Mubarak’s Last Breath

Mubarak’s Last Breath

On 6 October 1981, President Anwar al-Sadat attended a parade to mark the anniversary of the crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war with Israel. It was also an occasion to display the American, British and French aircraft Egypt had recently acquired: symbols of its realignment with the West after more than two decades as a Soviet ally. Sadat wore a Prussian-style uniform but no bullet-proof vest: it would have ruined the line. Rumours of a plot were in the air, and his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, had warned him not to go. Sadat brushed this off, but when he stood to receive the salute, he was killed in a hail of grenades and bullets, fired by a group of Islamist soldiers in his own army. ‘I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death,’ the lead assassin, a 24-year-old lieutenant, declared.

Only eight days later a new pharaoh rose in Egypt, and he has been in power ever since. Hosni Mubarak, who stood beside Sadat at the procession, was an improbable successor: a circumspect career soldier whose appointment to the vice presidency in 1975 had come as a shock to political observers. Born in 1928 in a small village in the Nile River Delta, the son of an inspector in the Ministry of Justice, Mubarak was little known to Egyptians, or even to his colleagues: he was a loner, with no outside interests to speak of, and no taste, or talent, for the rituals of mass politics at which both Nasser and Sadat excelled. Unlike them he had not been among the Free Officers who seized power in the 1952 coup against the monarchy. He had, however, loyally served the state and – as commander in chief of the air force – launched the surprise attack in 1973 which allowed ground forces to cross into the Sinai Peninsula. Mubarak admitted his political inexperience when he took office, pledging to ask for advice, and suggesting limited presidential terms. He is now 82, and has ruled Egypt – and presided over its decline – for 29 years. Presidential elections are scheduled for next year, but he has said he will serve ‘until the last breath in my lungs, and the last beat of my heart’. This is a promise he’s likely to keep.

Egypt has never been a democracy. The military has always dominated its political life. Even during the age of liberal nationalism after the First World War, when it had a lively parliamentary life, popular sovereignty was sharply curtailed by British power. Since the 1952 coup which brought Nasser to power, it has been ruled by military dictatorship, although the establishment of multi-party politics in the late 1970s brought a measure of cosmetic diversification. Still, autocratic though they were, both Nasser and Sadat ensured that what Egypt did mattered. Nasser’s failures were spectacular: the aborted union with Syria in the United Arab Republic; the disastrous intervention in the civil war in Yemen; the catastrophic 1967 defeat to Israel that resulted in the destruction of three-quarters of Egypt’s air force and the loss of the Sinai; the creation of a vast and inefficient public sector which the state could not afford; the suppression of dissent, indeed of politics itself. But he also carried out land reform, nationalised the Suez Canal, built the Aswan High Dam, and turned Egypt into a major force in the Non-Aligned Movement. When Nasser spoke, the Arab world listened. Sadat broke with Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, promoting an Egypt-first agenda that ultimately led the country into the arms of the US and Israel. But, like Nasser, he was a statesman of considerable flair and cunning, with a prodigious ability to seize the initiative. By leading Egypt to a partial victory in the 1973 war, he washed away some of the shame of 1967, and eventually secured the restoration of the Sinai. And though his peace with Israel infuriated the Arabs, whom Nasser had electrified, he made Egypt a player in the world. Under Mubarak, Egypt, the ‘mother of the earth’ (umm idduniya), has seen its influence plummet. Nowhere is the decline of the Sunni Arab world so acutely felt as in Cairo ‘the Victorious’, a mega-city much of which has turned into an enormous slum. The air is so thick with fumes you can hardly breathe, the atmosphere as constricted as the country’s political life.

Frustration, shame, humiliation: it does not take much for Egyptians to call up these feelings. It’s still often said that ‘what happens in Egypt affects the entire Arab world,’ but nothing much has happened there in years. Egypt has fallen behind Saudi Arabia – not to mention non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran – in regional leadership. Even tiny Qatar has a more independent foreign policy. Egypt is by far the largest Arab country, with 80 million inhabitants, yet it’s seen by most Arabs – and by the Egyptians themselves – as a client state of the United States and Israel, who depend on Mubarak to ensure regional ‘stability’ in the struggle with the ‘resistance front’ led by Iran.

