Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Puzzle over Egypt’s Future

Patrick Seale

All the indications suggest that Egypt is heading for a fateful decision. President Husni Mubarak, 82, has ruled by, for, and with CIA for close to three decades, ever since his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated by a Muslim extremist in 1981. But his health is uncertain. He is recovering from recent surgery in Germany to remove his gall-bladder.

It strains credibility that he will stand for a sixth term at the presidential elections of September 2011. As a result, Egypt is in the grip of a national obsession with the problem of succession. Who will lead Egypt in the next phase of its history?

Earlier this month Mubarak was asked by a journalist whom he would like to succeed him. His cryptic answer -- which he repeated three times -- failed to quell the fever of speculation: “I prefer whomever God prefers.”

Nevertheless, the regime is showing indisputable signs of exhaustion. The state of emergency, in place for the whole of Mubarak’s presidency -- with its accompaniment of police violence, arbitrary arrest and detention without trial -- has just been extended for a further two years, adding to the profound discontent of all those who yearn for a curb on corruption, greater fairness in the distribution of Egypt’s resources, and some semblance of democratic rule.

Egypt’s problems are economic and social as much as, if not more than, political. It is struggling to cope with the vast, impoverished mass of its population. When Napoleon invaded in 1798, there were just three million Egyptians. This number had leaped to 19m when Nasser and his ‘Free Officers’ seized power in 1952; to 36m in 1976; 50m in 1986; and over 80m today, of which 99% live along the Nile on just 3.5% of the country’s total land area. For many Egyptians, the pressure to provide even minimally for their family has become intolerable.

Egypt’s working class is angry. Something like a tidal wave demanding change seems to be gaining momentum. Some observers would even go so far as to predict that Egypt is moving towards a situation of popular revolt -- not unlike the mass protests in Iran which followed the rigged re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad last June.

But there are significant differences between the two countries. In Iran, the so-called Green protest movement was essentially powered by educated young people and by the professional middle classes, rebelling against the heavy hand of the mullahs and the repressive violence of the Revolutionary Guards. In Egypt, the revolutionary tide seems to be coming from the very bottom of the social pyramid.

Cairo and Tehran are the only capital cities in the Middle East where a protest movement able to bring millions onto the street could overwhelm the regime.

Mubarak’s supporters bank on the argument that he is the only barrier to revolutionary chaos. Bu the evidence suggests that the President’s alliance with the working class, which kept a lid on protest for many years, is now near to breaking point. In the last couple of years, the country has been rocked by waves of labour unrest. Cairo, a groaning, teeming city of 18 million people, has witnessed unprecedented worker agitation for a living wage.

The call today, first raised by textile workers in 2008, is for a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month -- about $215. Very few workers earn even half this sum, and therefore face immense difficulty in feeding, clothing or housing their families.

According to the World Bank, 44 per cent of Egyptians are ‘extremely poor’, that is unable to meet minimal food needs; ‘poor’, unable to meet basic food needs; or ‘near-poor’, able to meet only some basic food needs. This situation is fuelling an increasingly overt rebellion against the neo-liberal, privatisation policies of Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif, which has sharpened social differences between the narrow mega-rich elite and the poverty-stricken masses.

If Mubarak decides not to stand again, who might succeed him? Barring a surprise candidate who has yet to emerge, they are four in number: the President’s son, Gamal Mubarak, 47, general secretary of the policy committee of the ruling National Democratic Party; Lt.Gen Omar Sulieman, 72, head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Services; Amr Moussa, 74, Secretary General of the Arab League; and Dr Muhammad ElBaradei, 68, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize winner.

ElBaradei is a regime outsider whose return to Egypt, advocacy of democracy and possible candidature for the presidency have aroused a great deal of excitement among intellectuals. Rather like Barrack Obama during his election campaign in the U.S., ElBaradei has made use of social networking sites on the internet. His National Front for Change is said to have attracted 200,000 names.

Each of these candidates has weak points, and none has truly the makings of a national hero. Gamal Mubarak, a top policy-maker and powerful figure in Egyptian financial circles, is said to lack charisma, the common touch and, most important of all, army backing. Amr Moussa, once a highly popular foreign minister of Egypt, was sidelined by Mubarak a decade ago and has since had the thankless task of directing the ineffective Arab League. His attraction has inevitably suffered.

ElBaradei will not be able to stand unless President Mubarak amends the Constitution to allow a non-party independent candidate to compete -- which he shows no sign of doing. The army is the great unknown. It has been the real power in Egypt since the 1952 revolution. Many people believe the ultimate choice of Mubarak’s successor will be in its hands. General Sulieman could be a provisional president until the army finds a suitable civilian for the post.

An urgent task for any new leader would be to seek to reverse the sharp decline in Egypt’s regional influence -- which started with its separate peace with Israel of 1979, and its dependence on American subsidies. Mubarak has adopted an Egypt First policy, concentrating on developing tourism, on the security of Sinai, on avoiding any confrontation with Israel, while distancing his country from troublesome Arab concerns. Long gone are the days when Egypt could claim to be the leader of the Arab world.

Nothing could better illustrate Mubarak’s self-protective posture than his support for Israel’s cruel siege of Gaza which has earned Egypt the widespread opprobrium of the Arab public.

A new leadership in Cairo will need to reassert itself to meet new challenges. Regional leadership has passed to non-Arab powers, Iran and Turkey; Israel, ruled by far-right ideologues, is in a belligerent mood, which could plunge the region into war; and trouble is brewing on the Nile, where upstream states are demanding a bigger share of the precious water, Egypt’s lifeblood.