Egypt’s Succession Crisis: Omar Suleiman and El Baredei Hold Keys to the Presidency

Egypt’s Succession Crisis: Omar Suleiman and El Baredei Hold Keys to the Presidency

Egypt’s 2011 presidential elections are one year away, but the Arab world’s most influential nation is engulfed in a dangerous succession crisis. Hosni Mubarak’s 28-year dictatorship is coming to an end, yet he is determined to rule from the grave by eliminating opposition presidential candidates to insure his son Gamal’s election. Former IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei’s unexpected emergence in February as leader of Egypt’s weak and divided opposition movement has radically altered the nation’s political landscape. Suddenly the opposition movement is a force to be reckoned with in the 2010 parliamentary elections and the 2011 presidential race. Threatened by the continuation of a Mubarak dynasty on the one hand and rising opposition forces on the other, the military and state security elites that rule Egypt are closing ranks behind Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services to run for president. Looming in the shadows of the succession turmoil is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the specter of an “Islamic awakening” sweeping over post-Mubarak Egypt. As the only opposition party with real strength on the “Egyptian Street” and the largest opposition bloc in parliament (88 of 454 seats) a split between the Brotherhood’s conservative and pragmatic wings is weakening the organization as state power in Egypt goes up for grabs. Egypt is lurching toward a collision between its competing power centers where a military coup, civil chaos and divided government could lead to a state collapse. From Tehran to Tel Aviv to Washington, D.C. concerns are mounting that the outcome of Egypt’s succession dilemma will torpedo Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and upset the tenuous balance of power across the Middle East.      

President Mubarak, now 81 and in poor health after his recent gall bladder operation continues to orchestrate his son’s ascendance to power. He has manipulated the constitution to restrict opposition parties and independents seeking to qualify as presidential candidates. Personally leading the attack on Mohamed El Baradei’s potential presidential candidacy, Mubarak stated that the constitution will not be changed and that all candidates must comply with current election laws. Under the 2005 constitutional amendment presidential candidates must be a member of one of the “official (parliamentary) parties” for one year, and occupy a high ranking position in the party–a party founded in the last five years. Independent candidates must receive the support of 250 members elected by the People’s Assembly, Shura Council and local councils as specified in Article 76 of the Constitution. Under the current rules El Baradei is not eligible to run as an independent for president and seems reluctant to accept an endorsement from an opposition party. Emboldened by President Obama’s promise not to impose restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt for human rights violations, Hosni Mubarak has unleashed widespread arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members in the run up to June’s parliamentary elections. With his father clearing the field of opponents, Gamal Mubarak, the NDP Policy Committee General Secretary is methodically displacing his internal party rivals and building a cabinet of loyalists that are a shadow government in waiting. Despite President Mubarak’s efforts to install his son as the next Pharaoh, Gamal Mubarak will not become Egypt’s president. Indeed, blocking the transfer of presidential power to Gamal Mubarak has emerged as the critical dynamic driving the succession crisis.

Gamal Mubarak will not win the presidency for three reasons. First: The military and state security establishment doesn’t trust Gamal who has no military experience 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’s military dictatorship to a market economy in which they will be deprived of their governmental patronage machine and perks. Second; Egypt’s democratic opposition forces seek to derail Gamal Mubarak’s rise to the presidency and replace Egypt’s reign of dictators with representative government. As both the symbol and substance of his father’s ruthless dictatorship, stopping Gamal Mubarak brings added legitimacy to the opposition forces cause within Egypt and internationally. Third: Gamal Mubarak is despised by the majority of Egyptians 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 Mubarrak could lead to an unusual but tentative power sharing arrangement—one that could avert a bloody resolution of the succession crisis.

Unwilling to support Gamal Mubarak for President the military-state security establishment is moving toward 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’s 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.” As the recipient of $2.2 billion in U.S. military aid, Egypt’s army of 440,000 is the largest in Africa and critical to supporting the U.S./NATO presence in the Middle East.  In this light, Omar Suleiman is the ideal replacement for Hosni Mubarak. The well educated Suleiman has served as chief of Egyptian General Intelligence Services since 1993. Called “one of the world’s most powerful spy chiefs” by the British Daily Telegraph, Suleiman’s possesses an in depth understanding of the region’s complex political landscape. He has brokered deals between Palestinian groups vying for power in the Gaza Strip and served as Mubarak’s top envoy to Israel in negotiations between Tel Aviv and Palestinian organisations. 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.     

