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Never underestimate the power and sheer cunning of an Arab dictatorial regime determined to stay in power. Egypt is a prime example. On the one hand, the government there is performing terribly; on another level, it is acting brilliantly.
If President Hosni Mubarak were to receive a report card on governance, it would look something like this: Economic Management: D; Human Rights: C; Social Services: C; Staying in Power: A+. In the short-to-medium term at least, only the last grade is important.
How has the government maneuvered so well? A brief list of techniques goes like this:
â€¢ Make lots of promises, then render them meaningless but with enough seeming progress to persuade the West you are improving. Most recently, this meant Mubarak pretended to offer free elections while making sure he was reelected overwhelmingly - by 88 instead of 95 percent. Even this was not good enough, so the government has now changed the law to make it harder for oppositionists to run in future elections. He also ensured that the government party gained a landslide in parliamentary elections - around 80 instead of 90 percent of the seats.
â€¢ Look after your institutional bases of support by giving plenty of benefits to the military, political, economic, professional and intellectual elites.
â€¢ Keep up enough repression to intimidate the vast majority and silence the most effective critics. Thus, at the end of the parliamentary elections, organized thugs wielding knives and axes attacked polling places when it appeared the Muslim Brotherhood was making too many gains. Ayman Nour, the liberal presidential candidate who gained seven percent, was arrested and thrown into prison on a charge of insulting Mubarak during a television interview. Last week he was sentenced to five years of hard labor.
â€¢ Use ideology and xenophobia to mobilize backing for yourself by reminding everyone daily that all of Egypt's problems are due to the evil United States and Israel rather than to incompetent rulers. Make them feel as if Arab identity and Islam were constantly in danger from these enemies.
True, this formula is getting a little tired. But it has been working in Egypt for a half-century and still does well enough. There are more voices demanding reform and more freedom, yet still not a lot of them.
TO ADJUST to changing times, the government has introduced two new features. One of these is to use radical Islamists as an additional threat to scare people back into supporting the regime. The fact that there is a real basis for this fear - as opposed to the fictional charges against America and Israel - makes it all the more effective.
While the Muslim Brotherhood is still illegal, and its broad popular support undeniable, the government has been more tolerant of the Brotherhood than of the liberal opposition. As one Egyptian analyst put it, "The Mubarak regime could rely on international support against the Islamists, but it could not count on support against a strong pro-democracy opposition."
"Most of the most democratic forces lost with only a handful of votes," said Mohammed Sayed Said, also from the al-Ahram Center. "They fought to open the system, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood that benefited." Nour, the apparent leader of the reformists, did not even win reelection to his parliamentary seat.
Things indeed did get out of hand when the Islamists won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. Still, the resulting panic among more independent-minded intellectuals, women's rights advocates, Coptic Christians and others had a positive side for the government. While the growing strength of the Brotherhood could backfire for the regime - after all, Anwar al-Sadat tried a similar technique in the 1970s and ended up being assassinated by Islamists - so far the regime is in good shape.
The second new method is to build up Mubarak's son, Gamal, as his successor. It is by no means certain that Egypt will follow the Syrian model of a republican hereditary monarchy, but this looks more likely than it did a year ago. The neat twist here is that Gamal is posing as Egypt's number-one reformer, leading a powerful technocratic caucus in the ruling party which believes that the country can become more prosperous without becoming freer.
Gamal probably genuinely opposes some regime excesses as simply unnecessary for it to hold onto power. Out of a dinosaur mentality or simply to show their superiors what a good job they are doing, some bureaucrats crack down too much.
"They cannot tolerate opposition," said Dia Rashwan, an analyst with the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "It is a matter of pride for them."
If you are tough enough to take the whole truth, note also that even the tiny "liberal" movement does not, on close inspection, look so moderate and pragmatic . Many of its apparent members, perhaps most, are actually radical Arab nationalists, communists, or opportunists who have jumped in because they do not fit into either the establishment or Islamist camps. Even many of the participants in "liberal" demonstrations were actually Muslim Brotherhood cadre. And even when you get down to the real pro-democratic liberals, this tiny group is badly split.
Finally, fewer than 25 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots. Obviously, they were discouraged by the nature of the elections. Nevertheless, if passivity runs so high no one is going to be able to mobilize the masses for demanding some kind of change. A terrible day of reckoning may come in the future. For the moment, though, the regime is as solidly on the throne as the pharaohs sit on their ancient statues carved out of stone.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.