Mubarak’s recovery and Egypt’s future

Mubarak’s recovery and Egypt’s future

Hosni Mubarak, the 81-year-old president of Egypt, underwent gall bladder surgery on March 6 in Germany. His recovery, normal for a man his age, sparked rumours that complications prevented a faster recuperation.

Under typical circumstances, difficulties for patients subjected to a major medical operation should not have raised concerns, but the vacancy in the constitutionally mandated vice-presidential post preoccupied many.

A spokeswoman for the Berlin hospital where Mubarak is receiving treatment declared that the president was “alive and well”, which sent Egypt’s benchmark Stock Market index in a downward spiral earlier this week. With parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year, followed by a presidential selection in 2011, what kind of recovery will Egypt experience?

In his 12th century magnum opus, the Sulwan Al Muta fi Udwan Al Atba (Consolation for the Ruler During the Hostility of Subjects), Mohammad Bin Zafar Al Siqilli [the Sicilian] opined: “One of the most irresistible impulses of the soul is to seek a change of condition. Change is introduced into a being, largely due to circumstances, but evolves into corruption through greed.

“A person who embarks on one change and effortlessly crosses into the other must attain the condition most suitable in the intermediate state — between the starting point and the goal — if he is to prosper.”

This maxim certainly applied to Egypt in the 21st century. In fact, challenges to Mubarak’s 28-year-long rule confronted a preferred goal to install his younger son Jamal, a decision that was not etched in stone.

The unofficially anointed successor, who served as general-secretary of the Policy Committee of National Democratic Party (NDP), faced resistance from a variety of sources including the military and intelligence services.

Starting in 2004, the Egyptian Movement for Change, better known as Kifayah (Enough), also opposed Mubarak’s efforts to transfer power directly to his son.

Silencing the opposition

Indeed, a large number of Egyptians preferred to elect a leader who did not emerge from NDP ranks, though that created something of a problem given that most political parties were banned.

As a matter of fact, a member of parliament from the Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, Ayman Nour, ran for the presidency but was summarily imprisoned in January 2005 allegedly for forging power of attorney forms. Released in time to compete against Mubarak, Nour came in second — with 7 per cent of the vote according to official figures — but was nevertheless tried and sentenced to five years in jail on December 24, 2005 on what were clearly trumped-up charges.

Nour wrote critical articles from his cell, which highlighted serious cleavages in Egyptian politics, and was only released on February 18, 2009 ostensibly on health grounds.

If Nour was easily silenced as a viable presidential candidate, Dr Mohammad Al Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and now the head of the National Front for Change, posed a far more serious challenge to Jamal Mubarak.

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Al Baradei served at the IAEA with distinction, that is to say he did not kowtow to politically correct anti-Iraqi soothsayers when his agency could not confirm the existence of weapons of mass destruction in that country before the 2003 US attack.

More recently, Al Baradei embarked on a far more careful vetting process of the putative Iranian nuclear programme, even if his critics accused him of unprofessional behaviour.

In the event, Al Baradei returned to his native country, and seems to have united most of the opposition behind him, including both the banned Muslim Brotherhood and Al Ghad. “Change is inevitable,” he recently declared, “and the regime should be ready to accept it in order to avoid a confrontation with the people.”

Needless to say such pronouncements alarmed Mubarak and those entrenched in the system, and while it may be too early to declare Al Baradei a winner in 2011, upcoming parliamentary elections should clarify whether dramatic political changes were feasible.

Sadly, Cairo arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members a few weeks ago, ostensibly to unsettle the new supreme guide, Mohammad Badie. Observers concluded that authorities wished to deny Badie an opportunity to heal internal rifts and to prevent the Brotherhood from expanding its membership.

Badie’s tasks to organise the upcoming parliamentary elections would presumably be complicated and prevent the Brotherhood from holding on to the 88 seats (20 per cent of the total in the 454-seat body) it won in 2005. Ironically, the Brotherhood would have won more seats if the police did not surround polling places and shot a few ‘citizens’, in what were intimidation tactics.

Cracking down on dissent was nothing new in Cairo and Al Baradei’s calls to uphold constitutional rights and privileges may yet fall on deaf ears. In fact, because the NDP was so well established, and because Egypt’s foreign allies remained at ease with Mubarak, most anticipated business as usual.

Still, it may be possible to extrapolate from another Al Siqilli maxim to contemplate the future. For the philosopher, “Wealth was like water. He who did not open a gate to carry off its overflow drowned in it.”

For Egypt, political wealth was like water too, and the ruler who did not tolerate dissent inevitably failed to rule as well.

(Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs)