking to textiles to steel, as well as the postal service and ports. A continually mobilized population could help press for real political reforms in the future, but it could also prove a further drag on an already struggling economy.

Concerned about the ongoing threat of disruption posed by these protests, in March Egypt’s new cabinet approved a decree criminalizing strikes, protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins that have an impact on the economy. This decision is certain to be unpopular.

Governance and the Coptic Community

Another significant aspect of the Mubarak regime’s misrule was its systemic discrimination against Egypt’s Christians. Once a majority, Coptic Christians today constitute but 10 percent of Egypt’s population, or about 8 million citizens. The community has long been integrated into Egyptian society, but it suffered political marginalization after Gamal Abdul Nasser’s 1952 coup. And although Copts have since served in prominent positions such as minister of finance and foreign affairs, they have not held the premiership—a position they did occupy twice prior to 1952—or served as minister of defense or interior. During Mubarak’s tenure, the group was also dramatically underrepresented in parliament, with only 6 of 444 parliament members belonging to the sect between 2005 and 2009—of whom only one was actually elected rather than appointed by the president.

Many Copts accused the Mubarak regime of persecuting, or at least not protecting, Egypt’s dwindling Christian population, a claim fueled by the absence of any timely and effective official response to the Islamist violence targeting the community in the 1990s. Dozens of Copts were killed in each year of the decade, peaking at more than sixty in 1997. These murders, perpetrated by al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah (Egyptian Islamic Group), were accompanied by a spike in attacks on Egyptian police and foreign tourists, culminating in the November 1997 massacre of sixty-three tourists in Luxor.

The attack in Luxor proved to be the group’s last flourish, however. Decimated by government security measures, al-Gamaa’s imprisoned leadership renounced violence that same year. By 1998, the situation had improved so much for the Copts that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III—who had called out the regime in 1994 for its failure to protect the community—declared that they can no longer subject to persecution. Indeed, despite some notable incidents (e.g., anti-Christian riots in Alexandria in 2005; a 2008 mob attack on a Coptic church in Cairo), the past decade saw diminished sectarian violence in Egypt.

But in the past year or so, attacks against Copts have once again spiked. The year 2010 started especially badly for the embattled community. In January, six Christians were killed and eleven wounded in an attack on a church in Naga Hammadi, a town in the Qena governorate. The attack was in retaliation for the alleged rape of a twelve-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man—an allegation that routinely precedes sectarian violence—and marked the worst assault on Copts in Egypt since a January 2000 massacre left twenty dead in Sohag.

The murders in Naga Hammadi did not come without warning. Indeed, in response to threats associated with the alleged rape, the church in question had reportedly been placed under police protection. The day after the attack, thousands of Copts gathered at the morgue to protest the lack of effective protection and to collect the bodies. There, they clashed with security forces, and six more Copts were killed. Police subsequently announced that three suspects had been apprehended in connection with the initial killings, but the news did little to assuage Copts’ anger.

The official response had equally minimal effect. During testimony before a joint meeting of the Defense and National Security and Religious Affairs committees of parliament, Qena’s provincial governor—a Mubarak regime appointee named Magdy Ayoub—claimed that the killings in Naga Hammadi were “not religiously inspired.” Rather, he said, they were motivated by the rape and by anger over reports of Christians downloading pornographic pictures of Muslim women on their cellphones. Equally discomfiting was the suggestion by perennial NDP speaker of parliament Fathi Srour that the killings were not indicative of a local problem but rather evidence of “the presence of foreign hands … looking for an opportunity to shake Egyptian security.”

In March 2010, just two months after the Naga Hammadi outrage, Egyptian Christians were again targeted, this time in Lower Egypt. Some three hundred Muslims in Marsa Matruh, reportedly encouraged by a local imam on a government salary, initiated an anti-Christian riot. Apparently, the construction of a church had impeded access to a mosque, leading the cleric to call for jihad against the “infidels.” Nineteen Christians were injured and nine homes were destroyed in the resulting melee.

Even more recently, on January 1, 2011—almost a year after Naga Hammadi—twenty-three Copts were killed in a church bombing in Alexandria. Notwithstanding President Mubarak’s forceful condemnation of the act and pledge to bring the perpetrators to justice, Copts responded to the attack by staging demonstrations in several cities, demanding not only protection but also an end to institutionalized and legal bias against Copts that created a hostile and often dangerous environment. In short, many Copts concluded that the Mubarak regime—as much as Islamist extremism— was responsible for the increasingly tenuous condition of Egypt’s Christians.

This perception of the regime’s role with respect to the Christian community was shared and documented by several international organizations, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which noted as follows in its 2010 report:

The Egyptian government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression of and discrimination against Christians and other religious believers, or, in many cases, to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom. This increase in violence, and the failure to prosecute those responsible, fosters a growing climate of impunity.

Lacking avenues to redress these problems, Egypt’s Copts have traditionally sought to avoid conflict with the state. Indeed, because Coptic Christians viewed the Mubarak regime as preferable to its presumed Islamist alternative, they had, until recently, proved a pillar of support for Cairo.

