Mubarak and the legacy of institutional decay

Mubarak and the legacy of institutional decay
Comment: On the anniversary of Mubarak's ousting, his legacy is not simply one of a deposed autocrat, but the origin of an ongoing state of governmental degeneration, writes Mohamed ElMeshad.
5 min read
10 Feb, 2017
Egyptian riot police outside the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak [AFP]

Six years ago, Egyptians grabbed their brooms and took to Tahrir Square, cleaning up after the tens of thousands who had been partying in the streets the night before.

Walking through these roads was surreal, the sun was shining and the general mood was ecstatic. One young man who was helping to organise the cleanup - one of many - was doling out cleaning supplies and directing rubbish collection.

He stopped me as I was earnestly trying to avoid eye-contact, and any of the chores he was randomly delegating. 

"Brother, come on let's clean-up." He had pinned a sign on his shirt that said in big bold letters in both English and Arabic, "Yesterday, we overthrew a regime, today, we clean Egypt."

His triumphant optimism irked me. For one, he was standing in the exact spot in the square where I had spent quite a few nights over the past couple of weeks.

Secondly, he was actively participating in dismantling a "utopia" that the protesters in Tahrir had created over the previous two weeks, one that many had died to create. It was a symbol of something alive and real, one that deserved either a proper send-off, or a permanent physical memorial, not just some spring cleaning by overly enthusiastic boy scout types.

Mubarak's ousting on 11 February was a crowning moment, but it wasn't the defining outcome

Around 100 meters away, makeshift barricades were already being dismantled, and volunteers swept the ground upon which, just days ago, thousands of young protesters were making a stand against the armed hordes of pro-Mubarak operatives.

The 18 days in Tahrir undoubtedly contained some of the most inspiring moments in the lives of at least two generations of Egyptians, probably three. Mubarak's ousting on 11 February was a crowning moment, but it wasn't the defining outcome. The 18-days and what happened in that square was the most important result of Egypt's uprising.

Fear was setting in; a fear of the period to come. The experiment that had been so successful in the 500,000 square foot thoroughfare, was now going to be tested in real life. An area that had contained hopes and aspirations of millions and was an incubator for the best impulses of thousands, was now exposed to the elements.

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Nostalgia was not the only depressing element looming on the horizon of 12 February 2011, there was also the fact that the uprising was up against something so much bigger than Mubarak, and that getting rid of him had always been just a first step to getting rid of the regime.

Many were living with the expectation that Mubarak's ousting would automatically usher in democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had immediately retreated its organised presence in the square were a prime example of that, many believing that the only achievable goal by the occupation of that area was already achieved.

Many were living with the expectation that Mubarak's ousting would automatically usher in democracy

Unfortunately, what that belief did, was to grossly underestimate the damage done by 33 years of Mubarak's rule. In his seminal 2004 book, "Strong Regime, Weak State," and his 2011 follow-up "The Autumn of Dictatorship," the late Samer Soliman discussed the institutional decay and warped power structures that resulted from a regime whose main priority was to consolidate power - despite dealing with an increasingly crippling economy and at times bankrupt public coffers.  

Dysfunction, clientelism, nepotism and impunity occurred in such a systematic manner under Mubarak (many would say as a continuation of previous regimes' policies) that it became in and of itself an institution that transcended the key individuals that made his machine tick.

Unfortunately, what that belief did, was to grossly underestimate the damage done by 33 years of Mubarak's rule

In fact, Mubarak had time to institutionalise his policies in such a way that he was able to maintain the facade of a stabile regime. The symptoms of his failures were present and growing, but under the guise of a cohesive regime apparatus which was often mistaken for the stability of overall government structures. The more his apparatus faltered, the more he had to resort to a repressive police force, which over his years in power were progressively handed more power.

Meanwhile, as the regime became less and less able to fiscally sustain a highly centralised government system, instead of resorting to decentralisation, it resorted to "fragmentation" as Soliman put it, further ingraining the institutional dysfunction.

The current state of affairs is obviously not optimal, and it is not uncommon to hear individuals misguidedly harken back to the days of Mubarak as, "at least having provided a modicum of stability and safety". However, when analysing Mubarak's legacy, the current state of the country since his ousting must be included.

Successive elections have shown what his regime did to ensure that the country was far away from enjoying any sort of robust political presence, and that due to a depressingly deteriorated education system, society has been ill-equipped to deal with an actual electoral process.

Mubarak's machines to keep his corrupt institutions going were broken, and so the veneer of stability dropped, yet his institutions lived on. They could have been completely demolished to start from scratch, but - as it turned out - were recycled by yet another militaristic autocrat.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.