Wondering but not dreaming about the future

Twenty six years ago this month, Muslim militant Egyptian soldiers emptied their rifles into then President Anwar Sadat as he watched a military parade. Standing next to him was his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, who only suffered slight wounds. The assassins had waved him aside, telling him he wasn”t their target.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt ever since, alone, never naming a vice president. Some say he didn”t want to tempt fate.

But Mubarak did become a target of assassins. A particularly close call came in Addis Ababa in 1995 when his armored car saved him from the determination of Egyptian terrorists. Without a vice president in place, Egyptians wondered what would have happened had those would-be assassins succeeded.

And we continue to wonder, more because of age–Mubarak is turning 80 next year–and not so much because of a terrorist threat: Mubarak”s “war against terror” in the 1990s left dead or imprisoned the members of groups who tried to replace him with a strict Islamic state.

Wondering comes with a price, though. I arrived in Cairo on the day that senior Egyptian regulatory officials told the court trying a newspaper editor that they had no proof that rumors about the president”s health led to capital flight in August. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent daily Al-Dustour, is charged with publishing false rumors about Mubarak”s health that the government says led to the large-scale flight of foreign investments.

But speculation, wonder and rumors are Mubarak”s legacy to us. The three come together and equal Gamal Mubarak, the president”s son. Many expect him to take over from his father, creating the kind of dynastic succession that ended in 1952 when army officers staged a coup/revolution that forced the abdication of then King Farouk.

Discussing how much more vibrant politics were under the monarchy at the turn of twentieth century Egypt, an email list I belong to shared its admiration for a television drama that took a sympathetic look at those Farouk years. “Are we really going to take our historic reference from movies and TV series?” asked one group member. “Do you suppose that all of this positive spin on the monarchic era (even though it is highly suspect) might be an attempt to prepare us for an upcoming era of new monarchy?”

But it is by no means certain that Gamal will take over from his father. We have no idea whether the powerful armed forces would accept him as their leader. He would be Egypt”s first civilian leader since that 1952 coup; since then four presidents, all with military backgrounds, have ruled us. Unless his accession to power takes place while his father is still alive, he could be a weak and vulnerable leader.

If that sounds familiar, it”s because Syria already went down that road. In fact, both Syria and Morocco have useful lessons for us when wondering about a father-son transfer of power. Both Bashar al-Assad in Syria and King Mohammed VI in Morocco were held up as young, tech-savvy leaders who could be friends to reform and the West. Indeed, the “Damascus Spring”–a period of intense social and political debate in Syria–coincided with Bashar”s first few months in office.

But it never blossomed. After a couple of years of relative openness, both Assad junior and Mohammed VI clamped down hard against opponents, showing little inclination for business as anything but usual.

But if not Gamal, then who?

Again we can only wonder because his father, like his military predecessors, has eviscerated political opposition. The exception is the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamic organization that is technically banned but that holds 88 seats in parliament. Mubarak and his aides wave the brotherhood as a convenient bogeyman in the face of worried western allies.

The majority of Egyptians have known no other leader than Mubarak. They would have probably heard about the shock to the system that his predecessors represented to the body politic in Egypt. Mubarak”s predecessor once removed, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was a charismatic pan-Arabist closely allied to the Soviet Union. Then along came Sadat to turn Egypt into a US ally and sign the Arab world”s first peace treaty with Israel–for which he paid with his life.

In 26 years of power, Mubarak has shown little inclination for such flair or polarization. He eased Egypt back into the Arab fold after Sadat”s peace with Israel left Cairo isolated. But under his tutelage, Egypt has lost much of its regional influence to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Should Gamal take over, Egypt”s regional role looks set to diminish due to his limited foreign policy experience.

Egypt”s average rate of growth for the last three years has risen to seven percent thanks to the new government”s wide-ranging economic reforms. Although mass labor unrest over the past few months clearly showed that the prosperity wasn”t trickling down to the average Egyptian, the stronger economy will be an asset to Mubarak”s successor.

Yet as we wonder whither Egypt after Mubarak, one point of certainty will be this:

Egypt will remain a vital strategic ally to the US. It is the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel and a friend in the war on terror. That at least will guarantee continued support from Washington. As the Middle East spirals from one crisis to another, that is one less thing Egyptians need wonder about.- Published 25/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator and international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.