DAMASCUS - Egyptians began to politely talk about a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt
after their president suffered an assassination attempt in Ethiopia in 1995.
This event, along with another attempt while on his way to Port Said in 1999,
reminded Egyptians of the untimely death of Anwar Sadat in 1981.
More recently, he fainted while giving a speech in 2004. Mubarak turns 80 in
May. People tend to sit back and reflect at 80 - thinking of what they did and
what they didn't during their lifetime. They often become obsessed with how
history will label them. This might be especially true for someone who has
president of a country like Egypt for 26 years - who watched first-hand the
assassination of his predecessor in 1981.
We don't know if Mubarak had the chance to watch the television drama King
Farouk in 2007. It spoke about the last king of Egypt, showing how
gradually the street turned against him, for a variety of reasons (much of it
economic) in July 1952. In disbelief, Farouk watches how ordinary Egyptians
cuss him on the street and tear apart his portrait, chanting "Ya Farouk, ya
Antiqa". (O ancient one.) He is saddened by public anger and decides - at
curtain fall - not to fight to stay in power, abdicating with relative ease in
favor of his infant born son, Ahmad Fouad II. Farouk came to this realization -
that he had been wrong - at the age of 32. Mubarak has not reached it yet at
the age of 80.
Officially and in public, Mubarak boasts of certain facts that only depict one
side of the Egyptian coin. The economy has been growing at a 7% rate and
foreign investment stands at US$11 billion a year. These, along with the
relative stability in Egypt, are feats for which the Egyptian leader must be
remembered. Along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt remains an Arab heavyweight, 30
years after signing peace with Israel, and still walks the delicate tightrope
of Arab nationalism while receiving military aid from the United States.
Trade with America is at $8 billion. If Mubarak steps out of his comfort zone
and reads what the regional and international press are saying, however, he
would realize how concerned the world is with Egypt. Over 53% of Egyptians are
below the age of 24 and they are anything but pleased with the aged Egyptian
leader. The president's health, the boiling anger on the Egyptian street, and
the latest municipality and village elections that took place on April 8 where
the president's supporters won with ease, gaining over 70% of the seats.
What makes these elections particularly important is that according to the new
election law, 140 municipality heads will have a say in the upcoming
presidential elections, scheduled for 2011. During the elections, riots broke
out at a state-owned weaving factory in the industrial city of Mahallah
al-Kobra, leading to the death of two workers, the wounding of 100 and the
arrest of over 300.
Workers are enraged, afraid of inflation, the rising price and scarcity of
bread, claiming that privatization (championed by the Egyptian government) will
make them lose their jobs. Although the only recognized labor union is the
state-run General Federation of Trade Unions, many workers are members of other
smaller unions - which are powerful at a grassroots level in Egypt.
These organized labor unions are very influential - more so at times than the
Muslim Brotherhood itself - and they are not pro-Mubarak, to say the least.
Mubarak's greatest worry - with due right - comes from what the Islamic street
will do to Egypt once he is gone. As Arab and Egyptian nationalism both failed
to provide salvation for ordinary Egyptians, political Islam - and
religiousness - marched in over the past 20 years of Mubarak's rule.
Previously, it was popular only with the urban poor. It has now infiltrated
high society and is equally popular with the Egyptian rich. Although outlawed,
the Muslim Brotherhood is well-grounded at a grassroot level and is
manipulating the increase in the price of bread, which has captured nearly 30
million Egyptians by the throat. To avert a showdown and fearing the wrath both
of the Brotherhood and labor unions, the government continues to subsidize food
with $13.7 billion.
From Mubarak to Mubarak
Amid all these grievances stands the overriding worry that number one on the
president's agenda is not bread - nor the Brotherhood - but the succession of
his son, Jamal, who is deputy secretary general and chairman of the political
committee of the ruling National Party. He was also recently made a member of
the party's 50-man supreme council.