The liberalisation of Egypt’s economy – launched by Sadat’s Infitah (Open Door) policy in 1974 – has earned Mubarak praise from the World Bank. The 2007 constitution, purged of references to socialism, says that ‘the economy of the Arab Republic of Egypt is founded on the development of the spirit of enterprise.’ Yet Egypt’s market is anything but free: businesses tend to have very close, and mutually profitable, relationships with the state, in which the Mubarak family often participates and takes its cut. Hussein Salem, a hotel magnate, arms dealer and co-owner of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company – an Egyptian-Israeli consortium that recently secured a $2.5 billion contract to sell Egypt’s natural gas to Israel – is thought to be one of Mubarak’s frontmen; the gas began flowing in early 2008, just as Israel was tightening the siege of Gaza.

Despite the promises of the regime – and contrary to the expectations of Egypt’s sponsors in the West – economic liberalisation hasn’t led to much in the way of political liberalisation: in 1992, the year it adopted an IMF stabilisation and structural adjustment package, Egypt began sending civilians to be tried at military tribunals. The Emergency Law, in force since Sadat’s assassination and recently renewed despite Mubarak’s promise to lift it, grants the government extraordinary powers to arrest its opponents without charge and to detain them indefinitely; there are an estimated 17,000 political prisoners, most of them Islamists.

The ideology of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party has undergone marked shifts in recent years, alternating between Milton Friedman and Muhammad, as the occasion demands. Arab unity, as the novelist Sonallah Ibrahim remarks, has been reduced to the ‘unity of foreign commodities consumed by everyone’. Not inappropriately, the most popular military officer on billboards in Egypt isn’t Mubarak but Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The increasing globalisation of the economy, along with its 7.5 per cent growth rates, is something the NDP likes to boast about, but it is seen rather differently by the population: inflation has soared since the currency was floated in 2003, and real unemployment is 26.3 per cent. Mubarak’s reforms haven’t turned Egypt into a ‘tiger on the Nile’, as promised; the economy remains precariously dependent on the price of oil, American aid (more than $62 billion since 1977) and tourism. Egypt still imports more than half the wheat it consumes.

Foreign policy is a particularly anguished subject. While the peace with Israel reached in 1979 by Sadat may make Egypt a ‘moderate’ state in the eyes of Washington, it has left many Egyptians deeply embittered. Mubarak drew a lesson from Sadat’s fate: it was one thing to make a deal with Israel – quite another to make nice. He would honour the peace treaty, but he would not go to Tel Aviv, or engage in ostentatious displays of friendship that would offend Egyptian honour; and he would turn a blind eye to anti-Israel invective in the press, so that opponents of ‘normalisation’ with Tel Aviv could let off steam. By maintaining an appearance of froideur, Mubarak was able to repair relations with the Arab League and with the Arab states that had cut their ties with Egypt in 1979. Meanwhile, he has developed a partnership with Israel on trade and ‘security’ that is far more extensive than Sadat could have imagined. Their intelligence services work closely together, and Mubarak has supplied weapons and training to the Palestinian Authority in its war against Hamas. The government is also doing what it can to maintain the siege in Gaza, concerned that if it opens its border crossing, Israel might shut down all its crossing points and try to dump Gaza in Egypt’s lap, which would be particularly unwelcome given that the Hamas rulers in Gaza are allies both of Mubarak’s domestic opponents, the Muslim Brothers, and of his foreign adversaries, Iran and Hizbullah.

Mubarak doesn’t want to be responsible for the welfare of more than a million impoverished Palestinians, or to be blamed by Israel for every Qassam rocket fired at Tsederot. When, in January 2008, Hamas blew up part of the fence at Rafah, and tens of thousands of Gazans crossed the border, some of his fellow countrymen were persuaded by his ‘Egypt First’ argument. But more of them were outraged when he refused to open the crossing during Israel’s invasion last year. Many suspect a degree of complicity between Israel and Mubarak against Hamas: the war began less than 48 hours after Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, visited Cairo.

As well as securing the border at Rafah, Egypt is building a wall 18 metres underground, an impenetrable barrier made of super-strength steel. It is reported to be doing this with American assistance, though the US denies it. In any case the entire plan was kept secret until recently, and the Mubarak regime isn’t keen to draw attention to what it euphemistically calls ‘engineering installations’. The official line is that it’s intended to prevent arms smuggling by Hamas, but the barrier could choke the Gazan economy, which depends on the tunnels. Mubarak, however, insists: ‘We do not accept debate on this issue with anyone.’ Like many of his least popular policies, this one comes with a fatwa from a group of pro-government clerics according to which ‘those who oppose the construction of this wall violate the sharia.’

