Joining the dynasty club

Is Hosni Mubarak”s 26-year rule really coming to an end? Persistent rumors of a sharp decline in the health of the Egyptian president and speculation about what will take place after the dictator”s death are increasingly being heard. Mubarak has vehemently denied all reports of failing health, accusing “those who spread rumors” of intentionally trying to destabilize Egypt.

Even his wife, Suzanne Mubarak, weighed in, condemning those “renegade” journalists whose sole intent is to “sow anger and mistrust”. In a rare television appearance, the first lady called for all rumormongers to be held accountable for their profoundly “un-Egyptian” conduct.

In another move to squash the endless speculation about what will take shape after the end of the “Age of Mubarak”, the regime unleashed one of the biggest campaigns against public dissent in several years. The recent detentions of a number of journalists and the ruthless crackdown on the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood are a clear attempt by the Egyptian regime to cripple all its critics and political rivals and ensure a smooth transition of power. The regime is understandably anxious to tighten its control and impose order. In recent months, the country has been plagued by a number of large-scale labor strikes and simmering discontent in the Sinai, where Bedouin protests against state discrimination and police abuse turned into rampages against government buildings and other state symbols. To be sure, Egypt”s economy has registered a healthy growth in the last years but food prices have skyrocketed, poverty continues to grow and income remains stagnant.

In the midst of this tense transitional phase, the heir-apparent to the presidency, Mubarak”s son, Gamal, is positioning himself as a major player on the political scene, creating a sense of inevitability about his meteoric rise to power. This does not mean that he is a definite shoo-in for the presidency. Recent history has seen the military directly and indirectly dominating Egyptian politics, and it is common knowledge that whoever assumes the presidency must have its blessing. For now, however, the leading contender for the presidency is the president”s son, despite his denials of harboring any ambitions to hold “any executive position”.

If this scenario materializes, Egypt will finally join the Middle Eastern dynasty club and set a trend for more cases where sons become heirs to their fathers” governments of elites. The leaders of Libya and Yemen will enthusiastically take a cue from this experience. The army and security services, the backbone of these regimes, are unlikely to torpedo any succession that preserves the status quo. Egypt is no exception, and Gamal Mubarak and his coterie of advisors and supporters within the NDP understand that no smooth potential transfer of power is possible without the support of senior officers. In addition to winning the army to his side, Gamal has quickly ascended the ladder of powers within the ruling party and enhanced his credentials as a young liberal reformer. As an economic advisor to his father, he is credited by many in the business community in Egypt and abroad with helping to overhaul the stagnant economy and create the conditions for economic growth.

Debate about Gamal”s desire to succeed his father picked up steam with his recent marriage to the daughter of a well-known businessman and contractor, Mahmoud el-Gamal. While tying the knot may have nothing to do with his eventual ascent to power, some observers are convinced that the marriage reinforces his chances of becoming president. But regardless of whether Gamal replicates the feats of the sons who succeeded their fathers in Jordan, Morocco and Syria, one thing is certain. The next leader of Egypt will emerge from Mubarak”s inner circle. The government”s crackdown on any and all political challengers is part of a wide campaign to mobilize state power, reassure the business community and secure the support of the army. The major players of the system share the same goals of maintaining stability at all costs.

The fallout from a direct takeover of power by the military or a turbulent breakdown in the transition process might have a deleterious impact not only on the Arab world”s most populous nation but on the whole region. Given the debilitating weakness of the democratic forces in Egypt and the regime”s determination to weaken its adversaries and crush its formidable challengers, a father-son succession might be the least undesirable outcome. Gamal is no democrat and no one is under the illusion that, once at the helm of the country, he will take bold steps to move Egypt toward greater freedoms and lead Middle East democratization. The kings of Jordan, Morocco and Syria”s president Bashar al-Assad once promised that they would be agents of reform and progress when they succeeded their fathers. Once in power, they reneged on the core of their promises. Today, it is a small and impoverished country like Mauritania that leads the cause of democracy in the Arab world.- Published 25/10/2007 ©

Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for Defense and Security Policy at Wilberforce University in Ohio. He is also editor of the Wilberforce Quarterly Journal.