In 2000, when rumors started to surface that he was a president-in-waiting,
Mubarak said, "Don't believe the rumors, they are baseless." For his part,
Jamal gave an interview to the Financial Times, saying, "I am not fixated on
this and I am not positioning myself." A few weeks later, at a book fair in
Cairo, he added, "Frankly speaking, my becoming president is not on the table,
it never occurred to me, and is not an issue on my father's mind."
Most Egyptians, however, think otherwise. The new election law enables him to
run for the 2011 elections where, after manipulation, the ruling National Party
will disqualify all serious candidates, bringing about a "democratic
succession". Any party wanting to nominate candidates for the presidential
elections of 2011 should have no less than a 5% representation (nearly 23
deputies) in parliament. That would be easy for the National Party, which has
already started preparing for the elections, scheduled in less than five
The US and Mubarak
The United States is worried about a variety of issues in Egypt.
Decision-makers in Washington are divided on how to deal with Egypt, a country
that has been received billions in economic and military aid from the US since
1979. One argument says that Washington should cut back its financial aid to
Mubarak to pressure him to democratize.
Recently, the US Congress has tried to regulate aid to Egypt, claiming that
priority should be given to democratization and educational reform. The
Egyptians curtly refused any dictation of spending, saying this can be jointly
discussed by Washington and Cairo. Others argue that this would be like
shooting the US in the foot.
Greater democracy after all would only empower the Islamists, as it did with
Hamas (a branch of the Egyptian Brotherhood)in Palestine. They argue that the
money going to Cairo is not spent on strangers, since most of it goes to buying
arms and technology from the United States. Lawmakers in the US claim that an
uncooperative Egypt could spell disaster for American interests in the Arab
They recognize how important Mubarak has been in acting as mediator,
facilitator and negotiator of the Middle East peace process, between the
Palestinians and Israel, and between the two Palestinian factions currently at
dagger's end, Hamas and Fatah. They understand that if Mubarak decides to be
stubborn, he can hinder passage of US ships through the Suez Canal and halt all
security collaboration on Islamic groups like al-Qaeda.
Mubarak realizes that these are his points of strength, and manipulates them
brilliantly with the United States. He wants to keep the relationship with
America, yet insists on minimal and very cosmetic political reforms. In as much
as some people in America would like to punish Mubarak for his policies, they
know very well that they need him to protect American interests in the region.
The Egyptian president is not pleased with the amount of pressure he has been
getting from the US. In June 2006, for example, the government froze the
activities of the International Republican Institute, a US group promoting
democracy in Egypt, because one member gave an interview to a local newspaper
saying that Egypt was not doing enough to bring about serious democratic change
The US State Department's Country Report on Human Rights (2006) said that
Egypt's human-rights record "remains poor, and serious abuses continued in many
areas". In 2007, the State Department's International Religious Freedoms Report
criticized the Egyptian government of bias against Egyptian Copts (Christians).
There were only six Christians in a 454-seat parliament (five appointed, one
elected) and only two in the 32-member Egyptian government.
They noted that Christians could not be found in senior jobs like mayor or
police commissioner, and noted discrimination and persecution of the country's
2,000 Bahais and 200 Jews. Under such pressure - and very unwillingly - the
Egyptian government had decided to make the Coptic Christmas (January 6) a
national holiday in December 2003. Reform in that regard, however, ended there.
The Americans have been critical of Mubarak for standing up for his African
ally, President Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan, claiming that no sanctions should be
imposed on Khartoum because of the violence in Darfur. Although Egypt supports
the United Nations-African Union Peacekeeping force in Darfur with troops, it
refuses to condemn the Arab Janjaweed tribe (backed by the Sudanese government)
and insists that the violence there cannot be described as "genocide".
One particular source of tension is the case of Ayman Nour, a former member of
parliament who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections (coming
in as second runner-up) who is currently serving time in jail for forgery.
