NYT: Obama still pushing for Mubarak to go

Important story in the Times: White House, Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

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Mubarak jokes, and more

I have an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Policy that is entirely about Egyptian political jokes in the Mubarak era (with a few thrown in about other Egyptian rulers for good measures). May it bring some levity to these dark times...

What would happen if you spent 30 years making fun of the same man? What if for the last decade, you had been mocking his imminent death -- and yet he continued to stay alive, making all your jokes about his immortality seem a bit too uncomfortably close to the truth?

Egyptians, notorious for their subversive political humor, are currently living through this scenario: Hosni Mubarak, their octogenarian president, is entering his fourth decade of rule, holding on to power and to life through sheer force of will. Egyptian jokers, who initially caricatured their uncharismatic leader as a greedy bumpkin, have spent the last 10 years nervously cracking wise about his tenacious grasp on the throne. Now, with the regime holding its breath as everyone waits for the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak to die, the economy suffering, and people feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, the humor is starting to feel a little old.

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Silvio's alibi

"I swear, Hosni, breasts like this..."

You knew there was a price to be paid for counting Silvio Berlusconi as one of your friends in Europe:

A scandal over Silvio Berlusconi's relationship with a teenage Moroccan girl took on legal and political overtones today when a senior police officer confirmed that the Italian prime minister's office had intervened on her behalf when she was detained on suspicion of theft, claiming she was the granddaughter of the Egyptian president.

And it only gets better:

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Too big to fail

My new al-Masri al-Youm column, on the Mubarak health rumors and speculation about the future of Egypt, is here. An excerpt:

A more curious phenomenon stemming from the recent rumors is the intense (but vague) speculation about the future of the country. There is, it seems, a collective failure of imagination about what Egypt after Mubarak might look like. Most, focusing on the mechanism of succession, find a future shrouded in dense fog--as Mubarak wants it--and shrug over the uncertainty of what is to come. Others predict inner-regime strife to secure control of the presidency, and not an insignificant number warn of impending chaos, either because of widening social chasms or a power vacuum at the top. The more outlandish predict an alliance of the Muslim Brothers and Mohamed ElBaradei bringing about a new Iran-like rogue state. Yet, chances are nothing so dramatic will happen.

The reason for this is that Egypt, just like the banks that were rescued by governments in the US and Europe, is too big to fail. Its systemic importance to the conduct of international relations in the Middle East is just too great to let it become a “rogue state” or spiral into chaos--even assuming that this badly run but closely controlled country is anywhere close to implosion.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Should I be worried?

E.T. Come HomeI have been largely offline recently because of recent travels, as we settle into Morocco for the summer. While the Arab Far West provides a much gentler climate than Cairo, as every summer I worry that Hosni Mubarak will take advantage of my absence to step down, kick the bucket or somesuch. Having spent the past 10 years of my life waiting for that moment, I don't want to miss out (a rather sad realization, I know.)

The recent rumors about Mubarak's ill-health — that his recent trip to Paris was for a check-up (Mubarak used to get discreetly treated by La Republique Française at the military hospital at Saint-Cyr), or that he might imminently visit his German doctors (who have been quietly visiting him in Cairo and Sharm al-Sheikh for months) — are practically unverifiable, of course. Rather than speculate on their authenticity, we might reflect on the fact that Egyptian authorities thought it fit to deny them. Which, of course, can only heighten the speculation in Arab countries, where regimes usually only issue false information and denials are interpreted as early confirmations (there is a fascinating treatise to be written about information flows and interpretation in dictatorships.)

Or that this will pretty be par for the course in the months and years ahead. Assuming, as I am, that Mubarak is seriously ill but has some time left (or indeed may recover) he will be constantly subjected to this kind of rumor-mongering. Canceling a meeting with Netanyahu? Must be rushing off to Germany. Visiting Europe? Must be to visit a nearby clinic. Attending a military parade? It all smacks of trying too hard. These are facile conclusions that hide a nearly total information vacuum. Yes, you can look at the picture above and conclude that Hosni Mubarak is not feeling too well. But does it tell you, as one diplomat told the World Tribune, that he is a living corpse

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He fought his first battle
on the parade grounds of Nasr City in 1981
He will fight his greatest battle
from the palaces of Sharm al-Sheikh in 2011
His name is Hosni Mubarak
He is immortal 

If Egypt ever does a remake of the classic sci-fi movie Highlander, this is what the slogan will be.

There has been much hullabaloo in the last few days about statements by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif:

When asked this weekend about Egypt's 2011 presidential elections, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was quick to express his wish to see President Hosni Mubarak run for a sixth term, an answer that again raised concerns over who might eventually replace the man who has ruled the nation for nearly 30 years.

