What’s ahead for Egypt?

In Brief: The question of who will succeed aging Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is crucial not just for Egypt but the Arab world.

By one count, Hosni Mubarak has escaped assassination not just once, but six times, since taking office in 1981.

The long-serving president of Egypt has many enemies, notably militant Islamists who believe he is too friendly with Israel and the U.S. Other Egyptians are repelled by the harshness with which his secret police suppress the political opposition.

But even if Mubarak, a former air force officer, continues to dodge assassins, the fact remains that he is 77 and won’t live forever. What will happen to his country when he leaves office?

This is important because Egypt, with considerable justification, sees itself as the hub of the Arab world. Not only is Egypt at its geographical centre, but the country has many distinguished universities, intellectuals and artists, particularly its writers and filmmakers.

Sadly, Egypt’s political development has failed to keep pace. Under a succession of monarchs and, later, presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser,

Anwar Sadat and Mubarak himself, Egyptians have groaned under authoritarian regimes with secret police forces that often were brutal in defence of the government.

Discontent has been growing for decades. Mubarak has loosened his hold on politics (permitting, for the first time, the election of the president by direct vote) and on the economy, but times are still hard. Fully five million of Egypt’s 79 million people have left to work abroad.

Egypt is autocratic, but that is not to say it does not have a political opposition. Part is built around the Islamist-oriented Muslim Brotherhood, which has been so roughly suppressed over the last 50 years that it has morphed into a social services organization with considerable credibility among Egypt’s poor as being more efficient and less corruptible than the government. The Wall Street Journal recently opined that the Brotherhood’s political strength allows Mubarak “to pose as the man the West can rely on to hold the Islamists at bay”.

Successive Egyptian governments have been so afraid of religious-based parties that they have been technically illegal for many years. When the Brotherhood has run candidates it has run them as independents, and then only in small numbers, so as to avoid a perception it poses an electoral threat to the government. How militantly Islamist, or vengeful, the Brotherhood might be if it took office is hard to assess.

Despite government suppression, Muslim Brotherhood-linked candidates took a whopping 40 per cent of the votes in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which followed the presidential vote.

For good measure, Mubarak’s regime has also taken aim at its secular opponents. Ayman Nour, leader of the Tomorrow Party, got 7.6 per cent of the votes in last fall’s presidential election — pretty good, considering the tightness under which Egyptian politics are practised. But no sooner had Nour received these votes than he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and convicted of forging his son’s signature on a political nomination form.

Most outside observers thought the evidence was manufactured in order to remove a foe of the regime. U.S. Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice had to intervene forcefully to get him released.

Many of observers also believe Mubarak eventually will try to install as his successor his son, Gamal. This would enrage Egyptians who would see it as converting Egypt into the same kind of authoritarian dynasty as Syria or North Korea. Another possible successor, Mubarak’s aging anti-terrorism chief, would not be any more popular.

U.S. diplomats have been quietly meeting with Egyptian opposition politicians to sound out their views on democracy, the treatment of women and religious minorities — a clear hint change could be in the air. U.S. President George W. Bush has stated he wants pluralistic democracy to take root in the authoritarian Middle East.

Good idea — and a notable change from the American tradition of supporting despots who have no virtue other than being “on our side”.

Of course, freer voting also opens the door to an intolerant religious regime taking power in this large and influential country.

Egypt is in a race against time. As unemployment festers, the prospect of Mubarak’s departure offers the opportunity for Egypt to begin a much-needed march toward popular democracy. But this might also mean the election of a harsh Islamist regime unfriendly to the West.

If Egypt can successfully walk the tightrope toward political stability, it will offer a fine example to the entire Middle East. The next five years will be the most important in the history of that country — and, likely, the entire Arab world.