Since November, there have been reports that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in poor health. Indeed, shortly after Mubarak checked into a German hospital two weeks ago for what was said to be surgery for a slipped disk in his back, it was rumored that the 76-year-old president had died. Nonetheless, the man who’s ruled Egypt for 23 years is apparently on his way back to work, and so, for the time being at least, the dark angel of Middle East regime change has passed him by.
Someday, though, Mubarak will join his ancestors the pharaohs in the afterlife. But unlike those ancient precursors who planned for their ends by building monumental tombs that would house them through eternity, Mubarak has never even named a successor. “We’ve seen with Arafat the terrible risks of not solving this question of succession,” Barry Rubin, co-author of a biography of the Palestinian leader, told me. “The Egyptians are doing the same thing, and Egypt is a very big country that has to be run, day in and day out. We expect they’ll make some decision, but what if they don’t?”
So, who’s going to follow Mubarak? There’s a standard shortlist of candidates, including the president’s son Gamal, a 41-year-old businessman who favors economic liberalization and has impressed U.S. policymakers. Gamal has virtually campaigned for the job from the policy advisory role he holds in his father’s ruling party, but both he and the president deny that he’ll inherit the position. They may be telling the truth, since “democratic” Egypt does not want to look like it’s following the lead of “authoritarian” Syria, where Hafez Assad handed the reins of power to his son Bashar.
Other names on the list include those of Defense Minister Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. In the last few weeks, Suleiman has acquired a very public profile while trying to broker a deal between the different armed Palestinian groups vying for power in Gaza now that an Israeli withdrawal is in the offing. Can Suleiman ensure peace in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden places on earth? Since the Israelis will not give up their right to retaliate against terrorist operations originating in Gaza, and the Egyptians can’t be seen as collaborating with Israel, it is very doubtful that anyone could work out a mutually beneficial security arrangement involving Israel, the Palestinians, and Egypt. Still, U.S. and European officials are probably impressed with the energy Suleiman has brought to the negotiations, especially in comparison to Mubarak, who washed his hands of Arafat years ago.
If there is a final decision on succession while Mubarak is still alive, it will likely depend on two things: How much Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne—a quiet but very influential voice—wants Gamal to be the next president, and, even more important, who the Egyptian military prefers.
Whoever becomes the next president of Egypt will have at his disposal much of the most advanced conventional weaponry that the West has to offer. Over the last quarter of a century, the United States has given Egypt more than $28 billion in military aid in the form of weapons, training, and combined exercises with U.S. troops—partly to reward the country for President Anwar Sadat’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Nevertheless, it’s been a very cold peace, since the Egyptian government has continued its campaign of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic incitement in the press and in the nation’s schools and mosques.
And this explains why very few U.S. officials or analysts are calling for general elections to decide Egypt’s next president. Even though the Bush administration went to war in order to democratize the Arab world, the strength of Egypt’s military and the viciousness of the country’s political culture make it the very last place in the region that should elect its chief executive.
Thankfully, some U.S. lawmakers seem to recognize the dilemma. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., intends to introduce legislation that would phase out the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid that Egypt receives annually. The ranking minority member on the House International Relations Committee believes that Egypt would be better off if the money were used for educational and economic support. What’s more, cutting that funding would also help thaw the peace. “Egyptian military exercises,” Lantos said, “are ominously geared toward an Israeli enemy that doesn’t obviously exist.”
Would Egypt really be crazy enough to start a war with a clearly stronger opponent? For the last two decades, the fear has been that if Islamists were at the helm, they might do precisely that. And yet, as David Remnick explained in this week’s New Yorker, Egypt’s militants were defeated in the 1990s, and the leadership of the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood is even older than Mubarak. However, in order to crush that Islamist insurgency, the Mubarak regime enlisted the aid of the country’s religious authorities and thereby empowered them to set the agenda for Egyptian society. As a result, the country has been thoroughly Islamicized, including the rising generation of the upper class.
Undoubtedly, the most chilling scene in Remnick’s article is his interview with “Tariq,” a young writer who boasts of knowing “people in the Egyptian bourgeoisie who are happy every time they hear that the Islamists have hit a soft target in the West.” It was difficult enough that Egypt’s middle classes so overwhelmingly rejected secularism in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but for the wealthy and well-educated children of the very people who thrived under Mubarak to now believe that “an ideal Egypt would have an Islamic government” suggests that these “trust-fundamentalists” are a very serious, and very ugly, political force. Their family money and position, now used to purchase their way out of military duty, may someday afford them the privilege of dictating which venal and jihadist ideas Egypt’s millions of under- and unemployed young men will be obliged to sacrifice their lives for.
Egypt’s political and intellectual leadership should have prepared the nation for peace and democracy long ago, but instead it indulged in the violent political rhetoric and ideological habits that have galvanized the region’s furies over the last 50 years. And so the country’s immediate future is not more democracy, but yet another dictatorship ultimately controlled by the military, and it is unlikely U.S. officials will argue that it should be otherwise.
Certainly, the United States should demand a full range of reforms tied to any aid packages for Egypt, but those reforms should be focused on liberalization rather than democratization. By all means, let the Islamists have some representation, maybe even a minor ministerial portfolio or two, but free elections are at the end of the process, not the beginning. The emphasis should be on liberalizing economic policies, fully integrating women into the economy and society, and stemming the country’s dangerous population explosion. Egypt doesn’t have the material resources to care for all its 70-million-plus people properly now; it will only get worse in the next 20 years.
Maybe most important, the next president has to embark on a comprehensive re-education campaign: a legislative, political, and moral initiative looking something like a mixture of the civil rights movement and de-Nazification. Egypt, unlike most other Arab states, has a liberal tradition, one older than any of its various Pan-Arabist or Islamist ideologies. Ideally, its next president will draw on that liberal inheritance to finally realize the vision of peace embodied in the treaty that cost Sadat his life.
Unlike his predecessor, Mubarak is not a visionary. His legacy will be that he kept a cold peace with Israel and won his war against the Islamists. The job of Egypt’s next ruler is to ensure that he is the last president who did not enjoy the honor of being elected by the Egyptian people.