- August 21, 2009
The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, is paying his first visit to Washington for five years. The main topic for discussion is the Obama administration"s Middle East peace plan, which is to be announced next month. US officials will also be looking for any clues as to what might happen once Mr Mubarak"s current term expires in 2011.
For much of his 28-year rule, Mr Mubarak has been a regular visitor to Washington, reflecting the depth of the US-Egyptian strategic relationship since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, set in motion the process that led to the first peace treaty between an Arab state and Israel. His absence since 2002 has stemmed from a concern to keep his distance from the US in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and from his uneasiness about the Bush administration"s efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world—the Egyptian government bridled in particular at suggestions by Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, that a Muslim Brotherhood election victory in Egypt would be an acceptable price to pay for opening up the political system.
Mr Mubarak has welcomed the Obama administration"s shift from ideology to pragmatism in its approach to the Middle East, and he was gratified that the new US president chose Cairo to deliver his first major speech within the region on June 4th. The main objective of his current visit will be to ensure that Egypt"s assessment of what needs to be done to make Mr Obama"s regional peace plan work is taken fully into account.
In his Cairo speech, Mr Obama was sharply critical of aspects of Israel"s policy towards the Palestinians, but he also urged Arab states to adopt a more positive approach towards Israel so as to persuade the Israeli public of the benefits that would accrue from a peace settlement. The current Arab League position is that all member states will establish normal relations with Israel following a peace settlement that includes a complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. However, Saudi Arabia, the sponsor of the Arab peace initiative, has made clear that it is not interested in making friendly overtures unless Israel first demonstrates its good faith by freezing all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. Mr Mubarak has endorsed this stance, and is urging the US not to be bought off by Israeli half-measures. The Israeli government has offered to halt "new" settlement construction, but insists that ongoing projects must be allowed to continue and that there should be provision for "natural growth" of existing settlements.
Mr Obama"s efforts to persuade the Israeli government to freeze settlements have been seized upon by his political adversaries in the US—Mike Huckabee, a former presidential candidate, turned out on August 17th at a function at the Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem in support of a Jewish housing project. A number of Palestinian families have recently been evicted by Israeli authorities from properties close to the hotel. As his approval ratings start to dip, Mr Obama will have to weigh carefully the political risks in pushing the settlement freeze agenda any further.
Mr Mubarak has also made clear that he sees no point in the Palestinians resuming peace negotiations with Israel on the basis of an interim agreement, as has been suggested by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Mr Obama has indicated his preference for a comprehensive approach, and has managed to squeeze out of Mr Netanyahu a statement approving the establishment of a Palestinian state (albeit hedged around with the condition that the Palestinians must recognise the Jewish essence of the Israeli state). Any such comprehensive deal would have to address issues such as the final border of the Palestinian state, the rights of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem—all of which have proved to be deal-breakers in the past.
Mr Netanyahu has made his partial concessions on settlements and the Palestinian state question safe in the knowledge that the Palestinians" negotiating position has been undermined by the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. The Bush administration"s strategy was based on marginalising Hamas in the hope that popular support for the Islamist movement would wither away as Palestinians saw the economic benefits accruing to the Fatah-controlled West Bank. However, Hamas remains, stubbornly, a force to be reckoned with. Egypt is persisting with its efforts to mediate between Hamas and Fatah and to create the conditions for Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2010. The chances of a breakthrough in these mediation talks, which are set to resume in Cairo later this month, remain slim. Fatah claims that its remaining supporters in Gaza are being repressed and abused by Hamas, while the Islamist group accuses Fatah and its US military advisers of presiding over a reign of terror in the West Bank. Mr Obama has not made clear whether he sees a reversion to the Bush approach is inevitable or whether he believes that there is a chance of bringing Hamas into the peace process, possibly with the help of Syria, which hosts the Hamas political leadership and with which the US is seeking to build more friendly and co-operative relations. Mr Mubarak is likely to urge caution on Mr Obama in dealing with Syria. Egypt is taking an increasingly close interest in Lebanon, and has accused Hizbullah, the Lebanese ally of both Syria and Iran, of setting up terrorist cells in Egypt with the mission of attacking tourists and Suez Canal shipping.
Mr Mubarak is intent on presenting Egypt as a stable and reliable Western ally that is capable of playing an important role in resolving regional conflicts or, failing that, in containing them. Egypt has also absorbed a considerable amount of US aid and investment since the Camp David accords, and is one of the largest US trade partners in the region—US foreign direct investment in Egypt amounts to about US$7.5bn, according to the Egyptian trade and industry minister, Rachid Mohammed Rachid, and two-way trade totalled US$8.5bn last year, having registered annual increases of 10-15% since 2004.
There is little question that the US values its relationship with Egypt. Yet the Obama administration is likely to harbour some concerns about the country"s future political prospects. Mr Mubarak is now 81 and he has no apparent successor other than his second son, Gamal, a former banker who has built up a political base in the National Democratic Party (NDP) and who has consistently denied any intention of seeking the presidency. The NDP is, in effect, the single party of an authoritarian state. The other licensed parties only managed to win a handful of seats between them in the most recent election, in 2005, and the main source of political opposition is the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has 88 members in the 454-seat lower house of parliament, all of whom stood as independents. The government has taken a number of steps to ensure that the Brotherhood does not manage to repeat this feat in the next election, which is scheduled to take place at the end of next year. These include increasing the proportion of seats to be decided on the basis of party lists—thereby excluding the Brotherhood on the grounds that it is not a party—adding 64 seats to be reserved for women (on the assumption that the Brotherhood will be unwilling to promote women from within its ranks) and arresting dozens of Brotherhood activists, including its more moderate leaders, who tend to be more committed to participation in the political process.
The parliamentary election will provide Gamal Mubarak with the opportunity to build up for a potential presidential bid the following year (assuming that his father agrees to stand down). The constitution was amended in 2005 and in 2007 to allow for contested presidential elections. The system allows for each party represented in parliament to nominate one candidate, who must have served as a senior official in the party for at least a year. The latter provision seems to have been made so as to prevent one of the fringe parties from nominating a Muslim Brother at the last minute. The Muslim Brotherhood could conceivably put up an independent candidate, but he or she would need to secure a large number of endorsements from elected officials. Gamal Mubarak is by far the most prominent figure in the NDP, as head of policy and assistant secretary-general, and it would be a big surprise if he were not nominated as the party"s candidate in the 2011 election.
This anticipated process of political inheritance buttressed by sometimes brutal suppression of opposition is likely to cause some embarrassment for Egypt"s Western allies, but they are not expected to voice any serious objections owing to their overriding concern for stability. Gamal Mubarak, moreover, is a champion of liberal economic policies and can be expected to voice good intentions with respect to eventual political reforms. If the Egyptian security authorities judge that a handover to Gamal would be destabilising—or if indeed he is genuine when he says he does not want to become president—the most likely alternative would be Omar Suleiman, the chief of Egypt"s intelligence services.