From the Editors
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With parliamentary elections only a few months away and a widely anticipated presidential election due next year, many observers have projected that change is coming to Egypt, possibly the kind of change that partisans of democracy can believe in. Looking at Egypt from the outside, there are many reasons to believe that a real transformation is in sight. After all, news reports from Egypt over the past few years have tended to focus on the deteriorating health of the 82-year-old president, street protests, riots, and sit-ins in response to various government failings, and Mohamed ElBaradei’s emergence as a potential contender for the Egyptian presidency. Such reports paint a picture of an ailing regime that is no longer able to deliver to its own people at a time when an actual and long-awaited “third way” (aka ElBaradei) has finally emerged and is ready to step in to rescue Egypt from stagnation and decline. Contextualizing these trends in the broader political realities on the ground, however, yields less promising conclusions regarding the “change” upon which the country is allegedly about to embark. The smell of change in the Egyptian air is more faint than some might have you believe.
There is no question that President Hosni Mubarak’s years in office are numbered. For many people, this raises the question of whether his son, Gamal Mubarak, will take power after his father is no longer able to lead, either due to poor health or death. In some ways, this question is misleading, because it assumes that Gamal has not been effectively ruling Egypt for a good part of the past decade. It takes a great deal of diligence to miss the fact that since 2002 all the major posts in the cabinet and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have been populated with individuals who hold old ties to Gamal Mubarak or people who have built their careers on singing his praises publicly and privately. The government’s policies reflect his neo-liberal economic vision, and most officials who have taken issue with this vision have lost their jobs or (in one case) ended up in prison. Since 2004 Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies have taken a very adventurous color, shamelessly pro-American and aggressively neo-liberal, which is highly inconsistent with Hosni Mubarak’s policy approach in the 80s and 90s: conservative, slow and very uneasy (and secretive) about its pro-American foreign policy and its liberal economic outlook. This new bold approach reflects a younger and more decisive (and perhaps uncalculating) leadership that has no qualms about showing that the Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser—inclusive in its economic outlook and boldly independent in its foreign policy—is no more; a harsh reality that previous generations of Egyptian statesmen, including Hosni Mubarak himself, sought to conceal (often unsuccessfully) sometimes by slowing down the pace of economic liberalization or by paying lip service to the Arab causes that Cairo has, at best, kept on the backburner, and at worst, completely abandoned. The new Egypt reeks of Gamal. Thus, the view that Gamal is still being “groomed” for leading the country misses the reality that the Gamal succession project has been in progress for almost a decade and that we are currently witnessing its final, not its beginning, stages. Passing on the presidency to Gamal via relatively free but uncompetitive elections is hardly a tough battle and will merely formalize what has already been in place.
Some observers have argued that a Gamal presidency is not a fait accompli, speculating about the possibility that some regime elements, or what is known as the NDP’s “old guard,” are resisting Gamal’s policies and his political ambitions. For example, some view NDP Secretary General Safwat El-Sherif’s recent remark that the party is ready to nominate Hosni Mubarak in next year’s election as an attempt to undermine efforts to promote Gamal’s presidential bid. Others say that Hosni Mubarak’s longtime associates, like Presidential Chief of Staff Zakaria Azmi, are undercutting Gamal’s supporters inside the Egyptian government, which suggests that plans to push for a Gamal presidency will face some stiff opposition inside the NDP. I find this line of reasoning unpersuasive for a number of reasons. Firstly, asserting that the NDP stands behind the nomination of Hosni Mubarak, as El-Sherif did, does not reflect a deliberate effort to rebuff Gamal’s political ambitions. After all, most statements made by regime members and allies in support of a Gamal Mubarak presidency have (tactfully) taken the form: ‘I want Hosni Mubarak to remain president, but Gamal is my second pick.’ The NDP’s recent statement is consistent with this general view, even if it does include an explicit endorsement for Gamal. El-Sherif’s comments, moreover, reflect eagerness on the part of the regime to counter speculations about Hosni Mubarak’s deteriorating health and to reaffirm that he is still fully capable of running the country. Secondly, Azmi’s alleged rivalry with Gamal’s friends in the cabinet and the NDP (as well as similar conflicts among younger and older generations of the party) is nothing new. Politics within the ruling elite have always been and will remain a dirty business full of personal animosities and recurring disagreements. Thus, signs of rivalry among government officials are not necessarily indications of irreconcilable regime splits. In the particular case of Azmi, it is useful to remember that besides being the president’s chief of staff, he is also an elected member of parliament. In justifying the paradoxical combination of aiding the president and serving as a member of the legislature, he often presents himself as an anti-corruption figure and a critic of underperforming government officials and agencies. In other words, interpreting his criticism of fellow officials as an effort by a regime faction to undermine Gamal’s project misses some critical nuances. Finally, all ranking members of the NDP, regardless of generation, are eager to make themselves useful for Hosni Mubarak and his son. They will push, shove or do whatever it takes to keep their privileged positions intact. In doing so they are almost destined to clash with one another as they compete for access to the two Mubaraks. Thus, recent reported tensions inside the NDP in my view are less about a conflict between a pro- and an anti- Gamal Mubarak faction, and more about a less systematized competition among a highly ambitious group of politicians who want to ensure that their names will make it to the next president’s address book.
What about ElBaradei? The Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the opposition in Egypt? The next post will discuss the response of various opposition actors to the succession project in Egypt.
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