Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's supporters have taken to the streets. Why are they so gung-ho?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 3 2011 4:44 PM

Hosni's Helpers

How many Egyptians support President Mubarak, and what do they like about him?

Anti-Egyptian-government demonstrators hurl stones at opponents, Cairo's Tahrir square, Feb. 3, 2011, 10th day of protests. Click image to expand.
Anti-Egyptian-government demonstrators hurl stones at opponents, Cairo's Tahrir square, Feb. 3, 2011, 10th day of protests

After several days of protests against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a throng of his supporters took to the streets to oppose the revolution. Everyone knows what the protesters don't like about Mubarak—his 30-year reign of oppressive policies and sham elections. But what do the pro-Mubarak activists like about him?

He's putting money in their pockets. Mubarak's supporters out on the street may be on the government payroll, and his natural power base comprises the wealthy Egyptian elites. The president's relatively open, free-market policies have broadened trade (PDF) with the West and Israel, and made thousands of local businessmen extremely wealthy. Add that to his record of extracting foreign aid from the United States and distributing it to domestic businesses, and there's an entire class of Egyptian entrepreneurs who have benefited greatly from his leadership. Government bigwigs, especially those inside the Interior Ministry, are also staunch Mubarak supporters. Then there appears to be a group of ordinary Egyptians who support Mubarak because they think his leadership can at least stave off Yemen-style chaos or Iran-style theocracy. But those people are few. Overall, Mubarak's support among the working class is very weak.

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There's no way of knowing precisely which, or how many, people support President Mubarak, because he has never allowed pollsters to ask people for their opinion of him. (He didn't permit any polling at all until the last decade or so.) But there's reason to believe that his message during the 2005 elections—an odd combination of progressive slogans like "New Thinking" and scare tactics—didn't convince many people. Only 25 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, and many observers think that number is inflated.

It's pretty clear that the people riding into Cairo on camels and armed with whips don't represent a spontaneous pro-Mubarak movement. Journalists have noted that many of them arrived simultaneously, they carry identical flags, and they have an uncanny ability to act in unison. Egypt-watchers assume these activists have been hired to interfere with the protests.

President Mubarak's National Democratic Party has around 2.5 million members, which represents 3 percent of the population. But even that puny total overstates the party's popularity, since few Egyptians join the NDP for ideological reasons. (The party didn't develop its current free-market platform until the last few years, anyway.) Patronage is the real draw: Rich people sign up for business opportunities—the right to buy government land cheap, or the chance to get government contracts. For the not-as-fortunate, an NDP membership card can be a handy way to escape a traffic ticket or smooth over relations with police and government bureaucrats.

The current president's weakness among the working class represents a major shift. Until the late 1970s, Egypt had a socialist-style economy, with huge government-owned enterprises, farm cooperatives, and steep subsidies. Gamel Abdel Nasser counted civil servants, farmers, and other laborers among his strongest supporters. Anwar Sadat initiated the country's first halting steps toward free-market capitalism, but it was Mubarak who embraced economic liberalization. As a result, far fewer workers now rely on the government for their paychecks.

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Explainer thanks Vickie Langhor of College of the Holy Cross University and Samer Shehata of Georgetown University.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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