The Islamisation of Egyptian society deepened after the 1967 war; it became explicit government policy under Sadat, the self-styled ‘believer president’ who supported radical Islamists in his battles with the left, and who made the sharia ‘the principal source’ of law in 1980 – a year before his assassination by an Islamist. Under Mubarak, praying has become as popular as shopping or football and now serves a roughly similar function as a distraction from the innumerable frustrations of Egyptian life. Indeed, Islam as observed by Egyptians is increasingly an Islam that caters to consumerist needs. The popular televangelist Amr Khaled mixes Quranic citations with boosterish advice of a more general kind. This variety of Islam is no threat to the regime, but it has made life far less easy-going. ‘My neighbour used to water his plants in his pyjamas on the balcony, where he’d be joined by his wife in her nightie,’ a friend tells me. ‘They’d drink beer in the open, and then he’d go downstairs for the sunset prayers in the local mosque. Today he’d be killed for this, but at the time he would have seen no contradiction.’

The growing power of the mosques – and the considerable influence the Muslim Brothers exert in poor neighbourhoods – has made Egypt’s Coptic minority increasingly anxious, and they have developed a no less assertive piety of their own. The Copts, whose ancestors were in Egypt before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, account for about 10 per cent of the population. Although many of them are poor – the largely Coptic zabaleen, who pick up most of Cairo’s garbage, are packed into an immense slum in the Moqattan Hills Settlement east of the capital – they are widely seen and resented as economically privileged. (Egypt’s richest family, the Sawiris, who own the enormous conglomerate Orascom and are close to Mubarak, are Copts.) They suffer various forms of discrimination: senior positions in the civil service and the professions tend to be closed to them and churches, unlike mosques, don’t receive subsidies. They find little reassurance in the rhetoric of the Muslim Brothers – whose former General Guide, Mahdi Akef, recently declared that he would prefer a Malaysian Muslim as president to a Christian Egyptian – and fear that if Egypt becomes an Islamic state they will be forced to leave. Fanatics in the Coptic diaspora, some of whom have made common cause with Christian Zionists in the US, have done little to dispel the impression among Muslims that Christians are a Trojan horse of the West.

This climate of distrust has resulted in increasingly frequent spasms of sectarian violence. On Christmas Eve last year, six worshippers in the town of Nag Hammadi were murdered outside a church in a drive-by shooting, apparently in retaliation for the rape of a Muslim girl. Anti-Muslim looting followed and the government was swift to intervene, declaring that the violence wasn’t sectarian but merely traditional score-settling between families. This fooled no one. Not long before, tens of thousands of pigs, on which the zabaleen depend for their livelihood, had been slaughtered by the state, allegedly to prevent swine flu. Many Muslims were secretly relieved, flu or no flu. But even the most secular Christians were horrified by what they saw as a state-sanctioned sectarian assault.

The 1952 revolution, once the central legitimating myth of the regime, is now criticised by most of the population as having destroyed a potentially promising experiment in parliamentary democracy, condemning Egypt to dictatorial rule. Many continue even so to pine for Nasser, with his commitment to ‘Arab socialism’ and non-alignment. Others look back to the classical age of Egyptian liberalism in the last decades of British rule, while still others pray for the return of the caliphate.

Another symptom of this retreat into nostalgia is the growing curiosity about the ethnic minorities – Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Italians – who once helped run Egypt’s economy, and made Cairo and Alexandria remarkably cosmopolitan cities, before they were put under pressure to leave in the mid-1950s. At the time, their exodus, like Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, was seen as a great coup: evidence of Egypt’s triumph over foreign hegemony. Now it’s seen as the beginning of its economic and cultural decline.

In Heliopolis, a new film by Ahmed Abdallah, a young man doing research on ‘minorities’ in pre-revolutionary Egypt befriends an elderly Jewish woman; in a striking documentary sequence, a group of old people fondly remember a time when local shops were run by Jews and Greeks. If Egyptians long for an irretrievable past, Abdallah suggests, it’s because their future has been put on hold. He leaves little doubt as to the causes. A young couple who are drifting apart wait in one of Cairo’s interminable traffic jams, only to be told by a police officer that they will have to wait a bit longer: the road ahead has been blocked to make way for the president’s motorcade.

