From the Editors
I argued in my previous post that the transition to a Gamal presidency has been underway for almost a decade now. There are many reasons to believe that the president’s son has already established control over major decision-making bodies and is president in all but name. Passing on formal presidential powers to Gamal, therefore, will not require any major overhauls of the political system—the government and the ruling party, the constitution, and (arguably) the opposition have already been remolded to accommodate the smooth advancement of this project. I also claimed that there is no convincing evidence that key members of the regime are actively undermining Gamal’s prospect of becoming Egypt’s next president. From the perspective of NDP’s senior leaders, Gamal is “Mubarak” (for those who are still wondering what’s with the title, see previous hyperlink).
Some might argue that even if the NDP is united behind the president’s son, senior military officers are likely to line up in support of an “old guard” figure, such as Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, as an alternative to Gamal. Such arguments have become more compelling after wall posters began appearing on Egyptian streets promoting a Suleiman presidency. Last August, retired Egyptian officers reportedly circulated an open letter critical of Gamal Mubarak’s candidacy. Although it is tempting to conclude that this letter is a sign that the military is ready to actively block any transfer of presidential powers to Gamal, there are good reasons to believe otherwise. First of all, the word “retired” in “retired Egyptian officers” cannot be emphasized enough. There is no evidence that the same sentiment expressed by former officers is felt (and felt as strongly) inside the current ranks of the Egyptian military. Secondly, although it is impossible to speculate about the ideal preferences and predispositions of the military (you usually find out about these after the “fact”), it is fair to say that the Egyptian military does not have that many choices from which to pick the country’s next president. The anti-Gamal views expressed in the alleged letter are anything but surprising. Like any Egyptian nationalist, most officers, when pushed hard enough, will probably express views critical of how Gamal-sponsored economic liberalization has done away with Egypt’s national industries and agriculture. They will probably also tell you how Gamal and his posse do not know the first thing about the ‘good Egyptian ways’ and are completely removed from popular sentiments.
But the question is whether they (1) feel strongly enough about the perceived misfit between Gamal’s credentials and the challenges ahead to act; and (2) whether they do in fact see any credible alternatives on the horizon. The first question is impossible to address, but as far as the second question is concerned, the answer is almost certainly no. Why? Because the regime has already marginalized (if not eliminated) all viable alternatives to Gamal. Any regime figure whose popularity and influence in the Egyptian street have risen the past two decades is gone, gone, and, quite literally, gone. Within the formal opposition, the regime has managed to nurture and support an excellent cadre of B-caliber politicians who in election season make Gamal Mubarak look like John F. Kennedy [Note: I charitably removed the hyperlink from “B-caliber politicians” but feel free to browse and take your pick]. In some ways, military institutions, like the Egyptian public, are victims to the regime’s often-successful fear mongering efforts to set itself up as the only credible alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and theocratic rule. Thus it is unlikely that ranking officers will flirt with the “D-word” in the near future, given the unpleasantness that they think it might generate. It is plausible that the military could set forth its own candidate for running the country, but the costs of this strategy are too high compared to stomaching Gamal as president. Such an adventurous move cannot be achieved without overhauling the political system and the constitution, which after 2005 made it difficult for a military officer to assume the presidency without enjoying strong NDP credentials. It also raises a lot of political uncertainties: How will key international and regional actors react? How will this affect the U.S. military aid package to Egypt? For how long is military-sponsored rule sustainable and what happens after it ends? On the other hand, a Gamal presidency, which has been informally “in effect” for years now, comes with fewer doubts. Unlike officers’ rule, Gamal’s reign will have no expiration date as long as he manages to get himself “elected” under the façade of democratic institutions—provided of course that he continues to respect and protect the military’s interests. His rise to the presidency is likely to receive the support of important international actors, particularly the United States, which would ensure that Egypt’s access to external aid would not be interrupted. From the perspective of the military, Gamal may be flawed, but he remains the only viable choice who can bring predictability to regime-military relations. We may not know what the military’s ideal preferences are, but we know that its options in the upcoming presidential succession are limited.
