Voter line in Mokattam, Cairo, during the 19 March 2011 constitutional referendum
© Wikipedia Commons
Voter line in Mokattam, Cairo, during the 19 March 2011 constitutional referendum
Last updated: June 4, 2015

Who rules Egypt?

Banner Icon In a fascinating historical narrative, Amr El-Ebyad provides in-depth context to the ongoing Egyptian turmoil.

History has shown that Egypt’s destiny is intertwined with that of the Near-East. In the first millennium B.C the ancient near-eastern civilizations were on the decline. Breathtaking innovations had been taking place for several thousands of years before the birth of Christ – notwithstanding the feudal, despotic and very hierarchal societies in the region. With a Near-East dominated by the dynamic and more democratic Greeks and Romans, the previous despotic organization survived with the bulk of the peasant population continuing to be land serfs feeding the urban Greco-Roman elites instead of the Pharaoh and his provincial lords. An inexorable turn of events happened in the Middle Ages with the Arab conquests, which assimilated the Semitic ancient near-eastern, Greco-Roman and Persian components of the region.


The dissolution of the borders between the Greco-Roman west and the Orient created the Islamic civilization in which the Arabized population of the near-east, Persians and later on Turks were partners. Egypt at the time was in a state of flux with successive dynasties each bringing in new ruling groups. The Islamic era featured the establishment of cities in Egypt like Cairo, Mansoura, Quena. City dwellers were traders, artisans and manufacturers. Nonetheless, those cities remained distinct from the European burgs in terms of their being entirely dependent on the ruling dynasty at the time, for each ruler brought in his clan and own groups creating a new urban elite and feudal lords, forcing the previous groups to merge with the disenfranchised population.

Relative stability came about with rule of the Mamlouks in the 13th century (a caste of Islamized foreign warrior slaves bred to rule while bloody struggles between their factions decided upon the next ruler). Yet, insecure property rights, excessive taxation of city dwellers and unacceptable barriers to trade due to political upheavals and purges in the region hampered innovation, learning and the development of technology in Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

"The dissolution of the borders between the Greco-Roman west and the Orient created the Islamic civilization"

The initial dynamism of Islam and the demonstrated penchant of Arabs/Muslims for trade and exploration gave way to a fatalistic version of Islam, one that idolizes the status-quo, reverence of the elders and the sanctity of old traditions and knowledge.

Conditions further worsened with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries and its dominance over the Middle-East. The Ottomans relied on coercion by its own janissary Mamlouk caste, in addition to the local Mamlouks, to extract enervative taxes from local population. The era was marked by lawlessness, plundering and intellectual decline. What is even worse, the Ottomans isolated the Middle-East and shut it out of the flourishing European civilization. The tradition of urban life in the Middle Ages dwindled as the Egyptian cities were reduced to mere rural administrative centers. It was all clear that the entire Middle-East was rushing downhill.

In the early 19th Egypt a daring Ottoman ruler grabbed power and secured for Egypt a state of quasi-autonomy. Muhammad Ali had an eye for controlling the Middle-East and establishing his own dynasty in Egypt.  Muhammad Ali broke the Ottoman isolation and imported French instructors for the army, built some factories and new schools. His goal was building a strong army to secure his ambitions. In the process he wiped out the Mamlouk caste, monopolized agrarian trade and turned himself into the proprietor of land, industry and state. He created a new elite, with an eye for westernization, from Islamized European adventurers, members of his Albanian tribe, remnants of the Mamlouk caste and some of the Arab tribes chiefs who allied themselves with him. He distributed agricultural land among the previous groups and modernized and centralized state bureaucracy. His factories were dysfunctional of course because what he failed to apprehend is that for industry to flourish he needed massive expansions in education, sovereignty of the law and secured property rights in independent cities conducive to innovation and trade.


Eventually, a coalition of European powers checked his rule as he was about to bring down the entire Ottoman Empire, albeit hereditary succession for his descendants under the title Khedive was secured. The Khedives created a westernized elite from their landlord support base and converted Egypt into two countries; a westernized enclave in Cairo designed after Paris, and the rest of the country which was agrarian and miserable riven by poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition.

Egypt fell prey to a temporary period of British rule, which left the Khedive institution intact, from 1882 till 1923. During the period the division of large estates among heirs, increased buying and selling of agricultural land and the need for an administrative class to aid the British created a middle class, although a tiny one. The growing exposure of the Egyptian middle class to western culture through education and the European expats brought in ideas of freedom, nationalism, and secularism. The new middle class was partly western in its outlook. The elite in Egypt internalized colonial attitudes towards the rest of the country.

