The Middle East Channel

Is Gamal Mubarak the best hope for Egyptian democracy?

Egypt's opposition forces and Western advocates of democracy promotion all seem to agree on one thing: Gamal Mubarak should not be allowed to succeed his father Hosni Mubarak as President of Egypt. Cries of "la lil tawrith" (no to inheritance [of power]) dominate street protests carried out by the storied opposition group Kifaya, whose very name -- Egyptian Arabic for "enough" -- is as much a repudiation of the Mubarak family as it is of authoritarianism, corruption, or any of the country's myriad other ills. Egypt, they say, is not a plantation to be bequeathed from father to son, and the Mubaraks' scheme to render Egypt a monarcho-republic or gumlukiyya (in the inimitable portmanteaus of Roger Owen and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, respectively) is an evil to be resisted by all right-thinking, democracy-loving people.

But is it? Compared to some democratic ideal, the prospect of Gamal Mubarak's inheriting his father's seat is of course repellent. But true democracy is not on the table in Egypt. Instead of the democratic dream, the reality is that we are faced only with unappetizing options: an inherited transition, a sixth Mubarak term, a handover to some stony-faced apparatchik-like intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, or a military coup. And when comparing these eminently uninspiring alternative futures, it is hard not to conclude that Gamal Mubarak is the best bet if you care about Egypt's long term democratic prospects.

A few short months ago, this was not the case. Muhammad ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had captured imaginations with his calls for political reform and an end to emergency law. But he has so far been a disappointment. Already we read of dissension in his ranks over how little time he has spent inside Egypt since announcing his "campaign" for change. His online petition seems to be inching toward his declared target of a million signatures (with a major assist from the Muslim Brotherhood), but it's hard to think of countries that have democratized by petition. ElBaradei is now calling for an opposition boycott of the November, 2010 parliamentary elections, but it's not clear what this will achieve either. After all, every Egyptian opposition party (save the leftist Tagammu) boycotted the 1990 parliamentary contests, and yet the ship of state sailed on undisturbed. (And at this particularly sensitive time, the NDP might even welcome the prospect of a quiet election free of the usual opposition headaches.)

If a democratic revolution is unlikely, so too is a military coup. The armed forces are loyal to Mubarak (if not to his son) and conservative enough not to risk reaping the kind of whirlwind that an overthrow of the existing order would entail. (Unless, of course, they were provoked by the prospect of losing all their prerogatives, which is why calls to reduce U.S. aid to Egypt -- most of which goes to the military -- are a bad idea right now). Similarly, it's doubtful that the elder Mubarak would hand power to Omar Suleiman. A recent "mystery campaign" in favor of the intelligence chief was swiftly snuffed out by the regime, and in any case, if Mubarak wanted Suleiman to succeed him, he would have appointed him vice president long ago. Thus, we are really left with two choices: Gamal or his father.

Should Mubarak, 82-years old and ailing, find the strength to run for a sixth time, he would almost certainly win another six-year term. But biology would just as certainly intervene to ensure that he did not complete it. Unlike Nasser or Sadat, each of whom had appointed a vice president who could (and did) take the helm in the event of the leader's demise, Mubarak has left this position vacant. When he does go the way of all flesh, the decision of who would replace him would likely be made by a shadowy conclave of generals, ruling party notables, and big businessmen. It's possible that these men, gathered in some smoke-filled room, would settle on the younger Mr. Mubarak, but improbable. The desire to ensure stability, in addition to resentment of Gamal and his nouveau riche cronies among the military and the old guard of the NDP, would likely mean that the burden of rule would fall on broader, more martial shoulders, such as those of Omar Suleiman. Emergency law would become further entrenched -- because the death of the leader is an emergency situation, naturally -- and Egyptians would settle in for another long stretch of thinly-disguised military rule.

