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Shari'a Law, Cult Violence and System Change in Egypt: The Dilemma Facing President Mubarak

Authored by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere. | April 1994

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This study looks at the system of rule in Egypt and discusses why it is in such trouble presently. In the eyes of many, the days of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak are numbered, because of the mounting violence inside his country.

The study concludes that Mubarak's difficulties stem from the economy, which is seen to be distributing wealth inequitably--it enriches the few, while the masses are driven to make more and more sacrifices to preserve a deteriorating standard of living.

Into this disturbed atmosphere has come the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which has sparked a religious revival against corruption that apparently has gotten out of hand. Numerous religious cults have sprung up, calling for the restitution of the ancient law of Muhammad, the shari'a. The cultists are taking action against elements they feel have betrayed Islam.

To date, the religious forces have failed to win support they need to achieve their aim. However, a further serious decline in the standard of living could provide the opening they seek. Ironically, this may happen because of measures being taken by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is pressing Mubarak to undertake free market reforms. The reforms would cause widespread unemployment, something the masses will not tolerate.

The study warns U.S. policymakers that before proceeding with the reforms, the mood of the Egyptian people, as well as the religious movement, should be carefully assessed. Signs indicate the religious forces are split, and--this being the case--it may be possible to exploit this schism in ways that support the interests of the United States.


Egypt's security problem must be seen in context of its economic plight. The country has been in economic difficulty for years. However, it is now entering a particularly dangerous phase, trying to move to a market economy from one that is state-controlled. This is always hard and is frequently accompanied by violence, but in Egypt it is doubly difficult because few countries in the Third World have turned more to socialism than Egypt.1

An additional complication for the Egyptians is their demographic situation. Egypt has too many people and not enough resources to support them. Over 56 million Egyptians live in a restricted area along the Nile River (in Cairo alone there are over 16 million).2 Further, since World War II, Egypt has been moving people out of the countryside (the baladi areas, i.e., the villages) and into Cairo and Alexandria, the two major cities where they are finding it increasingly hard to support themselves.3 Millions are on the dole; if they are not on it outright, they are subsisting on something akin to it. In the public sector the mass of civil servants performs essentially meaningless tasks created to provide them a living.4

Egypt owes its bloated public sector to two factors. First, it had been the policy of Egyptian governments since World War II to provide free education through college. Second, anyone who could obtain a degree was guaranteed a government post. Practically all government-provided jobs, however, are dead ends. At the same time, for many Egyptians, until recently, this was not a problem; to be an effendim, a man of education (if not of property), was something avidly sought.5 An educated Egyptian could expect to live in a reasonably tolerable fashion. Given the current difficulties, however, this is no longer certain.

Recently, conditions worsened to a degree that has become disturbing. For example, in trying to move the country to a market economy, Mubarak has focused on the civil service. He withdrew the commitment to employ degree holders, and seemingly has abandoned the policy of providing free education through college. This has caused widespread consternation, raising the prospect of increased hardship for many.

A general belief about Egyptians is that, of all the world's peoples, they are the most stoic. However bad things get, it is claimed, Egyptians will submit without protest.6 This is a misperception. Egypt has gone through some violent periods recently, in which the Egyptians have nearly torn the country apart. In each case where this has occurred, the regime subsequently sought to appease the aroused populace. No matter how dictatorial, no Egyptian leader in modern times has dared stand against the mob. Some argue that Egypt is on the verge of another such explosion.

Throughout Egypt there are increasing signs that something is amiss. The author visited Cairo last September. Three weeks after he left a gunman walked into the lobby of the hotel near where he had been staying and fatally shot three guests in the main dining room.7 Apparently by design, the gunmen targeted foreigners. This was a shocking incident, but other equally sensational incidents have occurred, including an attempt to bomb the Prime Minister on the main thoroughfare in the center of the capital.8

What is causing the present unrest and what does it portend? Mubarak claims to be the victim of a plot, masterminded by the clerics in Tehran.9 Along with this he maintains that the unrest is controllable, perpetrated by a small group of terrorists. This may be; however, the killers' activity seems to be symptomatic of a broad current of unease gripping the country.