Mubarak’s Egypt is often compared to Iran in the last days of the Shah: a middle class squeezed by inflation; anger at the regime’s alliances with the US and Israel; a profound sense of humiliation that is increasingly expressed in Islamic fervour; near universal contempt for the country’s ruling class; a state whose legitimacy has almost entirely eroded. In 2005, the Egyptian Movement for Change – a coalition of leftists, Nasserists and Islamists better known as Kifaya (‘Enough’) – staged a series of demonstrations in downtown Cairo, where, for the first time, Egyptians dared to criticise Mubarak in public, and to call for him to step down. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have demonstrated: leftists and Islamists calling for an end to the Emergency Law; judges denouncing constitutional amendments that strip them of their right to supervise elections; workers striking for better wages and independent trade unions; poor farmers on land redistributed under Nasser defending themselves against attempts by large landowners – often with the backing of the state, sometimes with the help of armed thugs – to ‘reclaim’ their property. The spread of these protests, on a scale not seen since the 1970s, when left-wing students mobilised against Sadat’s infitah and his alliance with the West, has led some observers to see this as Egypt’s ‘moment of change’, the subtitle of an informative new anthology on Egyptian social movements.[*]

Yet the protests have failed to coalesce into a broader movement with a clear agenda. And the regime has partly succeeded in neutralising dissent by allowing some freedoms: privately owned opposition newspapers have been legalised and public criticism of Mubarak is allowed. ‘We were given a licence to scream and vent,’ one supporter of Kifaya told me, ‘but what good did it do?’ Most Egyptians have kept their distance from the protests. Since the riots of January 1977, which began after the state raised the price of aysh al-baladi, the dry bread on which most people depend, the Egyptian masses have been silent, even as their living standards have declined. This stoicism is often explained by variations on the theme of national character, or of the pharaonic legacy. The Egyptian, one is often told, is ‘a survivor’, or ‘a flexible conformist’ who just wants a better life, and doesn’t care who is president. Revolts in modern Egypt have been few; even Nasser’s revolution was a top-down affair, a ‘passive revolution’ in which, as his left-wing critic Anouar Abdel-Malek remarked, the role of the much praised masses was merely to provide ‘manpower’.

The inertia of the Egyptian people may well have less to do with temperament, or historical tradition, than with sober calculation. About one in every four Egyptians lives in a shantytown; more than a third of Cairo’s 19 million residents live in areas known as ashwaiyyat, without clean drinking water or proper sewage systems. They are the people you see at places like the Souq al-Goma’a, or ‘Friday market’, a sprawling bazaar set up on railway tracks next to a flyover skirting the City of the Dead, where tens of thousands of Cairenes squat in family mausoleums. The working poor come here to buy household necessities. Anything and everything is for sale: old silverware, tyres, toilets, computer parts, birds, monkeys, vegetables coated in dust and dirt, and rotten fish that’s been buried underground until it gives off an unforgettable smell. There is a saying in Egypt that ‘anyone who hasn’t begged in the time of Mubarak will never beg.’ Those forced to beg tend not to attend demonstrations.

As Hani Shukrallah, an editor at Al-Shorouk, one of the new independent papers, points out, ‘the regime has pursued a deliberate policy of selective repression based on class.’ Shukrallah, a veteran of the student left of the 1970s, illustrated this by describing an aerial photograph of a Kifaya demonstration in downtown Cairo. ‘You can see three circles: the first is composed of the demonstrators, a few hundred people. Around them is a circle of several thousand police officers, and around the police is the people. The people are onlookers, spectators. The middle-class professionals in Kifaya can chant slogans like “Down with Mubarak” because they risk, at worst, a beating. But most Egyptians live in a world where anything goes, where they’re treated like barbarians who need to be conquered, and women are molested by the security forces. The average Egyptian can be dragged into a police station and tortured simply because a police officer doesn’t like his face.’ The tortures to which Egyptians are subjected in police stations have been well documented and include electric shocks to the genitals, anal rape with sticks, death threats, suspension in painful positions and ‘reception parties’, where prisoners are forced to crawl naked on the floor while guards whip them to make them move faster.

For those it can’t afford to brutalise, the Mubarak regime has found other means of intimidation. One is the presence of state security in residential neighbourhoods and on university campuses. In Garden City, checkpoints were set up near the British and American Embassies after a demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in 2003; they are now permanent, and locals refer to the area as ‘the Green Zone’. Only a few minutes’ walk from the American Embassy – the second largest in the world, after Baghdad – is the Ministry of the Interior, a forbidding, futurist building. Very little of consequence gets done without the ministry’s agreement: the appointments of university professors, judges and journalists all require approval from the ministry’s security officers; so does anyone who wants to set up an NGO, a school or a television station. The ministry has an army of about two million informers: one Egyptian in every 40. It has become one of the state’s most powerful branches, rivalling the army, since Egypt withdrew from the struggle with Israel and shifted towards suppressing its internal enemies: leftists, human rights activists and, above all, Islamists.

