Arab World: Pharaoh and his successor(s)

Egypt’s role in the Arab world is now uncertain.

Mubarak 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mubarak 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Against the background of a decline in its regional influence, Egypt is approaching potentially troubled political waters. Earlier this year, President Hosni Mubarak, 81, underwent surgery to remove his gall bladder. While he is thought to have made a full recovery, his temporary absence led to renewed attention throughout the region to a looming question: What will follow Mubarak? Who will succeed him? Will the essential contours of the long, stable but stagnant period of Mubarak’s rule continue, or is there a danger of strategic realignment in Egypt? For Israel in particular, the matter of Egypt’s future is of no small concern. The conclusion of the peace agreement with its most populous Arab neighbor remains a primary achievement of Israeli diplomacy and the high point to date of the Middle East “peace process.” The agreement fundamentally altered the strategic balance. It ended with one stroke the Arab conventional military option (arguably, Iran is currently engaged in an attempt to develop an “Islamic” military option to replace this). The agreement with Egypt remains the cornerstone of Israel’s regional stance. It has held through turbulent periods, and despite the cold atmosphere in which Cairo prefers to envelop it, the peace is likely to remain solid for as long as the National Democratic Party (NDP) regime holds the reins in Egypt.
The countdown to the transition of power from Mubarak to his successor has begun. For any authoritarian regime, the period of transfer of power is a time when it is at its most uncertain. For the Egyptian regime, which has presided over economic stagnation and a sharp loss of regional status for Cairo in recent years, this is doubly so. A time of internal political ferment is now opening up, with parliamentary elections due in November and presidential polls next year.
MUBARAK HAS ruled for 28 years.
Though he has not ruled out the possibility of running again for the presidency, he is widely expected to begin the process of handing over power to his successor in the run up to the next presidential elections, scheduled for September 2011. In accordance with the unique system of “republican monarchy” developed in the Arab world, his most likely successor is his eldest son, Gamal. Nevertheless, an easy transfer of power within the family is not quite a foregone conclusion.
In February 2005, Mubarak consented to a constitutional amendment which allowed for the holding of multi-candidate presidential elections. The regime subsequently harassed and then jailed the only serious alternative to Mubarak – Ayman Nour. But the precedent of multicandidate elections may serve to complicate an entirely smooth transition of power from Hosni to Gamal Mubarak.
Two other possible candidates are worth noting. The first is veteran intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. He enjoys close relations with Israel’s defense establishment and would be the preferred successor to Mubarak for many in Jerusalem. He symbolizes the clear perception of the common interests acknowledged behind the scenes by the Egyptian and Israeli establishments.
These include a joint alignment with the US-led alliance in the region, shared concern at the advance of Iranian power and influence and opposition to Iranian nuclear ambitions, and a shared concern at the growth of Islamism and its implications for the future of the region.
The other significant potential candidate is Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Association.
He has caught the imagination of the secular opposition. He has no realistic chance of securing the presidency, but his candidacy is likely to act as a focus for oppositionists calling for genuine democratic reform. Such reforms are likely to continue to be resisted by the NDP regime.
Regarding the parliamentary elections – the regime has already begun a renewed crackdown against the only truly serious oppositional force – the Muslim Brotherhood.
It performed notably well in the previous parliamentary elections. Permitted to contest only a limited number of seats in 2005, it nevertheless won 88 of 454 seats in parliament. It is now technically illegal, and in 2007 a constitutional amendment was passed to prevent Islamists standing as “independents” in elections. By such measures, and by working to prevent the coalescing of a single, secular opposition list, the NDP regime intends to ensure its continued dominance of the parliament.
The regime is likely to succeed in this. It is probable that it will also manage to ensure the appointment of its preferred presidential candidate. This means that despite the possibly choppy seas ahead, no radical change in Egypt’s foreign policy and regional orientation is likely.
But it is far less certain whether the new president will manage to arrest the ongoing internal stagnation and external decline of the Arab world’s most populous country. Egypt was once the unchallenged final arbiter of Arab diplomacy. Today, it finds itself sidelined as two powerful non- Arab countries, Iran and Turkey, make the regional running – each in its own way challenging the old US-led dispensation of which Egypt is a linchpin.
The Middle East is in flux, with new forces sensing US decline and seeking to capitalize on it. The Egyptian regime is probably strong enough to resist Iranian attempts to undermine and subvert it internally. But while Egypt’s presence on the pro-US side remains vital, its role is mainly to help block the advance of others, rather than to initiate and set processes in motion. Whatever the outcome of the next presidential contest, the Middle East today is a place in which pharaoh is no longer set to be the central player.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.