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Egypt-Chapter 4 - Government and Politics

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Egypt Index


Mycerinus (Menkure) and queen, Giza, ca. 2500 B.C.

THE MODERN EGYPTIAN STATE is the product of a historically rooted political culture and of the state-building efforts of its founding leaders, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar as Sadat. Egypt has been governed by powerful centralized rule since ancient times, when the management of irrigated agriculture gave rise to the pharaohs, absolute god-kings. This experience produced a propensity toward authoritarian government that persisted into modern times. Although the contemporary Egyptian state remained in essence authoritarian, such rule was not accepted unconditionally. Its legitimacy depended on adherence to certain public expectations. Egypt's centuries of subordination to foreign rule, its long struggle for independence, and its continuing dependency on other countries generated a powerful nationalism that made national legitimacy crucial to the acceptance of the authoritarian state. Moreover, after the Arab invasion in the seventh century A.D., many expected the state to rule on behalf of the true faith and community and according to Islamic norms of justice; as a result, the state sought to legitimize itself in Islamic terms. Finally, in more recent years, the spread of political consciousness put rulers under growing pressure to accommodate demands for participation.

The 1952 Revolution against the traditional monarchy, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser's group of nationalist-reformist Free Officers, gave birth to the contemporary republic. Nasser forged the new state, suppressing the rudiments of pluralism and creating a president-dominated, military-led authoritarian-bureaucratic regime with a single party and a subordinated parliament, press, and judiciary. Nasser's charismatic leadership and the populist achievements of the 1952 Revolution--particularly land reform, social welfare, and a nationalist foreign policy--legitimized the new regime. Nasser gave the state a broader base of support than it had hitherto enjoyed, a base that embraced a populist coalition of the army, the bureaucracy, the middle class, and the masses.

Nasser's successor, Anwar as Sadat, adapted the state to a "post-populist" era. The major vulnerabilities of the Nasser regime were its lack of strong support among the Egyptian landed and business classes and, after the 1967 defeat by Israel, its alienation from the United States, the superpower whose support was needed to resolve the conflict with Israel. Although Sadat assumed power as Nasser's vice president and was a veteran of the revolution, he soon reoriented the policies of the state to reconcile it with the need for support from the Egyptian middle class and for a good relationship with the United States. While retaining the essential structures of the Nasserist state, he carried out a limited political liberalization and an economic and diplomatic infitah (opening or open door; see Glossary) to the West. This shifted the state's base of support from reliance on Nasser's populist coalition to a reliance on the landed and business classes internally and an American alliance externally. The political system remained essentially authoritarian but with a greater tolerance of political pluralism than under Nasser; thus, parliament, opposition parties, interest groups, and the press all enjoyed greater, though still limited, freedom.

Husni Mubarak, Sadat's vice-president, inherited power on the basis of constitutional legitimacy at Sadat's death. He consolidated Sadat's limited political liberalization and maintained the major lines of Sadat's policies while trying to overcome some of their excesses and costs.

As revolutionary legitimacy was eclipsed by the passage of time, the legal powers enshrined in the Constitution of 1971 became a more important source of legitimacy. The Constitution, a descendant of the 1956 constitution drafted under Nasser, largely reinforced authoritarian traditions. It established a mixed presidential-parliamentary-cabinet system, but the president is constitutionally the center of power. The president is supreme commander, declares war, concludes treaties, proposes and vetoes legislation, and may rule through decree under emergency powers that have been regularly delegated by parliament. He appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, which may issue "decisions" having the force of law. Under the Constitution, the People's Assembly has the power to legislate and to nominate the president, and other branches of government are responsible to the assembly. But it has never effectively exercised these constitutional checks on the executive.

Data as of December 1990

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