After Mubarak: Egypt And The Succession Issue

After Mubarak: Egypt And The Succession Issue

All eyes are turning towards Egypt and who will succeed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Concerns over the President’s health have increased since his gallbladder was removed in an operation in Germany in March 2010. The Popular Coalition for Supporting Gamal Mubarak launched a campaign to promote the nomination of the president’s son in next year’s elections. But millions of Egyptians have been wondering about the real force behind the movement. Last month marked the beginning of efforts to enhance the younger Mubarak’s reputation by coalition members, who plastered tens of thousands of posters of his image with slogans urging the 47-year-old to follow in his father’s footsteps. Observers, however, have noted that security forces have allowed the posters to stand, though the rules say campaigning cannot begin until shortly before the elections themselves, which are not until next year. It is significant to examine and estimate all candidates and Egypt’s post Hosni Mubarak rule and policy.

Mubarak has never appointed a vice president, and there is no political figure of comparable stature who stands out as an election possibility. Who succeeds him likely depends largely on the decision by Mubarak himself (unless he passes away suddenly), along with top figures within the ruling party, the military and the security forces. Ruling party candidates are virtually assured of victory in elections, which are usually plagued by reports of widespread vote fraud. Two elections are nearing in Egypt – the upcoming parliamentary elections in December 2010 and the presidential elections in September 2011. While visiting Italy in May, Mubarak deflected a question about the presidential elections and addressed the issue of succession by saying that “only God knows who will be my successor.”

Gamal’s Possibilities and Other Contenders

There are suggestions that a number of businessmen-politicians within the National Democratic Party (NDP) are keen on installing Gamal Mubarak as the next president because his financial ideology serves their personal interests. Gamal Mubarak is the deputy head of the party and leads its influential Policies Committee, directing Egypt’s economic liberalization program. His core support comes from wealthy businessmen. But there is one important point– Gamal, who did not rise through the ranks of the military like his father and previous presidents, would have less of a chance without his father’s support and support from other key Egyptian constituencies such as the Egyptian military brass; an act that made the succession issue in Syria moot. It should be noted here that the Syrian Baath regime, like Egypt run by the military brass, was the first to implement a successful succession from father, Hafez Assad, to son, Bashar Assad. However, in Syria’s case, Assad senior brought his son from medical school in London and enrolled him in the Army and saw him rise through the ranks for several years before Bashar became present right after his father’s passing in 2000. Ever since that time leaders of several Arab republic ruled by former generals with the assistance of top military brass have contemplated repeating the Syrian experience. Pan-Arab media have written about alleged plans by the presidents of Yemen, Libya and Egypt to pass on the presidency to their sons. Until recently, talk about Gamal’s presidential aspirations were dubbed as rumors by Egyptian authorities and even denied by Gamal himself. Now it is almost official.

Former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohammed ElBaradei returned to Egypt to possibly run in a presidential campaign. The Nobel prize laureate’s homecoming to the country earlier this year sought to push for constitutional change. He says he will run in elections only if the constitution, which restricts independent nominations, is amended. But he faces an uneven competition. Despite popular disaffection with the government, the country’s opposition is weak and divided. Some state-controlled papers have already set about attacking ElBaradei’s possible candidacy. These efforts included frequent images juxtaposing him with US Ambassador Margaret Scobey – images aimed at discrediting him as a tool of foreign powers. Attacking ElBaradei from the other direction, Al- Ahram’s Abdel Moneim Said Aly wrote an editorial suggesting ElBaradei has fallen in line with marginal figures who want to “wage war on Israel.”

The limitations on ElBaradei have been plentiful, and as he is an independent who belongs to no officially recognized party, his continued stay on the public scene has tested the boundaries of the Egyptian regime. Discussing the issue of allowing the potential presidential candidate to make an appearance on state-run television, Information Minister Anas el-Feki said the candidate could appear if he had something important enough to say, but added that ElBaradei was a “romantic dreamer who has not presented a manifesto which would help solve Egypt’s problems,” explaining that his lack of a political party endorsement gave ElBaradei no legitimacy. In addition, while ElBaradei’s camp has formed loose political associations with other opposition factions, these groups face organizational problems and agree about little, making it more than likely that they will go the route of other umbrella groups such as Kefaya, experiencing serious rifts along the way.

Other than Gamal, there is the possibility that the director of Egypt’s Intelligence Services, Omar Suleiman, will step forward to succeed Mubarak. General Suleiman has a long record of close cooperation with the West, and his portfolio of handling key security and diplomatic issues – including Gaza and Israeli-Palestinian talks – suggests that he indeed carries weight in the president’s circle.

While all opposition parties face crucial limitations, Egypt’s most formidable Islamist opposition group – the Muslim Brotherhood – faces particularly fundamental restrictions imposed by the NDP and the security services.

