[28 September 2020 marks fifty years since the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. His “July Revolution” of 1952 reshaped the politics, economy, and cultural life of modern Egypt and profoundly influenced those of the Arab world, as well as the fortunes of European empire and the course of the Afro-Asian and nonaligned movements of the twentieth century. Abdel-Nasser's legacies continue to be invoked and contested in contemporary Arab politics, while several Nasserist parties have endeavored to repurpose his political tradition. On this significant anniversary, Jadaliyya's Egypt page publishes four articles in succession to critically engage with these legacies. Its editors invite fellow scholars and students of the Nasser era to send in further contributions that do the same. Read the first article, second article, and third article in the series here.]
“It doesn’t get more democratic than this,” remarked Zakariya Azmi at the Seventh Annual Congress of the National Democratic Party (NDP) held in October 2010. Azmi, then-assistant secretary-general of the party and longtime aide to President Hosni Mubarak, was praising the ruling party’s process of candidate selection in the lead up to the 2010 legislative election. For the first time in its history, he said, the NDP is entering the election season with a strong party organization in all of Egypt’s governorates. Through transparent, democratic primaries, Azmi explained, the party’s regional subunits selected two NDP candidates for the two seats available in each electoral constituency.
Azmi’s words could not have been farther away from the truth. The NDP was in fact in complete disarray at that moment. It was preparing to field over 800 candidates to compete for 508 parliamentary seats, with many NDP candidates facing off against each other, in a clear sign that its so-called democratic nomination process broke down and that the party was bracing for infighting and discord. And sure enough, once the legislative election voting kicked off it became apparent that the state of chaos inside the regime ran deep.
Most observers of Egypt knew that the election was a crucial moment for then-President Hosni Mubarak. By generating a parliament that evoked the façade of a democratic process, the vote was meant to pave a legal path for the president to pass on power to his youngest son Gamal—an endeavor that came to be known publicly as the “succession project.” Toward that end, the political leadership signaled that it would allow formal opposition parties some nominal representation in parliament. Such a move was important for boosting the credibility of the political framework under which the prospective presidential race was scheduled to take place in 2011. The outcome of these efforts, however, was a complete disaster.
State-sponsored violence and fraud marred the parliamentary voting process that year. Furthermore, the ruling party and its allies ended up monopolizing almost 90 percent of the seats. While the regime had already indicated early on in the election season that it would shut the Muslim Brotherhood out of parliament, insider reports were all suggesting that the NDP would reward loyal opposition parties with legislative seats for good behavior. Earlier that same year, parties like al-Wafd and al-Tagammu had eschewed calls for boycotting the election, distanced themselves from presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, and helped contain opposition to a Gamal Mubarak presidency. Thus, that the NDP left this loyal opposition with negligible parliamentary representation was a shock to all observers.
Taking the blame for the mismanagement of the 2010 election was Ahmed Ezz, the NDP’s Secretary for Organizational Affairs and close friend and associate of Gamal Mubarak. Many observers attribute the outcome of the election to the Ezz’s personal shortcomings as a leader: incompetent, inexperienced, corrupt, and arrogant. But there was so much more to the story than the person of Ezz.
The 2010 election and the years leading up to it marked the end of an era for Egyptian politics, namely the passing of a generation of politicians and statesmen who for decades managed major governance institutions and channels of political competition. More importantly, it was that generation that arguably took the lead in organizing and maintaining some semblance of harmony between competing institutional and political interests that sought control over the state or access to its resources. Within that delicate balance grew the opportunity for such things as multi-party politics, state-managed elections, and limited legislative oversight—the main features of the Mubarak era (1981-2011) that are strikingly absent from post-2013 Egypt. Yet the road to achieving that balance was longer than one might assume.
The date was 3 September 1963. The place was the residence of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Besides the president, in attendance were Prime Minister Aly Sabri, Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Radwan, Presidential Aide Sami Sharaf, al-Ahram Editor-in-Chief and Abdel-Nasser’s confidant Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, and Head of Misr Bank and former communist activist Ahmad Fouad. The lunch menu: red meat and freek, eggplant, green salad with lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes, and watermelon for dessert, followed by tea and coffee.
It is with that level of detail and precision that Sharaf recounts in his memoirs the meeting that led to the inception of the Tali‘at al-Ishtirakiyyin (the Socialist Vanguard) also known as al-Tanzim al-Tali‘i or the Vanguard Organization (VO). The VO was a secret branch of the ruling Arab Socialist Union (ASU) and was originally conceived by Abdel-Nasser as a nucleus that could someday form the basis for an ideologically cohesive ruling party. That is, a ruling party that would fare better than the ASU, which Abdel-Nasser saw as a feeble organization full of opportunists and infiltrated by reactionary interests that lack the will or the ability to fight on behalf of the existing political order at dire times. The president may have ended up with more than what he bargained for—or at least Egypt did.