"The [political] system has not put forth an alternative [to Mubarak], who can be comfortably placed in this field," Nazif said.

And by ruling party strongman Safwat al-Sherif:

"The party is filled with hope that President Mubarak will be a candidate," el-Sherif, Secretary General of the ruling National Democratic Party, told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television news network.

"Everyone looks to President Mubarak as a leader of this nation and everyone is behind him," he said.

"He (Mubarak) is a legend who cannot be replaced," said el-Sherif, also the speaker of the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt's parliament.

So suddenly everyone is wondering whether this means Mubarak will definitely run again, after much speculation that he is too sick to do so. Well, don't get too excited yet. What do you expect them to say? And frankly, what do you expect them to know? Mubarak appears to be doing well health-wise these days, with his trips to Italy and Greece and his (much-delayed) inauguration of Sohag's new airport. It's hard to tell.

What is pretty easy to tell is that this regime is a) fundamentally conservative, and will not initiate any kind of succession bid while Mubarak is still around or unless it is a done deal; and b) increasingly anxious about the future. Remember that back in 2005, Nazif voiced the opinion that Gamal would make a good candidate, although he was not ready yet. Now he doesn't mention Gamal (or perhaps it's just that he wasn't asked.) In any case, it was always a safe bet to think that Hosni Mubarak would run again, especially after the symbolic blow dealt to Gamal by Mohamed ElBaradei's entrance on the political scene.

You also have to factor in that all players in the regime are naturally better off with the status-quo than potentially risky change. The regime's problem today is that it can't predict the outcome of a transition to post-Mubarak, even if it wanted Mubarak Jr. This is why everyone would prefer to see Mubarak The Elder stay where he is, even if that means — as I've written here before — it means the Bourguibization of Egypt. This fragmented regime's problem is that Mubarak is what keeps it together; he is the cement that binds them together. Until there is a candidate around which there is a clear and overwhelming consensus — which may not be until after he passes from the scene — there can be only one.

They're not the only ones. I'm sure the Obama administration would rather not deal with the headache of an Egyptian transition, and while they're obviously thinking about it (as is the entire think tank world in DC and has the US military has been since the 1990s), they haven't figured out whether they should prepare or how. And we know from Aluf Benn, the Haaretz diplomatic correspondent, that the Israelis are quite happy with things as they are:

Of all the world's statesmen, the one closest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They have met four times since Netanyahu returned to power, and unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, Mubarak has no qualms about shaking Netanyahu's hand in public. "Ties are much closer than they seem," said a highly placed Israeli source. Referring to the peace process, an Obama administration official said "Mubarak tells people he is sure Netanyahu will do the right thing."

The wonderful friendship stems from the leaders' shared concerns about Iran. Netanyahu is anxious about that country's nuclear program, while Mubarak fears the Islamic Republic's potential to undermine his own regime. Israel and Egypt cooperate to enforce the closure of the Gaza Strip, in order to reduce weapons smuggling and weaken the Hamas government there.

I think Benn exagerates here — it's about a shared threat from Gaza as well as Iran — but it's pretty clear the Israelis are satisfied. It's not repeated often enough, but the regime has also put a lot of pressure on domestic activists to lay low about Gaza and Egypt's Israel policy — that's the reason there have been fewer protests about Israel/Palestine in recent years than there were at the beginning of the last decade (and not, as some have gloated, a change of Arab opinion.) Activism about Palestine in today's Egypt is a "Go Straight to Jail" card, something the Muslim Brothers in particular have been made to understand.

So back to the situation in Egypt. What you have, rather than a president who's in suspended animation, is a political transition process that's in suspended animation. To stretch the silly Highlander metaphor to intolerable levels, it's a Slowening. And it's somewhat sad that a country of 84 million is now feeling frozen in time, waiting for the old man to die. I don't envy him. Who wants to live forever?

(Arabist FM sticking to its promise — you can also watch the film version here.)


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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

God Only Knows

No doubt powered by a serious cocktail of amphetamines, Hosni Mubarak undertook his first trip abroad this week since he was hospitalized in Germany — a sign that he is gradually returning to business as usual, or at least that he wants to be seen as doing so. His regimen these days seems to be a meeting a day, and one major speech in two or three months. During his trip abroad — a summit with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he is said to be plotting to corner the hair dye futures market (a hot commodity from the Mediterranean region to the Gulf to South Asia) —Boss Hozz came out with the following pearl:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday that only God could know who would succeed him following his 29-year-old rule, the official MENA news agency reported.
Dogging a question on his possible successor by an Italian reporter, Mubarak spontaneously said that “only God could know that.”