Even during difficult times, the community’s defense of the government has bordered on sycophantic. To wit, in summer 2009, Pope Shenouda III endorsed the presidential candidacy of Mubarak’s son, declaring at one point that “most Egyptians love Gamal Mubarak and they will vote for him ahead of any other candidate.” Perhaps most telling, in early February 2011— during the height of the demonstrations demanding Mubarak’s resignation—Pope Shenouda III issued a statement calling on Egyptians to end the protests.

It is unclear whether the problematic treatment of Egypt’s Coptic minority will persist in the post- Mubarak era. Notwithstanding Pope Shenouda’s proscription, Copts constituted a significant presence in the revolution, leading some Egyptians to conclude that it represented a “real turning point and opportunity for Egypt … to build a civil state that extends equality to all its citizens regardless of religion.”

The revolution has not proved a panacea for Copts. On February 22, a state security court in Qena acquitted several of the suspects in the Naga Hammadi massacre, suggesting the culture of impunity continues. Then, in March, a Coptic church in the village of Soul was burned down after a Christian man was alleged to have had an affair with a Muslim woman. During a subsequent demonstration, Copts were attacked by Muslims and thirteen Copts were killed.

Incompetence

Popular frustrations in Mubarak’s Egypt were linked in part to the poor delivery of services and a general perception of government incompetence. In 2009, for example, responding to a feared outbreak of swine flu, Cairo ordered the slaughter of some 350,000 pigs. The hogs, owned by Christians, had previously served an important role as consumers of Cairo’s organic waste. Ultimately, the killing of the swine contributed not only to a mounting trash problem in Egypt’s capital but also possibly to an increase in the cost of beef.

Unsurprisingly, many Egyptian Christians were incensed at the massacre, which all but ended the livelihood of a community. Adding insult to injury, the government only paid Christians 100 LE or $20 compensation per pig, well under market value. The worst part of the incident, however, was that the World Health Organization deemed it “entirely unnecessary.” After all, at the time the decision was made, not a single case of swine flu had been reported in Egypt.

The ill-advised government decision to slaughter the pigs caused secondary problems, including the previously noted garbage crisis in Cairo, which apparently occurred when a foreign company contracted by the government went on strike. Putting aside the question as to why Cairo’s garbage collection was subcontracted to an Italian company, without the pigs to eat through the solid waste, the refuse piled ever higher and deeper over the course of several weeks.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the former government’s inability to cope effectively with Egypt’s problems, however, is Cairo’s atrocious traffic. Substandard public transportation, aging roads, and a bulge in the number of cars entering the city every day have made getting around Cairo a nightmare. This is so much the case that, years ago, a rumor circulated that the government was considering moving its administrative offices out of downtown. With infrastructure crumbling and crowding becoming increasingly unbearable, quality of life has declined for many Cairenes.

The Mubarak government’s response to the crisis, a program called Cairo 2050, sought to raise the standard of living in the capital city and restore Cairo to its previous splendor. Perhaps not surprisingly, this ambitious government project quickly became the butt of jokes. As one satirist wrote shortly after the plan was unveiled, “Demanding from us to wait forty years until [Cairo] is developed! Surely, by this time, we will all be with Allah.”

Corruption

A leading source of popular frustration with the Mubarak regime was the corruption so closely identified with the NDP’s “government of businessmen.” At the most basic level, this meant having to pay baksheesh (i.e., bribe officials) to accomplish even routine tasks. According to one survey, 45 percent of Cairo businessmen said they had to “offer illegal payments or presents” to obtain necessary business licenses.

The Mubarak regime had an institutional aversion to tackling the endemic corruption. At a November 2009 meeting in Doha, Qatar, to discuss a new mechanism to monitor implementation of the legally binding UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), Egypt was one of five states to oppose proposals designed to ensure that signatories abided by their commitments. Among other measures, Egypt, along with China, Russia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, pushed the UNCAC to adopt language enabling governments to opt out of peer monitoring and to exclude civil society from the assessment process.

Perhaps more offensive to average Egyptians, however, was the employment of koosa—literally “zucchini” in Arabic—referring in the vernacular to operating through connections or bribery—among the ruling elite. This ranged from the widespread perception that high-ranking NDP official Ahmed Ezz had a legally sanctioned monopoly on steel rebar in Egypt to the understanding that those NDP members with koosa would not be held accountable in the legal system for high crimes and misdemeanors alike.

While the judiciary is one of Egypt’s more respected institutions—in 2005, for example, judges won national acclaim for refusing to certify fraudulent elections— public confidence in the system slumped during the Mubarak years owing to executive intervention in the judicial process. In 2009, Egypt’s second highest ranking jurist resigned in protest against this very practice. During an interview after his resignation, Judge Mahmoud el-Khodary lamented the state of the judiciary, making an apparent reference to the regime’s preferred jurist, Adil Abdel Salam Gomaa. “Ticklish cases, known as cases of public opinion,” el-Khodary said, “are repeatedly referred to particular judges to guarantee that rulings will be passed favorable to the executive.”