The idea for the VO came into being in the wake of Syria’s secession from the United Arab Republic (1958–61) as a result of a military coup that sent ranking Egyptian officers back to Cairo on a plane. The coup was a serious moment of reckoning for Abdel-Nasser who was coming to terms with his own vulnerability in the face of what he viewed as counter-revolutionary threats to his rule: private capitalists, large landowners, and external powers. “We saw in Syria,” he famously said in a 1961 speech, “how capitalist, feudalist, and opportunist forces have partnered with colonialism to eliminate the gains of the masses, hit the socialist revolution, and recover all of their privileges, even using, if necessary, armed force and bloodshed.”
More importantly, as historian Sherif Younis notes, Syria’s secession was a harsh reminder to Abdel-Nasser that his own popularity would not save him in the face of a coup should military leaders ever decide to make a move against him. Such fears were in fact extremely pronounced at the time and were central to shaping Abdel-Nasser’s efforts to build and augment his domestic security apparatus, as Hazem Kandil demonstrates in his Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen. The creation of the VO was one element of such efforts to the extent that it was meant to counterbalance the growing influence of the military, especially its leader Abdel-Hakim Amer.
While the existence of the VO was well known and is cited in major firsthand accounts of the politics of the Abdel-Nasser era, our understanding of its vast coverage and the extent of its legacy reached new depths in the last two decades. One important development was the release of Sharaf’s memoirs in 2004. Sharaf was not only Abdel-Nasser’s closest aide and a major protagonist in the story of the VO, but he was also the person tasked with managing the flow of documents and information to the late president. Thus, Sharaf’s records are extensive. Another significant contribution comes from historian Hamada Hosni, who a few years following the release of Sharaf’s memoirs published a study on the VO based on primary documents obtained from former affiliates of the organization.
In some ways, these accounts and documents confirmed what researchers had long known or suspected about the VO. That is, the VO was a spy-like organization with secret cells that infiltrated major public institutions with the aim of gathering information on potentially subversive activities. And as accounts of the Egyptian communist movement have previously reported, the VO was indeed an important vehicle for integrating coopted members of communist groups into the ASU—in a subordinate capacity—after they had dissolved their organizations in the mid-1960s.
What was shocking to learn, however, is the extent to which the networks that once constituted the VO continued to play a major role in governance and party politics in subsequent decades. While the VO is often associated with the distant memory of the ASU, which was disbanded in the mid-1970s with the formation of political parties under Anwar al-Sadat, the influence of its networks has arguably lived on during the Mubarak era. As one scans rosters of former VO members, which Sharaf provided in his memoirs and associated interviews, one finds a compilation of the who's-who in elite politics of the Mubarak era, as well as that of his predecessor Anwar al-Sadar. Among them are:
- Mubarak’s Prime Ministers Fouad Mohieddin, Atef Sedky, and Atef Ebeid, and Sadat’s Prime Ministers Aziz Sedky, Abdel-Aziz Hegazy, Mamduh Salem, and Mustafa Khalil, who continued to serve as a senior NDP leader under Mubarak
- Senior NDP leaders who managed the ruling party for much of the Mubarak era, including Youssef Waly and Kamal El-Shazly
- Parliamentary Speakers under Mubarak’s rule Mostafa Kamal Helmy, Fathi Serour, and Rifaat al-Mahgoub
- Mubarak’s Foreign Ministers Amr Mousa and Esmat Abdel-Meguid, and senior foreign policy advisors Mostafa al-Feqi and Osama al-Baz
- Mubarak’s Minister of Interior Hassan Abu-Basha, and Sadat’s Ministers of Interior al-Nabawi Ismail and Shaarawi Gomaa
- Various leaders of cultural and educational institutions under Mubarak, including Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and Ministers of Education Fathy Serour, Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin, Minister of Higher Education and NDP Parliamentary heavyweight Mofid Shehab Eddin, and Minister of Youth Ali Eddin Helal
- Mubarak’s Ministers of Petroleum Abdel-Hadi Qandil and Ahmed Ezz Eddin Helal
- Mubarak’s Minister of Health Ragheb Dowidar, and Sadat’s Minister of Health Ibrahim Badran
- Grand Imam of al-Azhar under Sadat Abdel-Halim Mahmoud
- Former leaders of the Ministry of Labor and Egyptian Trade Union Federation Salah Gharib, Abdel-Latif Boulteya, and Ahmed al-Amawy
- Heads of the professional syndicate, including Ahmad al-Khawaga of the Lawyers Syndicate (1966-1971; 1985-1966), and Hamdi al-Sayyid of the Doctors Syndicate (1976-1984; 1992-2010).