It reminds me of something a friend of mine who's often sought for commentary on succession used to frequently say about Egypt's post-Mubarak future and the deliberately cultivated ambiguity about it: "not even God himself knows what Mubarak is thinking about succession." This might be an apt time to reflect a to why Mubarak has never designated a successor or appointed a vice-president who would be seen as such. As I see it, there are three main reasons:

  1. In the early Mubarak period, there was a clear alternative from within the regime in Field Marshall Abu Ghazala, who was ousted from his position as minister of defense in 1989 and remained under house arrest (more or less) for the rest of his life. By not appointing a vice-president, Mubarak refrained from formalizing that alternative. After he consolidated power, Mubarak never saw a need to anoint anyone else with the vice-presidency, since even personalities not thought to be presidentiable (such as himself and Anwar al-Sadat) obtained legitimacy from the position. Cultivating a strategic ambiguity about succession has kept attention where Mubarak likes it best: on himself as kingmaker and ultimate decider.
  2. A second related reason has to do with threats from outside Egypt rather than inside it. Had there been a vice-president, it would become tempting for a certain major power (you know who you are!) looking to influence Egypt's domestic and foreign policy to meddle in regime politicking. Just look at Pakistan's history. It would have also been tempting for peer powers in the region — Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Israel — to also have another point of contact within the Egyptian regime that could present a credible alternative.
  3. A final and more speculative question that has to be asked, considering Gamal Mubarak's rise in influence over the past decade, is whether Mubarak pere has been plotting to install his son for years. It's probably more organic than that — Gamal's rise stems from his father's reluctance to share room at the top of the pyramid; a son is a natural trusted proxy (although not always, as deposed sultans of Oman and Qatar know). But one of the more interesting questions in today's Egypt is how Hosni Mubarak feels about tawreeth: is he fully on board, reluctantly so, or even very ambivalent about in a "King Lear" elderly paranoid way? 

 While you think about that, listen to this track (dedicated to Mystic Mubarak):

And then go on to read Adam Shatz masterful portrait of late Mubarak Egypt at the London Review of Books, Mubarak's Last Breath:

Under Mubarak, Egypt, the ‘mother of the earth’ (umm idduniya), has seen its influence plummet. Nowhere is the decline of the Sunni Arab world so acutely felt as in Cairo ‘the Victorious’, a mega-city much of which has turned into an enormous slum. The air is so thick with fumes you can hardly breathe, the atmosphere as constricted as the country’s political life.

Frustration, shame, humiliation: it does not take much for Egyptians to call up these feelings. It’s still often said that ‘what happens in Egypt affects the entire Arab world,’ but nothing much has happened there in years. Egypt has fallen behind Saudi Arabia – not to mention non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran – in regional leadership. Even tiny Qatar has a more independent foreign policy. Egypt is by far the largest Arab country, with 80 million inhabitants, yet it’s seen by most Arabs – and by the Egyptians themselves – as a client state of the United States and Israel, who depend on Mubarak to ensure regional ‘stability’ in the struggle with the ‘resistance front’ led by Iran.

Read the whole thing.

Mubarak's health

Today the New York Times pointed out that Hosni Mubarak turned 82 yesterday, and is still bunkered in Sharm al-Sheikh where he is recovering from his operation and receiving foreign dignitaries.

The president’s continued convalescence far from the capital underscored the frailty not just of the man but of a nation with no clear political plan for who will govern should he die or step down, political scientists here said.

The president has been back to work, meeting with foreign leaders and even giving a national address on Sinai Liberation Day. But he did not give his annual Labor Day speech last week, and has not yet returned to Cairo, where protests rage daily about low wages. He continues to look relatively frail and his health remains the focus of intense speculation.

“The issue is not about his health today,” said Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of the state-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about the ambiguity of the future with regards to the transfer of power, be it in the near or far future. There is increasing anxiety, which used to be prevalent among limited circles of intellectuals and elites, but now it has spread throughout society.”

To address that concern, the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram ran a front page paean to Mr. Mubarak on Tuesday that not only flattered, but also offered an indication of what the public should expect. The headline beneath a picture of Mr. Mubarak said, “The Maker of the Future.”

“We shall not forget to say to him ‘happy birthday’ on this grand day that is dear to our souls,” wrote the newspaper’s chief editor, Osama Saraya. “We say it to him and our hearts flutter with happiness for his recovery after a therapeutic trip after which he returned to arduous work inside and outside to protect Egypt’s ability and place and pivotal role in the interest of all Arab brothers to prevent wars and resume peace for the sake of building nations.”

