A “nation in anticipation” is an accurate portrayal of Egypt nowadays. Egypt’s octogenarian leader, who presided atop the country for decades, will soon depart the scene either of his own volition or due to incapacity and inevitable demise. As the aging president continued to convalesce after a surgery, serious concerns float to the surface about his ability to resume his responsibilities and fulfill his duties.
Mubarak’s health status has always been a taboo; a topic broached only with trepidation. This time, as he recuperated after removing a gall bladder and a benign growth, his condition is propelled to the forefront of the political debate. This is ineluctable in a country used to tie a knot with presidents “till death do us part.” Naturally, Egyptians remain glued to news of Mubarak’s ailment. The images of the recovering president have been broadcast in an attempt to tranquilize the public opinion. The media continued to hail him as the country’s security valve, and to applaud the astute president who paddled to the shore of safety in an era of turmoil.
These familiar endeavors, nonetheless, failed either to quell the people’s disquietude or to assuage their anxiety. At this time, the appearance of “business as usual” does not instill comfort as it once did. The recurrent relapses are poignant reminders that Mubarak is not immortal. That much is undeniable. What remains a matter of conjecture is who will follow in his footsteps. This thrusts the succession issue into the spotlight. The concern over future leadership in Egypt cannot be understated, especially that the impending events will have enormous ramifications that will extend beyond Egypt’s borders to an already turbulent region.
In times of upheaval, transparency inspires comfort while the lack thereof fuels apprehension and suspicions of intrigue. In Egypt, the transition procedure is supposed to be duly accounted for. Constitutional contingency provisions notwithstanding, there is avid ambiguity about the transfer of power in Egypt. The forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections are taking place consecutively. The former is considered a prelude to the latter, as the presidential candidates are required to seek the approval of the majority of the members of the parliament.
Mubarak has not disclosed his intentions if he is seeking another term in the upcoming presidential elections. Even if he does, it is unlikely he will witness the end of his sixth term. Thus, the succession dilemma will persist.
The predicament is amplified by the fact that there is no successor in sight. Unlike his predecessors, Mubarak has been firmly reluctant to appoint a vice president. Confronting queries, he used to prevaricate that he does not intend to impose a successor of his own choosing; a stance that reflects a flair of deference to democracy and adherence to public will, met with incredulity considering a long record of disparagement to both. This time, the ensuing hand-over will not be reminiscent of past experiences when vice presidents prevailed postmortem. Sadat has been the vice president of Nasser, and Mubarak that of Sadat.
Not only that, but Mubarak never allowed public figures with popular appeal to thrive within the realm of politics. A flagrant example is that of Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister, who was jettisoned to the Arab League as his popularity became a source of unease. This attitude helped to foster an opinion that there is no political figure of comparable stature to Mubarak that stands out. The compelling argument was to ensure a reign without any semblance of rivalry.
This inconspicuous position left analysts and observers to scour for clues over the identity of the successor. For Egyptians, their destiny is usually determined behind closed doors. The typically circumscribed elections, where votes are marred with irregularities, are considered but a charade. Citizens usually watch from the sidelines and accept the preordained outcome. The majority has grown inured to having no say in the course of events, and they are left to follow the debate attentively as the predetermined outcome unfolds.
Uncertainty is, obviously, looming in the horizon. In these circumstances, rumors fill the void of information and Egypt is abuzz with rumors on the inheritance of power scenario. The rumors abound that Gamal Mubarak is being groomed to carry his father’s mantle. Neither the father nor Gamal acknowledge such a plan. Officials disavowed such insinuations, and dubbed any talk about the aspirations of the son as far-fetched. To placate public opinion, Mubarak vehemently tried, to little avail, to clamp the lid on speculations. But his actions have done little to invalidate the widely heralded opinion that the way is paved for his son. Despite emphatic official assertions to the contrary, all indications suggest that such a scenario is concocted and underway.
Observers contend that Mubarak has been consolidating his powers to orchestrate a hereditary scenario. For instance, the constitutional track is greased so that Gamal is able to slide smoothly into presidency. The latest constitutional amendments stipulate that only high ranking party leaders satisfying threshold requirements could contest elections. Thus, the stifling provisions preclude any one to mount a realistic bid without the backing of the ruling party. These convoluted and stringent requirements drastically diminish the potential pool of candidates. The fact that Gamal is one of few who satisfy the criteria is no coincidence. This renders the inheritance scenario more likely. If so, Mubarak would take Egypt down the path of inheritance of leadership already trod by other countries in the region.
Other evidence that corroborates such a scenario is the meteoric rise of the son in recent years. Gamal has enjoyed a high public profile. The consensus is that this is intended to preempt the criticism for not having sufficient experience when he eventually takes over. The coverage of his activities is becoming a daily occurrence. To burnish his credentials, the media tried to cultivate an image of him as a “man of the people” who cares about their welfare. To polish his portfolio, they cast him as the champion of the youth and an embodiment of their aspirations. To ensure a political vehicle for office, he threw all his weight in the ruling party. Heading the Policy Secretariat led him to become the de facto leader of the party. A handful of old guards were discarded of, and prominent party loyalists were unceremoniously pushed aside for his own satisfaction. The concomitant restructuring of the party, coupled with its invigoration, caused Gamal to become substantially influential.
Gamal’s position is evidently bolstered by virtue of his presence in the Presidential palace. The first lady is known to be prodding the president to yield power to the son. In this case, the father would step down and make sure the son strengthens his grip on power before he passes away. He is also widely seen as a conduit to the father, for he is deemed to have the greatest influence in the areas of economic policy. For all this, he is perceived to have significant policy making prerogatives. He has a say in the selection of the cabinet members, and he is behind any reshuffle of high ranking officials. To seek the approval of the United Sates, he was appointed to the US-Egypt President’s Council, led several high level delegations, and accompanied his father in his official visits to Washington.
However, Gamal’s ascendancy is far from a done deal. His detractors argue that Gamal’s unpopularity is his “Achilles’ heel”. The attempts to promote the common-man persona are not easy to swallow considering his privileged upbringing and indulgent background. He was always sheltered from the daily ordeals of the ordinary man. The fact that he cannot fall back on humble roots makes it unlikely to endear him to the public. His associations with unpopular businessmen have tarnished his reputation. His image was not left unscathed by the charges of corruption that hounded his entourage. In the public eye, he is enmeshed in the network of crony capitalists whose interests are preserved by being his protégés.
If popularity is of no consequence in this equation, there is another issue that is. Previous presidents all became head of state by virtue of their military background. Gamal’s lack of military pedigree poses a question over his prospects. This is a shortcoming in a country where every president has risen from the ranks of the armed forces. Even though Gamal has been assiduous in courting these circles, his civilian background may not allow him to win over all the top brass. Some argue that he can be eased into position while his father is still in charge, and the military will not object as long as it does not impact their perquisites.
Others speculated that Omar Suleiman, the head of the General Intelligence, may emerge as a contender. This ensures that the military is not entirely alienated. The regime began bringing him out of political obscurity, and permitting his photo to appear during his diplomatic shuttles. His unveiling to the public, with a status of a diplomat extraordinaire, raised eye brows. His handling key security and diplomatic issues suggests he carries significant weight in the political equation. But his age and the leaks on his illness, few years ago, raised concerns about his physical capacity and whether his role is only to set the scene for Gamal while reassuring the state’s security and intelligence organs.
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.