The Mubaraks, the military, and the mystery

Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady, recently said on the subject of the Egyptian presidential succession: ‘I do not have a comment about this issue, when the right time comes, I will speak.’ This follows her husband’s similarly vague, Beach Boys-esque comment a few months ago that ‘only God could know’ who will next rule Egypt. With ElBaradei calling for an election boycott, Gamal Mubarak diddling around in America, and mysterious Omar Suleiman posters popping up around Cairo, next September is looking increasingly interesting.

Gamal’s name is the one most often touted around, and his recent trip to America to accompany his father to the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was seen as the latest stage in the attempt to groom him for the presidency. He faces opposition not only from pro-democracy activists, who believe a Mubarak-Mubarak succession would leave Egypt with just another pharaoh and who have been campaigning against him, but also from the older factions of the NDP. Gamal’s rise to power within the NDP has been supported by younger, wealthier businessmen who have grown rich during the years of NDP ‘structural adjusment’ (read: neoliberal economic policies and massive privatisation). The NDP ‘old guard’, who are associated with the military, are suspicious of Gamal and those who surround him.When mysterious posters appeared around Cairo supporting Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, some pointed to a split within the ruling elite, especially when they were rapidly removed and newspapers were forbidden from reporting on them.

Egypt’s military – who, since Nasser’s takeover in 1952, has provided Egypt with leaders – faces a choice over succession, and its influence means it will most likely have a role to play. It’s the most powerful institution in the country, bolstered by huge amounts of US military aid – around $40bn over the last 30 years. Like the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, it has gone beyond its military function to civilian life where it has large and complex business interests. It forms an important part of Egyptian political life and is seen as able to make or break a candidate. Although it faces a dilemma over Egypt’s next leader, it is in a good position. Any establishment candidate will want its support; so if it chooses to go with Gamal, it can let the Mubarak machine sweep him into power, and if it decides to go with someone else, then their power within the NDP is such that they can engineer a different succession in a kind of ‘soft coup’.

The Egyptian opposition is carrying on, despite a scenario in which it can succeed looking ever more unlikely. Mohamed ElBaradei recently called for an election boycott and a campaign of civil disobedience that would mean ‘the end of the regime’. But the opposition is disunited on this issue and on others, and has not gathered significant popular support. Massive demonstrations that will force a free and fair election in Egypt look like a distant possibility. Next September, it seems, Egyptians face the unappealing choice between Gamal and a military coup – not that they will have much choice in the matter, as the succession drama will be ‘about securing strong negotiating positions for elements of the regime, from the security services to the military to political apparatchiks and businessmen,’ according to The Arabist. Unless, perhaps, Suzanne Mubarak is waiting to make her radical pro-ElBaradei announcement. I’m not holding my breath.

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