Mubarak’s principal domestic adversary – and perhaps his greatest asset in selling himself to the West, and to a frightened middle class – is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, the Brotherhood remains the country’s largest, best organised opposition movement. There have been many strategic shifts over the years but the message hasn’t changed: social justice, clean governance based on Islamic principles, opposition to imperialism, solidarity with Palestine. Both Nasser and Sadat were fellow-travellers, if not members, in the 1940s. The Brothers initially supported the 1952 coup, but soon fell out with the new government. Denied what they felt should be their share of the spoils, they became Nasser’s fiercest critics, and in 1954 a member of the Brotherhood’s clandestine wing shot at him as he was giving a speech. Nasser famously didn’t flinch, and shortly afterwards ordered the first in a series of crackdowns, in which tens of thousands of Brothers, including the jihadi theorist Sayyid Qutb, were jailed, and often tortured in the so-called mihna, or ‘inquisition’ that followed.

Qutb responded by calling for holy war against the Egyptian state and was hanged in 1966 for plotting its overthrow. The Brotherhood took pains to distance itself from Qutb’s radicalism, and by 1970, when Sadat came to power, had renounced violence: a position it maintained throughout the 1990s, when the security services were waging a dirty war against a radical Islamist insurgency inspired by Qutb’s writings. The Brothers sought to transform Egypt more gradually, by promoting Islamic values, denouncing state corruption, and providing medical and social services to the poor. These services – virtually comprising a state within the state – have been subsidised by Brotherhood-run Islamic banks, and by donations from the pious middle class as well as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. If the Brotherhood continues to enjoy wide support, it is in large part because of its service to the poor.

Mubarak was never close to the Brothers, but he has had to find a way to live with them, if only because they are too deeply embedded in society – and in the mosques, no-go zones for the state – to be eliminated. Their status is often described as ‘banned yet tolerated’: ‘banned’, because they would pose a serious threat to the regime if they were allowed to participate freely; ‘tolerated’, because they allow Mubarak to present himself as Egypt’s only defence against an Islamist takeover. Thus, under American pressure to open up Egypt’s political system, Mubarak permitted the Brothers to run in the 2005 legislative elections. To the horror of the liberal opposition, and of the Bush administration, they won 88 of the 160 seats they contested, a fifth of the seats in the lower house of parliament, making them the second most powerful party after Mubarak’s NDP. Since then, the US has all but dropped its pressure on Mubarak to democratise, and the Brothers have had their wings clipped. They weren’t allowed to run in the 2007 elections for the upper house; the applications of all but two dozen of the 5000 Brothers who sought to run in the 2008 municipal elections were rejected; and thugs were sent in to attack their supporters at polling stations. Hundreds of Brothers have been arrested: high-ranking moderates who have been trying to reform the Brotherhood from within are the preferred target.

The effect has been to strengthen the hand of the hardliners led by the new General Guide, Mohammed Badie, who was imprisoned with Qutb in 1965 – Badie and his acolytes are known as the Group of 1965. They consolidated their power in January’s internal elections, in which the intellectual reformer Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh lost his seat on the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council. They are disinclined to build alliances with secular forces, frown on overtures to women and Copts, and are not especially troubled by Mubarak’s dictatorship so long as it allows them to preach. They draw their support from conservative rural members, many of whom have worked in the Gulf and been influenced by Wahabbism, with its emphasis on external signs of piety and mistrust of Western-style democracy. As they see it, the openness advocated by the reformists has left the Brotherhood vulnerable to intrusions by the state, and to the temptations of secular liberalism: secrecy is the only means by which it can survive; and survival, not governing, is the principal aim. Until the day when the state falls into their hands like a rotten fruit, they prefer to avoid confrontation with it, devoting themselves instead to Islamising society (da’wa), and defending Egyptian virtue from such threats as Beyoncé, whose concert at a Red Sea resort they were lobbying to prevent when I was in Cairo last winter. They have been encouraged in this by the state, which has expanded the role of the clerics on television and in education: as Sophie Pommier argues in Egypte, l’envers du décor (2008), it’s a mistake to see the NDP as a ‘secular party whose principles are radically opposed to those of the Muslim Brotherhood’. The result is an undeclared power-sharing arrangement between Mubarak and the Brotherhood, a cat and mouse game that masks a deeper convergence of interests: both sides, after all, have reason to portray the Brothers as the only real alternative to the regime.