"The Khedives created a westernized elite"

A new class of landlords relatively more connected to the native population saw its economic interest at stake from British interference in cotton trade, Egypt’s foremost commodity export, and so lead a popular revolution in 1919 which culminated in the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1923, thus ushering in the liberal era.

During the liberal era a tiny bit of the local population found its way to the landlord class and some expansion in trade from the Suez Canal along with limited forays into industrialization increased the size of the middle class in Cairo, Alexandria and some other Egyptian cities. A fault line was found in Egyptian society between the western outlook of the Bourgeoisie and the Islamic overtones of the new middle and lower middle classes which harbored suppressed hostility towards European influence. It was along these tensions that the Muslim Brotherhood political movement and organization was formed. The Egyptian institutions were still following the initial design of Muhammad Ali where landlords and new industrialists monopolized the entire wealth of Egypt through networks of patronage and clients.

Middle classes operating in these networks had always been driven by aspirations to join the Mamlouk caste and take part in extracting wealth from the masses. Nevertheless, further expansion in the middle class during and in the aftermath of World War II, along with the romanticist tendencies of a portion of the landlord’s class, created a critical mass demanding change in Egypt.  A group of young officers lead by Nasser in 1952 capitalized on the popular resentment and seized power.


Nasser immediately embarked on land reform distributing land among poor peasants, allied himself with the Soviet Union in the hope of replicating the massive industrialization that had been taking place in the Soviet Union starting from the Stalinist era. Nasser adopted Arab Nationalism and supported emancipatory and anti-colonial movements throughout Africa and the Middle-East. Despite his anti-western rhetoric his project was in essence a westernization one.  He exhorted social liberties, mass education and a growing public sector.

Nasser’s experience eventually foundered due to his rash uncalculated external adventures which lead to the Arab defeat in 1967. Still his designs for Egypt had fatal flaws. By empowering the army a new elite class of top brass filled in the void left by former landlord institutions. They challenged Nasser’s rule and formed a new exploitative class allied with the top bureaucracy in the expanding public sector. The army allowed for the formation of a private contractors class in the era of socialism, which delivered privileges to the officers. The same norms and institutional culture of the previous era persisted. The officers brought to power with them the aspirations of joining the Mamlouk caste.

"Nasser immediately embarked on land reform distributing land among poor peasants"

Meanwhile, Nasser failed to understand that the root of Egypt’s problems lies in traditions and its exploitative Asiatic heritage as the small land owners later on turned into massive clans in the Delta region exploiting landless farmers and hogging social change. The new small landowners lacked the westernization aspirations of liberal era landlords. The ground was thus furnished for the subsequent revival of Islamism in the 70s. What Egypt needed was something akin to Maoism in China which made a complete break with traditions and heritage, creating a new society founded on productive and egalitarian values.

A hallmark of the Nasserite era was the creation of the gigantic security apparatus, which through media and propaganda controls the aspirations of the middle classes. The security apparatus has its tentacles in all Egyptian institutions and later on all big business activities. So, up till this point in time, it is the main center of power and the de facto ruler of the country.

Nasser’s successor Sadat launched a war against Israel in 1973 to regain Egypt’s pride that tarnished in 1967. Following the war Sadat needed to create a new social base to support his peace with Israel and rapprochement with the U.S. He thus reversed the socialist policies of Nasser with an open door policy in 1975 and pushed for a large role for the private sector. Alas, his liberal reforms were mainly cosmetic and were not the sort of reforms that would bring about technological modernization and cause a boom in small and medium sized productive business in an atmosphere of economic freedom. Rather, he created a fascist regime made up of an alliance between the security apparatus and a new business class. The business model was that of commissioners, traders and agents forming franchise oligarchies that extracted the largest chunk of a commodities and emigrants remittances economy, then provided services to the impoverished masses.  Oligarchs had impregnable spheres of influence linked by security apparatchiks.


The business class was made up of remnants of the liberal era, private contractors of the socialist era, top brass and former top state bureaucracy as well as the security apparatus apparatchiks. The most hideous elements of the new business class had, in fact, as a role model utterly unscrupulous, bazar-minded climbers for whom – literally-speaking – fraud, sham credentials, bribery and ability to play up to the regime and extract profits without actually producing anything were all signs of a good businessman!

A symbolic sign of the era is the deterioration of Cairo, which deservedly used to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world during the liberal era.  A contracting magnate and Sadat’s in-law, Othman Ahmad Othman, became minister of housing; he watered down the building code, deregulated the construction business and turned a blind eye to the corruption at locality and neighborhood levels where the executives viewed aesthetic and building codes as relics of an “ancient outdated era”.