I think this fairly summarizes the issues at stake — the uncertainty over succession, the expectation that he won't step down soon (or ever) but that we are nearing the end of the Mubarak era, as well as the anxiety of state newspaper editors and others over the coming year or two. Hosni Mubarak, as I've briefly hinted before, is almost certainly seriously ill. It may be complications from the stroke he allegedly suffered from after the death of his grandson, when he disappeared from public view for a month. A recent post by the highly perceptive Zeinobia yesterday, showing partial paralysis of his left hand, would lend credence to the stroke theory. Here are the pics Zeinobia put up:

The lack of movement and position of the left hand is certainly striking.

Since the operation in Germany, however, the rumor mill in Cairo has largely focused on whether Mubarak may have cancer, and that his operation was to remove a tumor. According to the most elaborate and plausible version I've heard, Mubarak does indeed has cancer, but not of the pancreas as many have speculated. It's a nearby area that was affected. He had been treated in Egypt for a while for this, but the German medical team decided it would be best to conduct the operation in Germany, with its own tools. This scenario would give him 12-18 months to live, conveniently close to the deadline for the next presidential elections. If it had been pancreatic cancer, a particularly nasty form of the disease, the prognostic would be six months.

To me, the issue is not so much as to what Mubarak suffers from exactly (the rumors may be wrong, although tellingly some high-level foreign sources agree with the above analysis), but rather that it raises question about who rules Egypt today, as well as who has governed for the last few years of diminishing health. It's known among diplomatic circles in Cairo that Mubarak has been taking fewer meetings, leaning more and more on his chief aide Suleiman Awad as an aide-memoire in the last few years. It's been generally acknowledged that foreign policy, the one area where Mubarak is most active, is today largely in the hands of Omar Suleiman, and most domestic policies in the hands of the cabinet and Gamal Mubarak. The fragmentation of power in recent years is now common wisdom because the recent operation made it obvious; the question raised is how long has this been the case?

There are other factors that suggest that the operation may have precipitated either a conflict within these centers of power, or that the lack of an effective president to be final arbiter is having an effect. In recent months we've seen a backlash on the economic ministers and, implicitly, Gamal Mubarak coming from presidential chief of staff Zakariya Azmi and other regime grandees. We've seen that the Gang of Six, the senior members of the NDP who appear to have key decision-making power, are an important but not necessarily united force. We've heard continuous rumors about Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif being replaced, although that may have been because the last time Mubarak was operated he dismissed Nazif's predecessor, Atef Ebeid, three days after he returned to business (and that signaled a major change in economic policy).

The research firm Stratfor, in one of its largely unsubstantiated missives, recently wrote about the rumors that Nazif will go and that a vice-president will finally be appointed, after 29 years of Mubarak refusing to do so:

Upon his return to Cairo, Mubarak is expected to announce his replacement for the premiership, as well as his choice for vice president. According to the STRATFOR source, Mubarak is selecting from three individuals for the prime minister’s post. The first is Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief and long-rumored successor to Mubarak. The second is Zakaria Azmi, a prominent member of the People’s Assembly and close friend of Mubarak. The third is Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, Egypt’s minister of Civil Aviation and former commander of the Egyptian air force.

It's interesting that Ahmed Shafiq's name is increasingly mentioned, as is Azmi's, and that these elder statesmen of Mubarakism are expected to be one-term presidents before Gamal Mubarak is elected. Maybe Stratfor knows something I don't, but the idea of a puppet strongman being the midwife to Gamal seems ridiculous to me. What possible incentive could he have after he becomes president? 

I don't know who Stratfor's source is, but I doubt it's better informed than a guest at some of Heliopolis' finest tables. But the question of to what extent is succession being planned by Mubarak (never mind Gamal's pretty obvious ambition) and to what extent there is overt competition to replace him is one of the most important in Egypt today. Competition inside the regime is perhaps one of the most dangerous outcomes of the lack of a clear, generally accepted, successor — especially as factions would be tempted to manipulate pockets of the public that are eager for change. Egypt has seen such populist manipulations many times before, and the recent attacks on the "economic reformists" are unusual (after all it's not like their policies weren't endorsed by Mubarak or like anyone opposed them publicly before). Unfortunately, this now appears more likely that any kind of reasonably democratic transition, since there has been very little done to prepare for that. 

So the outlook for Egypt in the next two years isn't great: unless there's a dramatic change like the appointment of a vice-president, Mubarak is likely to run again and stay in power until he dies or, now marginally more likely, step down but only at the last moment possible. In the meantime, tension is growing — not only between the regime and its opponents, but also within the regime itself. Nature abhors a vacuum, and while Egypt does not yet have a vacuum of authority, security, or governance, it does have a vacuum of information.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Tweet of the day

@ElBaradei: Meeting in Geneva to award 5 Mill$ to a democractically elected African Pres who left office after 2 terms hope this happens in Arab world

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Some major ElBaradei stories

I don't have time to go into details here, but I wanted to flag some important stories on Mohamed ElBaradei and Egypt's future that appeared yesterday.