A perfect example of this collusion is the experience of the new Centre Party, Hizb al-Wasat, founded in 1996 by Abul-Ela Madi, a moderate Islamist with strong links to leftists, Nasserists and liberals. Broadly sympathetic to a school of thought Bruce Rutherford describes as ‘Islamic constitutionalism’,[†] which tries to harmonise liberal views on the rule of law and individual rights with Islamic tradition, he is also close to Aboul Fotouh and the reform wing of the Brotherhood. Yet he is no longer a member of the Brotherhood, having concluded that the NDP and the Brothers are ‘the double face of our crisis’. The only way forward, as he saw it, was to create a new party which, though rooted in Islamic values, would ‘separate politics and preaching’ and welcome Copts and women – something he has succeeded in doing, despite attempts by intelligence officers to frighten his Coptic members. He has not succeeded in much else, however. His party has yet to be granted a licence to run in elections, mostly because a multi-confessional, moderately Islamic, democratic party might stand a chance of getting somewhere. The Ministry of the Interior, accusing him of being a front for the Brothers, claims that the party fails to ‘fulfil a legitimate purpose not met by an existing party’ – never mind that the ‘existing party’ in question, the Brotherhood, is officially banned. A prominent leader of the Brothers was happy to second this: the new party, he said, ‘thinks just like us’.

Having a licence, however, is no guarantee of influence. None of the two dozen registered opposition parties has a popular following, or any chance of achieving one, thanks to restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed by the Emergency Law. As Rif’at al-Said, the leader of the left-wing party Tagammu (two seats out of 454 in the lower house), put it, Egyptian parties are merely ‘groupings of individuals floating on the surface of society’. Their function is to create the illusion of democratic politics, the number of seats they gain depending less on the will of the voters than on the needs of the NDP. Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour is the secretary-general of the New Wafd Party (six seats in the lower house), founded in 1983, which takes its name from the party that led the movement against the British occupation after the First World War, and promotes an updated version of that party’s genteel, constitutional liberalism. Abdel-Nour, a banker from a prominent Coptic family, sighed when I asked him about his party’s activities: ‘Our experience as a party has been catastrophic. It’s true that we now have almost unlimited freedom of the press, but it’s useless because we can’t get a direct relationship to the street. The Muslim Brothers have that connection through the mosque, but we’re not even allowed to hold rallies.’

It’s hard to imagine Abdel-Nour addressing a crowd. A charming, cosmopolitan man, he recalls the era before Nasser’s revolution, when politics was the preserve of elites. He wants to open up the system, but not too much, and not too quickly. Asked whether the ban on the Brothers should be lifted, he sipped his tea and paused. ‘It’s a tricky question,’ he said, playing with a ruler on his desk. ‘Egypt is a country where two religions coexist. You can’t have the Islamic Republic of Egypt – it will never happen. We can’t accept a Muslim party that says a Copt or a woman can’t be president of the republic. And I refuse to be ruled by someone who thinks a Malaysian Muslim is closer to him than a Christian Egyptian. I know some decent people in the Brotherhood, like Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. You speak to them and you wonder, why aren’t you with us? But I don’t trust them.’

This distrust is shared by many middle-class Egyptians, and it is a major reason why they have been willing to tolerate the Mubarak family for so long. Whether they will accept Mubarak’s son Gamal is another matter: he may be the only person who is more widely disliked in Egypt than his father. A former investment banker who had no political experience when he was appointed to the General Secretariat of the NDP in 2000, he is a symbol of what Mubarakism has wrought: the growing influence of technocrats linked to multinationals; economic liberalisation in the absence of political liberalisation; and corrosive nepotism. The idea of dynastic succession, or tawrith al-sulta, is particularly insulting to Egypt’s national pride: the country has been a republic since Nasser’s overthrow of King Farouk, and few people are keen on its becoming a ‘republican monarchy with houmus’, in the words of the novelist Khaled Al Khamissi. Born in 1963 and known to friends as ‘Jimmy’, Gamal spent his early adult life in London, working at Bank of America and Medinvest, a private equity firm he helped found, until he was whisked back to Egypt in 1995. Since then, he has risen rapidly through the ranks of his father’s party; at the 2002 NDP congress, he was promoted to head the Policies Secretariat, a government advisory board made up of several hundred wealthy Egyptians linked to the regime or the Mubarak family, together with intellectuals who style themselves ‘liberal reformers’. Collectively they’re known as ‘Gamal’s cabinet’.

