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The Middle East has enough crises already, but there is one more creeping up, almost invisibly, on the region that may some day soon eclipse all the others: Who and what will rule Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak leaves the scene?
It used to be that Egypt was obviously the most important of Arabic-speaking countries in everything from population size, to regional influence, to cultural power. And if this is not as apparent as it was a couple of decades ago, the relative importance of Egypt still looms large.
Only thrice in the last 55 years has power changed hands at the top in Cairo: in 1952 to the military junta that brought forth Gamal Abdel Nasser; in 1970, when Anwar Sadat succeeded to the presidency on Nasser's death; and in 1981, when Mubarak took over when Sadat was assassinated.
That's a pretty impressive record of stability. Whether the next time will be as smooth and consistent is, however, very much open to question.
Mubarak was born on May 4, 1928, which makes him more than 78 years old. What is the exact state of his health? We don't know, but those who have seen him describe him as increasingly frail, and he has had at least one physical breakdown. How much longer will it be before he is unable to carry on as leader of a country whose population is around 80 million?
Keep in mind that Egypt is an extremely centralized country where the president has even more relative power than in other states to set the agenda and determine the country's direction.
THERE IS an old Egyptian joke that acquires a new layer with each generation. The story concerns each new president's first day on the job, inheriting the previous one's chauffeur.
Mubarak, back in 1981, was supposedly asked by his driver what route to take to the presidential office.
How, he asks, did Nasser do it? The chauffeur responds, "Nasser always went to the left." And what did Sadat do? He, the driver explains, "always went to the right."
Mubarak thinks a moment, and then declares, "Signal left, signal right, then park."
In a sense this describes the Mubarak era. No great achievements, but no disasters either. Actually, one might say that Mubarak reconciled his government to the idea that Egypt would no longer play a leading role in the Arab-speaking world; that he turned Egypt inward. Yet this does not indicate that there was any great progress in dealing with the country's huge domestic problems. Just keeping the country afloat and peaceful was a tough task.
But that is about all one can say for his time in office.
Those who know what goes on in Cairo say that no real decision has been made about Mubarak's successor. When Sadat died, vice president Mubarak stepped into his place. Today, there is no vice president. The name one most hears spoken of as the next president is Mubarak's son, Gamal.
TO SOME extent, Gamal has been moved in the direction of inheriting Egypt. He has become an important personage in the ruling party; he has been dispatched on trips to the United States and Europe. As with Syria's current president and former crown prince Bashar Assad, Gamal has been portrayed, probably with better reason than his Syrian counterpart, as a sort of Westernized, New-Age, hi-tech kind of guy.
Yet he has clear limitations. Reportedly, a European ambassador fell asleep in the midst of a Gamal lecture and others were similarly uninspired. Charisma, he hasn't.
The main idea with which he is associated is that Egypt should be in the hands of forward-thinking technocrats. Clearly attractive for him is what is often called the Chinese model: economic transformation without political change.
Gamal is obviously no radical. But can he handle one of the hardest countries in the world to govern?
Compare Egypt with Syria. President Hafez Assad made it clear that Bashar was going to be his successor and spent six years preparing him. It was not just a question of giving a training course to the man who would become the world's first nerd dictator. Bashar was popped into the army for a bit and given charge of Lebanon.
Perhaps more important, everyone who might have posed a threat of rivalry to Bashar was retired or shown very clearly to forget about any such idea. Once Hafez died, Bashar had an easy time taking over.
Only two high-ranking officials had to be suicided.
Gamal lacks this helping hand. If Mubarak were to die or be disabled in the foreseeable future, there could be a real tussle over the pharoahship. The army might have its own ideas about who should be crowned, finding some suitable former general with political experience. Conflict at the top might destabilize the country. And even if Gamal emerged on the top, could he really handle the job?
EGYPT HAS serious troubles. The Muslim Brotherhood is becoming stronger. What has passed for "liberal" opposition agrees with the Islamists that the change Egypt supposedly most needs isâ€¦ to repeal the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.
With demagogues to the right and left, terrible living conditions, no jobs, inadequate housing and few prospects for improvement, would not Egypt fall prey to the oldest, most reliable Middle East trick: foreign policy demagoguery instead of reform?
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
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