Equally notable is that the VO network comprised individuals who would, later on, take leading positions in managing opposition politics under Mubarak. The leadership of almost every major opposition party for much of the Mubarak presidency was delegated to a former VO member, including Mustafa Kamel Murad (Liberal Socialists Party), Khaled Mohieddin (al-Tagammu), Ibrahim Shukri (Socialist Labor Party), and Diaaeddin Daoud (Nasserist Party). By virtue of its ties to communist elements, the VO network was also strongly represented among al-Tagammu Party’s co-founders or would-be leaders: Rifaat al-Said, Amina Shafiq, Philip Gallab, Fouad Morsi, Ismail Sabri Abdallah, Ibrahim Saadeddin, Lutfi al-Khouli, and Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr. The VO network was also apparent in the editorial leadership of opposition newspapers during much of the Mubarak era. It included Gamal Badawi, who headed al-Wafd daily during the 1990s, Mahmoud al-Maraghi who served as editor-in-chief for both al-Tagammu’s al-Ahaly and the Nasserist Party’s al-Arabi, and longtime editor-in-chief of the Labor Party’s al-Shaab daily Adel Hussein.
The VO had clearly contributed to the Mubarak era an entire generation of statesmen, politicians, public servants, journalists, and activists. Certainly, our understanding of the impact of the VO network on the Mubarak era remains preliminary and warrants deeper research efforts. Yet, a number of hypotheses emerge from the cursory evidence examined thus far.
First, the VO network offered the Mubarak regime a wealth of human resources with clear markers of loyalty and credible records of competence in managing and following state directives whether inside the government or within civil society. Second, for much of the Mubarak era the political leadership was dominated by a community of elites who had been socialized around the VO’s norms, which venerate the state and encourage cooperation with the security apparatus. Third, that these norms were shared across bureaucracies, legislative bodies, ruling and opposition parties, and state cultural organizations allowed for considerable coordination and synergy among the various institutions of authoritarian governance under Mubarak. More significantly, the shared commitments and norms that these networks held kept adversity among the competing political actors they covered in check. It was that environment that allowed for stable multi-party politics and state-managed elections to emerge without posing serious threats to the stability of the existing political order. In short, the legacy of the VO could be usefully conceptualized as a political class that allowed the regime to assert control over public institutions, create synergy between them, and manage political competition in ways that did not warrant an exclusive reliance on coercive methods. In simple terms, the VO networks helped lay the groundwork for state-managed political competition under Mubarak’s rule.
The implications of the VO legacy, moreover, push us to re-envision Mubarak’s authoritarianism as inclusive of not just the ruling party and the governing elites, but also the formal opposition and the multi-party life it, quite conditionally, safeguarded. Relatedly, the downfall of the Mubarak regime, one is led to believe, did not simply happen on the day of his resignation on 11 February 2011 or when the Higher Administrative Court formally dissolved the NDP on 16 April 2011. Instead, its demise occurred gradually with the passing of the VO generation. It was that generation that arguably supplied the regime with the human resources and networks that maintained its cohesion and allowed it to coexist peacefully with multi-party politics. In that context, instability and discord under Mubarak were often associated with the rise of political newcomers who were determined to rob the VO networks of positions of influence. Gamal Mubarak and his associates tried to do so inside the ruling party. Kifaya and other anti-system protest movements that mushroomed during Mubarak’s final decade in office were in effect engaged in a similar endeavor in the realm of opposition, albeit with relatively less success. Finally, it quite telling that once the January 25 Revolution put the final nail in the coffin of the Mubarak regime, the actors that came to dominate the political scene were the three major organizations in which the VO’s role was either limited or nonexistent under Abdel-Nasser. These were the military, the judiciary, and the Muslim Brotherhood. And there is a lot more to be written about the genealogy of that political trinity and how it came to define the course of politics in post-Mubarak Egypt.