First, Jack Shenker has an interview and profile in the Guardian. Jack writes:

The Guardian's interview with Mohamed ElBaradei was published in three news and feature stories across a double-page spread today; if you haven't already seen the articles then they're available here:

More interestingly for those engaged in Egyptian and Middle Eastern political analysis, a full transcript of the interview is now up online. It includes lots of material that didn't make it into the news stories, and is available here.
How good of him to make the full transcript available — it's worth reading. I like this bit:
What I want to do at this stage is call for a constitutional revolution. I’m trying to break every political rule of the game, and I think it’s much more effective not to focus on individuals. And wrongly or rightly, I think everyone is doing what they think is good for the country. That’s my message now: I do not want to reopen the past, we have too much on our hands for the future. So I’m discussing policies, not individuals; I can criticise policies, but I’m not questioning the intentions or actions of individuals. And I think at this stage, that’s the right way to do it. I said from day one that I want to coalesce the Egyptian people around one great idea, which is their salvation – a move from authoritarianism to democracy.
The New Yorker also has a "Letter from Cairo" by Joshua Hammer that gives an overview of ElBaradei's challenge to Mubarak, and the prospect of a Gamal presidency. It's subscription only, but you can get an abstract here. I read the full piece, it has a good quote from Saad Eddin Ibrahim describing Gamal as a "solid C student" when he taught him at AUC, but does not offer much new.
More later, now I have to catch a train.


Submit to Mubarak

Once a military man, always a military man.
At a meeting of parliament's national security committee on Wednesday, committee head Mohamed Abdel Fattah Omar urged the Egyptian public to "entirely submit" to the will of President Hosni Mubarak.
"Even if Mubarak chooses dictatorship, we still must obey, since he would act as a benevolent dictator," said Omar.
Omar's comments came as the committee was discussing a draft law on the extension of Law 49 of 1997, which grants the president the right to take unilateral decisions in military issues pertaining to armaments without having to seek parliamentary approval.
Omar's remark came in response to objections to the law raised by Muslim Brotherhood MPs Sabri Amer and Essam Mokhtar. The two MPs also objected to the law on the basis that the president's term was slated to end next year.
Defense Ministry adviser Mamdouh Shahin, for his part, defended the move, noting that "current international and regional threats warrant the extension of the law."
The committee ultimately endorsed the bill, which it will submit to the People's Assembly next week for approval.
There have been some pretty sycophantic paeans to Hosni Mubarak in the past, but never has anything like this been said so explicitly. And this from the man who a few weeks ago was suggesting that Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali would be assassinated. We're in Saddam Hussein territory here. I also wonder if M. Omar (or I should say, police general Omar) is inspired by certain Sunni theologians, notably those of the Malekite school, who believe the umma should always submit to the sultan.
In any case, this story does shed light on a little-discussed provision of Egyptian law that has important electoral ramifications and partly explains the regime's panic during the parliamentary elections of 2005. Throughout his reign, Mubarak has been granted by parliament the right to conclude military armaments deals (import and export) without consultation — essentially a fast-track process to carry out these deals. Normally, the deals would have to be reviewed and approved by parliament. But, as long as there was a two-thirds majority in favor, parliament could always give the president the fast track — and it always has.
When the Muslim Brothers looked like they would get up to 120 seats in parliament in 2005, that two-thirds majority was threatened (two-thirds of parliament amounts to about 150 seats). So after the first round the security services began to crackdown and made the sure the Brothers would not get anywhere near that number.
This bill, if I understand it correctly, is either another iteration of the fast track or an actual amendment to the law to permanently enshrine the president's fast track privilege over arms deals — one that provides zero transparency over arms purchases, who gets commissions, and other fascinating aspects of the Egyptian military-industrial complex, its clients, and its major arms suppliers. It is as if Mubarak wanted to make he sure he left that legacy to his successor...

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The new Sheikh al-Azhar

Mubarak and his chief of staff Zakariya Azmi

The big news from yesterday in Egypt is that President Mubarak is back at work, making phone calls, shifting paperwork and generally looking busy. Among the tasks he's carrying out from his hospital room is appointing Ahmed al-Tayeb as the new Sheikh al-Azhar to replace Sheikh Tantawi.

Others have highlighted the trajectory of Tayeb's career — he is a former Mufti of Egypt and most recently was the dean of al-Azhar University. There, he was best known for tolerating security crackdowns on students from the Muslim Brothers that led to their stupid "martial arts demonstration" that provided the excuse for mass arrests, including senior leaders such as Khairat al-Shater.