In April 2010, for example, an Egyptian state security court sentenced twenty-six men linked to Lebanese Hizballah to lengthy jail terms for plotting attacks against Suez Canal shipping and Israeli tourists in the Sinai. The ruling was issued by Gomaa, who earlier had delivered harsh verdicts against prodemocracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour, a former parliamentarian who in 2005 had the temerity to challenge then four-term president Hosni Mubarak in national elections.

The Case of Hisham Talaat Mustafa

Perhaps no case better encapsulates the incestuous and corrupt nature of politics and business during Mubarak’s era than that of Hisham Talaat Mustafa, an Egyptian business magnate accused of contracting the 2008 murder of his former paramour, Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim. In the spring of 2009, salacious details of the blockbuster trial mesmerized the entire region. Not only was Mustafa a member of parliament who served on the Policy Secretariat of President Mubarak’s ruling NDP, he was also reportedly a personal friend of the president’s son Gamal.

The central question was whether Mustafa, given his wealth and connections, would receive a truly fair trial in an Egyptian judicial system notoriously manipulated by the authoritarian regime. The case appeared to be a slam dunk. According to the prosecutor, Mustafa paid the assassin—a former Egyptian security official—$2 million to kill his lover, who had recently ended the relationship and was residing in Dubai. Authorities in Dubai identified the alleged hit man, who in turn implicated Mustafa by confession following his arrest in Cairo. The evidence included surveillance videos and recorded phone conversations between Mustafa and the killer.

In an effort to stifle the story, a gag order was initially placed on the trial. But after two local newspapers released the details, the government instead decided to showcase the trial as an example of the state’s “independent” judiciary. Indeed, then NDP media affairs secretary Ali Din Helal pointed to the 2009 indictment of Mustafa as proof that “the ruling party knows no cronyism and that nobody in Egypt is above the law.” In May 2009, Mustafa along with the hit man were sentenced to death.

In March 2010, however, Egypt’s highest court threw out the guilty verdict based on alleged procedural errors and ordered a retrial. This reversal came as little surprise. The outcome of the retrial—the commutation of Mustafa’s death sentence to fifteen years in prison—provided little shock either, particularly given that Egyptian government-employee witnesses had reversed their testimonies. But the sentence of fifteen years was also unprecedented, considering that a guilty verdict would have called for execution whereas a declaration of innocence would have meant Mustafa could go free.

Although many Egyptians were pleased to see Mustafa get jail time, his conviction did little to restore the average citizen’s confidence in the state’s judiciary—or to reassure the public that all are equal before the law. Driving home this point, in September 2010—just weeks after the verdict—the government announced that it was overturning an unfavorable ruling by the Supreme Court affecting Mustafa’s holding company, the Talaat Mustafa Group (TMG). Earlier that month, the Supreme Court had invalidated TMG’s purchase of government lands through a contract awarded without competitive bidding and at submarket prices. TMG stock plunged 16 percent with the verdict but rebounded after the government’s reversal allowed Mustafa’s company to proceed with its Madinaty project, a gated community surrounding lush golf courses located conveniently on the Cairo-Suez road.

In the case of Madinaty, the court system appears to have acted appropriately, only to be overruled by the governing elite. For his part, Mubarak routinely interfered in the court system, penalizing independent judges when they challenged the prerogatives of his regime. Back in 2006, for example, the regime removed a Court of Cassation judge and submitted him for disciplinary action after he issued rulings confirming fraud by NDP candidates in the 2005 elections. Such problems apply only to those lucky enough to get into the civilian system. In March 2010, an Egyptian blogger who wrote about corruption in government institutions found himself on trial in a military court, an occurrence that Amnesty International declared a “breach of international fair trial standards.” The case was ultimately dismissed—after the blogger apologized and removed the offensive posting— but the incident had a chilling effect on would-be regime critics.

To many Egyptians, the Hisham Talaat Mustafa case represented the culture of corruption among the ruling elite.36 With the notable exception of Egypt’s richest businessman, Nagib Saweris, most of the state’s business elite were closely aligned with and profited handsomely from their association with the NDP.

The highest profile example of the unseemly relationship between the NDP and the business community was that of Ahmed Ezz, the steel industry magnate who served as a member of the NDP’s nine-member Policy Secretariat, chairing the budget and planning committee in parliament.

Although a two-year investigation by a government watchdog organization found that Ezz—who controlled some 58 percent of the Egyptian steel market— was not in violation of the state’s 2005 antimonopoly legislation, many remained skeptical of the inquiry’s integrity.38 Indeed, until just five years ago, the Mubarak regime had levied tariffs of 20 percent on imported steel, effectively protecting Ezz’s everincreasing market share. The levying of stiff fines on cement executives for monopolizing their industry did little to inspire confidence in the integrity of Ezz’s official vindication.

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation, Ahmed Ezz was among the first NDP officials to be arrested for the illegal accumulation of wealth and the squandering of state funds. A top symbol of Mubarak regime corruption, Ezz is all but assured to be prosecuted severely. Hisham Talaat Mustafa would likely have faced a similar fate had he not escaped from prison during the tumult of the revolution. His whereabouts were unknown as of April 2011.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, from where this monograph, of which this is #1, is adapted. Previously, he served as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; in that capacity he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.


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