Controlling the Mass Political Arena

Controlling the Mass Political Arena

A state may control the political arena through some combination of legitimacy, coercion, and the incorporation of participation through political institutions. Nasser used charisma and coercion to impose a nationalist-populist ideological consensus on Egypt's political arena and to incorporate a broad support coalition in a single--albeit weak--party, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). His charismatic legitimacy allowed him to balance rival social forces. For example, he used popular support to curb the bourgeoisie, rather than to accommodate their participatory propensities, and to repress those--the Wafd (Al Wafd al Misri), and the Muslim Brotherhood--that refused incorporation into his coalition. The post-Nasser regime had to reshape Egypt's political institutions in order to maintain control over the political arena without the legitimacy and coercive assets he had commanded.

Sadat resorted to a strategy mixing limited liberalization, retraditionalization, and repression. He pioneered an experiment in limited political pluralization designed to control the politically attentive public. Needing to solicit the support of the bourgeoisie in the absence of the broad mass legitimacy Nasser had enjoyed, Sadat had to address its desires for political liberalization. Moreover, as his "rightward" policy course shattered the consensus Nasser had built and precipitated the emergence of leftistNasserite opposition, Sadat sought to balance this opposition by allowing the mainstream Islamic movement and the liberal New Wafd Party to reenter the political arena. As Egypt's political arena was thus pluralized, Sadat attempted to incorporate it through a controlled multiparty system. The ASU was dismantled and opposition parties allowed to coalesce around its fragments or the remnants of resurrected prerevolutionary parties. They were expected to be "loyal" opposition parties that would refrain from "destructive" criticism of regime policy but within this limit were allowed to compete with the government party in parliamentary elections. Even Nasserites and the Marxist left were more or less accommodated within these parties, although they were vulnerable to exclusion from the system when they pushed their cases too far; indeed, ultimately, when they refused to play by his rules, Sadat suspended the experiment.

Toward the more passive masses, Sadat's strategy was to replace charismatic with traditional personal legitimacy, projecting himself as a pious and patriarchal leader and, after 1973, as a successful war hero. But as corruption and inequality spread while he pursued Westernization and accommodation with Israel, this strategy gradually failed, leaving a legitimacy vacuum that paved the way for his assassination. The absence of public mourning on his death, in stark contrast to the mass hysteria on Nasser's passing, was a measure of the decline of regime legitimacy by the end of Sadat's presidency.

Mubarak inherited a regime lacking a credible legitimizing ideology or a leading personality capable of attracting mass loyalties to the state. Indicative of the regime's ideological bankruptcy following Sadat's death was Mubarak's attempt to portray his new regime as both Nasserite and Islamic, all the while continuing Sadatist policies. In the absence of ideological legitimacy, the Mubarak regime had to restore the faltering political liberalization pioneered by Sadat. Mubarak revived opposition parties and widened freedom of political expression, particularly of the press, permitting much more unrestrained criticism of the government than was permitted under Sadat. Limited political pluralization was essential to accommodate the participatory demands of the educated upper and middle classes, and given the continuing passivity, poverty, and deference of a large part of the masses, such pluralization could be managed with less risk than the alternative of large-scale repression. Moreover, as under Sadat, liberalization was not uniformly applied to social groups. The regime sought to accommodate more conservative forces, such as the liberal bourgeoisie and conservative Islamists, while reserving selective repression for leftists, strikers, and Islamic radicals.

Country Studies main page | Egypt Country Studies main page