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 unacceptable.”

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 world.

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 82-yearold head.

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.

Israelis may 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 influence.

“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, many said.

“If you Americans don’t help Gamal be the next president, Egypt will go to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran,” the Israeli expert said.

“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.

The Egyptian 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 program.

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.

An 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 virulently anti-Israel.

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.

bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger