Is Gamal Mubarak the best hope for Egyptian democracy?

Is Gamal Mubarak the best hope for Egyptian democracy?

 Egypt’s opposition forces and Western advocates of democracy promotion all seem to agree on one thing: Gamal Mubarak should not be allowed to succeed his father Hosni Mubarak as President of Egypt. Cries of “la lil tawrith” (no to inheritance [of power]) dominate street protests carried out by the storied opposition group Kifaya, whose very name — Egyptian Arabic for “enough” — is as much a repudiation of the Mubarak family as it is of authoritarianism, corruption, or any of the country’s myriad other ills. Egypt, they say, is not a plantation to be bequeathed from father to son, and the Mubaraks’ scheme to render Egypt a monarcho-republic or gumlukiyya (in the inimitable portmanteaus of Roger Owen and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, respectively) is an evil to be resisted by all right-thinking, democracy-loving people.

But is it? Compared to some democratic ideal, the prospect of Gamal Mubarak’s inheriting his father’s seat is of course repellent. But true democracy is not on the table in Egypt. Instead of the democratic dream, the reality is that we are faced only with unappetizing options: an inherited transition, a sixth Mubarak term, a handover to some stony-faced apparatchik-like intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, or a military coup. And when comparing these eminently uninspiring alternative futures, it is hard not to conclude that Gamal Mubarak is the best bet if you care about Egypt’s long term democratic prospects.


A few short months ago, this was not the case. Muhammad ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had captured imaginations with his calls for political reform and an end to emergency law. But he has so far been a disappointment. Already we read of dissension in his ranks over how little time he has spent inside Egypt since announcing his “campaign” for change. His online petition seems to be inching toward his declared target of a million signatures (with a major assist from the Muslim Brotherhood), but it’s hard to think of countries that have democratized by petition. ElBaradei is now calling for an opposition boycott of the November, 2010 parliamentary elections, but it’s not clear what this will achieve either. After all, every Egyptian opposition party (save the leftist Tagammu) boycotted the 1990 parliamentary contests, and yet the ship of state sailed on undisturbed. (And at this particularly sensitive time, the NDP might even welcome the prospect of a quiet election free of the usual opposition headaches.)

If a democratic revolution is unlikely, so too is a military coup. The armed forces are loyal to Mubarak (if not to his son) and conservative enough not to risk reaping the kind of whirlwind that an overthrow of the existing order would entail. (Unless, of course, they were provoked by the prospect of losing all their prerogatives, which is why calls to reduce U.S. aid to Egypt — most of which goes to the military — are a bad idea right now). Similarly, it’s doubtful that the elder Mubarak would hand power to Omar Suleiman. A recent “mystery campaign” in favor of the intelligence chief was swiftly snuffed out by the regime, and in any case, if Mubarak wanted Suleiman to succeed him, he would have appointed him vice president long ago. Thus, we are really left with two choices: Gamal or his father.

Should Mubarak, 82-years old and ailing, find the strength to run for a sixth time, he would almost certainly win another six-year term. But biology would just as certainly intervene to ensure that he did not complete it. Unlike Nasser or Sadat, each of whom had appointed a vice president who could (and did) take the helm in the event of the leader’s demise, Mubarak has left this position vacant. When he does go the way of all flesh, the decision of who would replace him would likely be made by a shadowy conclave of generals, ruling party notables, and big businessmen. It’s possible that these men, gathered in some smoke-filled room, would settle on the younger Mr. Mubarak, but improbable. The desire to ensure stability, in addition to resentment of Gamal and his nouveau riche cronies among the military and the old guard of the NDP, would likely mean that the burden of rule would fall on broader, more martial shoulders, such as those of Omar Suleiman. Emergency law would become further entrenched — because the death of the leader is an emergency situation, naturally — and Egyptians would settle in for another long stretch of thinly-disguised military rule.

