After Mubarak

After Mubarak

Walking through the sweltering heat of the city’s streets, a visitor sees few signs that change is on the way in Egypt. Outdated posters of a young Hosni Mubarak – circa 1981 – remain in place, adorning buildings and highways, hanging alongside images of the 1973 Suez Canal crossing, the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Legions of men sit calmly in cafés, watching soccer matches over tea and nargileh, or sheesha, as Egyptians call it. Interior Ministry security forces stand in the spots they always occupy on nearly every street corner, taking a nap on the barrels of their rifles and looking bored with their task of maintaining domestic tranquility.

The local media – particularly the widely circulated state-sponsored outlets – often refrain from discussing the all-too-hot issue that has been reverberating through Western media in recent months: President Hosni Mubarak’s state of health and post-Mubarak Egypt.

While several independent and opposition papers (Al-Dustour, Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shurouq) discuss the matter on occasion, the front pages are more likely to feature stories on club soccer trades, the Gaza siege and the ongoing rift between lawyers and judges.

However, at the age of 82, rumors of Mubarak’s failing health have persisted and even proliferated, and questions about the future of Egyptian politics and the president’s succession occupy the minds of just about everyone who has even a slight interest in the region, from lazy beachgoers in Tel Aviv to academics in Washington. After all, 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 (presidential elections are set for September 2011), 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.

But the fears are largely unfounded. As a recent editorial by the popular pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat states, Egypt is no Somalia: those predicting scenarios of radical change display an “incomprehension of the mechanisms of rule” in a country where decades of state-building are more likely to bring about a peaceful and stable transition of power, though probably not a democratic one.

For the past few months, foreign papers have been speculating about Mubarak’s health – a sensitive issue on which little transparency is offered by the Egyptian state. However, between the rumors and the government’s adamant denial that anything is wrong, separating truth from fiction is highly challenging. Rumors have ranged from a perfect bill of health to terminal cancer and, at one point earlier this year, death. While it is clear that Egypt will experience a transition fairly soon, rumors of Mubarak’s imminent death have been greatly exaggerated.

The story of Mubarak’s terminal tumor was picked up by many media outlets, but it originated from two disreputable sources: the conservative Washington Times, owned by the controversial and heterodox Korean Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and pan-Arab Londonbased Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which is known for its purported anti-Mubarak stance. Among the rumors being aired in the media and blogs were that Mubarak took secret flights for medical checks in Europe and that he recently canceled a trip to Uganda for the African Union summit due to health reasons.

Rumors of Mubarak’s health have mushroomed since the president’s operation in Germany in March of this year, when his gallbladder was removed – an operation, which, according to an independent doctor, is routine and common among the elderly, and is relatively low risk.

But discussions of Mubarak’s health and political succession, while popular among observers abroad, are relatively rare in the streets of Cairo. Cairenes are often uncomfortable speaking about the matter, especially to strangers. While café customers in Tel Aviv would love nothing more than to expound their political views, Egyptians often shy away – a reflection of the sensitivity of political matters in a country where an employee of the security apparatus can be found almost everywhere.

Whether plain-clothed or in uniform, security forces here are an undeniable part of the urban landscape. They can be seen throughout the city with either a heavy, ill-fitting uniform or a weapon bulging under their jacket. They are at the entrances to hotels, streets near embassies and on just about every corner. Walking by the synagogue on Adly Street downtown – once the biggest and most luxurious Jewish house of worship in Egypt – one can spot numerous plainclothes men in addition to uniformed men standing behind barricades with AK-47s, as if in a war zone. Today the synagogue has probably three dozen Ministry of Interior men guarding it outside, accompanying just a few worshipers who seldom go inside. The ministry of the Interior employs much of the population (one estimate says that 10 percent of Egyptians work for or report to the ministry), and its presence is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

In a Western-style café in the posh Nile island neighborhood of Zamalek, between its boutiques, bars and colonial-era villas, a question about Mubarak’s health made customers visibly uncomfortable. One coffee drinker, a well-dressed young man who was reading a copy of the state-sponsored Al-Ahram paper, quickly and suspiciously insisted that there was nothing wrong with the president, assuring me that he was not at all worried. The waitress at the café seemed confused and said she had never even heard of any such rumors. She turned and walked away from the table.

The median age of Egypt’s fast-growing population is 24 years old; Mubarak has been president for nearly 29 years. Thus, many Egyptians have never witnessed a period without Mubarak at the helm. Egypt’s young population has experienced only limited political participation, marked by sham elections and no formidable opposition parties. Young Egyptians have walked the streets under the watchful gaze of Mubarak countless times, while shopping downtown, on the way to the airport, and even at the Cairo Zoo, between the cages of the hyenas and Rex the golden retriever, where the poster of the president states the importance of the leader to the nation. Most Egyptians, however, are too cynical for that type of propaganda – many of them are college educated with more sophistication than such clumsy political posters would suggest.

