A Post-Pharaonic Egypt?

A Post-Pharaonic Egypt?

By Michele Dunne
American Interest, September/October 2008


When it happens, it will rock the world, at least briefly: octogenarian Hosni Mubarak, President of the largest Arab country for over a quarter century, will leave office, either by his own decision or that of Providence, probably within the next three years. So far, few in the West have paid much attention. But Egyptians certainly are getting ready, and we should do so as well.

The question is not so much one of stability. Few expect a succession in Egypt to be violent. And Egypt’s basic strategic orientation (allied with the United States, at peace with Israel, working on behalf of regional stability) is unlikely to change. What is at issue, rather, is how seriously a new leader will pursue domestic political and economic reforms, which are critical to revitalizing a nation of eighty million that is slipping further and further behind in global competitiveness. While sudden, radical change is unlikely, most Egyptians are hoping that a new leadership will re-open the window for political reform that emerged briefly in 2004–05, which was then slammed shut when the country’s main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, did well in parliamentary elections.

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A Post-Pharaonic Egypt?

When it happens, it will rock the world, at least briefly: octogenarian Hosni Mubarak, President of the largest Arab country for over a quarter century, will leave office, either by his own decision or that of Providence, probably within the next three years. So far, few in the West have paid much attention. But Egyptians certainly are getting ready, and we should do so as well.

The question is not so much one of stability. Few expect a succession in Egypt to be violent. And Egypt’s basic strategic orientation (allied with the United States, at peace with Israel, working on behalf of regional stability) is unlikely to change. What is at issue, rather, is how seriously a new leader will pursue domestic political and economic reforms, which are critical to revitalizing a nation of eighty million that is slipping further and further behind in global competitiveness. While sudden, radical change is unlikely, most Egyptians are hoping that a new leadership will re-open the window for political reform that emerged briefly in 2004–05, which was then slammed shut when the country’s main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, did well in parliamentary elections.

The next leadership succession in Egypt will differ fundamentally from the previous two (from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Anwar Sadat in the early autumn of 1970, and from Sadat to Mubarak in October 1981) because there is still no clearly designated heir. Unlike his predecessors, Mubarak has refused to appoint a vice president due to concerns about loyalty. He has also assiduously eliminated senior officials who had independent political bases or were becoming popular with the public, notably former Defense Minister Hatem Abu Ghazala and former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. Moreover, Mubarak has depoliticized the armed forces and reinforced their loyalty to the presidency. The Defense Minister, Chief of Staff, and other high level officers are no longer household names. In a situation where no one is allowed to build a support base or a public persona, identifying Mubarak’s successor has become a matter of intense speculation.

A Changing Political Scene

In September 1999, Hosni Mubarak was selected for a fourth six-year term of office with the usual official fanfare—banners proclaiming loyalty to the national hero waving above every public enterprise, institution and school—and with the usual lack of public participation. Per the constitutional provision at the time, the Parliament nominated Mubarak and citizens voted in tiny numbers in a referendum to confirm the Parliament’s choice. Despite the absence of competition or campaigning, Mubarak’s advisers felt that his new term needed a theme, and they made a surprising choice: democracy. Mubarak promised that parliamentary elections scheduled for 2000 would be free and fair (an implicit admission that previous races had not been), and that he would comply with a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling mandating the judicial supervision of the election.

The parliamentary elections were one of several political developments in 2000 that began to wake Egyptians from the political slumber into which they had fallen during the previous decade of regressive laws and repression (which were part and parcel of a campaign against domestic Islamic terrorism). As the elderly Mubarak started his third decade in office, Egyptians began to speculate privately about when he would leave the scene and who would replace him. Mubarak’s second son, Gamal, a banker by training, had returned to Egypt after several years in London and was mobilizing support from the country’s business elite to address the problems of the young. Then Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and civil society activist, dared to mention publicly the possibility that Gamal would succeed his father, mocking the gumlukia (a hybrid of the Arabic words for “republic” and “monarchy”) that Egypt seemed destined to become. For his indiscretion, Ibrahim and the entire staff of his research center found themselves in prison in late June 2000, accused of “harming the reputation of the country by spreading false information”, embezzling funds and other charges. (They were eventually cleared of all charges in 2003 after several trials and many months in prison.)