The security apparatus, having shed the burden of the socialist veneer, formed with the new Mamlouk caste along with the Sadat business class. The state institutions disintegrated and had a laxed grasp of its remit so as to allow the new rulers to profiteer and extract Egypt’s wealth. The regime bribed the landed clans of the Delta (the small holding farmers empowered by Nasser) by withdrawing the state from the provinces leaving them to chaos and the quasi-customary rule of village norms. The political motto of the Sadat’s era was listening to the village elders whose norms were embodied by Islam and thus the quasi-Maoist policies of Nasser were reversed. The newly found middle classes reverted back to its Islamic heritage with a significant portion of it moving to the Gulf States, thus internalizing the traditional Islamist mores of the Gulf.  Sadat didn’t last for long. He was succeeded in 1981 by Hosni Mubarak.

The incompetent, utterly corrupt Mubarak lacked courage, imagination and resolution to go at Egypt’s problems head on and relied on freezing-the-status-quo policy. The oligarchs in the eighties continued to absorb larger chunks of the backward economy and monopolized the new thriving tourism and hotels business, while the state institutions became totally governed by nepotism and patrimony and their grip grew laxer and laxer. Mubarak peddled to the middle class his Muslim village elder credentials. This in turn allowed the critical elements of the Egyptian religious institutions to criticize the regime on its Islamic credentials thus forming the intellectual base of groups like Al-Qaeda and other horrific terrorist organizations.

"The political motto of the Sadat’s era was listening to the village elders..."

The new oligarchs lacked the old landlords’ fixation on emulating the west. They remained Islamic in core. Paradoxically enough, they oftentimes wondered why Egypt is not modern enough and blamed the passive populace for Egypt’s trouble. They equated modernity with brand shopping, luxury cars and frequent pilgrimages to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

There was some sense in their discourse since the Islamic heritage is the main culprit of Egypt’s troubles, but, ironically enough, they consistently failed to grasp that they were part of that heritage. In the nineties the oligarchs took over the public sector assets accruing astronomical figures from reselling them, for example one politically connected oligarch, Muhammad Zayat made a 500% profit in 3 years from buying a state alcoholic beverages company then reselling it.

The fascism of Mubarak climaxed with the rise of his ignoramus son, Gamal Mubarak, at the turn of the millennium. Mubarak junior had a childish passion for new liberalism and his idea of modernization was centered around selling Egypt’s natural resources and infrastructure to his close oligarchs. Several factors confounded to bring about the demise of Mubarak. Mubarak’s new group of oligarchs was crowding out the business segments traditionally more liked with the army. All in all the balance in ruling the alliance of security apparatchiks and oligarchs was tipping in favour of Gamal’s oligarchs.

The ICT revolution and tourists influx whipped up anti-regime sentiments among the middle class, which was comparing Egypt’s status with the rising countries in East Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately, the gradual Islamization of Egyptian society starting from the early seventies made large segment of the middle class look up to the Muslim Brotherhood as the saviors. A popular uprising broke out in 2011 and the army and security apparatus ousted Mubarak.


However, Egypt’s trauma, its middle class, grew weary of the growing power of Islamists which was empowering Egypt’s Fakirs and the disenfranchised, and of the ensuing further deterioration and more brazen nepotism and incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood. They gave up on the revolutionaries and supported the return of the ancien regime with the security apparatus being the powerful partner in the historical alliance between the security and oligarchs. They had legitimate fears from a descent into chaos and theocracy at the hands of the Islamists. But here also they are reproachable since the bulk of the army, of the judiciary, of police and of security officers hails from the ranks of the middle class. They stuck to the enervative despotic heritage and clung to their Mamlouk aspirations as they refrained from supporting radical reforms that would jeopardize their petty relative privileges, whereas the officers abstained from applying the law to worsen chaos and stoke general fears from a descent into lawlessness.

The revolutionaries’ undoing was their inadequate understanding of Egypt’s root problems. Hence at present all energies must be focused on bringing back consciousness of Egypt’s cultural and institutional problems to the middle class, which though is small in relative terms, it remains large and can form a critical mass for change.

Amr El-Abyad
Amr studied Electrical Engineering and has worked in project management. He later obtained a master degree in environmental engineering in addition to doing post-graduate studies in innovation and knowledge dynamics. He started working with energy and environmental consultancies in Egypt. Amr has co-authored a book for the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) titled “The Prospects of the Renewable Energy Sector in Egypt”. He also authored several studies on fuel economy and energy strategies. He now runs a blog on Islamic and Middle-Eastern affairs.
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