Expatriates and foreign residents in Cairo sometimes seem to be more frightened than Egyptians about the future of the state. One expat said he was preparing for the possibly chaotic aftermath of Mubarak’s death by stockpiling butane gas in case of a power shutdown.

The Mubarak administration has expressed anger at the rumors, while trying to convey business as usual. But denials from such regimes are not often trusted. To combat the rumors, Mubarak has made several public appearances on national television and radio.

DURING RECENT public events Mubarak indeed seemed strong, and during an annual celebration of Egypt’s July 23, 1952, revolution, the president delivered a 10-minute speech while standing up. He has met several statesmen and foreign officials in recent weeks, including US Special Envoy George Mitchell, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Western diplomats who saw Mubarak at one of his recent meetings report that the president appeared to be in good health and good spirits.

Addressing the rumors, Karim Haggag of the Egyptian Press and Information Office sent an official response to The Washington Times late in July insisting the president was in good health. Haggag also added that he hoped that in the future the subject of the president’s health be “handled with greater care,” using “facts rather than mere speculation.”

State-sponsored newspaper Al-Gomhuriyya has also weighed in to refute the rumors of illness, suggesting the articles published were a result of Israeli efforts to spread lies and divert pressure from the Netanyahu government.

Meanwhile, 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.”

Adding to one popular scenario is the recent appearance of posters pasted up by a new group calling itself the Popular Support Coalition for Gamal Mubarak, calling for Mubarak’s son, 47, to run in next year’s general elections. Though seen by many as still too inexperienced for the helm, Gamal sits on several very important committees, including chairmanship of the ruling National Democratic Party’s very powerful Policies Committee. He is also a member of the NDP’s Higher Council, which chooses the party’s presidential candidate.

While some fear this father-to-son succession, pointing to Syria as a warning sign, some Egyptians feel the young Mubarak offers stability and familiarity. One middle-class Helwan University graduate sounded comfortable with the idea of voting for Gamal. She echoed sentiments of other members of the upper middle class, some of whom also expressed skepticism about the possibility of real change.

Some of Egypt’s young elite are so cynical they have become apathetic to domestic politics. Few voted or even followed the June Shura Council (upper house) elections. This is not surprising considering the elections are almost entirely predetermined as a result of the NDP’s tight grip on political activity, vote rigging, and the many hurdles facing opposition parties.

Many of the young elite I meet have dodged Egypt’s mandatory military service, as money can always buy one’s way out. The elite can be found at gyms, bars, sunbathing poolside at the exclusive Gezira Club or using recreational drugs. The Gezira Club is a sanctuary for Egypt’s rich. One of the few lush spots in a dry country, it manages to keep out the smog and pollution from Cairo’s busy streets and heavy industry. The club is in some ways a microcosm of Egypt’s elite – the old men talk shop as the young men talk muscle development, all the while being served hand and foot by droves of club attendants in traditional servants’ outfits.

At the club one can find almost anything, from a McDonald’s Big Mac to a polo match. On the tennis courts little boys chase balls around for very little money, while rich kids their age enjoy a private lesson. Around the pool, half-clad twenty-something-year-olds ogle one another, just as they do almost anywhere around the world. They talk tattoos, music, cars, love and sports. Many of them also speak about plans for a future outside of Egypt for themselves and their families, with student and business visas to the West a prized possession.

While some of Egypt’s more affluent citizens comprise a silent majority for the economic and political stability offered by Gamal, the lower class remains politically docile, a nonfactor in politics. It is almost inconceivable that the doormen from Upper Egypt, who sleep on mattresses in the lobbies of countless Cairo apartment buildings, follow the upcoming changes closely. They are far more interested in securing a tip, or baksheesh, than pondering political succession.

Other than Gamal, pundits will occasionally suggest 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.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei made a splash as a potential opposition candidate, but he faces numerous legal and political hurdles to contesting the presidency. Egypt allowed multi-party presidential elections for the first time in 2005, and the candidate who finished second to Mubarak with a mere 7 percent of the vote, attorney Ayman Nour, found himself jailed on flimsy charges not long after the election.

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.

Another possible opposition candidate may be Al-Sayyid Al- Badawi of the Wafd Party, a perennial member of Egypt’s loyal opposition in Parliament. Though his platform indicates that he will renege on the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, his chances of winning are nonexistent.

