After the Pharaoh
Who, or what, will replace Hosni Mubarak? Some say democracy, others chaos. It's the question all Egyptians are now asking. No one has an answer.
By Christopher Dickey
July 3-10, 2006 issue - During his recent weeks in prison, one of Egypt's best-known bloggers, Alaa Abdel Fateh, had a terrible fantasy. What would happen to him if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 78, the man he loves to hate, passed away while Abdel Fateh was in the slammer? "I'm sure millions are actively praying for his sudden death," he wrote in one of several postings that were smuggled out. "Normally I'd be happy. But now that I'm in jail it's a scary thought."
His nightmare scenario? That it would take months for order to be established, with who knows what result. The 24-year-old blogger wrote from the four- by six-meter cell he shared with five other prisoners: "Most likely no one but our immediate family will remember us until it is over. In my mind most people will continue living their lives normally. The huge bureaucracy will chug along, but all security organs will be paralyzed. No officer will wake up the next day and head for his post. Which means [the] prison will be abandoned." What might follow, he dared not imagine.
The irony of Egypt today is that many people, even those who detest Mubarak, share Abdel Fateh's misgivings about a future without the man who has been their ruler, their protector and some would say their jailer for almost 25 years. No matter how much they want to be rid of him, they cannot imagine, quite, who will be in charge and how order will be maintained. Will they be liberated? Or locked down even tighter than they were before? Will power pass from the father to the son, the suave 42-year-old Gamal Mubarak, as many expect? Or to the military? Or to the Islamists? Or will the country descend into chaos as all the contenders compete? The stability of the region, and what's left of the fragile U.S. policy there, depends on an orderly transition. But so much political dust has gathered in Egypt that, once it's kicked up, years could pass before it settles.
Just last summer, a contagious excitement about democratic change was sweeping the Middle East, encouraged and sometimes inspired by Bush administration policies and rhetoric. There had been a massive turnout for Iraq's first elections, then huge protests that drove Syria's troops out of Lebanon. In Egypt, Mubarak decided to allow opposition candidates to run against him for the first time in presidential elections.
But since then, the Iraqi quagmire has deepened. Lebanese politicians now live in terror after a long string of assassinations. Mubarak's leading opponent in last year's vote, Ayman Nour, languishes in prison with no further chance of appeal; Egyptian parliamentary elections were cut short and the results shamelessly rejiggered to limit the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood; new municipal elections have been postponed. Judges who rebelled at being forced to endorse the parliamentary fraud were prosecuted, reprimanded or reined in. The opposition has not been silenced, but fear hangs heavy in the air.
At the slightest hint of street protest, cohorts of riot police seal off whole sections of Cairo. Hired thugs with police protection are let loose on the dissidents. Mahmoud Hamza, a judge who tried to film one such crackdown in April, was left with internal bleeding and a broken arm. "I believe I am under surveillance and my phone is tapped," he says, adding that his cell phone was taken and the calls on it traced. Hundreds have been arrested. Most are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed but also tolerated as a useful political enemy by a government that wants the threat of Islamism to be the only alternative. The Brothers are now the second largest party in Parliament, with 20 percent of the seats.
For many in egypt, last year's dreams, this year's bare-knuckled beatings, and the coming years' growing uncertainties resemble the magical realism of Colombian novelist Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez, whose works are popular throughout the Middle East. In his "Autumn of the Patriarch," a decaying dictator has an "irrepressible passion to endure," but dies just the same. So now for Cairenes. "You feel like you are walking in its pages," says Ibrahim Issa, an outspoken columnist in the daily Al Dustour. "There is a political culture of uncertainty." Ghada Shahbender, an English teacher who cofounded the dissident Web site Shayfeen.com last year, worries about who, or what, might replace Mubarak. "If there is 'divine intervention'," she asks, employing a euphemism for the dictator's death, "what can we fall back on? Will it be the military? The judicial system? Or chaos?"
Searching for a road map to the post-Hosni Mubarak future, intellectuals and businessmen in Cairo are talking about models that might guide Egypt's course. As they mull over the China model, the Turkey model, the Algeria model, the Mexico model and so on, they sometimes sound like blind men trying to describe an elephant, each touching some separate part and coming up with a wildly different picture of the beast as a whole. Yet, from each description one learns something significant about the elephantâ€”about Egypt and about the whole notion of democratic experiments in the Middle East.
"The Chinese model," for example, is shorthand for a system in which the government remains strongly authoritarian while opening up its economy and profiting from free markets. With a little well-polished discourse about a "process" of political reform, this is essentially the design put forward by Gamal Mubarak, who now heads up the politburo of his father's National Democratic Party. The reformist cabinet he helped install two years ago has won praise from the international financial community, and the numbers look good. The economy is growing at almost 6 percent a year. Foreign investment has tripled to $6 billion in three years. Tourist facilities have improved. A recent conference of the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh was a showcase for Egyptian modernity and efficiency.
