The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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.

Click pic to read original caption [Ar]

But let's assume that Mubarak is recovering as well as might be expected for an 81-year-old, and there are no missing reflections or other conspiracy theories.

The last week or so has raised some questions about who's running Egypt while Mubarak was incapacitated. Constitutionally, it's Ahmed Nazif, whom I think would be a better president than either Gamal Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, but is said not to have much of a power base, although part of his pre-ministerial career was at the intersection of government and the military. But if something had happened, he would have been constitutionally unable to run anyway. So in the absence of a designated successor or other strongman, who runs Egypt when Mubarak is unable to? For that matter, who runs Egypt alongside the aging Mubarak when he is here?

Nathan Brown tackles some of these questions for FP's Middle East Channel, pointing to an article in al-Shorouk:

As Mubarak has aged, however, his visible involvement in Egyptian politics has decreased, leading Egyptians to swap rumors about who is really running the country. Is it the security apparatus? His son? High members of the National Democratic Party? What is the role of his wife, a visible figure in Egyptian public life? Most important of all, who will follow him? Mubarak's illness has catapulted these questions from the rumor mill to the headlines. But it has not answered them.

Aside from its overenthusiastic punctuation, the al-Shuruq article calmly reported that Husni Mubarak had deputized Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif to take on day-to-day presidential responsibilities. But Nazif is no Alexander Haig asserting that he is in control. If there is an Egyptian Haig, he is not in sight. The article made clear that Nazif's authority is limited and that in important matters (such as those related to security) he consults with named and unnamed responsible authorities. The article offered only brief speculation on how much Mubarak is in contact with Egyptian officials and whom he is speaking with. In short, there was no good answer to the question posed by the headline or even if there is an answer.

While it is not clear who wields power -- or who will run things if Mubarak's absence becomes permanent -- it is clearer how that power is being wielded. There are, to be sure, some signs of disarray, of different institutions and power centers pulling in different directions. But that disarray only goes so far. The overall direction is clear: Egypt is now in the midst of an uneven political clampdown. 

Like Brown, I wouldn't venture much further without more solid information or thinking things through. What is certain is that Egypt's power centers is fragmented, awaiting the shift of tectonic plates that Hosni Mubarak's disappearance will cause, and in the meantime political space is rapidly shrinking. 

Now on to the second part of this post, which is about something related but distinct. The rest of Brown's article is about his (and Amr Hamzawy's) latest Carnegie Endowment report, which I had been meaning to blog about. It's titled "The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment" and overall presents an apt assessment of the challenges facing the Brothers after three years of the biggest clampdown they've faced since the 1960s.

I disagree with some of it, though. I think it's an exaggeration to say that the Muslim Brothers "focused on political reforms and socioeconomic legislation, largely at the expense of its moral and religious agenda." There was a brief period when that was true, in 2006, but thereafter the moral-religious agenda came back. The difference was that it was now alongside a political and socioeconomic agenda. I also think here the Brothers were responding to the upheaval of 2005, moving into a position of leadership after trailing behind civil society and groups like Kifaya. Indeed, let's remember that by June 2008 they were blocking a new law on children's rights because they thought parents should have the right to beat their kids, and also tried to block attempts to toughen rules against female circumcision. There are some admirable people among the Muslim Brothers, and some great ideas for political reform, but make no mistake: many of them remain socially deeply retrograde, and it's not just a question of being against beauty pageants.

That being said, there is something to be said for Brown's argument (in the MEC piece) that:

Without such Islamist participation, the Egyptian regime will be facing an opposition of inchoate protests and armchair intellectuals. This makes any positive political change unlikely. In fact, the more bashful Brotherhood will actually be useful to the regime -- it does not threaten but it does serve as a bogeyman to scare liberals and Western governments.

The recent debacle over reports that the legal opposition parties are cutting deals with the NDP (denied on the front page of every state newspaper today) are one bad sign, although perhaps that story was planted to disrupt the conference these parties held over the last few days. Another one is their inability to come to terms with Muhammad ElBaradei's movement for constitutional change, not because they disagree with the man (in fact they pretty much entirely agree), but because either they don't like him or don't want to anger the regime by allying with him. Likewise, despite that the forthcoming parliamentary elections show no sign of being free or fair, they yet have to seriously consider an opposition-wide boycott.

The potential that Brown and Hamzawy ascribe to the Muslim Brothers — that they are the only credible opposition and therefore the only potential vector for change — is one way to look at things. Another would be a reconfiguration of the political spectrum that would take liberal and leftist support away from the failed legal opposition and redirected to a new political project. That might be ElBaradei's movement, or it might be a coalition to wrest away or influence like-minded people from apathy and/or the NDP. That would mean creating a coalition for change targeting the regime's traditional quietist support base: elite liberals and Copts afraid of Islamists, and a large number of ordinary people afraid of chaos. I would argue that there does exist a vast center in Egyptian politics, and that today it is chiefly addressed by the NDP. The question is how to get those people into politics. The traditional opposition parties have largely failed, and it would be better for all if they let new ones take over. 

Brown does have a good point in his final line in the Middle East Channel piece, though, when he addresses the near-impossibility of the ElBaradei campaign's aims:

The al-Baradei phenomenon is still significant and should be alarming to the regime. This is not because he is a viable presidential candidate under Egypt's closed system. Instead it is because only a regime without much credibility or legitimacy could be spooked by an international civil servant long absent from the country.

To say that Egypt is adrift is not to say its regime is unstable. Its current system does not inspire respect or affection, but it does quite effectively present itself as inevitable. It is as legitimate as gravity. In Egypt, the leadership's sense of raison d'état remains robust indeed, the problem is that its raison d'être is evaporating.

What ElBaradei represents, in other words, is a leadership opportunity to grab the attention of that hidden center that, out of a lack of inspiring alternatives, has remained dormant or sided with the NDP.