The new Sheikh al-Azhar, Ahmed al-TayebAside from his animosity towards the Ikhwan, he is also generally known as a "moderate" and pledged to keep al-Azhar "centrist." I'm not sure what the means — it seems to indicate he is generally against clashes of civilizations, al-Qaeda and other things one would expect out of any decent religious leader. Things are not going to get very far if the standard for reform of al-Azhar is simply ensuring that it rejects salafi jihadist thinking. Much is being made of his PhD from the Sorbonne, though.

Anyway, having done a little search on my personal database I came across this article from al-Sharq al-Awsat's 26 August 2002 edition, chronicling what was then a public spat between al-Tayeb and Sheikh Tantawi:

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 

He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 
He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

I wonder if he still believes in boycotting US products.

The other interesting thing yesterday is that all state imams were told to pray for Mubarak's health during their Friday sermon. One wonders what to make of it: should it be a sign that the situation is quite bad? Probably not. I would guess it's either a directive from on high to show fealty to Mubarak, or perhaps the initiative of Minister of Awqaf (and until yesterday candidate for Sheikh al-Azhar) Hamdi ZaqZouq, who is the official in control of such things. Either way, when you're trying to reassure the nation that Mubarak is fine, surely having all public mosques pray for his health sounds a dissonent message...


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Mubarak over the years

Someone sent me a Facebook link to the video below this morning. I'm not a fan of the voice-over, script or background music, but some of the footage is really great.

Click here to watch.



Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Mubarak resurfaces, and more

I happened to be dropping by the Jazeera office in Cairo around lunchtime, and while I chatted with the English channel's correspondent Rawya Rageh, we waited for footage of Mubarak to come up on Nile News, the state-owned TV channel. The news agencies had gotten wind that Nile News would finally dispel the rumors of the last few days and feature real news about Mubarak (as opposed to second-hand assurances that he's fine.)

Finally, around 2pm, it came up with top billing: footage of Mubarak chatting with doctors, and excerpts from a press conference by hospital staff. Dressed in a striped black bathrobe, sitting in a modern hospital room, he chatted fairly jovially with the doctors. There was no sound. Cut to the press conference, where the doctors intimidated that the past week had seen some troubles, but that Mubarak was better now and that lab analyses would be discontinued (here I assume they mean monitoring of his blood or the tissue of the area that was operated). So much for all the speculation, although some internet sleuth is already analyzing the footage and suggesting it was somehow faked.

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Stratfor: "Imagining Egypt after Mubarak"

The rumors about about Hosni Mubarak's health continue (the latest I heard is that he is in coma), and there is still no credible picture of him nor has he made an appearance on television. There is such a dearth of information and abundance of unverifiable rumors — such as that Gamal Mubarak's wife Khadiga had a son in Germany or that senior officials are prevented from leaving the country —that's it's hard to know what to make of it. We just have to wait and see, I guess, and trust in the statements the German medical team is making (incidentally, I'd like to know why this hospital was chosen, since Mubarak used to be treated in French military hospitals.)
I thought I'd share a dispatch from Stratfor, the strategic forecasting company. I'm not a big fan of their analysis, and here they are reviving the theory whereby Omar Suleiman would be a transitional president leading to a Gamal Mubarak presidency. It's a theory that doesn't make that much sense, and they may be onto something more credible when worrying about internal NDP / regime rivalries. It's after the jump.
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Heroes, or a riff on recent Egypt news

So Mubarak had a gall bladder operation, or at least some sort of operation, and everything is fine and dandy —  well aside from an 81-year-old undergoing an operation is never quite routine. We'll spare you the indignation that he went abroad, to the Krauts of all people (second operation in Germany), to carry out a supposedly routine operation. It's not a disparaging attitude towards the fine local military hospitals, it's concern about whether he can trust his doctor not to have a sudden attack of patriotism.

The NYT had this amusing headline: Egyptian Leader’s Surgery in the News Is News Itself. But I don't think the announcement about the operation is so significant. More important are the signs of lassitude about the eternal president. I was quite amused by an invitation to a Facebook group called مبارك مات (Mubarak is Dead) which featured the fantastic following song:

(Get the song here.)

To me, this illustrates how tiresome this waiting — illustrated by some recent Egyptian films like Heliopolis — is becoming. Egypt is already in the post-Mubarak era, it's just waiting for the presidency to catch up. The euphoria over ElBaradei, frenzy every time some rumor of illness goes around, unwillingness to make a clean break with the rhetoric of traditional policies (but in fact carrying out new ones, as in Gaza, or the economy) are all symptomatic of this in-between-ness. To use that annoying word, Egypt needs closure.

Battle of the Bands: Hosni vs. The Doc

Ahead of his operation, Hosni got a little catty in answer to a question about ElBaradei:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says Egypt does not consider his rival, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency as a national hero.