The Mubaraks, father and son [credit: R. Jay Magill]

The example set by Ibrahim’s arrest was sobering, but the cat was nonetheless out of the bag. Gamal Mubarak began to build his career more openly. The relatively poor showing of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the 2000 elections gave him an opportunity to propose a wholesale modernization of the party. Over the next several years, he attracted a coterie of liberal economists and political scientists to a new “Policy Secretariat” that would formulate reform-oriented positions for the NDP on a wide range of domestic issues. Several of the party’s old guard were retired in favor of fresher faces associated with Gamal. In 2004, President Mubarak appointed one of Gamal’s closest associates, Ahmad Nazif, to head a new cabinet empowered with reviving macroeconomic reforms.

Gamal’s rising political profile alongside President Mubarak’s bid for a new term in 2005 also had the effect of galvanizing a long-dormant opposition. A new elite group, the Egyptian Movement for Change, began to hold small public demonstrations in 2004 and quickly became known by its spunky slogan: Kifaya (Enough). The Muslim Brotherhood, long the country’s most significant opposition movement but denied legal status, also became more active and issued its own program for political and economic reform. Young politicians left discredited political parties to form their own, and some—notably Ayman Nour, who formed the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) Party—succeeded in obtaining official permission. Judges joined the debate, some threatening to refuse to supervise upcoming elections unless the process was made fairer and judicial independence enhanced. The United States began to add its voice to the fray, as well, urging Mubarak to respond to calls for change that focused on two main demands: increasing political competition and redistributing powers from the overly powerful executive branch to the underpowered legislative and judicial branches.

In 2005, Mubarak took a series of steps that appeared to accommodate some of the demands for change. He championed an amendment to the constitution that instituted direct popular election of the president, promised to lift the state of emergency in place since 1981 that limited civil liberties, permitted the emergence of independent media, allowed non-governmental organizations to set up the first massive civilian monitoring of elections, and permitted Brotherhood parliamentary candidates to campaign much more openly than in the past—albeit as independents. Throughout all of this, Gamal continued to rise in the ruling party, becoming Deputy Secretary General and building a base of support through re-organization measures that packed the senior ranks of the party with his supporters and recruited thousands of new leaders at all levels under his patronage.

For a time it seemed the Egyptian government and NDP were able to claim with some credibility that they had embarked on a serious program of economic and political reform and modernization. But this moment did not last long. While Mubarak was easily elected to the presidency (embarrassingly low voter turnout notwithstanding), the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the autumn 2005 parliamentary elections (they won 20 percent of the Parliament’s seats, more than half of the races they contested) convinced the regime it had gone too far, too fast. A series of de-liberalization measures followed, including arrests and a financial campaign against the Brotherhood, constitutional amendments in 2007 that removed the judiciary’s role as electoral supervisor, and extension of the state of emergency in 2008. Ayman Nour, the young liberal who gained a small but enthusiastic following in 2005 and came in a distant second in the presidential race, was sentenced to five years in prison on trumped-up forgery charges in late 2005.

Although the window that had opened in 2004–05 was clearly closed, opposition and civil society activity continued via various channels, including independent media and labor activism. What the wave of activism had washed ashore did not entirely return to the murky depths with the latest Egyptian ebb tide.

Succession Fatigue

This brings us to the present situation, over which the succession question still looms. Paradoxically, this very question both causes political paralysis and offers the only chance of release from it. There is a sense that the need to plan for succession is making the regime brittle: unable to compromise with domestic opponents, mostly ineffective in regional diplomacy and hypersensitive to small incidents. The most infamous example of the latter was the near hysteria among senior Egyptian officials in the summer of 2007, when rumors circulated in the independent press that Mubarak was seriously ill. Charges were brought against several independent newspaper editors for allegedly damaging the Egyptian nation by causing losses in the stock market—of all things. The resulting lawsuits are still being fought in the courts.