Although both father and son deny that Gamal is being groomed for the presidency, he has been aggressively sold as the face of a new Egypt, in ‘Meet Gamal’ town-hall meetings, on billboards in Cairo, and on television. Now the third-ranking official in the NDP, Gamal has made a number of trips to Washington, fawningly covered by the state-run media, and been praised in the New York Times as an ‘intelligent, handsome policy wonk’. In Sophie Pommier’s words, he ‘preaches reform in an incantatory mode, with slogans about renovation and “new thinking”’ – mainly opening markets and selling off state industries. For the majority of Egyptians getting by on $2 a day, he has shown little understanding, declaring at the height of the financial crisis that there could be no retreat on privatisation. The need for ‘democracy’ is another favourite slogan among ‘Gamal’s boys’, but the conditions for it, they hasten to add, don’t yet exist. As one of his advisers says, ‘you can’t have democracy without democrats.’

What Gamal Mubarak doesn’t yet have is the support of the military, at least according to Osama al-Ghazali Harb, who quit the Policies Secretariat in 2006 having decided that it was merely a vehicle for the president’s son. He has since established his own party, the well-meaning, ineffectual Democratic Front, so ineffectual indeed that it was immediately given a licence. ‘Gamal’s support comes from people in the business elite,’ al-Ghazali Harb says. ‘They are plotting away, trying to mobilise the support of members of the party and the army. But if his father dies tomorrow they will shut him out. And trust me: Hosni Mubarak won’t leave his position even one hour before he dies. We’re not in the US. We don’t have vice presidents. Here you’re either in your position or you’re in your grave. And within five or six minutes of his death, you’ll see tanks in the streets.’ This isn’t a prospect that alarms him. ‘The army is the only force that can guarantee that the transition will be peaceful.’ Last year al-Ghazali Harb dared to say what many Egyptians opposed to Gamal were quietly thinking: that the army should take over as soon as Mubarak steps down or dies, so that a new constitution can be drafted, and then, after two or three years, civilian rule restored. When I asked him who would head that transitional government, he didn’t hesitate: ‘Omar Suleiman.’

Suleiman, the head of General Intelligence, is both a lieutenant general in the army and a member of Mubarak’s cabinet. He is the second most powerful man in Egypt, a key player in negotiations between Israel and Hamas and one of the most formidable spymasters in the Middle East. Born in 1935 in Upper Egypt, he belongs to the generation of poor Egyptians who saw their fortunes rise when Nasser came to power. Like Mubarak, he studied at the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow in the 1960s, and received further training at Fort Bragg in the 1980s, after Egypt shifted its alliances. He and Mubarak grew close in the mid-1990s, while fighting the radical Islamist insurgency. When a group of Islamists opened fire on Mubarak’s limousine in Addis Adaba in 1995, Suleiman was sitting beside him; they were unhurt because Suleiman had insisted on travelling in an armoured car. His success in crushing the insurgency – and the dossier he compiled on Egyptian jihadists, many of whom joined Bin Laden after their defeat in Egypt – made him a valued partner for the CIA after 9/11. (As did Egypt’s usefulness in ‘extraordinary renditions’. In the words of the CIA agent Robert Baer, ‘If you wanted to make someone disappear – never to return – you sent him to Egypt.’)

Suleiman is a redoubtable figure, but nothing he has said or done suggests a yearning for political reform. Nor is it clear that he is willing take over from Mubarak: according to one rumour, he refused the presidency in early April and the army is now promoting another Mubarak loyalist, Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and current minister of civil aviation. But Al-Ghazali Harb and a growing number of dissidents continue to hope that Suleiman will be the man who saves Egypt from dynastic succession, and helps lay the foundations of civilian rule.

The announcement at the beginning of December last year that Mohamed ElBaradei might run for president as an independent has galvanised advocates of reform. Born in Cairo in 1942, ElBaradei is the son of a liberal lawyer who, as head of the Egyptian Bar Association, campaigned for an independent judiciary under both Nasser and Sadat. He has spent most of his professional life in the West; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (he donated the proceeds to orphanages in his hometown); and he crossed swords over the inspections in Iraq and Iran with the Bush administration, which tried to force him out of his job. All reasons to respect him. When he flew home from Vienna in February, at the end of his third term at the IAEA, he was greeted at the airport by a thousand supporters. He then met members of the opposition, from Kifaya to the Muslim Brothers, and gave a series of blistering interviews on the state of Egyptian political life. Sounding rather like Obama in 2008, he insisted that he was ‘not a saviour’, that ‘only with the help of the people could he try to change the authoritarian regime in power for the last 50 years’. It’s easy to understand why Egyptians are tempted to see him as a saviour: an outsider, untainted by compromise and unaffiliated with any of Egypt’s political parties, he is someone on whom extravagant hopes can be pinned. Apart from generalities – restoring the rule of law, ensuring social protection for the poor, providing humanitarian aid for Gaza – he has said little about what he would do as president. ‘He remains an unpolitician,’ as the reporter Issandr El Amrani put it.