Tourists in downtown Cairo, especially those who have previously visited the capital, probably do not sense the dangerous social unrest. The city looks more attractive than ever. The heart of downtown (Tahrir Square) is almost pristine, which is extraordinary. Under Mubarak's predecessors Nasser and Sadat, Maidan Tahrir was incredibly dingy; now it is bright and clean. 10

However, one should not attach great importance to the superficial appearance of downtown. Conditions in the outlying, medieval quarters of the city are quite bad. Indeed, a sense that one should avoid these quarters prevails. This in itself is something new; previously one could walk virtually anywhere in Cairo without fear.

It appears that Mubarak may be keeping the baladi people out of downtown, turning it into a tourist area. How the country folk are induced to stay away is a mystery, but this appears to be happening. As a consequence the picture one gets--of a society at peace with itself--most probably is false.

This would explain the seemingly inexplicable acts of violence that have been occurring--the bombings, the attacks on tourists, the assassination attempts. It would appear that tensions, normally kept under control (or at least out of sight), are no longer containable.

As stated, the study will attempt to prove that Egypt's security problem is tied to its malperforming economy. Therefore, we will begin by examining the economy, and to do this we need to go no further back than 1952 when the last king of Egypt, Farouk, was deposed.


1. See John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 76, "Few developing countries other than those that are professedly Marxist ever cut so deeply into their private sector as Egypt."

2. Waterbury in The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat, pp. 41, 42, speaks to this problem. He says that Egypt's 1952 revolution came about because of overpopulation; there were simply too many people and not enough resources to sustain them. Moreover, he says, after 20 years of rule by Nasser the situation had not markedly improved. There was no significant change in the country's resource base nor in its basic modes of production. At the same time, however, the population had risen to 40 million from 21 million. Waterbury also points out that Egypt's principal nonhuman resource is its land, of which 3.5 percent is inhabited, and 15.5 percent is designated habitable. However, the cultivated portion of Egypt's surface is only 2.4 percent of the total (23,928 km).

3. Baladi means "native," as in "native son" or "man of the countryside," i.e., the rural area.

4. The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat, p. 112, says that 61 percent of all public sector companies in Egypt operate only one shift a day, 8 percent two shifts, 23 percent three shifts, and 8.4 percent four shifts (this is on the basis of a survey taken in 1972) . Thus, Waterbury concludes that, despite public endorsement of policies to limit hiring and keep down wages, the costs of production are spiralling out of control. "Total public sector employment [ is probably] 20 to 30 percent above the requirements of production."

5. From the Turkish, Afandi, a title of respect, i.e., Sir!

6. Various authors have expressed this view. For example Fuad Ajami, quoted in Robert Springborg, Mubarak's Egypt, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992, p. 238. Also see Nathan Brown, "The Ignorance and Inscrutability of the Egyptian Peasant," in Farhad Kazemi and John Waterbury, eds, Peasants and Politics in the Modern Middle East, Miami, FL.: Florida International University Press, 1991.

7. See Mark Nicholson, "Tourism hit by shootings in Cairo," The Financial Times, October 27, 1993.

8. See Chris Hedges, "Egyptian Premier Escapes Car Bomb," The New York Times, November 26, 1993.

9. See Mark Nicholson, "Egypt fearful of Iran's influence over Sudan," The Financial Times, December 18, 1991; also, Caryle Murphy, "Egypt, Algeria Assail Iran for Backing Rebels," The Washington Post, April 8, 1993.

10. Much of the construction work to revamp the downtown was done by Egypt's military. For example, they built the Rameses overpass, which has directed much traffic out of the immediate downtown area. They also installed the city's telephone lines. See Mubarak's Egypt, p. 116.