Not surprisingly, after more than eight years of speculation, succession fatigue is palpable. Gamal Mubarak, who in 2000 was viewed as a political neophyte, is beginning to look like the Prince Charles of Egypt, forever in waiting. From being an unknown, he has become almost too well known; many members of the liberal elite who were once willing to give him and his modernizing agenda the benefit of the doubt now believe that he is unlikely to bring the sort of change they desire. Gamal also has been socked with a share of the blame, probably unfairly, for recent economic crises (including small-scale bread riots) in Egypt, which are due more to global inflation in food and fuel prices than to the reforms he has championed. Nonetheless, it is true that the financial and investment reforms he has advocated, and the elite businessmen who are his close associates, have little in common with ordinary Egyptians, hence the perception that they are more responsive to Davos than Damietta. In a recent conversation, one Egyptian observer likened Gamal to the 19th-century ruler Khedive Ismail, notorious for bankrupting Egypt in an attempt to impress European monarchs with his modernization campaign and technological progress.

And so Egyptians continue to speculate on the possibilities. At present there appear to be several scenarios for President Mubarak’s departure, as well as for who will replace him. Mubarak’s current term ends in 2011, at which time he will be 83 years old. He has had some health problems in recent years but so far appears able to execute his duties without any obvious limitations, including international travel. Egyptians have nearly given up wondering how long he will live. There is a story (perhaps apocryphal) circulating that his mother died at 104, “in a car accident!”, as one Egyptian recounted. Some believe that he might retire voluntarily at the end of his term in order to facilitate a succession, particularly if he is determined that his son should follow him. But the weight of opinion seems to agree that he will remain in office until his last breath or total incapacitation, a view Mubarak has bolstered through several semi-cryptic public statements.

As for who will replace Mubarak whenever he does leave, the range of possibilities seems fairly small: either Gamal or someone from the military or intelligence establishment. However obvious it seems that Gamal’s ascension has been foreordained, many Egyptian observers still have a hard time believing it will actually happen. Doubts about Gamal’s chances generally center on three arguments: that a filial succession is simply unacceptable to Egyptians; that he does not enjoy strong support from the military; and that he is simply too weak an individual to be taken seriously.

The first argument should be understood as a protest against the current state of affairs, not hard-headed analysis. Although opposition and civil society forces are somewhat bolder than they were a decade ago, they are by no means strong or cohesive enough to obstruct a successor who enjoys support from key pillars of the regime.

The second argument, that Gamal might not get needed support from the military, deserves more serious consideration. Gamal would be the first civilian president of post-monarchical Egypt. Senior officers of the Egyptian military, which has vast economic enterprises and perquisites, might well wonder whether this internationally educated reformer would properly look after their interests. They might also wonder whether he would be a strong enough leader to keep Egypt stable at home, and safe from both invasion and foreign adventures. But there are also mitigating factors that suggest that the military might accept Gamal. First, there is Mubarak’s depoliticization of the military. Second, Gamal reportedly has been meeting quietly with important groups in the military and is rumored to have even placed supporters in key positions. Third, although Gamal is known as an economic reformer and a privatizer of state industries, he has yet to suggest that he would eventually challenge the military’s vast economic interests.

The third argument, that Gamal is too weak, is also a serious one. There is a real possibility that, even if elected president, he would only be a figurehead, behind which the real powers in the military and intelligence services would rule the country. The counter argument to this point of view is that Gamal is cleverly feigning weakness now in order to avoid being eliminated, just as Sadat and Mubarak did when they were vice presidents. Mubarak at the time was considered so foolish that he was nicknamed “the Laughing Cow”, after the French cheese icon. But with 27 years in office and counting, clearly Mubarak has had the last laugh.

Those who believe that Gamal will never make it to the presidency say that the key figures of the old guard—Intelligence Director Omar Sulaiman, Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, NDP Secretary General Safwat Sharif and a few others—will push Gamal aside and choose either one of themselves or a trusted but unknown army officer to become the next president. This is particularly likely if Mubarak dies in office rather than stepping down and overseeing the succession. Most bets favor Sulaiman, probably the most powerful of the group.

