Like father, like son

Like father, like son

Egypt’s ageing leader may have defiantly promised to cling on to power "until his last breath" but the drumbeat of presidential succession has been growing steadily louder in recent weeks, echoing even in the corridors of newspapers where any talk of a post-Mubarak era was once strictly off-limits. It’s been only two years since leading independent editor Ibrahim Eissa was charged in court for reporting that the health of Hosni Mubarak, currently 81, was rumoured to be failing; now the press is full of speculation that change at the top is imminent. Yet despite the unprecedented media buzz – which has included new blogs and Facebook groups supporting the potential candidates – the underlying dynamics of Egypt’s political elite remain depressingly familiar.

Gamal on the rise

Since 2002, when Mubarak nominated his son Gamal as General Secretary of the ruling NDP party’s Policy Committee, conventional wisdom has been that the young banker is being groomed to take over from his father. It wasn’t just Gamal’s elevation to one of the most influential positions within the autocratic Mubarak regime that fuelled such talk; more importantly the appointment mirrored a broader trend within the government, with the army-dominated, locally-orientated ‘old guard’ gradually giving way to a neo-liberal, business-minded ‘new guard’, personified by Gamal himself. The ascendancy of these supposed Young Turks stepped up a gear in 2004, when a new cabinet – staffed mainly by members of Gamal’s Policy Committee – initiated a series of controversial ‘free market reforms’ which won plaudits from the IMF but served to deepen Egypt’s vast social chasm between rich and poor, which in turn has provoked growing opposition on the streets to Mubarak’s rule.

The architects of Egypt’s economic transformation don’t appear too perturbed by such domestic dissent; unlike their ageing predecessors, this fresh, internationally-educated clique is more concerned with how it’s viewed in London and Washington than what people are saying in Asyut or Tanta. As one commentator recently observed, Gamal’s contemporaries – a generation where business and power have become inextricably linked – are more interested in the ‘spectacle of politics’ than in the bread and butter populist measures, like food subsidies and rent controls, which have historically dampened demand for regime change. In terms of enabling Gamal’s accession to the presidency, their aim is merely to persuade those heavily invested in the status quo that their privileges will be maintained or expanded under a future Gamal-led Egypt; along with a well-documented web of constitutional acrobatics designed to shut out any challengers from outside the higher echelons of NDP, and a long tradition of electoral manipulation by the government, the rest should be just a formality.

Flurry of speculations

Or at least that’s how things looked before last month, when a mysterious blog appeared advertising the presidential credentials of Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s high-profile intelligence chief who has recently been leading negotiations between the various Palestinian factions and Israel. The anonymous website, emblazoned with the words ‘No to the Muslim Brotherhood … No to Gamal’, appeared just as independent daily Al Shorouk reported that the NDP’s political bureau was meeting to choose a presidential candidate. Within days the rumours were flying thick and fast: reports claimed Mubarak, still reeling from the death of his grandson earlier this year, had told King Abdullah that he would not serve out his full term (due to expire in 2011); sources suggested the NDP was about to dissolve parliament; Israeli intelligence leaks hinted at an impending transfer of power.

Although parliament has not been dissolved and the senior Mubarak remains in office, this flurry of speculation brought the subject of succession to the front pages in a way previously unseen in Egypt. Talk of Mubarak’s health or any potential successors has long been an unwritten red line for Egyptian independent and opposition journalists, and those that have strayed beyond it have found the full weight of the law thrown in their faces. But with Mubarak now increasingly absent from the day to day management of the country, and the prospect of an actual contest on the horizon if the army flexes its muscles and promotes Suleiman as a viable alternative to Gamal, the floodgates have opened. Independent newspapers like Sawt Al Oma and Al Dustour have run special double-page spreads on Suleiman; pro-regime outlets like Rosa Al Yousef and Al Ahram have responded with government denials that anything is amiss, even whilst increasing their (invariably positive) coverage of Gamal – this month the scoop was that a public square in Upper Egypt was to be named after the 46-year old because of his sterling work on poverty reduction in the area.

Fighting back

Gamal’s supporters have been fighting back on the web as well. No one is certain whether the pro-Suleiman blog was a test-balloon by his advisers to see what the public response would be for an unlikely run at the presidency, or a false-flag operation by Gamal’s acolytes, or indeed just the work of a random net-savvy teenager, but whatever its provenance the pro-NDP youth are taking no chances. ‘Gamal Mubarak for President – expanding the Egyptian dream’ and ‘Lovers and supporters of Gamal Mubarak’ are just two of the Facebook groups that have sprung up to sing the praises of the heir-apparent, exploiting a medium which in Egypt has traditionally been the preserve of anti-government activists.

The ‘battle’ over Mubarak’s successor, or rather the hype surrounding it, will continue to play out in fits and bursts until Mubarak dies or reaches the end of his term (few believe he will run again in 2011). It’s possible that speculation over the post-Mubarak era and hopes for a genuine battle within the NDP hierarchy for the party’s presidential nomination will combine to provide a rare opening for the independent and opposition press, who are already moving their reporting into previously uncharted territory. Of course the drama will also play out online, with social networking sites and blogs offering a forum for Egyptians wishing to display public support for Gamal’s potential opponents. But even as the international press gape gleefully at this buzzword-friendly circus, the fundamentals of Egypt’s political malaise are likely to remain constant.

Gamal’s ‘new guard’ already have the era of Obama’s administration and are in a position to ensure that the tiny but potent slice of Egyptian society to have done well out of economic restructuring can continue to prosper at the expense of their countrymen long after Hosni Mubarak exits the political stage. That means any real opposition to Gamal can only come from below, outside of the NDP’s senior circles where Suleiman is based. In the meantime, the media lather over succession will remain largely meaningless.