But there's a major problem with the Chinese analogy: Egypt is not China. On the one handâ€”and this is goodâ€”even with the crackdowns in Cairo, the Egyptians allow more freedom of speech than Beijing. On the other hand, while Egypt may be a big market in the Arab world, it's puny compared with the powerhouses of the East. The United States and Europe are not going to excuse Egypt's political repression, as they basically do China's, because of the potential to make enormous riches in the world's biggest market. In fact, there's a joke, repeated often in Cairo's financial circles, about Mubarak chatting with Chinese President Hu Jintao before a state visit to Beijing. Hu asks him how many people he has. Mubarak replies: "70 million." "Ah, well, then," says Hu. "Bring them along!" The bitter truth for Egyptians is that the world economy has not discovered any pressing need for what they have to offer. "In America there are Chinese goods everywhere you look," says Issa. "Do you see any Egyptian goods?"
Many members of the Egyptian elite hope (indeed, some pray) that the military will be the great stabilizing force in Egyptian life if politics takes a sharp turn toward Islamism or chaos after Hosni Mubarak diesâ€”especially if Gamal tries, and fails, to succeed him. "Gamal is weak, he has no credentials," says Hisham Kassem, editor of the independent daily Al Masri al Yom. "A civilian cannot run Egypt right now."
The military analogy many people talk about is Turkey, where the uniformed services form what's been called "the deep state," the bedrock of stability. But there are problems with this model, too. For starters, even if you accept such a role for the brass, Turkey's generals are wedded to a secular ideology, while the Egyptian military has no central idea to hold it together. (There are also concerns that the ranks may have been penetrated by Islamists like the ones who killed Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, during a parade in October 1981.) Moreover, the jealous rule of Hosni Mubarak, an Air Force general, has badly weakened the officer corps. There is no known equivalent of Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf ready or able to step forward, and almost any Egyptian general who starts to look popular finds himself retired to a governorship, or worse. Field Marshal Abdul Halim Abu Ghazala, who saved the regime 20 years ago by rolling tanks into the streets to stop a mutiny by the riot police (yes, the riot police, who burned several hotels near the pyramids), has spent most of his time since then under what some of his friends describe as virtual (if comfortable) house arrest.
In the Algerian precedent, political liberalization was embraced by a would-be reformer at the top in the early 1990s, then crushed by the generals when Islamists scored massive victories at the polls. The civil war that followed cost hundreds of thousands of lives: not a very happy prospect for Egypt, but not a completely implausible one, either. As in Algeria, the military and security leadership might try to keep a low profile, pushing various civilians to the foreground. In Algeria during the worst fighting, people wouldn't even name top generals. They referred to them collectively as "le pouvoir," the power.
A few people make analogies between Egypt's developing party dictatorship, based as it is less on ideology than on patronage, and the long-running rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico. From the 1930s to the 1990s, all Mexican political life, such as it was, took place within the party. Any external threat, like the far left in the 1960s, was quite literally slaughtered. But one saving grace of the Mexican system was the commitment to one and only one term for any given president. That kept the political dynamic inside the party, at least, from becoming fatally rigid. Egypt has no such provision. Far from it.
Ultimately, of course, Egypt is Egypt, where the model of the pharaohs' dynastic rule goes back 5,000 years. The machine is getting ready to put Gamal in power if Hosni can ever be persuaded to give up his throne. Yet Gamal, like most young pharaohs, has been guarded by the palace priests for so long that he may have very little idea how the Egyptian people live or act or think. His entourage is a nomenklatura of consumerism, comfortable in and with the West, but deeply unpopular on the street. His National Democratic Party (NDP) is a tired machine bereft of ideas that bases its power on thuggish coercion and shameless patronage. A party ought to have structured cadres, training, discipline, loyalty and a good feel for the grass roots, says American researcher Joshua Stacher: "The NDP is as legal as it gets, and the Muslim Brotherhood is about as illegal as it gets, but the NDP has none of these things and the Muslim Brothers have all these things."
While Gamal Mubarak continues to cultivate his image in the West as a business-friendly leader, the opposition forces are discovering and cultivating each otherâ€”in prison. Soon after the long-haired, leftist Alaa Abdel Fateh was released on June 22 he told NEWSWEEK that he'd developed a great rapport with his fellow inmates, the Muslim Brothers. "It was a really incredible thing for meâ€”the solidarity we experienced," he said. "We were all arrested together supporting the same cause." No longer willingâ€”or ableâ€”to depend on Hosni Mubarak's irrepressible passion to endure, Egyptians are, by design and default, shaping their own model for the future. Whatever that may turn out to be.
With Stephen Glain and Vivian Salama in Cairo