Associated Press [credit: Omar Sulaiman]

As it happened, Sulaiman began to surface as a public figure around 2000, roughly the same time that Gamal did. A former military general, Sulaiman became Director of Intelligence and has played an important if obscure role in the Egyptian leadership ever since. Legend has it that he secured his current place among President Mubarak’s closest advisers in 1995, when he insisted that Mubarak take an armored car on a trip to Ethiopia—a precaution that probably saved the President’s life in a serious assassination attempt. From 2000 onward, Mubarak began to entrust Sulaiman with increasingly sensitive diplomatic missions, especially mediation efforts among Palestinian factions and communications with Israel and the United States. Virtually unknown among Egyptians until 2000, Sulaiman is now a well-known public figure. Some Egyptians desperate for change from the Mubaraks actually express the belief that Sulaiman—the Director of Intelligence, let us remember—or another military figure would be more likely to deliver political reform than Gamal. But there is no evidence that this would be the case. Alas, wishful thinking rarely edits itself.

The Legalities

While a behind-closed-doors decision by powerful figures to push Gamal aside sounds plausible enough, there is one major problem with this scenario: the amended constitution, which clearly lays out succession procedures. Whenever and however Mubarak leaves office, a presidential election must be held within sixty days. In that election, each eligible party may nominate a single candidate, but the nominee must be someone who has served in the senior leadership of the party for at least one year. A close examination of the NDP leadership elected at a party congress in 2007 reveals Gamal as the logical choice. The only other powerful figure in the party at this point is Secretary General Safwat Sharif, who is generally considered a long shot.

The point is that, unless the constitution is set aside altogether, it is impossible for the NDP to suddenly import Sulaiman or a general to head its presidential ticket. This is no accident; Gamal and his supporters in the Party set it up carefully over the past few years, evidently with President Mubarak’s support. They have tried to close as many loopholes as possible, for example specifying that any official temporarily serving as president in case of Mubarak’s incapacitation may not propose amendments to the constitution.

It also would be difficult for a military candidate to challenge the NDP from the outside. He could not suddenly form a new party; only parties that have existed for at least five years and have representation in Parliament can place a candidate on the presidential ballot. The only possibility would be for a military candidate to run as an independent, but this would require making turncoats of hundreds of NDP officials in both houses of Parliament and local councils. It could happen, but it would be extremely unusual, and would reverse years of NDP efforts to look and function more like a real political party than the government patronage distribution mechanism it really is.

Yet another possibility would be for a military or intelligence successor to set aside the constitution altogether and simply seize power. Egyptians, however, are rather partial to rule by law (if not of law) and would resist such a takeover scenario, unless there were serious and widespread disturbances that threatened public order and seemed to justify military control. As of now, there is no reason to expect that Mubarak’s death or departure would provoke significant unrest.

This leaves the last and least likely succession scenario: that the Muslim Brotherhood or other more extreme Islamists would seize the opportunity of Mubarak’s departure to take power. Under present conditions, it is nearly impossible for them to do so via the ballot box. The amended constitution precludes the formation of any political party based on religion, and it is extremely unlikely that the Brotherhood could line up the votes needed to put forward an independent candidate. (The regime saw to that by excluding Brotherhood candidates from elections for the upper house of Parliament and local councils.) Therefore, in order to come to power Islamists would have to bring about a revolution or coup, and there is no sign that the Brotherhood or any other capable group is planning that. Islamists are, however, capable of assassinating presidential candidates or carrying out other terrorist attacks, which would stir the pot and change the cast of characters. But even that would not put Islamists themselves in power.

What the U.S. Should Do

How should the next U.S. administration regard Egyptian succession? The two men considered the leading candidates, Gamal Mubarak and Omar Sulaiman, have a history of being generally pro-Western and inclined to work with the United States. There is every reason to expect that either would continue military and counter-terrorism cooperation with Washington. Each appears committed to maintaining peace with Israel and using what influence Egypt has to foster stability throughout the Middle East. Gamal is an economic reformer who has shown some openness to political reform. The positions of Sulaiman or another military candidate on such critical domestic questions are unknown. Each in his own way has quietly courted U.S. support.