After a surprise win of 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the party has suffered from repeated governmental crackdowns, rendering the group almost powerless, except for occasional protests and blog posts. The party candidates, who generally try to pursue power through democratic avenues, must run as independents, and, with other limitations in place, they failed to gain seats in June’s elections. Despite the growing religious fervor, most people do not expect the Brotherhood to gain more seats in the coming People’s Assembly elections, and the tight security restrictions placed on them mean that they are not likely to be given the opportunity to rise once Mubarak is no longer in office. Recently, members of the Brotherhood have been quoted frequently in the local press attacking the idea of Gamal succeeding his father, indicating that the poor relationship between the father and the opposition group may not change under the son. An editorial writer in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper wrote recently that the scare of an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood turning into an Iran-like rogue state is outlandish, aptly assessing that the problem the country faces is not that it will take an extremist turn, but rather that it will “choose the path of least resistance and just muddle along.”

Why Gamal May Fail

There are specific arguments why Gamal Mubarak might not win the presidency. First: The military and state security establishment doesn’t see him as one of their own and subsequently would have little trust in him to look after their interests. Flush with money and connections from his business empire, Gamal is perceived by the military as a Western economic tiger bent on transforming Egypt to a market economy in which they will likely be deprived of their governmental patronage machine and perks. Gamal had tried to win over support of the military and intelligence officials by establishing joint-ventures with them, making them part of his business empire and giving them a taste of things to come when he becomes president. But many observers doubt this would be enough to win over all the top brass. Second; Egypt’s democratic opposition forces seem adamant on derailing Gamal Mubarak’s rise to the presidency. They want to establish a true representative government. As both the symbol and substance of his father’s dictatorship, stopping Gamal Mubarak brings added legitimacy to the opposition forces cause within Egypt and internationally. The opposition have been using the new media effectively to rally public support and organize demonstrations. If this continues the opposition could trigger a large wave of riots after the passing of Mubarak in order to prevent succession and possibly instate a new government system. Third: Gamal Mubarak does not project well amongst the masses in Egypt. Many see him as the font of corruption, greed and dynasty. Gamal’s election would not only antagonize the overwhelming majority of Egyptian society but strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s already considerable popularity as the Islamic alternative to authoritarian rule. Ironically, the convergence of interests between Egypt’s opposition forces and the military-security elite to neutralize Gamal Mubarak could lead to an unusual but tentative power sharing arrangement — one that could avert a bloody resolution of the succession crisis. Under other transition scenarios, General Suleiman will take Mubarak’s place as a caretaker until Gamal gains more experience and bolsters his credentials with Egypt’s security and military apparatus.

If it does not show true public willingness to support Gamal Mubarak for President the military-state security establishment would likely move towards a two-track strategy to end the succession crisis; uniting behind Omar Suleiman as their presidential candidate while calculating the concessions it must make to the opposition forces to preserve relative peace. In backing Omar Suleiman the military establishment seeks to get ‘one of their own’ elected as President without resorting to a coup to maintain power. Carrying out a ‘democratic’ election to coronate a new leader will also make it easier for the United States and Europe to justify their support for Egypt’s ‘managed democracy.’


At the age of 82, rumors of Mubarak’s failing health have persisted. Mubarak has ruled the country since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and approaching the end of his fifth consecutive presidential term has been an almost permanent fixture in the modern Egyptian state. Whether Mubarak dies this year or during another six-year term as president, change is inevitable and the speculative scenarios that follow are many. While many observers assume that Egypt’s domestic politics will experience deep changes after Mubarak’s death, other observers guess – and many in Israel worry – that Egypt’s international alliances could also shift in a post- Mubarak era.

If Gamal is not ready and does not have the full endorsement of the top military brass, the old guard of security and military men in Egypt still remains strong and will choose accordingly. The likely choice would be Suleiman, who has served as chief of Egyptian General Intelligence Services since 1993. Called ‘one of the world’s most powerful spy chiefs’, Suleiman’s possesses an in depth understanding of the region’s complex political landscape. A known quantity at the Pentagon, the CIA and State Department, Suleiman is also well respected in Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — America’s most critical Middle Eastern allies. As the Obama administration struggles to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and strengthen its anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East Suleiman’s diplomatic and intelligence background could prove to be a valuable asset.

Crucial foreign backers such as the United States, which underwrites much of Egypt’s foreign aid, will also be hoping for a stable transition and powerful president. Egypt is a key US ally in the tumultuous Middle East, and widespread dissatisfaction with government policy and the rich-poor divide are just two factors that could contribute to instability in a country of 80 million.

A takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood would be a nightmare for the U.S. and Israel. Imagine the most populous regional state with the largest, best-equipped and -trained Arab army in the hands of this radical Islamist organization. Would Egypt abrogate the peace treaty with Israel and conceivably even rejoin the conflict? Would Egypt be able to sit out a future round between Hezbollah and Israel?….A Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt, along with the general rise of radical players in the region (Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas), would have negative ramifications for stability of some Western-backed Arab Gulf States.

Rarely has there been a regional issue of such importance for the United States and Israel about which they can do so little. Neither has a successful record of intervening in Arab politics, and any overt attempts to influence events might further undermine Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son; the regime already is tainted by its relations with the U.S. and Israel. The United States already provides Egypt with major foreign aid, and an increase would only have an impact long after the succession, as would a renewal of U.S. democratization efforts. Covert operations could be undertaken to weaken the opposition, but it is extremely unlikely that any external player could do more than Egypt’s powerful security apparatus. No realistic external military option exists. If and when Gamal Mubarak or some other moderate takes over, it will be important for the United States and Israel to help solidify his rule by affording him some early successes, but both will be highly constrained.