Quest for identity

The question whispered in the bazaars and cafes of Cairo these days is who will be the successor to President Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak, at 79, is said to be in ill-health. He has run the country without serious opposition for more than two decades, largely by his control of the military and the police. In 2005, Mr. Mubarak was re-elected president with 88? percent of the vote. Immediately after, he had his opponent arrested.

The United States has propped up the Mubarak regime. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, $1.8 billion last year, with almost 75 percent of the money going to the Egyptian military.

Our foreign policy has been to support Mr. Mubarak. Egypt, with its 70 million people, is the largest Arab state. And while Mr. Mubarak gets low marks for democratization, human rights and economic and political reform, his repressive measures have provided some stability in a turbulent region.

Mr. Mubarak’s probable successor is his personable and intelligent son, Gamal, 43. He wants Egypt to develop nuclear energy. Although educated at the American University in Cairo, he says he opposes U.S. initiatives to democratize the region and wants a “new political vision” based on Arab values. Many speculate, however, that he will be unable to hold the country together. He lacks his father’s power base and roots with the military and the police.

The challenge to the Mubarak succession comes from the infamous Muslim Brotherhood which holds roughly 20 percent of the seats in Parliament. Although technically illegal, the Brotherhood continues to attract supporters with its goal of establishing a fundamentalist Muslim state ruled by Islamic law.

The U.S. approach has been “democracy, yes; theocracy, no.” But the Egyptian paradox is that the former will surely beget the latter. The military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood has a record of horrific violence. Hosni Mubarak became president in 1975 after Islamic militants assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. In 1995, Sudanese government sponsored Islamic militants unsuccessfully attempted to take the life of Mr. Mubarak while he was on a state visit to Ethiopia. Four of the 19 hijackers of September 11, 2001, including the ringleader, were Egyptian.

In the 1990s, Islamic militants claimed responsibility for more than 37 acts of terror — deadly attacks on foreign tourists with assault weapons or bombs. The country relies heavily on the tourist industry, which provides more than 2.7 million jobs and accounts for more than 11 percent of its gross domestic product.

The Brotherhood’s goal was to bring down the government by cutting off its economic blood supply. They did not succeed. The bloodshed was met with swift reprisals from the government, and the tourist trade survived. Foreigners find the attraction of cruising the fabled Nile or viewing the wonder of the pyramids and other antiquities to be irresistible.

The stern measures imposed by Mr. Mubarak have not been without impact. No one wants to be imprisoned in Egyptian jails, where torture, sexual abuse and deaths in custody are commonplace. In January 2006, a prisoner was sodomized with a broomstick while in custody and then ironically charged with “resisting authority” in connection with the incident. Attacks on tourists continue nonetheless. Reportedly, 149 tourists were murdered between 2004 and 2006.

But the abiding question is what the future holds for Egypt. Indisputably, Mr. Mubarak has stopped short of the goal line. The population is only 58 percent literate; unemployment is 11 percent; 20 percent live below the poverty line. Small wonder the Islamic movement gains traction despite efforts by the government to throttle its progress.

Fundamentalist Islam holds out little in the way of women’s rights. Under Islamic law and tradition, women occupy a subordinate place in society, and do not have equal rights in marriage, divorce and job opportunity. Even worse, a 2000 USAID survey of 15,648 ever-married women, aged 15-49, reported 97 percent had undergone some form of genital mutilation. Nevertheless, more and more Egyptian women wear their optional head scarves in public — an expression of defiance against a secular government that eschews fundamentalist Islamic values.

Egyptians harbor a fuming animosity towards the United States government. Whatever mileage we hope to get out of our foreign aid hasn’t trickled down to the citizenry. They blame us for the carnage in Iraq and our bias toward Israel. I was told that since the re-election of George W. Bush, they don’t like individual Americans either, since they no longer wish to draw the distinction.

Having been subjugated over the millennia by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, French and British, Egypt is now in danger of subjugating itself.

It is not surprising that Egyptians wish to rid themselves of a repressive regime that has left the main currents of its society stagnating. It is surprising they want to tilt toward an Islamic theocracy with its roots in the past.

Egypt needs its dignity to become a modern state that can attract foreign investment, trade with the West and become a respected member of the world community. At the moment, the cartouche is blank for want of the hieroglyphic to establish its identity.

(*) James D. Zirin is a lawyer and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He recently returned from Egypt.