Egyptian business faces up to political uncertainty

Egyptian business faces up to political uncertainty

For many years Egyptian businessmen have struggled with the ups and downs of economic reforms, but one thing they never worried about was who is in charge of the Arab world’s most populous country. Like it or not, Hosni Mubarak (pictured) has been president since 1981 and he has dominated Egyptian politics, never allowing a credible opposition to organise or pose a threat to his rule.

Now, however, and for the first time in decades, the business community is grappling with political uncertainty as next year’s presidential election looms.

Mr Mubarak’s health may not allow him to stand again – he is 82, after all. His ex-investment banker son, the 47-year-old Gamal, is being promoted as a successor by the younger wing of the ruling National Democratic Party, but it is not clear whether he will be the choice of the military, an institution with a traditionally strong voice in the choice of presidents.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been contemplating a run for the presidency but amendments to the constitution that were pushed very cleverly by Mr Mubarak in 2007 prevent independents from competing and conveniently prevent judges from supervising elections.

Then there is Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief, whose pictures suddenly sprang up on posters in Cairo this month, only to be taken down by government agents. That the posters went up in the first place, however, added to the suspicion that the regime was not fully united behind Gamal.

What would business want? Many businessmen are already lined up behind Gamal, whose role within the NDP includes heading a policy planning unit. Gamal is seen as a champion of economic liberalisation: it is at least partly thanks to him that the president was convinced to adopt a more reformist economic path in recent years.

From a business perspective, he offers continuity but with the promise of more economic openness.

In reality, however, the business community does not have much of a choice. Given that political life has been suppressed for so long, and the only real opposition is the (banned) Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptians are not being offered credible alternatives to Gamal, let alone anyone who can articulate a coherent economic vision.

Egypt’s political landscape does not encourage risk-taking. So for many businessmen the least troubling answer to the post-Mubarak era is probably to start a new Mubarak era.