Egypt: authoritarian succession poses strategic dilemma

Egypt: authoritarian succession poses strategic dilemma

The looming succession crisis in Egypt may be exposing latent rifts within the ruling elite of the National Democratic Party. The military, which has produced every president in the post-independence period, is reportedly uncomfortable at the prospect of Hosni Mubarak’s civilian son assuming the office.

The Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament has now weighed in. “Authority is granted by the will of the people and not through bequeathal,” Fathi Srour told the Almasry Alyoum* newspaper today, insisting that “even in monarchies, bequeathal is conducted in accordance with the law…” (translation by Mideastwire).

The regime appears to be at a strategic impasse, clearly in the stop phase of what Carnegie’s Michelle Dunne calls a process of start-and-stop liberalization, with the ruling NDP suffering an acute legitimacy crisis, in part due to the obvious coupling of wealth and authority, and the alienation of technocratic reformists like Hala Mustafa, editor of the Democracy Review.

The NDP’s troubles are the “result of a system that severely hinders its activities and a ruling regime that shows no appetite for political reform,” notes a special supplement on Egypt in today’s Financial Times. “Instead, critics say, the regime resorts to tried-and-tested methods to shackle, infiltrate, divide and silence opponents.”

The FT reporter, perhaps naively, attributes the weakness of the regime’s liberal opponents to internal bickering, neglecting the extent to which the NDP and security services consistently infiltrate and sabotage opposition groups. A recent attack on the HQ of the liberal Ghad party was another example of the regime “stripping away the legality” of the party, says Gameela Ismail, a party official and the wife of imprisoned party leader Ayman Nour. “This is what they always do, the security [forces] and the government, they always target parties to break them into factions and pieces, to let them eat themselves from within,” she says.

The question of political transition will also pose a strategic dilemma to the new U.S administration. “Should Mubarak’s successor eschew reform or not manage crises well, Egypt’s long-term stability will be at stake, a situation which could have a bigger effect on the Arab world’s direction since the Iraq War or any other current issue,” argues Jeffrey Azarva, in a symposium in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

The United States should push for reinstituting the two-term limit abolished by Anwar Sadat, a move that “would not only allow for the peaceful rotation of power, but it would also help to undo today’s perception of the president as a God-like figure,” Azarva argues. The U.S. should also seek to depoliticize the process for licensing political parties which is currently controlled by an NDP-stacked parliamentary committee that “exercises de facto veto power over the formation of new parties and uses its authority to meddle in the affairs of–and effectively neuter–those it has legalized.”

Arab states fall into three categories when it comes to international human rights instruments, argues Khalil Al-Anani, an Egyptian expert on political Islam and Middle East democratization in the Middle East at the Al-Ahram Foundation. Egypt is in the group of states that simply do not recognize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially the political rights to freedom of expression, assembly, free elections, freedom of belief and religion. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Tunisia and the UAE have refused to ratify international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A second group, to which Egypt also belongs, alongside Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, purports to respect human rights, but they are unquestionably “authoritarian reserves”, exercising de facto repression against citizens and opponents. A third category of states in effect offer citizens a deal to give up political rights in exchange for economic security and social status, as in the Gulf States.

The Mubarak regime is typical of a new trend towards authoritarianism-by-stealth, as military coups or violently contested transitions give way to what one Egyptian observer calls an apparently “innocuous series of constitutional amendments” ostensibly designed to modernize political standards while consecrating a “camouflaged hereditary succession under a pseudo-democratic republican regime.”

Ayman El-Amir, formerly Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC, is skeptical that the unique circumstances of the much-hyped China model are transferable to Egypt. “The Chinese ‘miracle’ was not achieved under circumstances of corruption, fraudulent elections, monopoly of power, cronyism, misrepresentation of reality by paid government propagandists posing as free journalists, and plunder of the wealth of the nation by a privileged few,” he suggests.

Last week’s 60th anniversary of the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was also the 4th anniversary of the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, and the Washington-based Voices for a Democratic Egypt held a Capitol Hill panel highlighting the state of human rights in Egypt. The opportunities for change under a new U.S. administration and the upcoming succession were discussed by exiled dissident Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Neil Hicks of Human Rights First, and Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution (VDE’s detailed notes and an audio recording of the event are available here and for the Project on Middle East Democracy’s take on the event click here.

* Almasry Alyoum is the country’s largest independent newspaper and the only relatively liberal publication, albeit one with a disturbing tendency to publish illiberal anti-Semitic polemics. “Over the past eight years, the United States has invested huge resources in attempting to bring democracy to the Middle East,” one observer recently noted. “But it’s not clear whether that project will succeed as long as America’s natural allies in the region remain themselves so profoundly irrational and illiberal.”