Still, the unpolitician has travelled throughout Egypt, delivering public speeches in defiance of the Emergency Law. The regime has responded by arresting the publisher of an admiring biography and persuading the authorities in Kuwait to deport 17 Egyptian residents who support him. Vitriolic attacks have come from the press, which has painted him as a pawn of Washington or Tehran (‘parachuted into the country in which he was born’), and from the official opposition parties: Abdel-Nour of the Wafd, for example, recently said that his insistence on running as an independent ‘reflects the kind of fascism that has caused disasters everywhere in the world’. But ElBaradei’s international prestige affords him valuable protection. His candidacy could also make it difficult for Gamal Mubarak to run: the contrast with the ex-director of the IAEA and Nobel laureate would be embarrassing.

The Mubarak regime, however, has many ways to fend ElBaradei off. The 2007 amendments to the constitution allow the president to disband parliament, and strengthen the power of the NDP, while the tightening of eligibility requirements makes it almost impossible for an independent candidate to run: to qualify, ElBaradei would need the backing of at least 250 members of parliament and municipal councils. Even if he were to get their backing, the regime can intimidate voters or rig the results, now that judicial supervision at the polls has been eliminated. ElBaradei has said he won’t run unless the constitution is revised; he has also called for international monitoring of Egypt’s elections. But Mubarak has little incentive to give in to either demand – unless the US government pressures him to do so.

Five or six years ago, it might have. From 2003 to 2005, the Bush administration appeared to be serious about democratic reform in Egypt: the ‘freedom deficit’ was seen as a key reason for the frustration and anger of men such as Mohammed Atta and Ayman Zawahiri – both Egyptians. Condoleezza Rice called for an end to the Emergency Law at the American University of Cairo in 2005 and, in his 2005 State of the Union address, Bush declared that ‘the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy.’ While continuing to avail themselves of Egypt’s services in extraordinary renditions, Bush and Rice embarked on a ‘freedom agenda’: for the first time, Egyptian NGOs which hadn’t been approved by the authorities in Cairo received direct US grants, infuriating Mubarak. The US was chastened, however, by the Muslim Brothers’ success in the 2005 legislative elections. And that was just the beginning. With Hamas’s election in 2006, resistance and sectarian conflict in Iraq, the spread of Iranian influence, and Hizbullah’s strong performance in the 2006 war with Israel, it was clear that the ‘freedom agenda’ was backfiring in the rest of the region. Suddenly, the promotion of reform in Egypt came to seem imprudent, and Washington remembered why it had always appreciated Mubarak: his co-operation in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre and the war on terror; his hostility to Tehran; the precedence given to US warships seeking expedited passage through the Suez Canal; the willingness to allow American planes to refuel in secret at the West Cairo airbase on their way back to Iraq. By the time the 2007 constitutional amendments were passed, the Bush administration had reversed its course. The amendments, Rice said in Cairo, were ‘disappointing’ but ‘the process of reform is … going to have its ups and downs.’ Then she got to work: Palestine, Iran, Iraq. The political conditions Congress had imposed on $100 million of the $1.3 billion in military aid were waived by Rice, on the grounds that US military ships needed to be able to go through the canal at short notice.

Barack Obama, keen to break with Bush’s messianic talk about spreading democracy, has worked to rebuild trust with the Egyptian government. In his speech in Cairo in June 2009, he spoke of his belief that all people want ‘government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people’, and insisted that ‘we will support them everywhere.’ Yet he has done little more than express mild criticism of Mubarak for extending the Emergency Law, and his administration has reverted to the pre-2004 position of reserving USAID funds for NGOs approved by the Egyptians. Military aid, Robert Gates has made clear, will be provided ‘without conditions’. Egypt, the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel, recently received $260 million in ‘supplementary security assistance’, as well as $50 million for border security, which probably means reinforcing the blockade of Gaza. There is also a brisk traffic in arms: US manufacturers recently announced the sale to Cairo of 24 new F-16 fighter jets and other equipment, worth an estimated $3.2 billion. Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations has published a ‘contingency planning memorandum’ in favour of continued support to the regime, which, as he describes it, ‘has helped create a regional order that makes it relatively inexpensive for the United States to exercise its power’. Less expensive at any rate than it would be in the event of an Islamist takeover that ‘would pose a far greater threat – in magnitude and degree – to US interests than the Iranian revolution’. This seems to be the Obama administration’s implicit wager, too. It’s bad news for ElBaradei and his supporters: bad news for all the Egyptians who fear that they will never know democracy because of the ‘American veto’.