As far as the short-lived Suleiman presidential campaign is concerned, what seems at first glance a mark of internal regime splits is, in my opinion, a sign of indecisiveness (possibly cracks) within the opposition. Although news reporting on this issue has been fairly sparse, it seems that the spoof campaign was an initiative undertaken by opposition elements rather than by disaffected regime members (and obviously if it were Suleiman himself running this campaign, he would not have remained in his position until today). Shortly after the posters were removed, news broke that Egyptian authorities arrested a number of opposition activists linked to the Democratic Front Party (DFP) for alleged involvement in the anonymously led Suleiman campaign. The group behind this effort, “The Popular Campaign in Support of Omar Suleiman as President of Egypt,” released a statement that took on a very “oppositionist” tone akin to the one that supporters of ElBaradei adopt in their public documents. The statement condemns the Gamal succession project and the crackdown on advocates of greater political rights. Interestingly the statement does not offer blanket support for Suleiman as some news reports insinuate, but rather calls for a transitional Suleiman presidency under which reforms would be undertaken in order to ensure that future transfers of power would occur through a peaceful and democratic process.
What’s striking about the campaign to promote Suleiman as a presidential contender is its apparent links to activists from the DPF, one of the major legal parties to have taken a consistent pro-ElBaradei stance since his return to Egypt (other parties’ support for ElBaradei’s efforts has been tenuous). This raises the curious question of whether some pro-ElBaradei opposition activists are beginning to sense that ElBaradei and his National Association for Change (perhaps by no fault of their own) have been unsuccessful in delivering any concrete gains in their effort to challenge Gamal’s bid for power. Obviously ElBaradei’s signatures have (thus far) failed to pressure the regime to support the constitutional amendments necessary to allow him and other independents a realistic shot at contesting the presidency. Nor has his campaign succeeded in uniting opposition groups under a single credible reform coalition that could demonstrate to the regime that it means business, as evidenced by the decision of most parties to ignore ElBaradei’s calls for boycotting the upcoming parliamentary vote in spite of the regime’s continued refusal to lift various legal constraints from the next presidential election. On a related matter, it is also interesting that the Suleiman-for-president posters appeared at a time of reported discord among ElBaradei’s supporters, not to mention earlier news of disagreements between ElBaradei himself and ranking members of the National Association for Change. Could it be that recent efforts to promote the idea of a transitional Suleiman presidency are the product of frustration (and perhaps even rebellion) among younger opposition activists who once rallied behind ElBaradei? Very possible. Consider for example, the “about us” statement for a group that calls itself La Gamal Wala el-Ikhwan ‘ayzeen Omar Suleiman (Neither Gamal Nor Ikhwan, We Want Omar Suleiman). In justifying its calls for a Suleiman presidency, the statement voices frustration with opposition leaders and their impotence in formulating (let alone advancing) a credible agenda for democratic change. After some harsh words about the regime and the heavy-handedness of its security forces the document states:
“The Egyptian opposition and its problems have not and will not end. Opposition leaders could not even agree even on a set of minimal demands, and could not overcome their narrow personal and ideological differences ... not to mention their personal interests, and psychological illnesses such as narcissism, eagerness to monopolize [political] activism and accusations of [foreign] agency etc., all of which render the opposition impotent, even when it comes to [strategizing]. Their alliances and coalitions have declined and have turned into nothing more than publicity alliances.” [Translation mine]
It is clear that at least one group believes that what ElBaradei’s movement and its affiliates have been doing to counter Gamal’s project has not worked and that the opposition needs to consider shifting gears. Are supporters of this campaign serious in their calls for Suleiman to run for president, or are they cunningly trying to induce cracks within the ruling elite? It is not obvious. But one thing is certain: whoever is behind this initiative has lost faith in the ability of ElBaradei and his supporters to single handedly halt the legalization of Gamal’s rule over Egypt.
This brings us to the even more depressing subject of opposition political parties and groups and their role in the succession project, which I will address in the next post.
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