The politics of presidential succession in Egypt

When Egyptian president Husni Mubarak told an interviewer on January 2 that there will be no bequeathing of power in Egypt he was stating the obvious. No one has ever expected that Mubarak senior would hand over power to his son, Gamal (40), by placing a crown on his head in the manner of a conventional monarchy. It has become clear in the last five years or so that Mubarak intends to appoint his younger son his successor; the only question is the way in which this process will be brought about. The most likely scenario is that of the "democratic charade". The present system, of a referendum on a single candidate selected by two thirds of the deputies of the country’s parliament (the People’s Assembly), is expected to be scrapped a few months before Mubarak’s fourth six-year term expires in October of next year.

The new system, expected to replace the selection of a candidate by the rubber-stamp parliament, will be a supposedly open contest among several candidates. All really credible candidates will be excluded from the race, and a dozen or so non-entities will be fielded, among whom, of course, will be Mubarak Junior. A massive propaganda campaign and support from his "rivals" will ensure that Gamal wins the poll, not with the preposterous 99.9 percent rate of most Arab dictators but with a 60 to 70 percent rate that can be made to seem plausible in the eyes of the watchful Western press and media. Mubarak will "reluctantly" accept the result, saying that he must, as a true democrat, bow to the will of the people, although he did not want his son to have to shoulder such a heavy burden.

This may be a slightly better succession than that of Ilham Aliev in Azerbaijan, and a great improvement on the direct transfer of power in Syria after Hafez al-Asad died, or the one expected soon in Libya. Still, it is a charade that will be enabled by the sheer insidiousness of the regime’s media and security forces, which are the only power bases now at the disposal of the rulers in Cairo. This process will be further aided by the almost complete liquidation of Egypt’s opposition during the last decade and by a population browbeaten into submission and apathy by years of repression. The charade will succeed if only because, in the last two decades, every figure on the national scene who could have been a credible and popular alternative to Mubarak, has been effectively (and often ruthlessly) excluded from public life.

The only difficulties standing in the way of this scenario come from the outside. The backing or, at least, the tacit approval and permission of the US, Europe and even Israel is necessary for this method of transferring power to succeed. While the US has been showing signs of exasperation lately, pointing to widespread popular disenchantment and multiple political and economic failures, it cannot easily dismiss the option of power passing to Gamal, even as it makes appropriate noises these days, for propaganda purposes, about the need for democracy in the Middle East. This is because the prospect of Gamal’s presidency presents the Americans, the Europeans and also the Israelis with an offer they cannot refuse, despite the current deluge of statements and demands from the West for the liberation of the Arab and Muslim peoples from the yoke of tyranny.

This tempting offer has been eloquently summed up in a description of Gamal in a leading Israeli newspaper in the spring of last year: that he is "well dressed, speaks fluent English, and has never been seen in a mosque". This description neatly sums up the two basic qualities that the West now requires of any ruler of any Muslim country: westernisation and secularism. The part about dress and fluent English is the westernisation bit, and Gamal meets the condition by showing unmistakeable signs of "Americanisation". The essence of this tendency is a deeply-rooted apolitical and studiedly non-ideological attitude that avoids evincing any sign of intellectual commitment to any cause or ideology (apart from a hash of slogans about the open economy, the need to adopt the latest technologies, etc., in the best tradition of "political correctness"). In effect, Gamal should be popular with the Americans because he is, like their own presidents, an "image".

And not just that. The part about "has never been seen in a mosque" should be even more attractive to the Americans and Europeans. While Gamal has never come up with overt statements or actions that can be construed as upholding secularism, he has carefully distanced himself from everything Islamic. It is certain that his father’s advisers have warned him strongly against any open support for secular (i.e. anti-religious) positions because that could be embarrassing, and jeopardise his succession to power. But, at the same time, they must have planned a scrupulous and thorough ignoring of Islam and the keeping of a huge distance from it. Symbolically, Gamal, who never appears at any Islamic function, even the most innocuously ceremonial, has made a point in recent years of making an extremely conspicuous appearance at the midnight Mass every Christmas in the huge Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

These tactics should be enough to soothe any reluctance on the part of the Americans and Europeans about the acceptability of his succession to political power in Egypt.