Gamal Mubarak, on the other hand, would represent a departure from this depressingly familiar routine. If he were to run and win in 2011, he would be the first leader in Egypt’s modern history never to have worn a military uniform, never to have been what Samuel Huntington called a “specialist in the application of violence.” (Sufi Abu Talib, a legal academic and the speaker of the People’s Assembly from 1978 to 1983, was acting president for a week after Sadat’s 1981 assassination, but his job was to keep the seat warm for Mubarak.) Of course, the fact that Gamal is a civilian would not necessarily make him gentler than his predecessors (or than someone like Omar Suleiman) or less willing to visit the implements of coercion upon his opponents. But it might make him less able to do so, since he would lack the kind of blind loyalty the armed forces deliver to one of their own. Moreover, there is something to be said for the purely symbolic value of elevating to Egypt’s highest office someone who does not emerge from what the Egyptian analyst Dia’ Rashwan extolled as the “solid and strong heart in the apparatus of the state” — if only because it helps to establish the principle of civilian authority in a country hitherto bereft of it.

Also in the symbolic vein: the younger Mubarak would not only be Egypt’s first civilian president, he would also be its first to come to power through a “competitive” election. No one is under any illusions that this election would be anything close to free and fair. But it would be an election nonetheless, one in which multiple candidates would stand against the president. It is true that Egypt has had one form of elections or another since 1866, but only since 2005 have Egyptians been able to vote in multi-candidate presidential contests. The younger Mubarak would be bound to continue the tradition in a way that a military leader, less dependent on claims to democratic legitimacy, might not. And this is important, because presidential elections — even if flawed — cannot but help to change the language and grammar of politics. They force the regime to concede (in rhetoric if not in reality) the possibility that some other individual or party might be more fit to rule. The subjection of the za`im to the indignities of the ballot box invites people to imagine a future without him, to realize that his writ is fundamentally revocable and transferable (again, in theory if not in practice).

But if the value of a Gamal Mubarak presidency lay purely in images and symbols, it would not be worth very much, especially since a large segment of the Egyptian population would see Mr. Mubarak’s elevation as symbolic not of civilian supremacy or the legitimacy of democracy, but of nepotism and patriarchy and personalism — a bitter regression to human history’s dynastic mean.

Symbols, however, are not all that commend the younger Mr. Mubarak to us. More than any other option on the table, a Gamal Mubarak presidency contains within it the potential for future opposition breakthroughs. Yes, the election that will bring Mr. Mubarak to power will be manipulated, but it will not be the last election he will ever have to face. Every six years will bring another one. And although those elections will likely be rigged too, each will nonetheless bear a kernel of uncertainty. Surprises at the ballot box, while rare, can happen. And sometimes election rigging itself — as we saw in the Philippines in 1986, Georgia in 2003, and the Ukraine in 2005 — can generate an opportunity for the opposition to unify, mobilize the citizenry, and force a regime to abdicate or reform.

Of course, we should be under no illusions as to the ability of Egypt’s democratic opposition to pose a genuine electoral challenge to Gamal now or in the near future. As the disorganization around Mr. ElBaradei has demonstrated to us, the forces of democracy in Egypt have a long way to go before they can pull off an Egyptian version of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. But under a civilian Gamal Mubarak presidency, each election will offer a new chance for it to chip away at the regime’s armor.

And there are intriguing possibilities on the horizon. The Wafd Party, for years Exhibit A in the case for dismissing Egyptian opposition parties as ineffectual jokes, has been given new life by a new leader — the media and pharmaceuticals tycoon El-Sayed El-Badawi. The new Wafd president has his own TV network and just purchased a controlling interest in one of Egypt’s most vibrant opposition newspapers. El-Badawi is the type of person who in the past flocked to the ruling party for the benefits that it offered. The fact that a man of his heft has now seen fit to take a leading role in the opposition suggests a shift in expectations away from NDP dominance to something potentially more open. El-Badawi might not be a challenger in 2011, but he — or someone like him — very well could be six years hence. The point of this is that Gamal Mubarak’s elevation could be a welcome thing, not because he would be a great leader, an economic reformer, or a genuine democrat — although I suppose we cannot rule out any of those things — but because it’s more likely than the alternatives to keep open the possibility of an opposition success and a democratic future. Many Egyptians are fond of quoting a verse from the Quran when things go wrong: “It may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not.” We might do well to remember that now.