Many Egyptians - and the US - claim he is being imprisoned for his political
views. Last May, President George W Bush spoke at the Conference on Democracy
and Security in Prague, hailing Nour by name and saying he is one of the many
dissidents "who could not join us, because they are unjustly imprisoned".
Insiders in Washington claim that although pleased with Mubarak's efforts in
Middle East peace, Bush is "greatly disappointed" by the lack of progress on
Egypt's human-rights record. Making his point clear, the US president supported
giving Israel $30 billion in military aid from 2009 to 2018 (a 25% increase)
while Egypt was given only $13 billion for the same 10-year period.
Mubarak complains that this aid is not benevolence on behalf of the Americans;
it is living up to commitments made to his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, during the
era of president Jimmy Carter. When Egypt signed the Camp David Peace Accords
in 1978, it got expelled from the Arab League (which it had co-founded during
World War II) and was completely isolated within the Arab world.
It then stuck out its neck for the Americans - again - during the liberation of
Kuwait in 1991 and after the September 11, 2001, attacks when it shared
intelligence on al-Qaeda, and suppressed Egyptian Islamists. And what do they
get instead? Israeli espionage on Egyptian territory, where in 2007, a man was
accused of stealing documents from the Egyptian Atomic Energy Agency and
passing them on to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence.
The Americans turned a blind eye and have not - to date - done anything to get
Israel to change course, regardless of the peace treaty that binds the two
former enemies. That explains why state-run Egyptian media were not very
enthusiastic about last year's Annapolis peace Conference in the US, claiming
that it would amount to failure because there was no serious intention in
Washington to bring peace to the Arab world.
While Mubarak was working around the clock to broker a breakthrough in
Palestinian-Israeli peace, he got notice in December 2007 (right after
Annapolis) that Israel wanted to construct 300 new homes in east Jerusalem,
near Bethlehem - sending shockwaves throughout the Palestinian street. They
then criticized Egypt for not doing enough to prevent the smuggling that takes
place on the Gaza/Sinai border, which is monitored by Egypt.
"What jails do they want us to improve?" asked one Egyptian official. "These
were the same jails that held Omar Abdul Rahman [the blind cleric currently
serving time in a US prison for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings] and Ayman
Zawahiri [the right-hand-man to Osama Bin Laden]. Instead of complaining about
democracy in Egypt, the Americans should be sending bigger and clearer
thank-you notes to Cairo."
Mubarak is hinting that if the Americans do not change course, he might turn to
the European Union, whose trade with Egypt has risen by more than 5% in recent
years, reaching 11.5 billion euros (US$18.2 billion).
He realizes the Americans would panic if he decided to obstruct the passage of
navy ships through the canal, or if he stood back and watched the situation in
Palestine without lifting a finger to help. "Big sister Egypt" as the Arabs
call it, remains a credible broker in inter-Arab disputes. Mubarak has already
snubbed the Bush administration by refusing to send troops to Afghanistan or
Iraq, not before or after both invasions. He also might snuggle up to Iran.
Only last week, he extended an invitation to to his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud
Ahmadinejad, asking the latter to visit Egypt.
Perhaps the Egyptian president did indeed watch the King Farouk series,
but missed the moral of the TV drama. The 1939 marriage of Princess Fawzia
(King Farouk's sister) into the royal house of Tehran - depicted majestically
on screen - was not what should have inspired Mubarak. Rather, it would have
been the last episode, with students and workers on the streets in 1952 - very
similar to the ones he saw in Mahalla al-Kobra in 2008 - calling on the king to
step down. Survival does not depend on the Americans. Nor does it depend on
Iran or the EU. It depends on just how patient 76 million Egyptians can be.
Mubarak should revisit the series King Farouk, and learn from it. He
should pay particular attention to the last episode, which shows why and how
the last king of Egypt fell from grace in 1952 - despite the backing he had
from both the United States and Great Britain. Someone should send him a DVD
copy as a gift on his 80th birthday.