At the centre of things
At the centre of things
Wednesday, July 21,2010 23:17
By Gamal Essam El-Din

The week that The Economist chose to come out with eight stories on Egypt which dealt with, among other issues, President Hosni Mubarak's health concerns, the president was here and there, meeting several regional leaders, attending military graduation ceremonies and, after the magazine appeared, visiting Cairo International Airport where he inaugurated several projects, touring the facilities on foot.

And while the famed British weekly pounded on the by now familiar themes concerning the thorny issue of succession and Egypt's perceived political stagnancy, it failed to mention what could be described as a very indicative sign of change: that the issue, which was not especially flattering of Egypt, was allowed to be sold freely on Egyptian newsstands.

Under the title "The Long Wait", the British magazine argued that "change is in the air in Egypt after three decades of economic progress and political paralysis". It noted that parliamentary elections are scheduled for November, and presidential ones for September, 2011.

The Economist went so far to allege that "Mubarak had suffered bouts of illness in full view of the public" -- citing a People's Assembly speech in 2003 when "Mubarak collapsed". The article continued: "Last year, upset by the recent death of a grandson, Mubarak appeared ashen-faced and seemingly too infirm to descend some steps to greet an important visitor: Barack Obama."

The Economist 's report and analysis reflect concerns expressed in many other Western publications, especially in Britain and the US. The German news agency Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) last week reported that President Mubarak was due to travel to Munich for 10 days of medical treatment, news that President Mubarak's spokesman has denied, stressing that "the president enjoys good health and has a busy schedule of meetings with world leaders".

That certainly seems to be the case. On Sunday Mubarak held meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, America's peace envoy George Mitchell, and Somali President Sheikh Sherif Ahmed. Mubarak also attended several military graduation ceremonies and held talks with the Turkish President Abdallah Gul on Tuesday.

On Sunday Israeli Trade Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer stressed that President Mubarak was in excellent health.

"I spoke to him very recently and without being a doctor, I was sure by the sound of his voice that he is in excellent health and will remain in the political arena for a long time," Ben Eliezer was cited by AFP as telling Israeli army radio. "I noted that he is strong and very angry about the rumours concerning his health."

The Economist went on to argue that change is imminent because new generations of young Egyptians have grown impatient for a role and a voice, but drew a bleak picture of Egypt's political future.

While the state-owned press generally ignored The Economist 's report, it was extensively translated by several independent newspapers, including Al-Masry Al-Yom and Al-Dostour. Veteran political analyst Salama Ahmed Salama commented on the report, arguing that "it reflects Egypt's unique position in the region."

"No country is as capable as Egypt at attracting media attention to its own affairs," wrote Salama. "It is recognised that the collapse of Egypt means the collapse of the backbone of the entire region."

In recent years, Salama added, Egypt's internal affairs have become a favoured focus of newspapers, magazines, think tanks and research centres. He believes that The Economist 's report, written by Max Rodenbeck, navigated the rocks and sands that cover deteriorating conditions in the country. "[He] believes that Egypt is about to see a radical change, like those that have happened in Russia, Iran and Turkey," said Salama. "His forecasts might not be true 100 per cent but they do point to the reasons the world is so concerned about conditions in Egypt."

Political pundits interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly had mixed reactions to the report. Wahid Abdel-Meguid, an Al-Ahram political analyst, believes " The Economist 's report offered little new in political terms".

"It read like tens of other Western reports about Egypt published since 2004, when George Bush began exerting pressure on Mubarak and Saudi Arabia to democratise." These reports have all tended to focus on President Mubarak's age, suggest he is grooming his son to takeover, and claim several senior officials are jockeying for position. "The problem is that they convey a pre-determined message. They do this by manipulating information to confirm the picture of Egypt they want to portray," says Abdel-Meguid. Another problem, he believes, is that much of their source material comes from independent newspapers and is of questionable accuracy.

When Obama visited Egypt in June last year many private newspapers reported that Mubarak was too ill to receive him at the airport or even walk down a few steps to greet him outside the presidential palace. The Economist repeated the allegations, ignoring the announcement by a presidential spokesman who said Obama had been received in the same way Egypt's president is received when he visits Washington, without an official reception at the airport.

Political commentator Ammar Ali Hassan believes that The Economist did a good job.

"The magazine painted a very realistic picture of political and economic conditions of in Egypt," said Hassan. "The report tells the outside world, and not just the West, that the country's current political paralysis threatens not just Egypt but the entire region."

Hassan agrees with The Economist 's analysis of the relationship between Mubarak's regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. "Muslim Brothers must be accommodated by the regime rather than being alienated. In the case of the latter they could go underground, and turn once again into a militant Islamist organisation," argued Hassan.

Mohamed Abdellah, former vice-president of Alexandria University and a senior member of the NDP, is less convinced.

"The Brotherhood is the greatest threat to Egypt's national security and political future because it mixes religion with politics," he says. "They allege that they are a moderate group and President Mubarak has given them the benefit of the doubt many times, allowing them to join parliament and freely express their views on independent media channels. Each time they have shown themselves to be extremists intent on turning Egypt into a religious state.

"President Mubarak has seen how Islamist groups inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood almost destroyed Algeria and have brought disaster to Gaza. He will not allow the scenario to be repeated in Egypt," says Abdellah. He stresses, however, that "under Mubarak the Muslim Brotherhood has enjoyed a greater margin of freedom than under either Gamal Abdel-Nasser or Anwar El-Sadat."

Abdellah also disagrees that Egypt's political system is opaque and the succession a matter of guesswork. "The constitutional amendments of 2007 set clear rules for changing power in Egypt in a transparent and civilised way," he says.