The problem for the United States—one that the next U.S. administration may well face fairly early in its first term—is that there are no good choices. Support a hereditary succession with only the thinnest veneer of electoral legitimacy? Or support an extra-constitutional process that brings a military man to power? Neither option is appealing, and neither fits well with the declared U.S. intention to promote democratization in Egypt, not to speak of the implications for democracy promotion in the rest of the Arab world. All eyes in the Arab world will be on the Egyptian succession when it happens, focusing on who will be the new leader, whether he will bring any significant internal reforms, and whether he will recapture some of the influence in regional politics that Egypt has lost during the stagnant latter years of President Mubarak.

Certainly a new Egyptian president who was seen as freely elected and therefore enjoying a strong popular mandate would be unique in the Arab countries, and in a position to play an important role in regional affairs. But by now, it is perhaps too late for the United States to insist somehow that the selection process be more open and competitive. Virtually all of the potential competitors have been eliminated one way or another. Moreover, there is already strong resentment of perceived U.S. hegemony in Egypt, and the risks of being blamed for imposing an unpopular successor are high. Thus, the only sensible U.S. option is to stay out of sight during the selection process, at least as long as there is no danger of a strongly anti-American successor coming to power.

But that does not mean that the United States should keep itself out of the picture altogether. The United States has a particularly important role to play once the Egyptians have sorted out the succession—that is, to rebuild the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, which has begun crumbling around the edges.

Despite some disagreements during the Bush years on issues like the Iraq war, the United States and Egypt have continued to cooperate reasonably well on regional and strategic issues. But the other main focus of the relationship, U.S. support for the development of Egypt itself, has come undone. While Mubarak has made good progress in economic reform recently, his response to Egyptian and U.S. calls for political reform has been brief and underwhelming. The United States also dropped the ball. After a June 2005 speech in Cairo in which Secretary of State Rice declared that “the Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people—and the entire world—by giving its citizens the freedom to choose”, the Bush Administration backed off rapidly from democracy promotion from 2006 onwards, apparently overwhelmed by regional crises and frightened by the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections. While the United States should not press Mubarak’s successor onto a rapid and risky path to democratization, it should urge a more serious response to Egyptians’ calls for increased public freedoms, political competition, judicial independence and greater powers for elected bodies.

The two most important steps the next U.S. administration could urge a successor to take immediately would be to re-institute presidential term limits (which Sadat removed from the constitution) and to redefine the role of the internal security services. Limiting the president to two terms, which all opposition and civil society groups now demand, would mean that the pharaonic, president-for-life system has finally ended. Not only would this have tremendous symbolic importance; it would help prevent a recurrence of the stagnation and corruption that set in when not only Mubarak but an entire generation of his appointees stayed in power for more than a quarter century.

Redefining the role of the internal security services is a far more complicated business, but it is essential to any political opening in Egypt. While the armed forces have been depoliticized, the intelligence and security services are deeply enmeshed in the daily lives of all too many Egyptians. Both politically active people and ordinary citizens, too, are required to inform on everyone else, and no one takes a significant step without at least the informal approval of a local security officer. Security officers infiltrate opposition parties and sow dissent, causing parties to implode if they become too problematic in the eyes of authorities. They go beyond the already extensive powers provided by the state of emergency to obstruct mobilization, fundraising and other activities by parties, movements and civil society organizations, as well. As long as this is the case, there is little hope for the development of a healthy spectrum of political forces that can compete not only with the NDP but also with the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States should urge Mubarak’s successor to make a decisive break with the past, and to redefine the role of internal security forces as one confined to genuinely protecting the state and the people from terrorism and other violence.

Each Egyptian president has put a strong stamp of personality on his era: Nasser and his pan-Arabism and socialism; Sadat and his peace with Israel, alliance with the United States and crony capitalism; Mubarak and his emphasis on caution and stability, to the point of economic and political stasis. We cannot know yet who the next Egyptian leader will be, though the pool of candidates seems small. What we should know, and what we need to decide very soon, is how the United States will work with him.