Egypt: The Groupthink Problem – An Analysis

Through his stubbornness Hosni Mubarak has managed to transform himself from a 30-year-old “loyal ally” into an 82-year-old liability. Almost all dictators cling to power as long as they can. They get use to being the boss and it becomes a way of life for them. Mubarak is no different. But clearly the love of power is not all that is going on with him.

Mr. Mubarak suffers from the same syndrome as did Louis XVI just prior to the French Revolution. Louis lived in the royal complex of Versailles. He rarely visited Paris, which was just 25 miles away, and knew almost nothing of the daily lives of his non-noble subjects. Like Louis, Hosni, too, lives in isolation from the people who go about their business beyond the walls of his presidential palace. Thus, when Mubarak says he loves Egypt and will never run away from his country, he is talking about a place as distant from that of the ordinary citizen as the moon.

A sure sign of this disconnect came with the February 3 report of an interview he gave with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. According to the correspondent, Mubarak said he was “fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but cannot, he says, for fear that the country would sink into chaos.” This is surely a sign that the Egypt he knows is not the Egypt commonly recognized by his people or the rest of the world. From outside the presidential palace, it is starkly clear that a sort of popular chaos is what already besets Egypt and the only way to calm it is for Mubarak to leave office and probably the country as well. The vast majority of Egyptians can see that this is so. President Obama can see this is so and has probably emphasized the fact to Mubarak. Even the King of Saudi Arabia can see what is happening and has offered Mubarak asylum in his country. So, why can’t Hosni Mubarak see it?

Along with the isolation that rulers and especially dictators experience, comes the phenomenon of “groupthink.” In his book “Victims of Groupthink” (Houghton Mifflin, 1972), Irving L. Janis shows how governing political elites create self-reinforcing, decision-making circles. In other words, in the last 30 years, Mubarak has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and aides. These are people who have a vested interest in his regime. They constantly reinforce his worldview and second his decisions. There are no devil’s advocates here. Being a military dictator also probably drives the groupthink outlook. Generals give orders; they do not normally take them. And, all too often, it is the orders given that are meant to shape reality and not the other way around. It is assumed that whatever deviation there is between the two can be swept away by force.

Up till now, this has been the Egyptian dictator’s expectation. His choice of vice president, Omar Suleiman, is a product of Mubarak’s artificial groupthink world and, no doubt, selected to keep that world intact. Therefore, Suleiman’s initial impulse was to reflect his master’s preferences. Days and days of demonstrations by tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding Mubarak’s immediate departure were deemed impractical and disrespectful of a man who has so long “served his country.” But Suleiman, until recently head of the regime’s intelligence services, now appears to have his doubts. Making reality match Mubarak’s fantasy will almost certainly require such force as to guarantee the radicalization of the protest movement.

Most of the conservative talking heads both in the US and in Israel fear the potential of an Iranian-style outcome for Egypt. That is why everyone from Glenn Beck to Benjamin Netanyahu have called on Mubarak to get tough lest we end up with ayatollahs on the Nile. But Egypt is not like Iran, neither the Iran of 1979 nor 2011. There is no rational reason to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood will suddenly turn into the Sunni version of a Republican Guard. However, if the Egyptian government does “get tough” and ends up applying force, there is yet another scenario that presents itself and that is the recent history of Algeria. Back in 1991-1992, the Algerian military crushed the country’s Islamic political movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), just at the moment when it had won democratically conducted, national elections. A military dictatorship was established ,which proceeded to arrest or kill all the moderate FIS leaders (those who had “worked within the system”), thus opening up the movement to much more violent factions. Indeed, these factions were ready to be as violent as was the country’s military. The result was decades of vicious civil war.

One assumes that Suleiman knows of the Algerian experience, and one assumes that someone from the State Department has filled in Barack Obama. Maybe they are both hoping that all the Egyptian protesters will just get tired and go home now that negotiations are said to be underway. This is unlikely to happen. With thousands of protesters still in the streets the opposition is most likely telling Suleiman that their reality is much more real than that of his dictator boss. If Suleiman is wise, he will get the message and make it crystal clear to Mubarak that he has quite suddenly become a liability his nation can no longer afford. For unless Mubarak can shake off the groupthink, Egypt risks spelling liability, A-l-g-e-r-i-a. Now that will be chaos for you.