As Gamal continued to cement his front runner status, unpleasant surprises were in the making. The independent press has nudged alternatives to Gamal into the limelight. Mohammed El Baradei, a Nobel laureate and the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA, is a name that keeps cropping up. El Baradei, giving up the helm of the IAEA, became the new recalcitrant in Egypt’s staid political landscape. A spontaneous wave of enthusiasm for El Baradei galvanized the opposition. He was invited by jubilant supporters to launch a campaign to clean up the country’s political decay.
He embraced a nascent movement, when he unveiled the National Association for Change. The association encompasses a broad swath of Egypt’s largely squandered opposition. The coalition includes all political stripes including conventional parties, movements for change like Kefaya, and others adamant on derailing the inheritance of power scenario. Despite the allegations and the smear campaigns aimed to discredit him, El Baradei’s international posture shield him from the wrath of the regime and spare him the fate of previous challengers. His tenure abroad meant the regime cannot taint him with charges of corruption, financial chicanery, or lack of experience. He declared he will not run without unequivocal guarantees of free and fair elections.
As an independent candidate would have to seek approval from commissions and councils dominated by the ruling party, his chances are slim. It is unlikely he will be able to run the presidential race, unless exceptions are made to create a facade of democracy. The constitutional constraints imply that the best El Baradei can do is to embarrass the regime at home and abroad.
Daunting hurdles are also put in place for the opposition to be unable to impact what is about to transpire. The regime has never tolerated a genuine competition that would challenge the status quo. The morass of restrictions, security scruples, constitutional impediments, and containment policies, all acted to cripple conventional party politics. Parties were not allowed to expand their grassroots activities. Accordingly, they lost touch with the masses. They are left unable to sway public opinion or to mobilize it in any meaningful manner. In addition, they are fragmented with petty ideological frivolities and disarrayed by trivial disputes. Opposition of all stripes lost its compass and left wandering in the political arena. Their inability to be attuned to new rising opportunities is reflected in their failure to tap into popular discontent, nor to capitalize on growing frustration and dissatisfaction sentiments amongst a wide segment of the population. This guaranteed that the fledgling opposition will be unable to mount to much in the ballots on election day, or to influence the country’s trajectory. The only opposition that is a force to be reckoned with is the banned-but-intermittently-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. The members of the group garnered a substantial minority of parliamentary seats. However, the group is checked by frequent crackdowns lest it morphs into a political menace. According to its critics, even though the group has the capacity to muster thousands of supporters onto the streets it has steadily eschewed confrontation. Therefore, it is unlikely to be a hurdle on Gamal’s way to the Presidential palace.
From all the aforementioned, the scene is clearly set for a premeditated transition. If successful, the son is expected to sustain his predecessor’s policies. Therefore, the succession will not lead to dramatic changes. Gamal is neither equipped nor inclined for a major overhaul. To see a glimpse of Egypt under Gamal, it is imperative to retrace Mubarak’s policies. Mubarak has always been torn between “Scylla and Charybdis”; the mythical sea monsters situated in the opposite sides of the strait of Messina, posing an inescapable threat to passing sailors. Mubarak had to set the sail succeeding two legendary figures with conflicting legacies: popular policies that lead to the political suicide of Nasser after a military defeat, and unpopular policies that lead to the assassination of Sadat. The tragic end of his predecessors caused Mubarak to contemplate ways to avert their fate. Haunted by their memories, Mubarak opted for prudence while sailing through.
In foreign affairs, this translated into a withdrawal of Egypt from its spheres of influence. Egypt was once a center of gravity in the Arab world, in Africa, and in the non-aligned movement. Under Mubarak, the country’s influence dwindled and its international standing waned. Egyptian foreign policy became obsessed with strengthening ties with the west only. This, unfortunately, came on the expense of its relations with the rest of the world. The fact that it overlooked other venues proved detrimental to its national security. The latest impasse with the riparian countries over the distribution of the Nile water is but an example of the consequences of this approach. The accusations that Egypt is subservient to the United States foreign policy also alienated the country from several active players in the region. Therefore, its ability to influence events, and to communicate with all parties, has been greatly curtailed. As the country became more irrelevant in the regional arena, others such as Iran and Turkey stepped in to fill the vacuum. Gamal is expected to continue to adopt and implement a foreign policy where Egypt cedes its once prominent position to other regional players.
In the economic front, Mubarak claimed he introduced gradual liberalization reforms, under the guise of international organizations, to minimize the adverse impact on those in low income categories. The times of austerity were announced to be temporary. His governments continued calling on people’s forbearance until the results of liberalization trickle down. However, the gap between the regime rhetoric and empirical reality widened. Decades of economic dysfunction, lack of vision, and administrative paralysis caused the economy to falter.
