'What is going on right now is a crime against the country'
Long road to change: Egyptian opposition leaders face uphill battle for reform.
By CARRIE SHEFFIELD, JPOST CORRESPONDENT IN CAIRO
Questions surrounding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's health have spurred speculation about his successor and reaffirmed opposition leaders' beliefs that political reform is difficult and unlikely.
In power since 1981, Mubarak, 81, appears to be grooming his son, Gamal, 45, as his successor. Gamal Mubarak has spoken in favor of a legal civilian transfer of power, and some observers, including Muhammad Habib, deputy supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, say the junior Mubarak could legally assume the role of prime minister in a transitional capacity before becoming president.
"The question of whether Gamal would inherit the power is 'Will this be during the life of his father or after he dies?'" said Habib, second-in-command of the Brotherhood, a network of Islamic fundamentalists who favor traditional interpretations of Shari'a, or Islamic law.
"As far as I can see, there will be no significant unrest... The Egyptian people are nice, patient and forbearing. Whoever comes to power, we succumb to our ordeal."
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned as a political organization but runs its candidates as independents, now holds nearly a fifth of the seats in Egypt's parliament after national elections in 2005.
Established in 1928, the Brotherhood engaged in terrorism until the 1970s, when it embraced a more moderate ideology. Its members are periodically arrested and brought before tribunals as a means of keeping the movement within limits acceptable to the Mubarak regime.
"Changing dictatorships should not be through revolution, an army coup, but through an inner and grassroots reform, peacefully and constitutionally and through the polling stations," Habib said through a translator at the Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo. "We abhor violence, otherwise this would give legitimacy to the current regime."
With nearly 30 years to entrench his political allies, Mubarak has used his ruling National Democratic Party to tightly control economic activity, restrict free speech and punish dissidents. However, some leaders within Egyptian government are suspicious of General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, whose growing popularity could pose a challenge to the Mubarak clan.
"Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak's heir apparent, is not popular among the people," said an Egyptian democracy activist who refused to give his name for fear of retribution. "Gamal represents a core business elite that seems to be invested in promoting its own wealth rather than acting for the welfare of the people of Egypt, and his participation in government is marred by charges of corruption, including his personal involvement in businesses around the country."
Nabil Fahmy, ambassador-at-large for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, told a group of visiting journalists last month that the country's political problems must be solved in tandem with its economic woes. High unemployment and a young population - 56 percent of the people are age 25 or younger - combine with limited access to educational opportunities.
"We need economic growth, which requires stability," said Fahmy, who said Egypt's national GDP is only 40% the size of Wal-Mart's annual revenues and suffers from widespread poverty and limited freedom of expression. Yet in a situation of misplaced priorities, 70% of Egyptians say the fate of Palestinians is the most important "domestic" issue for them, according to Fahmy.
Ironically, Fahmy said Egypt has been spared the brunt of the recent global financial meltdown because its relatively unsophisticated financial system, plagued with political instability, was unattractive to foreign investors.
"Frankly, if our banking system had been more advanced, we would have paid a larger price in the financial crisis," said Fahmy, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Cairo and a former ambassador to the United States.
Liberal activist Ayman Nour, a failed 2005 presidential candidate who was imprisoned for more than three years by the Mubarak regime, has aspirations for a secular democracy in Egypt.
An outspoken critic of Mubarak, Nour founded a political party known as Ghad ("tomorrow" in Arabic) in 2004, and he said government-backed criminals set his party's headquarters on fire last December.
"What is going on right now is a crime against the county," he said through a translator at his apartment in the trendy Zamalek district of Cairo. "Egypt is going backwards, not moving forward. In the past few years, there were no alternatives or options for people to choose from, it's either between something wrong or something worse."
Nour, who was released in February, said Egypt needs massive reforms to its judicial system and greater accountability for foreign aid, much of which he said was used for frivolous projects.
The United States alone has poured $28 billion in development aid during the past 30 years into various Egyptian educational, agricultural and political reform projects.
According to Nour, Egyptians favor incremental change because they worry about major upheaval.
"They're not wiling to sacrifice much for change because they worry they won't be able to fulfill everyday needs such as feeding their kids," he said. "The current regime or the current system created this notion, that any regime change would cause a major effect on their personal lives."
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