But Mubarak said Mohamed ElBaradei can challenge him for president, as long as he abides by the rules _ which make it difficult for a candidate to qualify.

The state-run Al-Gomhuria newspaper, in its early Friday edition, quoted Mubarak answering a question in Berlin about ElBaradei's hero status among some Egyptians. "Egypt does not need a national hero, because the whole people are heroes," Mubarak said.

Which makes me think, I have the anthems for both presidential campaigns next year (Arabist is an equal opportunity satirist).

For the NDP's "Give Boss Hozz a sixth term" campaign:

Or is Doc B the one for you? Because this song takes it to a new level of awesome:



Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

After Pharaoh

Mural of Hosni Mubarak in Assiut I am snowed under with deadlines, so just a quick note on a new article on presidential succession in Egypt in Foreign Policy:
Of all the crises that threaten to shake Barack Obama's presidency, few are more volatile than the ticking time bomb in Egypt, especially terrifying for the very reason that no one knows when it might explode. Hosni Mubarak, the 81-year-old former Air Force marshal who has ruled Egypt as a police state since 1981, might leave office sooner than anyone is expecting, opening a power vacuum that could send this U.S. ally, its 83 million citizens, and the regional political order spiraling into a fragile and potentially paralyzing tailspin. Or he might not. Mubarak might well linger on for a few more years. Either way, the time bomb will be looming over Egypt for the foreseeable future, and Obama's fortunes in the Middle East will be determined in large part by whether this bomb explodes or gets detonated gently.
This was part of a special on potential crises Obama might face in 2010 -- hence the slightly breathless tone.
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ElBaradei Drops A Bomb

This may peter out in smoke, but Muhammad ElBaradei's candidacy has the potential to turn into the first moment in which Egypt has had a plausible face for its opposition for a long time. It will shift the focus on the Mubarak regime, its fraudulent elections and its lack of legitimacy -- both at home and abroad. I am not surprised that opposition figures like Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brothers' Muhammad Habib seem negative in the story below; ElBaradei has much more gravitas and "presidentiability" than either. Things have just gotten a lot more interesting.
Opposition hopeful for an ElBaradei presidential run Nadia abou el-Magd, Foreign Correspondent Last Updated: December 06. 2009 12:23AM UAE / December 5. 2009 8:23PM GMT CAIRO // Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he would consider running for the Egyptian presidency in 2011, in statements published Friday, raising hopes among the country’s opposition. Mr ElBaradei, 67, who recently quit his position after 12 years as head of the IAEA, was expected to return to Egypt yesterday. “I have been listening tentatively, and deeply appreciate the calls for my candidacy for president,” said Mr ElBaradei in a statement issued late Thursday, which has dominated the headlines of Egyptian opposition and independent dailies while being harshly criticised by the state-owned newspapers “ElBaradei’s storm,” read the headline of the Al Dostor opposition daily yesterday. “Hundreds of volunteers move from the internet to the street in support of ElBaradei”, read the headline of the independent daily Al Shorouk. Mr ElBaradei emphasised that he did not seek this “senior post” for personal gain and he would decide to run “if the majority of Egyptians, with all their affiliations, agreed that this would be in the interest of the country ... in this critical stage in Egypt’s history”. But he said he wants “guarantees of fairness” in 2011 election. Mr ElBaradei set several conditions for running in the coming elections, which he said must be “under the full supervision of the judiciary... and in the presence of international observers from the United Nations... to ensure transparency”, which are sensitive issues for the regime. He also called for a new constitution and “the erasing of all constitutional and legal obstacles that are limiting the right of the majority of Egyptians to run “otherwise those elections will lack the needed legitimacy and will contradict the essence of democracy which is the right of the people to choose who to represent them, and it will end in a Greek tragedy,” said Mr ElBaradei. Pro-government newspapers have criticised Mr ElBaradei as out of touch with the political reality of Egypt, and lacking real political experience. “Imported president for Egypt,” read the headline of state-owned Al Ahram el-Messaei on Friday, along with a large front page cartoon portraying Mr ElBaradei as a foreigner. Mr ElBaradei retired last week from his post after spending three terms in office, beginning in 1997. He joined the UN in 1980, after serving in the Egyptian foreign service. He was born and graduated from law school in Egypt, then obtained a doctorate in international law at New York University School of Law in 1974. Mr ElBaradei’s name was floated by some opposition forces and political parties here a few months ago as the issue of who will replace President Hosni Mubarak, 81, who has been in power since 1981, has resurfaced amid worries that his youngest son, Gamal, 45, might inherit power. The ruling National Democratic Party’s annual conference last month did not respond to peoples’ questions and concerns about whether President Mubarak will run again in the upcoming elections or whether his son will succeed him. “’Never say ‘never’,” Mr ElBaradei told CNN on November 5 when asked about the possibility. “But there are clearly conditions. I will only consider it if there is a free and fair election, and that is a question mark still in Egypt.’ Analysts say that Egyptians are yearning for a substantive move away from the current regime and are uninspired by the weak political opposition parties. “Egypt needs a popular leader, whose competence is not questionable, and who is free from any aura of corruption, and likely to receive the support of diverse, and conflicting, political forces and social groups. To many observers, Mr ElBaradei, the 2005 Noble Prize laureate, meets all these criterions,” said Nael Shama, a political researcher and columnist with Egypt Daily News. However, Mr ElBaradei, and many other possible candidates, do not meet the rigid conditions spelled out in Article 76 of the constitution, which many believe was amended in 2007 to facilitate Gamal Mubarak’s takeover of power and to exclude potential rivals. It stipulates that only members of the upper levels of political parties who have been in their post for more than a year, and where their parties have existed for more than five years, can compete for the presidential post. Independents have to receive the approval of 250 members of parliament and local councils, which are all controlled by the ruling NDP. Amendments to Article 88 of the constitution in 2007 removed judicial supervision of elections in favour of supervision by “an independent electoral commission” that would include some judges. Mr ElBaradei’s presidential bid has found support among members of the liberal Wafd party and other smaller parties as well as the pro-democracy, anti-inheritance of power, Kifaya movement. Ayman Nour, leader of al-Ghad party, had invited Mr ElBaradei to join his party to ensure he is able to run in elections. Mr Nour, 45, finished distant second to Mr Mubarak, when he ran against him in the first presidential elections four years ago. However, Mr Nour said that Mr ElBaradei’s statement seems more like he wants to apologize for not running in the coming elections by setting conditions. “You run in elections and try to change the rules of the game,” Mr Nour told The National. Egypt’s Islamist politicans were critical of Mr ElBaradei’s announcement. “Dr Mohammed ElBaradei’s statement is like a bunch of roses thrown into a garbage pin,” said Mohammed Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s strongest opposition group, despite being technically banned. Mr Habib said that he does not doubt Mr ElBaradei’s sincere intentions, but advised him “to keep himself away from the dirty political arena”, adding that Mr ElBaradei’s conditions do not even address the minimum of political reforms demanded by the opposition over the past 25 years. Other Islamists, like lawyer Mokhtar Nouh, said he would never vote for Mr ElBaradei because of his former job at IAEA. “All those international agencies, despite being affiliated with the UN, serve the interests of the West, America and Israel,” he wrote in a recent column in the opposition daily Al Dostor. “None of those organisations moved to support an Arab or Islamic issue,” he added.
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Links for 10.14.09 to 10.18.09

