• May 7, 2008

Tension in Egypt clouds outlook for succession

Tension in Egypt clouds outlook for succession

Social tensions in Egypt over the past year have eroded overwhelming expectations that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father President Hosni Mubarak at the helm of the most populous Arab country, analysts say.

An unprecedented wave of labour strikes and public anger over high prices and poor wages, which last month led to deadly riots, may eventually drive the main pillars of the ruling elite, such as the army, to look into other scenarios.

“Why would they [the ruling establishment] support Gamal Mubarak and risk confronting a disenchanted public opinion with a candidate who does not enjoy unanimity?” said Mustapha al-Sayyed, political science professor at Cairo University.

“The security challenge is huge and this succession could add a complicating issue to an already complicated situation.”

While the analysts did not come up with any alternative candidates, they did rule out the possibility that opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood could end up seizing power, saying they did not have enough public support.

“It will be from within the regime, not the Brotherhood,” political analyst Amr El-Choubaki told Reuters.

The next presidential election is expected by 2011 and President Mubarak (80) is not expected to seek another term.

Mubarak has never appointed a vice-president and his 44-year-old son has denied any presidential ambitions.

But many Egyptians have for several years seen Gamal as the inevitable successor and foreign investors have poured billions of dollars into the economy in the past four years, betting on a smooth transition of power from father to son.

The rise of Gamal Mubarak into the political limelight has been impressive. A former investment banker, his father appointed him in 2000 to the ruling party”s general secretariat. His influence in the party and in shaping the economic policy of Egypt has since grown significantly.

Analysts say he was a main force behind the appointment in 2004 of the current government, which includes prominent businessmen. Economists credit the government for making the economy grow faster than at any time in at least two decades.

Members of his powerful policies council in the ruling National Democratic Party include top bankers and tycoons.

But many Egyptians blame the policies of the government and prominent ruling party leaders associated with Gamal Mubarak for higher prices as well as a widening gap between the rich and poor. Inflation rose to 14,4% in the year to March but the government blames high world prices for food.

If not him, then who?
The presidency is overwhelmingly the centre of power in Egypt but if the institution was unexpectedly vacant then the military, the police, business people and the ruling party could assert their various economic and political interests.

“It is really hard to imagine that a ruling establishment such as the one in Egypt would bet on one scenario,” said Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

He said that because of the “deteriorating socio-economic situation” in Egypt any new president would come to power with a “legitimacy deficit”, making it hard for the main powers in the country to rally around any controversial candidate.

The military, where all of Egypt”s presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 began their careers, has never taken a public position on who should succeed Mubarak.

The influence of the military and police, however, is strong. Most of the provincial governors and local officials nationwide are either former military or police officers. State security police have played a key role in negotiations with trade unions and workers on strike.

“There is an over-representation of the military and security institutions in the Egyptian state,” Hamzawy said.

“The security institution has veto powers on who joins the ruling elite and who does not. The notion that Egyptian society under President Mubarak has become dominated by civilians is wrong,” he added in a telephone interview.

The reluctance of Gamal Mubarak”s opponents to come up with alternative candidates adds to the political uncertainty.

“It is not enough to say I am against someone. You have to say I am against him and support someone else,” Hamzawy said.