After Mubarak

Many regard democracy in the Middle East as a panacea for the problems that plague the region. An abundance of malignant monarchies and dictators does little to help the situation. A prime example, Egypt has suffered economically and socially under President Hosni Mubarak, ruler since the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Now 78, Mubarak’s age is beginning to stir questions about his succession. Alongside of renewed discussion about democracy over the past few years and consistent international pressure, the president’s age has even stimulated hopes that his death might bring democratic change, though recent events bode ill for reformers.

A Democratic Discussion

Under varying degrees of international pressure, Egypt has undertaken a variety of circumspect democratic reforms over the past four years, prompting more excitement than practical benefit. Greater criticism of the government has been permitted, resulting in the Kifaya! (“Enough!”) movement, which began to break traditional boundaries in public discourse. Then, in 2005, Egypt held the first judicially monitored elections in 50 years, suggesting that —at least on the surface—Mubarak might be loosening his grip on power.

Other subtle changes also suggest a shift in the Egyptian political mindset, especially as the debate among elites increasingly focuses on democratization and constitutional change. Indeed, the past four years sprouted a vital period of intellectual discussion. In art, books and films—including Alaa Al Aswany’s acclaimed novel The Yacoubian Building—blame is often placed at Mubarak’s feet, as writers throughout the country protest government neglect and incompetence.

Much of the increasing focus on democracy is also driven by frustration with the governing National Democratic Party. A lack of true reforms, an absence of substantive political debate, and a stubborn refusal to work with the opposition has not endeared the government to the populace. And, given the situation, adversaries of the government demanded faster progress toward constitutional government, an outspoken demand motivated by a reasonable belief in Egypt’s political liberalization.

Two Spanners in the Works

But Egypt is still not on the home stretch towards functioning democracy, and sadly, an emerging political discourse and signs of intellectual debate were not the only important shifts to occur in recent times. Coupled with a dire economic situation, the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 fomented significant political turmoil in Egypt, a generally ominous sign for the growing and fragile climate of dissent.

To begin, the invasion of Iraq prompted spontaneous youth protest against both the Egyptian government and the U.S. According to the International Crisis Group, an NGO, “Braving police crackdowns, Egyptian youth demanded more political and economic justice both in the region and at home, and highlighted the dearth of institutional channels for political participation.” This helped solidify new secular opposition movements such as Kifaya!, but also frightened the government.

The prospect of a large movement led by unemployed and newly empowered youth was troublesome enough for Mubarak. Making matters worse, this disaffected demographic also stands to inherit an extremely poor economy and the unpleasant consequences of an unpopular war. Obviously, in the face of youth discontent, the Egyptian government would have little to gain from extending political freedoms further.

Unsurprisingly, the youth are not alone in bemoaning the country’s pitiful economic situation. After more than 50 years of economic stagnation, the traditional political divide between the poor masses and Egyptian elite is beginning to close—everybody agrees that the economy is in the tank. Popular protest has been stimulated by worsening economic conditions, including the floating of the Egyptian pound, which prompted a rise in the price of everyday goods like bread.

Already bad enough, this worsening economic situation was exacerbated by cost reduction and recovery programs imposed as a result of World Bank loan conditions during the 1990s. These conditions eliminated or significantly curtailed basic social supports, such as health and education services, by making them prohibitively expensive for the Egyptian poor through high user fees. Given the level of poverty, the absence of social supports like health care is especially problematic in Egypt. Now, according to the 2002 United Nations Development Report, 42 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line and 17 percent exist on less than $2 per day.

In such a context, it’s not hard to find voices calling for change. Prominent Egyptian intellectual Wahid Hamed offered a popular view of the Egyptian state: “I consider this government to be a danger to national security because of its purposeful neglect of people’s concerns and refusal to confront economic problems, which fills people with anger. … People are like hot hay stalks, ready to go off in sparks.”

As if Egypt’s economic woes were not bad enough, the American invasion of Iraq only helped to further unsettle the country’s political climate. Close ties between Mubarak’s regime and the U.S., reflected in massive U.S. aid and the peace treaty with Israel, puts the Egyptian leader at odds with public opinion. Indeed, the perceived impotence of the government in opposing the war prompted the first large-scale protests since 1977, as approximately 20,000 protesters filled Tahrir Square, Cairo’s central plaza.

Although security forces successfully suppressed these rioters, the general mood of discontent does not bode well for the government. As Mohammed Abdelhakim Diab writes in al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic newspaper, “Whatever the alternative, it could never be as brutal and corrupt as Mubarak’s regime, which has no national program of action but acts strictly according to the Israeli-American plan for Egypt and the region.”

A Suitable Successor?