The Egyptian economy faces myriads of challenges, with a significant portion of Egyptians living in abject poverty, widespread unemployment, escalating inflation rates, widening income disparities, and ubiquitous corruption. The popularity of the adopted policies has given way to condemnation, and outright indignation became inevitable. The son is an adept pupil. He became an advocate of privatization and a proponent of liberalization; a reformist bent on transforming Egypt to a market economy. However, the policies he adopts have an adverse impact on the livelihoods of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. The pretence of economic reforms is perceived by the masses as a way to amass wealth by those in his milieu. These businessmen, whom he surrounds himself with, ensure their wealth by operating at the nexus of business and politics.
The latest cabinet, he hand-picked, is a demonstration that the lines are blurred between business and politics. For most, this is not about liberalization as much as it is about creating a constituency whose interests and sheer survival depends on his presence in the core of the political scene. So when time is opportune, they will have no choice but to put all their weight behind his candidacy.
In the political reform front, the regime seems impervious to change. Mubarak used to lead without relenting to any of the public demands on political reform. He continued to stress stability, even on the expense of the aspired-for-reforms. This attitude precluded any but cosmetic changes. Like father, like son. Gamal’s ostensible commitment to liberalism and pluralism continues to be more assertion than fact. When pushed on such issues as the renewal of the emergency law, reinstatement of presidential limits, constitutional reform, restoring judicial oversight of elections, his answers reverberated that of his fathers’.
No profound change in policy is to be entertained in Egypt if the succession scenario proceeds as planned. There continues to be a great deal of bitter cynicism on the prospect for change under Gamal. The country’s long term stability is, thus, at stake. The economic policies will continue to widen the gap between a handful of affluent powerful entrepreneurs and the majority of an already marginalized population. The foreign policy will cause Egypt to become even more irrelevant, and accordingly less of a valuable ally. In addition, the repressive apparatus of the state, offering few outlets for dissent, will enhance the fortunes of Islamists as a viable alternative to authoritarianism.
This is a prescription for discontent to culminate eventually into chaos. Post Mubarak Egypt could easily descent into instability. If clouds forebode a storm, Egyptian skies are definitely cloudy. Even if the succession scenario will not cause Egypt to sink immediately into turmoil, it will sow its seeds and thus become a precursor for instability. The pseudo-monarchical succession is, unfortunately, mortgaging the country’s future.
This is an appropriate context to discuss one of the most contentious issues of foreign policy. In foreign affairs, there are two approaches: either to stand for the promotion of democracy, freedoms, and human rights, or alternatively to safeguard interests even if it entails fostering alliances with totalitarian regimes. This dichotomy implies there is an ideological position that considers democracy promotion in the core of a national security doctrine. Accordingly, any administration should elevate democratic imperatives and voice opposition whenever it encounters serious violations to democratic practices or human rights.
This also implies there is another pragmatic approach aimed to ensure the strategic interests without being preoccupied with what type of regime delivers. This approach is willing to overlook non-democratic behavior as long as other practices are conducive to achieving foreign policy objectives. In this case, intervention for democracy and human rights act only as a pretext for pressure when expedient. Foreign policy has always been torn between these two approaches, and the consensus has been that you have to opt for one or the other.
Egypt is at a crossroads, and is about to enter a period of flux. This change is bound to take place on this administration’s watch. The administration cannot avoid being in the unenviable position with only few options. The first is to bless the transition where it would be blamed as a sponsor; an act that would be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Gamal’s candidacy. The second is to stand aside as it occurs which will be construed as a failure of democracy promotion, since father-son transitions are inimical to democracy and good governance. The third is to oppose it and pressure the regime to ensure fair and free elections. In this case, the intervention would give the regime an opportunity to defame its opponents as stooges of the west. With the current administration priorities, the political reforms are subordinated to other strategic interests.
Egypt has been a steadfast ally of the United States. The upcoming events in Egypt, however, allow foreign policy makers to reconsider this dichotomy. The succession, as planned, will cause a focal country like Egypt to be susceptible to instability in the future. The repercussions of that possibility on the region cannot be remedied easily. Democracy in Egypt is a guarantee to its long run stability, and this is an essential warranty for the entire region’s stability. These consequences are a demonstration that, this time, it is difficult to disentangle one approach from the other. Promoting democracy and safeguarding interests seem to be intertwined in this situation, and the two approaches have to be reconciled. Therefore, democracy promotion options cannot be dislodged on the premise that it is not practical to pursue. Furthermore, these options cannot be pursued, only on ideological grounds, without realizing their practical implications. Any other alternative is simply shortsighted. It is imperative to realize that a vulnerable country is not a valuable ally. If vulnerability hinges on a democratic environment, then a democratically is more valuable.
Finally, interference in a country’s internal affairs is deemed inappropriate. What is left for the United States foreign policy is not to explicitly embrace or condone what is about to transpire. The succession will unfold against a background already resonating with similar whispers in other countries in the region. If the foreign policy bless the succession plans, the Egyptian case will always be a precedent that others in the region will appeal to when they attempt to emulate the same pattern. In that case, the credibility of any future efforts to promote democracy will be irreparably impaired.