No more Egyptian pharaohs

No more Egyptian pharaohs

Fifty-eight years ago yesterday, Egyptians overthrew an autocratic king. Today, they are ruled by an autocratic general. But President Hosni Mubarak is widely believed to be poor health. He has an opportunity, in succession planning, to break with the authoritarian past and chart a new course for Egypt, the world’s largest Arab country.

Mr. Mubarak is only Egypt’s third president since the revolution, and he has not named a vice-president, who according to the country’s constitution would succeed him.

There is a widespread belief that Mr. Mubarak will appoint his son Gamal, in effect establishing dynastic succession. Other possible successors from within the country’s repressive security apparatus have been touted, including the intelligence chief.

It is obvious that Egyptians at large will not have a say, but as a legacy Mr. Mubarak could choose someone to bring about democratic and economic reforms.

No strong, united opposition exists to pressure the government. Liberals have failed to make much of an impact – Ayman Nour got only 8 per cent of the vote in the first contested presidential election, in 2005. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has returned after decades abroad to lead another reform movement, but has gained little traction.

The strongest opposition is offered by the Muslim Brotherhood, officially banned from political activity, although its sympathizers hold 20 per cent of the parliamentary seats. The Islamist group operates many charitable groups and has a growing appeal among Egypt’s professional classes. As Egyptians become more publicly devout, the Brotherhood is likely to be in the ascendant, but its radical offshoots have not denounced violence.

An attempted accommodation between liberals and the Brotherhood has not achieved much. They cannot be blamed for being fractured and passive – under Egypt’s emergency law, officials can break up public gatherings, and those opposed to the regime have had an unfortunate propensity to get themselves thrown in jail and tortured or to be harassed into silence.

In the absence of a succession plan, though, the plodding, if repressive, state could go off the rails, and violence could result. The Brotherhood could attempt to forcibly realize its political ambitions, at the potential price of peace with Israel. Opportunistic generals will also vie to take over.

A democratically oriented successor who pledges a fair presidential election next year, on the other hand, could unleash positive forces in Egyptian society. He could revoke the emergency law, improve basic rights and stimulate the population to work on projects that modernize the economy.

This week, attempting to repudiate reports of Mr. Mubarak’s demise, a spokesman said Mr. Mubarak’s aides were “out of breath” keeping up with their 82-year-old boss. But Mr. Mubarak can’t live for ever. He needs to turn his mind to the future stability of Egypt. It is to be hoped that will take the form of a reformist-minded vice-president who will deliver democracy and prosperity.