In light of the recent political turmoil, it is hardly shocking to hear murmurs spreading about Mubarak’s age and the appropriate time to retire. Questions have inevitably emerged focusing on his eventual death and what it might mean for the nascent Egyptian democratic movement. Dr. Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Institute for Peace said there are three viable successors in the event of Mubarak’s death: Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son; elements of the security forces, who have traditionally been power brokers; or the Muslim Brotherhood, which, while officially banned under existing law, is the only effective, grassroots opposition force.

Over the past year, many speculated that the ruling coalition may be priming Gamal for power. He has taken a larger role in the National Democratic Party (NDP) of late, focusing on reforms that might be seen as an implicit acceptance of some opposition demands, leading some to contemplate him as a likely successor. Gamal also spent time recently in Washington, where he received President Bush’s strong endorsement. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bush remarked, “There’s an impressive group of younger Egyptians…that understand the promise and the difficulties of democracy.”

However, Gamal has so far denied any plans to succeed his father, and his alleged ambitions may be exaggerated. But even if they are not, some members of the armed forces have signaled they will not accept him as a successor, a feeling shared by some of the older members of the NDP. In one pessimistic prediction, Diab argued that Mubarak’s actions have “closed all the doors to a peaceful and orderly transition,” and may lead to a military coup.

Of course, there is no effective, secular opposition either. Only the Muslim Brotherhood still has a formidable political operation at the grassroots level. The Brotherhood could conceivably challenge the government in a moment of instability if it found a partner among the myriad of forces in the current ruling coalition.

Crawling Toward Change

Although demands for democratic reform, constitutional change, and elimination of Mubarak’s emergency law may seem stronger than ever, the potential for change has been dampened in the face of U.S. equivocation and strong-arm government tactics. The intense political turmoil gripping the entire region at present scarcely improves the chances for change.

What’s more, many factors suggest Egypt is now moving away from past democratic commitments. Opposition leader Ayman Nour’s January 2005 imprisonment under dubious charges, the October 2006 arrest of Parliament Member Talaat Sadat, the growing focus on Gamal Mubarak’s succession to the presidency, the two-year postponement of local elections, and a refocusing on international politics are all troubling signs.

Unfortunately, domestic Egyptian discourse has also shifted away from democratic reforms and towards external political issues, motivated by Israel’s war in Lebanon this summer. Egypt risks falling into what a Turkish journalist described as “the oldest, most reliable Middle East trick: foreign policy demagoguery instead of reform,” by which Middle East dictators manipulate foreign policy to direct domestic pressures towards international concerns. The U.S., bogged down in Iraq, seems to be losing its appetite for putting more pressure on the few friendly regimes it has left in the region—democratic or otherwise.

The Road Forward

Despite all this, there is a real opportunity for democratic change in Egypt. Prompted by economic discontent, an increasing discourse on democracy among the opposition elite, and grass-roots youth movements, there is still hope for the period after Mubarak. That hope, while real, is not self-sustaining: any optimism will almost certainly be misplaced if the U.S. and other international organizations do not return to their earlier demands for meaningful change.

Other Topics:

Mubarak: A new pharaoh
7DAYS – Dubai,United Arab Emirates
’Ruling party plans to impose reforms’
Gulf News – Dubai,United Arab Emirates
Time for Pharaoh
Zvika Krieger, Democracy Arsenal
A winning formula
Al-Ahram Weekly – Cairo,Egypt
Nour’s release ’expected’
Al-Ahram Weekly – Cairo,Egypt
Debates with energy
Al-Ahram Weekly – Cairo,Egypt
Mubarak says no axis of moderates in Middle East
People’s Daily Online – Beijing,China
The Open Showdown: Extremism v/s Moderation
Dar Al-Hayat – Beirut,Lebanon
25 years after Sadat’s assassination, many call Egypt politically …
International Herald Tribune – France
Yet another surge
Al-Ahram Weekly – Cairo,Egypt
Mubarak says snap Palestinian polls possible
Daily Star – Lebanon – Beirut,Lebanon
Egypt faces uncertain political future
Pioneer Times-Journal – Pioneer,New Mexico,USA
Editor-in-Chief: Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman
The News – International – Pakistan
Support Freedom in the Arab World
Washington Post – United States
Political societies let down women hopefuls
Gulf News – Dubai,United Arab Emirates
Mubarak’s quarter of a century
BBC News – UK
Arab media remain partisan and unprofessional
Daily Star – Lebanon – Beirut,Lebanon
Is Israel in America’s Interest?
FrontPage – Los Angeles,CA,USA
’Egyptians won’t stop Mubarak dynasty’
Independent Online – Cape Town,South Africa