Is Obama giving up on democracy in Iran? | Because Haaretz really, really cares. ✪ 'Delegitimization of Israel must be delegitimized' | Great pic on this FLC post. ✪ Al Jazeera English - Focus - Leadership 'let down' Palestinians | As`ad AbuKhalil. ✪ ANALYSIS / U.S. using Goldstone report to punish Netanyahu - Haaretz - Israel News | Ridiculous argument. ✪ Egypt: 29 years between a president and his heir | Bikya Masr | Ayman Nour on Mubarak's Egypt. ✪ Nationalism in the Gulf State | A LSE paper on GCC nationalism by Neil Partrick. ✪ In Morocco, editor imprisoned, court shutters paper - Committee to Protect Journalists | al-Michaal newspaper closed over articles on king's health. Also rumors of closing down of Le Journal, TBC. ✪ ei: EI exclusive video: Protesters shout down Ehud Olmert in Chicago | "The demonstration was mobilized last week after organizers learned of the lecture, paid for by a grant provided by Jordan's King Abdullah II." ✪ FT.com / UK - Storm over Egypt's Israeli links | On the Hala Mustafa / normalization debate. ✪ Citing Work Of Right-Wing Intern Spy, GOP Accuses Muslim Group Of Infiltrating Hill With Intern 'Spies' | TPMMuckraker | "Four House Republicans are charging that the Council on American Islamic Relations is infiltrating Capitol Hill with undercover interns, and they're basing the charge on a WND-published book that itself is based on the work of a man who posed as a Muslim to infiltrate CAIR as ... an intern!" ✪ Confessions of an AIPAC Veteran | Helena Cobban profiles Israel operative Tom Dine. ✪ Brian Whitaker's blog | The son also rises | Seif Qadhafi gets put in charge of, well, almost everything. ✪ First Egyptian School Closes For Swine Flu - Daily News | Mere de Dieu girls' school -- a stone's throw from Arabist HQ -- closed. ✪ U.S. Iran plan is a bunker-busting bomb - thestar.com | That's not very nice.
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