• Reports
  • April 26, 2006
  • 8 minutes read

Egyptian President losing grip on power

MAXINE McKEW: And the Prime Minister may well have had Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in mind, when talking of the immense challenges in fighting terrorism. The Egyptian leader has been grappling for over a decade with increased radicalism and with the political potency of the organisation known as “the Muslim Brotherhood”. Now, with another significant attack in the popular Red Sea tourist area, the Egyptian President’s grip on power could well be on the slide. That’s the view of Middle East analyst Peter Khalil. A former defence and foreign affairs officer, in recent years he’s advised the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. He’s also worked with the Egyptian authorities on counter-terrorism strategies. He now works with the Eurasia Group in New York. I recorded this interview with Peter Khalil earlier today. Peter Khalil, this latest bomb blast in Egypt comes, of course, only a day after Osama bin Laden denounced he calls “the Zionist crusader wars on Islam”. Do you think the two events are connected in any way?

PETER KHALIL, SENIOR MIDDLE EAST ANALYST, EURASIA GROUP: Maxine, I think you can make some connection. There’s been quite a concern, even within the Egyptian Government, the regime there, that many of the Egyptians who went to Iraq to fight as foreign fighters are coming back into Egypt now and of course, this particular attack in Dahab has some of those sort of hand-prints of Al Qaeda-planned type operations. So, certainly it’s a significant risk. But we can’t speculate too much about Al Qaeda being involved at an operational level. There has been a very strong Bedouin, radicalised element in the Sinai peninsula, which were supposed responsible for some of the attacks in Taba and Sharm last year.

MAXINE McKEW: So, there’s the possibility that this blast is the work of some local group motivated by Al Qaeda?

PETER KHALIL: I think so. And obviously now, obviously since September 11, Al Qaeda’s taken more of a sort of strategic leadership, in that respect, and many of the local cells are inspired by the Al Qaeda ideology rather than being involved in the operational planning or micromanaged from Osama bin Laden or al-Zawahiri from their position, wherever they are.

MAXINE McKEW: You mentioned there Ayman Al-Zawahiri. He’s, of course, a top aide to Osama bin Laden and he directs a lot of criticism Egypt’s way. What is it about Egypt that makes it such a desirable target from Al Qaeda’s point of view?

PETER KHALIL: Well, it’s significant because it has, it has very – it’s very important from a geostrategic perspective and the Egyptian regime has been basically propped up by the US now and if they were to fall to Islamist government, for example, that would cause quite a bit of geostrategic instability and the Egyptians are aware of that and so are the US and I think that’s why they’re not pushing the Egyptians as hard as they would be as far as genuine democratic reform.

MAXINE McKEW: And with all sorts of radical elements now at play in Egypt, what is driving them? What is sustaining them?

PETER KHALIL: Obviously the Egyptian regime has a lot of problems both on the economic and social fronts. There is something like 600,000 new job seekers coming out into the Egyptian market per year. There’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of corruption within the regime and many of these young men tend towards extremism without any other options. That’s certainly an issue. As you saw, there was also some sectarian clashes that have occurred between Christians and Muslims, partly for the same reason, partly because the Christians believe they’re not being protected adequately from the government from Muslim extremism. So, there’s a real potential for some of these extremist groups to get quite a few recruits from this younger demographic.

MAXINE McKEW: So, how firm is President Mubarak’s grip, would you say?

PETER KHALIL: I think it’s sliding, to be honest. He’s ageing – he’s 78 years old now; there’s been question marks about his health. And there’s a whole raft in issues in Egypt which is pointing to sort of the possibility of real instability for that regime. And it’s not just the security threats. There’s also the rising power of the Muslim brotherhood, who have decided to renounce violence and pursue a sort of democratic process. But there’s also issues such as the ability of the Egyptian Government to deal with disasters like the ferry disaster – their incompetence in that regard; there are the economic issues that I mentioned; and there’s this overarching issue about the transfer of power once – if Hosni dies, during this term and the handover to either his son, Jamal, or to the next generation of leadership. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

MAXINE McKEW: So is Egypt the next domino to fall? When you consider that we already have Islamic governments now in the Palestinian territories and in Iran, is Egypt next?

PETER KHALIL: Well, I think the Muslim Brotherhood would certainly hope so. That’s why they’re talking the talk of democracy. A lot of people think that they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing and whether they would actually continue on with the democratic system if they were to gain power. But the regime has been pretty strong in cracking down on the Muslim Brothers since the parliamentary election last year. And they don’t look like they will let go on their grip on power any time soon. But the Muslim Brothers may become, at some point, frustrated that they’re not achieving a share in political power through a democratic process, for example, they see is imperfect and some elements of the Muslim Brothers may become more radicalised. You have to remember some of these Muslim Brothers are former members of more former radical groups that were prevalent during the 90s.

MAXINE McKEW: In terms of how the government responds, is the dilemma this: that the harder the authority’s crackdown, then the more they arouse internal dissent against the regime?

PETER KHALIL: Yep. Yeah. Well, they certainly cracked down hard in Sinai. There were mass arrests of the local Bedouin that were deemed to be involved in the attacks in Sharm and so on. And I think it is, essentially, a problem that the regime is not able to find a solution for politically, because they’ve really shut out any other forms of opposition that may be appealing to the Egyptian populace. They’ve basically ceded the opposition to the Muslim Brothers and they’ve actually liked it that way, in a sort of funny way, in the sense that by pointing out it’s either us or the Muslim Brothers, they can continue to get support from the US, from the international community and also support from the middle classes in Egypt, the economic elites, for example, the military, obviously, but also your average Egyptians who are afraid of, you know, a sort of a radical Islamist government taking over there. And they’ve played that boogieman card quite well with the Muslim Brotherhood. And we have to remember, too, the Muslim Brother’s success in the parliamentary elections really has to be put in context. There were only 23 per cent of voters that actually turned out for that election and they won something like 88 of 444 parliamentary seats. So, it’s not clear that they have the complete ground on the opposition.

MAXINE McKEW: Well, Peter Khalil, for your time tonight, thank you very much.

PETER KHALIL: Thank you, Maxine.