Saturday, October 31, 2009

Arab World: Who will be the next leader of Egypt?


A new name has been added to the list of contenders for the presidency in Egypt. In an interview with the independent Egyptian daily, Al Shorouk last week, Amr Moussa, former minister of foreign affairs from 1991 to 2001 and secretary-general of the Arab League since 2001, acknowledged that he was considering submitting his candidacy, but had yet to come to a final decision. This led to a media frenzy throughout the Arab world, where the 73-year-old Moussa is well-known. The race for the Egyptian presidency has been a major topic of interest in the Middle East for a number of years. What goes on in Egypt, the largest Arab state, is of paramount concern to the region. Its continued stability and pragmatic approach are essential to the future of its peace treaty with Israel, to its relations with the West and to the fight against Iran. Egypt may have lost some of its former clout, but it remains the last bulwark of moderation in the region.

The possibility of a Moussa candidacy made headlines a few days after the announcement that Ayman el-Nour, leader of the small opposition party, Al Rad (tomorrow), was launching - together with a number of other opposition groups - a campaign against the presidency passing from Hosni Mubarak to his son, Gamal. Nour himself had been a candidate in 2005, receiving a mere 3 percent of the vote. He was accused of having falsified the documents used for setting up his party, sentenced to five years in jail and released after a year and a half due to intense American pressure and because of his failing health.

People in Egypt are uneasy about the younger Mubarak's candidacy, and many oppose it. Having ousted the royal family in 1952, Egyptians are not keen on having a new dynasty imposed on them through the back door. And Gamal Mubarak, 46, is far from a charismatic presence. He is considered a sound economist and is well-liked in the West. His father appointed him general secretary of the policy committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in 2002, and as such he has been taking an active interest in the internal problems of Egypt, subsequently getting much needed exposure to the party faithful and the general public.

But this, apparently, is not enough. Opposition parties are now united in a campaign under the slogans, "He will not inherit," and "He shall not rule." Their activity has sparked a counter campaign, which was launched by the NDP under the slogan, "We want you." Both sets of slogans were carefully chosen for their powerful emotional impact in spoken Egyptian Arabic, and they exemplify the depth of the conflict. Incidentally, a popular singer wrote a sycophantic song in favor of Gamal's candidacy.

Of particular interest in the matter is the attitude of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has become Egypt's strongest opposition force in recent years. After a series of conflicting reports - one of them being that it would join secular opposition parties against Gamal - it was revealed that the movement has not yet made its decision. Deep differences of opinion have emerged among the Brotherhood, with the younger generation eager for a greater role in decision-making, while the old guard is standing firm and refusing any attempt at democratization.

Speculation has been rife in recent weeks, with unconfirmed reports implying that the "supreme leader" of the group, Muhammad Mahadi Akef, would leave his post in 2010. In an interview with the daily, Al Masri al-Yom, Akef did not address the issue, but said that during the parliamentary elections held in 2005, he had come to an agreement with the NDP which permitted 50 Brotherhood-affliated representatives to sit in the parliament in return for a reduction in attacks against the government.

In fact 88 members of the group were elected - a fifth of the total number of representatives - and they are a very vocal opposition on local and international issues, as well as being virulent opponents of relations with Israel. Akef let it be understood that he would not be averse to reaching a similar agreement ahead of the next parliamentary elections in 2011.

The Brotherhood opposes in principle hereditary transmission of power, but as its main objective is to impose Sharia, religious law in Egypt, it has no desire to see another secular candidate succeed. Given that the group is officially banned, it cannot present its own candidate for the presidency and, as in 2005, its candidates for parliament will present themselves as "independents."

MUBARAK HAS now been president for 28 years, and his present tenure is his fifth. There is no legal obstacle to his being candidate for a sixth mandate in 2011, since in the late 1980s the law limiting the president to two terms was struck down at his initiative. Mubarak is 81, and another six-year term could be hard for a man who had to weather so many storms. For the time being, he is grooming his son to succeed him, even though he has not officially admitted so or endorsed his candidacy. He has stated many times that the next president would be "elected democratically." However, if his son's candidacy runs into too much opposition, he might launch yet another reelection bid - "for the sake of the country," which, by all accounts, is facing severe economic and social problems.

Until now opposition forces have failed to unite over a charismatic leader who would pose a real threat to the Mubaraks. The names of Mohamed ElBaradei, soon-to-be former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that of Dr. Ahmed Zuweili, an Egyptian-born scientist living in the US who is the lone Arab scientist to win a Nobel Prize, have been mentioned, but they lack political experience and do not seem to have the charisma needed to draw crowds.

But Amr Moussa has it all. Brilliant, charismatic and wildly popular, he is also a very vocal opponent of Israel and of normalization. It should be noted, however, that he would be 75 if he won the presidency in 2011, and 81 at the end of his term.

It has been suggested that Mubarak, seeing a rival in him, actively supported his candidacy to the head of the Arab League to get him out of the way. Last week's announcement by Moussa is perceived by many as a direct challenge to the old leader. It must be remembered that before the last presidential elections, there was a groundswell promoting Moussa's candidacy. In fact Moussa declined, probably sensing that Mubarak was still too strong.

But the president took note. Immediately after the election, Article 76 of the constitution regarding eligibility was amended. It is now necessary for an independent candidate to muster 250 signatures of members of the parliament and of local and district councils. Such a task is nearly impossible given that members of the ruling NDP control a majority in all of these bodies. In addition, for a political party to present a candidate, it has to have been established and recognized by the relevant authorities for at least five years, and its candidates for both houses of parliament must have garnered at least 5% of the popular vote. Further, the candidate must have been a member of the supreme council of the party for at least a year. Here again, it would be almost impossible for a small party to fulfill these conditions.

The National Democratic Party will be holding its sixth general assembly at the end of the month, but it is doubtful that a decision on the candidate for the presidency will be made at that time. Mubarak's mandate still has two years left, and the party does not wish to fan the flames so far ahead of time.

The great unknown in the debate is the position of the army. Since the Officers Revolution in 1952 which ended the monarchy, all the presidents have been officers in the army: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak himself. Is the army still powerful enough to dictate behind the scenes who will be the next president? Will it accept Gamal Mubarak, a civilian, or will it promote Gen. Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian security services, who currently holds the rank of minister and enjoys the trust of the president, and is also rumored to be in the running? Will another, hitherto unknown, candidate emerge from the army? If this is done with the blessing of the president, such a candidate would run as an independent, and the party representatives would furnish him with the signatures required.

Another voice made itself heard last week, that of veteran publicist Hassanein Heykal who spoke against "hereditary presidency" and condemned the growing trend in Arab regimes to have the son succeed the father, as was the case in Syria and as is planned in Libya and Yemen. Heykal was Nasser's right-hand man, but Sadat sent him into political exile. While he is now writing his memoirs while commenting on historical events for Al Jazeera, he continues be respected as a kind of "grand old man" of Egyptian politics. Hence his position will have some influence on the Nasserites still active on the Egyptian scene.

Mubarak's hand is still strong at the helm, and he is a consummate politician. At the end of the day, he will make the decision - unless, of course, as is often the case in the Middle East, fate intervenes.

Zvi Mazel was the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Sweden.
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