By Kate Finch
6 October 2017
(From the Guardian Archive)
Three years have passed since President Sadat was assassinated, and President Mubarak has run through half his presidential term. Yet his Egypt still lacks a distinctive shape and people are wondering if there is a real Mr Mubarak still waiting to emerge, ready to stamp Egypt as decisively as his two predecessors.
Mr Youssef Idriss, one of the country’s best-known writers and political commentators, said recently: ‘With Mubarak, we have entered a strange period in Egyptian life ... Sadat dead is in some ways stronger than Sadat alive: His men are still in every corner of Egypt, whether as thieves or as policemen.’
In common with the Sadat Egypt, Mr Mubarak’s Egypt is marked by too much Western influence and dependence on US aid, conspicuous consumption by rich entrepreneurs, and the peace with Israel - all seen by Arab and Western commentators as reasons why Mr Sadat lost his popularity and died unregretted.
Mr Mubarak’s only important change has been the style of government.
Gone is the flamboyance and unpredictability of Mr Sadat, his imperial pretentions, and overt embracing of the American dream. Gone is the glamorous First Lady.
The flavour of the international jet-set has entirely disappeared. Gone, too, is the whiff of corruption around the ruling family and their set.
In contrast, Mr Mubarak is down-to-earth, modest, incorruptible - and dull. He means what he says. He holds out no promises of a glittering future to the poor and his sincerity is thought to be genuine. His wife, in good Islamic fashion, keeps out of the limelight.
The couple live a life without ostentation in a respectable middle-class Cairo suburb. He draws up committees to produce political solutions, rather then relying, like Mr Sadat, on divine inspiration. He also keeps a sharper ear open for public opinion.
The resulting performance has been flat. Like Sadat, he has found foreign affairs more rewarding than problems at home. By doing nothing to offend other Arab countries and staying cool towards Israel, he has found the moderates prepared to swallow peace with Israel for the sake of restoring regional balance.
Jordan’s resumption of relations with Egypt points the way for the rest of the Arab world, despite the formal objections from Saudi Arabia.
At home, there has been less progress. Cairo’s acres of slums stand unrelieved. Population growth - among the world’s highest - is unchecked. Bureaucracy thwarts enterprise at every step.
Mr Mubarak has crusaded against the Sadat legacy in two areas - corruption and democracy. But his anti-corruption drive, although netting some of the biggest robber barons of Sadat’s time, fizzled out amid opposition from business and political circles.
Attempts to hold free elections recently were thwarted by ruling party stooges and left the official opposition parties disillusioned.
As with Mr Sadat, the most urgent problem is subsidies. Inflation is at least 30 per cent, and Mr Mubarak keeps the lid on the discontent of the impoverished majority by continuing to provide bread, oil, and a clutch of other essential goods at a fraction of their cost.
Riots against food price rises in the Delta town of Kafr el-Dawa last week left three dead. President Mubarak did a partial climb-down on increases, and, Sadat-style, blamed left-wing agitators for the disturbances.
Discontent, is likely to increase as price rises bite - specially if financial problems among the wealthy oil states result in a reduced flow of Egyptians who can take the escape route to high salaries outside Egypt.
Should this happen, Mr Mubarak is likely to start repressing opposition - the Islamic extremist groups are outlawed already. Less tolerance towards press freedom could be expected, and more authoritarianism, bolstered by the powerful police force.