It was with great shock that the world greeted the Egyptian military’s February 2014 announcement that its scientists invented a device proven to cure both Hepatitis C and AIDS. Shortly thereafter, the inventor appeared on Egyptian national television claiming that he treats AIDS patients using “kofta,” a ground meat skewer. Pro-regime commentators defended the claim in the weeks that followed, arguing that critics and skeptics were unpatriotic and playing into the hands of foreign interests that would like to rob Egypt of its new invention. And even after all the criticism, debate, and mockery subsided, the Egyptian government still has not outrightly detracted that claim or announced that anyone was held accountable for what is clearly a major scam.
In many ways “kofta” has become an apt description of the regime that was taking hold in Egypt at that moment. Colloquially, the term kofta denotes the practice of improvising from a place of ignorance or inexperience. “Koftagy” is understood as someone who is obviously out of their depth and is just “winging it.” In certain ways that is exactly what the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is doing—winging it. That is, since Sisi’s inauguration as president in 2014, the regime’s leaders among officers and security personnel have been trying to take the helm in governing the country and in building the façade of a political process despite having no relevant experience or resources. Therein stands the House of Kofta.
There are two major features that have consistently characterized the Sisi regime since its inception. The first is its strong reliance on coercive methods, and relatedly its inability to safeguard limited space for airing and managing political dissent. The second is its consistent failure in reviving institutions of competitive politics that existed under previous eras of authoritarian rule. That shortcoming was most pronounced in successive election seasons, when it became embarrassingly obvious that the security apparatus tasked with recruiting candidates and running elections, was struggling in organizing regime allies in cohesive parties and coalitions. For years observers have been waiting for signs that the Sisi regime would bring back the state-managed political competition that existed under Mubarak’s rule, or the “liberalized autocracy” of the previous order.
The idea that the Sisi regime can simply revert back to Mubarak-style authoritarianism assumes that the current leadership has access to the same human and institutional resources that he inherited from the previous era. Stated differently, Mubarak’s liberalized authoritarianism did not happen overnight. He inherited Abdel-Nasser’s legacy of a generation of politicians and statesmen that, as explained above, allowed for political liberalization to coexist with authoritarian rule. Sisi, by contrast, took over the challenge that Ahmed Ezz and Gamal Mubarak failed to contend with, namely reinventing authoritarian-managed political contestation after the passing of the same VO generation that safeguarded the workings of these institutions in the previous era. Whereas the Mubarak regime was staffed with security-minded politicians, the Sisi regime is largely run by politicized security officers with little experience in the realm of politics. Therein lies the predicament of the House of Kofta, namely the absence of the institutional and human resources to wage a nominally competitive political process that could credibly evoke the façade of democracy. Thus, all it is left with are instruments of repression, and a set of security officers with little experience in politics but armed with a whole lot of “kofta.” This is not to glorify Mubarak’s authoritarianism, understate its repressive practices, or overlook its long record of corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement. Rather, this is to say that the institutional conditions that allowed limited political competition to grow under the auspices of Mubarak’s rule—many of which are associated with the legacies inherited from Abdel-Nasser—are largely absent at the present time. So, for those who are waiting for the House of Kofta to revive Mubarak’s authoritarianism: don’t hold your breath.
[I would like to thank Reem Abou-El-Fadl, Ziad Abu-Rish, Amr Adly, and Nancy Okail for their comments on earlier drafts.]
 The results of the 2010 legislative election were expected to shape how competitive the prospective presidential race would appear. According to the constitution at the time, an established political party could field a presidential candidate only if it enjoys at least five percent representation in parliament. To get on the presidential election ballot, an independent candidate would need at least 250 signatures from members of parliament or other elected representative bodies.
 Sadat announced in March 1976 the formation of three “platforms” (manabir) inside the ASU, each representing a particular political current. Representing the right was the Liberal Socialist Organization, the center was housed in the Egypt Arab Socialist Organization, which was led by then-Prime Minister Mamduh Salem, and representing the left was the National Progressive Unionist Organization. These organizations were recognized as independent political parties in 1977. Also emerging from within the ASU was the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was formed in 1978 and took the place of the Egypt Arab Socialist Organization as the ruling party.
 The impact of the legacies of the VO, specifically the socialist mission it professed, on the pursuit of economic liberalization under Mubarak is an interesting question and warrants an intervention of its own. That said, many accounts of the VO portray its socialist commitments as tenuous and very much subordinate to its security functions.
 While some report that the VO maintained a presence inside the army, Kandil (2012: 59) reports that Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer gave orders to keep the VO out of the army.
 Hamada Hosni (2007: 62) writes that state attempts to recruit imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood figures to the VO failed. He also examines the strong resistance that the VO recruits inside the judiciary faced from judges who sought to maintain their independence from Abdel-Nasser (111-144).