According to most experts, it seems likely that the NDP will maintain power regardless of when Mubarak leaves the scene. While he is the leader of the party and the country, he has built a vast and competent bureaucracy, including a strong cabinet of technocrats. Indeed, Ashraf Naguib, an NDP member who runs a Cairo NGO in support of economic reforms, recently told Al-Jazeera that he feels that Mubarak “has set the stage for change,” shifting many responsibilities to a younger generation, but a generation that is nonetheless still loyal to the NDP.

The names on the 2011 ballot remain a mystery at this point, and externally it is not clear how well-prepared Egyptians are for the upcoming change. In his posters, Mubarak stands alone, but politically he has built a stable regime and an apparatus that is not likely to just disappear or let the country fall into chaos.

The NDP may face some internal rifts as a successor comes forth, but some hypothesize that if the NDP feels pressure from other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very likely this decades-old political party will be able to close ranks behind a single candidate.

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. Indeed, signs of Egypt’s growing religious inclinations can be observed in Cairo, where a woman without a head scarf is either a Copt, an expatriate or a member of the wealthy elite. An increasing number of cab drivers listen to Koranic radio broadcasts instead of Egyptian pop songs, while chain-smoking in their Soviet- era cars. Alcohol is not too hard to come by, but in some restaurants the wine list is only oral and bottles are kept under the table, poured into regular water glasses.

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.”

The Al-Masry Al-Youm editorial is probably correct. For all of the chaos and high intensity of Cairo’s streets, Egypt’s system is stable. The sidewalks are broken and filled with puddles from dripping air conditioners, but Egyptian women wearing heels still capably walk through them. The streets are congested but the drivers communicate through beeps – not just angry and frustrated beeps, but rather a real language of horns, indicating movement and intentions. Traffic lights rarely work, but cars maneuver as though on cue. The city is both very wealthy and very poor, and for all its dichotomies, madness, social and financial problems, it does not seem to stop for a moment.

As Egypt moves to “muddle through” a transition, Gamal Mubarak remains the logical possibility. He has been raising his political profile slowly but steadily in recent years, associating with the prominent economic reformers in Egypt’s cabinet and meeting with ministers to discuss policy and strategy. In fact, the cabinet is referred to by some as “Gamal’s cabinet,” which according to Egyptian writer and opposition figure Wael Nawara is part of what constitutes Gamal’s “own guard,” a play on his father’s old guard of military and security men.

IN THE meantime, the old guard of security and military men in Egypt still remains strong. Under some scenarios, General Suleiman, who best exemplifies this portion of the Egyptian government, will take Mubarak’s place as a caretaker until Gamal gains more experience and bolsters his credentials with Egypt’s security and military apparatus.

Whether he will undertake necessary political reforms to make Egypt a freer and more democratic state remains to be seen. While he stands behind the recent economic reforms, it remains unclear how much he’ll diverge from his father’s model, if at all. In interviews, Gamal has expressed disagreements with Iranian leadership and policies, and has praised former president and peacemaker Anwar Sadat, telling commentator Fareed Zakaria that the “only way forward for that region is peace and reconciliation.” Echoing his father’s politics, Gamal was also quoted in a 2009 interview with the Middle East Quarterly as saying that with regard to the peace agreement with Israel, there is “no doubt Sadat made the right decision.”

With few real possibilities for an outsider to take the helm of the government following Hosni Mubarak’s death, Gamal Mubarak, Omar Suleiman or a yet-to-be-identified NDP insider will rule Egypt in the future. Under such leadership, Egypt’s foreign policy should remain largely unchanged. Indeed, Mostafa el- Feki, an NDP insider and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Parliament, has made clear that the government’s inclination is not to rock the boat. Speaking frankly to reporters from Al-Masry Al-Youm, Feki said that “US approval of – and Israel’s non-objection to – Egypt’s next president are necessary.”

Should Hosni Mubarak run in 2011, it is unclear if he will be able to complete his sixth term. Should he die while in office, the Egyptian constitution states that the speaker of the parliament will temporarily assume the presidency for 60 days, until new elections are held. Regardless, tensions are growing and the lack of certainty is fueling the rumor mill. Every press clipping on Mubarak’s health and his every public appearance breeds more speculation.

However, for all of the consternation among Israelis that Mubarak’s passing may create a power vacuum, instability and a fracture in the Egyptian-Israeli status quo of peace, the likeliest scenarios for political succession will not bring any of these calamities. In strengthening his ruling party and security apparatus over the past 29 years, Hosni Mubarak has left plenty of supporters in place to preserve his legacy beyond his own lifetime.

The writer is an American-born independent analyst working in Egypt.