Mubarak’s quarter of a century

Elevated to the presidency in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s assassination, few Egyptians can have predicted in those turbulent times that their then-vice president, Hosni Mubarak, would still be in power a quarter of a century later.

Mubarak pictures in 1991
Mubarak has brought in contested elections, but not free democracy
The former Air Force commander was sworn in on 14 October 1981, eight days after a group of Islamist militants shot Mr Sadat at a military parade in Cairo.

Despite having little popular appeal or international profile at the time, the burly military man has used his sponsorship of the issue behind Sadat’s killing – peace with Israel – to build up his reputation as an international statesman.

He has also presided over a period of domestic stability and economic development that means most of his fellow countrymen have accepted his monopolisation of power in Egypt.

In recent years, Mr Mubarak has felt for the first time the pressure to encourage democracy, both from within and from his most powerful ally, the United States.

But many supporters of reform doubt the veteran ruler’s sincerity when he says he is all for opening the political process.

The fundamental question remains unanswered: Are Mr Mubarak and his political heirs prepared to fight – and lose – an open, democratic contest on a level playing field?

Emergency rule

In effect, Hosni Mubarak has ruled as a quasi-military ruler since he took power.

Egypt’s constitution does stipulate democratic institutions and an electoral process, but elections have been heavily weighted in favour of Mr Mubarak and the National Democratic Party (NDP) and he has never had to compete in a fair electoral battle.

Scene of the assassination of Anwar Sadat
Sadat’s assassination by Islamists has cast a shadow over Mubarak’s rule
For his entire period in office, he has kept the country under emergency law, giving the state sweeping powers of arrest and curbing basic freedoms.

The government argues the draconian regime has been necessary to combat Islamist terrorism, which has come in waves during the decades of Mr Mubarak’s rule – often targeting Egypt’s lucrative tourism sector.

New anti-terrorism legislation has been promised, as part of the reform process. It may be controversial, as many people, including respected figures in the judiciary, believe the current penal code has sufficient provisions.

Banned party

Mr Mubarak has won three elections unopposed since 1981, but last year for his fourth contest – after a firm push from the US – he changed the system to allow rival candidates.

There is little doubt that Mr Mubarak probably does enjoy huge support in the Egyptian street.

But the results of the 2005 election were skewed by the banning of what is assumed to be the main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and almost insurmountable obstacles for independent candidates.

Gamal Mubarak, son of the president
Will Mubarak’s son succeed him. establishing a dynasty in a republic
Successes by Muslim Brotherhood-supporting independent candidates in the parliamentary elections two months later were followed by a crackdown on opposition activists.

In what was see by analysts as sign of alarm bells ringing in the NDP leadership, municipal elections were also postponed.

Some analysts have argued that the victory of the militant Islamist movement Hamas in Palestinian elections meant that the pressure was off US allies like Egypt to increase democratic participation.

The future

Egypt does not appear to be making a major effort to mark Mr Mubarak’s 25 years at the helm.

Indeed the length of time he has been president, along with his age – he is 78 years old – and who will succeed him, are all sensitive subjects in Egypt.

People around Mr Mubarak say his health and vigour belie his age – although a couple of recent health scares have been a reminder of his mortality.

As for the succession, the fear among opposition groups is that his son, 40-year-old former investment banker Gamal Mubarak, is being groomed for a kind of dynastic inheritance dressed up as a democratic transition.

Gamal insists he has no ambition to be president, but he has been moving steadily up the ranks of the NPD, becoming a leading advocate of economic and political reform.

Earlier this year, he even had a brief meeting with US President George W Bush, taken by many in the region as a seal of approval from Washington.

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