While the Egyptian military is rallying around Omar Suleiman, his path to the presidency will be complicated and fraught with danger. Hosni and Gamal Mubarak will not simply concede the presidency or control of the NDP to Suleiman. Gamal will insist on a significant role in the government or the NDP, and a guarantee that his business empire remains in tact. Similarly, it will be difficult for Suleiman to run as an independent, while disqualifying El Baradei from seeking the same opportunity based on non-compliance with Article 76 of the constitution. The opposition movement won’t be content with Hosni Mubarak stepping down and Gamal efforts to succeed his father defeated; they rightfully want democratic reforms and to share power.  

Mohamed El Baradei’s return to Egypt on February 19 was marked by mass demonstrations in defiance of security restrictions. After meeting with opposition party leaders and Muslim Brotherhood representatives, El Baradei announced the establishment of the National Front for Change to fight for “constitutional reforms and social justice.” He also spoke of a possible independent presidential run if changes are made to Egypt’s constitution to ensure broad-based participation. El Baradei’s celebrity as former head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has energized Egypt’s fractious opposition movement. The meeting held at El Baradei’s house bought together prominent Egyptian activists, intellectuals and politicians: leaders of the Arab Democratic Nassarist Party, the New Wafd Party, the Al-Ghad Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Free Social Constitutional Party, the Kefiya movement, the Sixth of April Movement and members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. El Baradei also met with Amr Moussa Secretary-General of the League of Arab States. The popular former Egyptian foreign minister who is also a possible presidential candidate reportedly discussed working with El Baredei to change Egypt’s constitution to open up the political process. If El Baradei is to be a transformational figure he must enlarge the opposition’s democratic vision. At the same time that he attempts to hold the opposition movement together, he must forcefully advocate for a movement that embraces all the opposition’s disparate strands–traditional and non-traditional. By reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood El Baradei complicated Mubarrak and the military’s attempts to isolate the Brotherhood, while expanding the opposition movement’s influence. He must also be the strategic lever to forge ties with Egypt’s most potent political force–the union movement.  

Since 2004 union activists have launched over 1600 protests, including the massive Ghazel el Mahalla Textile Company strike of 27,000 protesters in 2006-07.  In 2008 the real estate tax collectors 11 day strike led to the nation’s first independent union since 1957, breaking the Egyptian Trade Unions Federation’s (ETUF) monopoly on union organizing. Since the real estate collector’s victory, transportation workers, teachers, postal workers and pensioners have joined a growing wave of union protests. El Baradei’s problem is that the unions have shunned working with the opposition political parties. Instead they have negotiated with the Mubarak regime to win concessions; even boycotting a 2008 general strike called by “Kafiya” forces. The union’s attitude toward Egypt’s opposition parties crystallizes El Baredei and the National Change Front’s larger dilemma—bridging the disconnect between their democratic reform movement and the Egyptian street. 

Going forward, Egypt’s opposition forces must convince the nation’s majority that Egypt’s future under a military dictatorship is not sustainable. Furthermore they must articulate a plan to end the nation’s slide towards chaos. Egypt is plagued by a 20-30 percent unemployment rate and chronic underemployment. Forty-four percent of all Egyptians live on subsistence of less than $2 dollars a day. With rising inflation, dwindling currency reserves, housing shortages, skyrocketing food prices and a massive youth bulge, Egypt is a smoldering volcano waiting to erupt. El Baradei and the opposition forces must also be prepared to adopt new tactics that dramatize and isolate the military-state security establishment, while drawing millions of Egyptians into the political fray. Constitutional reforms will not be won with traditional politics. Civil disobedience, strikes, sit-ins, internet organizing and mobilizing the Egyptian Diaspora to mount an international campaign for open democratic elections must be part of the opposition forces strategy. As an international figure El Baredei can play a unique role to enlist global support for Egypt’s democratic cause.

The path forward for Egypt’s opposition forces will be extraordinarily difficult. It remains to be seen if El Baradei is prepared to assume the burden of leadership that is required to point Egypt towards a more democratic path. Nor is it clear that most opposition forces are prepared to accept his leadership. What is clear is that President Mubarak’s government is approaching its last hour. Egypt’s opposition movement has the momentum and its greatest opportunity to answer history’s call. Now is the seedtime of Egypt’s democratic revolution. We are waiting.  

Webster Brooks is a Senior Fellow at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP) and Editor of Brooks Foreign Policy Review, the international affairs arm of CNPP. His articles on foreign policy have appeared in numerous newspapers and websites in the Middle East, Eurasia and in the United States. He may be contacted at [email protected]
The Center for New Politics and Policy is based in Washington, D.C.

 Republished with permission from :

Brooks Foriegn Policy Review