In Egypt, it’s who you know

In Egypt, it’s who you know

It isn’t really about whether Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, would be a good leader. That is not the point. It is partly about him as a person and what he represents, but more about what he would take from Egyptian society if he became president: hope.

Last year, Barack Obama galvanised the globe with his message of change, audacity and hope. Now, nearly one year into his presidency and a media-frenzied speech in Cairo last summer, the ideas of hope and change have all but dissipated from Egyptian minds. They feel the status quo has returned in full force.

Gamal Mubarak is that status quo. Where Obama succeeded in reinvigorating the American mindset that anything was possible; that someone born of meagre means could work toward any goal – including the presidency – Gamal Mubarak represents the opposite.

Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of Egypt’s parliament and a prominent female intellectual, told me recently that “this country lacks two things: jobs and hope”. She is spot on. Egyptians have long struggled to make ends meet. A recent study by the Economic Development Ministry showed that poverty rates in the country have risen to more than one person in five.

What Egypt needs, the younger Mubarak cannot offer. He represents all that is wrong with Egyptian politics and society. He achieved his position at the top of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) not because of his qualifications as a politician, but because his father is president.

The other day, as I sat in a local cafe, one of the waiters contrasted Egypt with the US. “How can Obama become president when he was not part of the powerful families?” he asked. The waiter, Yahya, said he wanted to be a journalist but didn’t know anyone in media to give him the opportunity. “I know how to write and studied politics at Cairo University, but my family isn’t known and we don’t have wasta [connections].”

Wasta is the oft-mentioned problem facing the Arab world. Egypt does not want to become another Syria, where father begets power to his son, but it appears the masses will have no choice.

The ruling National Democratic party (NDP), at its annual conference, was quick to dodge any questions of succession and who would follow Hosni Mubarak as president, hoping that Gamal would not be forced to answer the growing controversy.

He didn’t talk of succession. But, it isn’t really about succession. It is about the continuation of a system that is buttressed by who people know, not what they have achieved. Egyptians understand this well and their disappointment and frustration is evident at every turn.

Gamal has been one of the leading figures driving Egypt’s economic development and foreign governments have often praised his efforts, which are commendable and should not be forgotten. Media reports say he is “credited with helping to push through economic reforms that have won praise from foreign investors”.

His supporters point to him as one of the few who can combine the needs of the country with the needs of the state. They argue that he has made doing business in Egypt much easier, cutting the overvalued Egyptian pound and helping the country increase its foreign direct investment to $11bn.

This is not the point. There are thousands of stories like Yahya’s – of individuals who want to better themselves but have no access to the channels for achieving it. What Gamal represents as a person, as a son, as a politician, is what is driving the hope from Egypt. There is no Egyptian dream even close to the so-called American dream of achieving whatever you set your mind to.

“Gamal has never taken a bus, never stopped at a red light, never met anyone who wasn’t cleared by security services,” Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of Cairo’s al-Dustour newspaper, told the Washington Post earlier this year.

Gamal Mubarak could be a fine president, one businessman told me recently: he is smart and deals with the west in its own language, but “he is the son of the leader and if he becomes president, these people will not be better off. They will lose all their hope for a better future.”

This is the heart of the matter. Empowerment is being drained from Egyptian life and the country is going backwards. Opposition leaders do not give real, viable solutions to the growing cronyism that is being seen in all sectors of Egyptian life, from journalism – where editors are quick to hire their friends, family and those close to them, merit notwithstanding – to business.

For Gamal to become president, the drain will become even more evident and talk of a better future for Egypt will quickly diminish.

Instead, what Gamal needs to do is tackle corruption and end the pandemic of cronyism that has stymied Egyptian life for decades. He needs to create the Egyptian dream – to offer scholarships for underprivileged youth to study in universities; to improve the job market so that someone without wasta can make it. Gamal can help to bring change, but not as president.