Egyptians go to the polls next week to elect a parliament, but don’t expect
President Hosni Mubarak to keep his promise that the voting will be “free and
transparent.” That it would be neither became clear when his government rebuffed
the Obama administration’s call for impartial election observers as “absolutely
Nothing new there. When former secretary of state
Condoleezza Rice carried the Bush administration’s crusade for democracy to
Cairo, she was bluntly told to mind her own business. The Obama administration,
which has stepped up its courtship of Mubarak, has shown less zeal, but even its
toned-down calls for reform have been smacked down.
And nothing is likely
to change anytime soon. Not this year, and certainly not in time for what may be
an historic election in the most populous and closest US ally in the Arab
Mubarak, who has never picked a vice president, won’t say whether
he will run for a sixth six-year term in 2011, but after emergency gall bladder
surgery earlier this year in Germany, there is mounting speculation is he is in
poor health and may decide to step down.
During a week I spent in Egypt
this month, you couldn’t tell that; the omnipresent giant posters of a robust
(and much younger) Mubarak were plastered around the country, and the
president’s image on Egyptian TV revealed not a single grey hair on the
No one I met would criticize Mubarak directly, but the
consensus was it is time for him to step down. A typical comment was: “He’s all
right, but those around him are all corrupt.” If Mubarak does run, he will win
easily because he controls the elections – and has been known to jail his
opponents – in this essentially oneparty state.
The only real opposition
is the Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Hamas and is allied with Iran. The
regime is rightly worried about these Islamists, and monitors them with ruthless
efficiency. Security forces have reportedly detained some 600 of its supporters
before the elections.
Mubarak tolerates the Muslim Brotherhood as if to
show the world how much worse things could be without him.
complain about the cold peace Mubarak has maintained since coming to office
following the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, his refusal to visit the Jewish
state (except for Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, which he said didn’t count) and the
virulent anti-Semitism of his state-dominated media, but that doesn’t mean they
want to see him step down. They feel he plays a valuable role as intermediary
with the Palestinians and as an opponent of Hamas’s spreading
“I hope he lives another 82 years,” one Israeli expert on Arab
affairs told me. It was a typical answer in my very unscientific survey of
Israelis last week. If Mubarak doesn’t run, his son Gamal should succeed him,
“If you Americans don’t help Gamal be the next president,
Egypt will go to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran,” the Israeli expert
“You don’t want democratic elections in Egypt because there are no
institutions in place to assure free and fair elections. The only political
force that can challenge Mubarak’s party is the Muslim Brotherhood – the brother
of al-Qaida and the father of Hamas.”
Gamal has said he has “no personal
ambition” to be president, but what else could he say, since his father hasn’t
made his own plans public? A former investment banker who has taken a senior
policy post in his father’s ruling National Democratic Party, Gamal, 47, lacks
the military background of all previous Egyptian presidents.
military and intelligence establishment reportedly feels Gamal is not ready to
replace his father and would like one of its own to step in, at least as an
interim president. Its candidate is said to be Omar Suleiman, 74, the
intelligence chief who is Mubarak’s primary liaison with Israel and meets
regularly with top leaders there.
One man flirting with running for
president next year is Mohamed ElBaradei, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize-winning
former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He’s the watchdog who
showed little concern about the Iranian nuclear program and opposed sanctions,
but called Israel the “number-one threat to the Middle East.” He has suggested
Iranian nuclear ambitions are a logical response to Israel’s own nuclear
He also “deplored” the Israeli bombing of the Syrian nuclear
site in 2007, saying Israel should have contacted him at IAEA first and he would
have looked into the matter and asked Syrian officials about it.
Israeli newspaper reported the US, Britain and Israel refused to share sensitive
intelligence with the IAEA because they did not trust ElBaradei, and feared he
would share it with Iran.
ElBaradei has said the price for peace with the
Palestinians should be the elimination of Israel’s nuclear arsenal – a view
pushed by another possible presidential candidate, Amr Moussa. He is the current
head of the Arab League and former Egyptian foreign minister who has been
Next week’s parliamentary elections will
intensify the Egyptian guessing game: Will Mubarak run again? If anyone knows,
he’s as silent as the sphinx.