The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.


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.)