-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - July 2009
Egypt's ageing leader may have defiantly promised to remain in office "until his last breath" but the drumbeat of presidential succession has been growing steadily louder in recent weeks. Hosni Mubarak, now 81, has been looking increasingly frail and waxen since the death of his grandson earlier this year; as the light begins to fade on his pharaonic 27 years in power and his face becomes ever more absent from the day-to-day running of the country, speculation is mounting of imminent change at the top.
Secret Israeli intelligence reports have been leaked, unguarded comments to the Saudi King have been reprinted and phantom websites trumpeting the credentials of potential replacements have appeared. There is, as one Egyptian blogger put it, "something in the air", and the international press – scenting a dose of good old-fashioned electoral drama spiced with some buzzword-laden twists (facebook groups for rival camps!) – are hurriedly joining the circus. Beneath the media hype though, the underlying dynamics of Egypt’s political elite remain depressingly familiar.
Since 2002, when Mubarak nominated his son, Gamal, as general secretary of the ruling National Democratic party's policy committee, conventional wisdom has been that the young banker is being groomed to take over from his father. It wasn't just Gamal's elevation to one of the most influential positions within the autocratic Mubarak regime that fuelled such talk; more importantly, the appointment mirrored a broader trend within the government, with the army-dominated, locally orientated "old guard" gradually giving way to a neo-liberal business-minded "new guard", personified by Gamal himself.
The ascendancy of these supposed Young Turks stepped up a gear in 2004, when a new cabinet – staffed mainly by members of Gamal's policy committee – initiated a series of controversial "free market reforms" which won plaudits from the IMF but deepened the vast chasm between Egypt's rich and poor and increased anti-Mubarak sentiment.
The architects of the country's economic transformation aren't too perturbed by domestic dissent, though; unlike their elderly predecessors, this fresh, internationally educated clique is more concerned with how it's viewed in London and Washington than what people are saying in Asyut or Tanta. As one commentator recently observed, Gamal’s contemporaries – a generation where business and power have become inextricably linked – are more interested in the ‘spectacle of politics’ than in the bread and butter populist measures, like food subsidies and rent controls, which have historically dampened demand for regime change.
In terms of enabling Gamal’s accession to the presidency, their aim is merely to persuade those heavily invested in the status quo that their privileges will be maintained or expanded under a future Gamal-led Egypt; along with a well-documented web of constitutional acrobatics designed to shut out any challengers from outside the higher echelons of NDP, and a long tradition of electoral manipulation by the government, the rest should be just a formality.
The spanner in the works, according to some sections of the Egyptian press, is Omar Suleiman, intelligence chief for Mubarak senior, and the leading negotiator in Egypt's mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinian factions. An anonymous website backing Suleiman for the presidency appeared last month emblazoned with the words "No to Gamal ... No to the Muslim Brotherhood", and its timing – just as al-Shorouk newspaper claimed the NDP's political bureau was meeting to pick its next presidential candidate – has sparked a wave of excitement at the prospect of an genuine succession contest developing. Independent papers have run a series of double-page spreads on Suleiman, and the government press has hit back by scaling up its (invariably positive) coverage of Gamal, with stories of the latter's sterling anti-poverty work suddenly assuming much greater prominence.
The provenance of the pro-Suleiman website is unknown; it could be a test-balloon by his advisers to see what the public response would be for an unlikely run at the presidency, or a false-flag operation by Gamal's acolytes, or indeed just the work of a random net-savvy teenager but, regardless of who made it, the pro-NDP youth are taking no chances. "Gamal Mubarak for president – expanding the Egyptian dream" and "Lovers and supporters of Gamal Mubarak" are just two of the Facebook groups that have sprung up to sing the praises of the heir apparent, exploiting a medium which in Egypt has traditionally been the preserve of anti-government activists. All this has led international news outlets like the Irish Times to talk up the chances of a high-octane battle for the top job.
If Suleiman is being deliberately puffed up from within the ruling elite, it's probably not because many in the NDP's top ranks truly see the 76-year-old as a potential future president. The more plausible explanation is that the military – the strongest institutional force in Egypt both politically and economically since the 1952 revolution (dissected brilliantly in a recent BBC documentary) – is flexing its muscles by gently promoting Suleiman as an alternative to Mubarak's hereditary succession plan, hoping that this will serve as a reminder to Gamal that he cannot afford to strip the old guard of its entrenched privileges in the post-Hosni era.
The real point of interest, though, isn't the machinations at the top, which are better conceived of as a mutually beneficially delineation of how the pie should be sliced, rather than any kind of real power struggle over who holds the knife. Instead, what is striking, although hardly surprising, is that they are taking place wholly at the top, with not even the largely corrupt and flaccid official opposition parties getting a look in, never mind the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or grassroots trade union and pro-democracy activists.
That's not to say that the locus of power in Cairo is immoveable; there has been a fundamental shift in influence over the past decade from the statist-era generals to the Chicago School economists and entrepreneurs surrounding Gamal. But when it comes to the presidency, the only concern of Egypt's political and economic elite – the sort who are fleeing downtown for the safety of gated compounds in the desert with names like "Dreamland" and "Beverly Hills" – is that their future prosperity must be assured, and on that front Gamal looks the safest bet.
As Diane Singerman points out, this is a country "run in the interests of an elite, state-subsidised ring of Cairo-based capitalists who call themselves liberals or globalisers or democratisers because they facilitate foreign investment in the economic sphere, even as they insist on repression, the extension of the Emergency Law, and police-state practices in the political sphere".
Mubarak once remarked that it would take a generation before Egyptians were ready for democracy; the irony of making this comment when he himself has presided over the country for a whole generation, in which time democracy, social reform and economic justice have all stagnated or slid backwards, was apparently lost on him. Make no mistake: despite what the press may imply, the so-called "battle" for Hosni Mubarak's job – whether it unfolds now or when his current term expires in 2011 – will be a carefully engineered process designed to protect and defend the breathtakingly ill-gotten gains of the few in Egypt at the expense of the many. Any meaningful challenge to this process will have to come from below, far away from the NDP hierarchy where both Gamal and Suleiman reside.
For a similar article that focuses more on the impact of presidential succession on the Egyptian media scene, my article for the Arab Press Network is available here.