With tough moves, Egypt moves to ensure stability whenever post-Mubarak era dawns

With tough moves, Egypt moves to ensure stability whenever post-Mubarak era dawns

Egypt”s ruling regime is moving forcefully to ensure a smooth succession of power after President Hosni Mubarak. But the big unknown remains: who would follow him.

It has taken a carrot and stick approach. This week, a prominent independent newspaper chief was put on trial over articles he ran questioning Mubarak”s health, the latest in a string of trials of editors and journalists that appears aimed at intimidating possible critics of the transition.

Also this week, the military trial of several top Muslim Brotherhood leaders continued, the latest part of a months-long crackdown that has largely suppressed the government”s most powerful political rival.

At the same time, the government has shown an unusally soft stance to try to end an unprecedented wave of labor strikes, making concessions to workers. Meanwhile, the ruling party has carried out a widescale grassroots shakeup to ensure the rank-and-file are in line.

The crackdowns have raised an outcry from human rights groups and even criticism from the United States, Mubarak”s top ally.

But the government seems determined to impose stability so the transfer of power doesn”t bring turmoil to the Arab world”s most populous nation.

“No one can impose on us what we don”t accept and does not comply with our position toward Egyptian and regional issues,” Mubarak said in his speech Monday rejecting outside criticism.

Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt over the past 26 years, turns 80 in May. Rumors of poor health last month — denied by Mubarak — left many Egyptians in deep uncertainty. The vice president”s post, the usual stepping stone to the top spot, remains empty, and the most likely successor is believed to be Mubarak”s son, Gamal, a possibility the opposition rejects.

One reason for the government action now is that the military likely won”t intervene to impose a candidate of its own as it has in the past. All Egypt”s presidents have come from the military.

Some, even in the opposition, believe it should, because a military-backed candidate would have wider acceptance.

But the army — led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, a Mubarak loyalist — has been largely segregated from Egypt”s politics since the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat by Islamist army officers. That has left the stage open for Egypt”s first civilian president.

“We have distanced ourselves from politics long ago,” said former Staff Maj. Gen. Hossam Sewilam, who once headed the Armed Forces Strategic Research Center. “If they elect Fifi Abdou” — a famed Egyptian belly-dancer — “or (Gamal) Mubarak, they are free. It”s not our business.”

With the military on the sidelines, the government has to show strength to keep succession smooth, said Gihad Auda, a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party.

“If the ruling regime looks weaker than expected and the military decides not to interfere in politics, chaos is a possibility,” he said.

In a move aimed at quieting critics in the press, Ibrahim Eissa — editor of the Al-Dustor newspaper — was put on trial Monday for disturbing public order after his paper questioned Mubarak”s health. Mubarak has since denied being ill.

At the same time, Eissa, the editors of four other newspapers and two journalists were sentenced to prison terms of one or two years in separate cases for defaming the president or the judiciary. They remain free on bail pending appeals.

Mubarak came to power in 1981, when as vice president he stepped in to replace Sadat. Mubarak has vowed to complete his term in office, which ends in 2011.

A 2005 constitutional amendment allows multi-candidate elections for president — a post long filled by a yes-or-no referendums on one candidate, Mubarak.

But recent elections have seen accusations of widespread vote-rigging, leading many to believe that the next presidential vote will install whomever Mubarak”s leadership chooses.

Most think that will be Gamal Mubarak, a 43-year-old former investment banker who has become a powerful figure in the ruling party.

“From everything you can tell, from the surface, the president”s son is the leading contender to succeed him, if not the only one,” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

But he is still not a sure thing.

“Gamal Mubarak is a major player but not the only one in this big game,” said Auda, who is close to the younger Mubarak. “The game is bigger and Gamal”s role might be in the first phase or the second or the third.”

In preparation, Auda said, the NDP is carrying out a “consolidation plan prior to the power transfer era.”

Internal elections earlier this month shook up the nearly 10,000 local party bodies in villages, cities and provinces across the country, changing the leadership by up to 70 percent in some places and increasing representation for Christians, women and youth, said NDP chief Safwat el-Sherif.

The shakeup aimed at strengthening the party base after a weak performance during 2005 parliament elections.

The government has also launched harsh strikes against the Muslim Brotherhood after it showed its strength at the ballot box in the 2005 vote, winning a fifth of the legislature”s seats.

Top Brotherhood leaders have been put on military trials on money laundering and terrorism charges, and hundreds of its members have been jailed.

Many believe the pressure has neutralized the Brotherhood challenge for now.

“There is a thirst for stability among Egyptians and I don”t think the Brotherhood is likely to threaten that,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.