Gamal Mubarak, on the other hand, would represent a departure from this depressingly familiar routine. If he were to run and win in 2011, he would be the first leader in Egypt's modern history never to have worn a military uniform, never to have been what Samuel Huntington called a "specialist in the application of violence." (Sufi Abu Talib, a legal academic and the speaker of the People's Assembly from 1978 to 1983, was acting president for a week after Sadat's 1981 assassination, but his job was to keep the seat warm for Mubarak.) Of course, the fact that Gamal is a civilian would not necessarily make him gentler than his predecessors (or than someone like Omar Suleiman) or less willing to visit the implements of coercion upon his opponents. But it might make him less able to do so, since he would lack the kind of blind loyalty the armed forces deliver to one of their own. Moreover, there is something to be said for the purely symbolic value of elevating to Egypt's highest office someone who does not emerge from what the Egyptian analyst Dia' Rashwan extolled as the "solid and strong heart in the apparatus of the state" -- if only because it helps to establish the principle of civilian authority in a country hitherto bereft of it.

Also in the symbolic vein: the younger Mubarak would not only be Egypt's first civilian president, he would also be its first to come to power through a "competitive" election. No one is under any illusions that this election would be anything close to free and fair. But it would be an election nonetheless, one in which multiple candidates would stand against the president. It is true that Egypt has had one form of elections or another since 1866, but only since 2005 have Egyptians been able to vote in multi-candidate presidential contests. The younger Mubarak would be bound to continue the tradition in a way that a military leader, less dependent on claims to democratic legitimacy, might not. And this is important, because presidential elections -- even if flawed -- cannot but help to change the language and grammar of politics. They force the regime to concede (in rhetoric if not in reality) the possibility that some other individual or party might be more fit to rule. The subjection of the za`im to the indignities of the ballot box invites people to imagine a future without him, to realize that his writ is fundamentally revocable and transferable (again, in theory if not in practice).

But if the value of a Gamal Mubarak presidency lay purely in images and symbols, it would not be worth very much, especially since a large segment of the Egyptian population would see Mr. Mubarak's elevation as symbolic not of civilian supremacy or the legitimacy of democracy, but of nepotism and patriarchy and personalism -- a bitter regression to human history's dynastic mean.

Symbols, however, are not all that commend the younger Mr. Mubarak to us. More than any other option on the table, a Gamal Mubarak presidency contains within it the potential for future opposition breakthroughs. Yes, the election that will bring Mr. Mubarak to power will be manipulated, but it will not be the last election he will ever have to face. Every six years will bring another one. And although those elections will likely be rigged too, each will nonetheless bear a kernel of uncertainty. Surprises at the ballot box, while rare, can happen. And sometimes election rigging itself -- as we saw in the Philippines in 1986, Georgia in 2003, and the Ukraine in 2005 -- can generate an opportunity for the opposition to unify, mobilize the citizenry, and force a regime to abdicate or reform.

Of course, we should be under no illusions as to the ability of Egypt's democratic opposition to pose a genuine electoral challenge to Gamal now or in the near future. As the disorganization around Mr. ElBaradei has demonstrated to us, the forces of democracy in Egypt have a long way to go before they can pull off an Egyptian version of the Ukraine's Orange Revolution. But under a civilian Gamal Mubarak presidency, each election will offer a new chance for it to chip away at the regime's armor.

And there are intriguing possibilities on the horizon. The Wafd Party, for years Exhibit A in the case for dismissing Egyptian opposition parties as ineffectual jokes, has been given new life by a new leader -- the media and pharmaceuticals tycoon El-Sayed El-Badawi. The new Wafd president has his own TV network and just purchased a controlling interest in one of Egypt's most vibrant opposition newspapers. El-Badawi is the type of person who in the past flocked to the ruling party for the benefits that it offered. The fact that a man of his heft has now seen fit to take a leading role in the opposition suggests a shift in expectations away from NDP dominance to something potentially more open. El-Badawi might not be a challenger in 2011, but he -- or someone like him -- very well could be six years hence.

The point of this is that Gamal Mubarak's elevation could be a welcome thing, not because he would be a great leader, an economic reformer, or a genuine democrat -- although I suppose we cannot rule out any of those things -- but because it's more likely than the alternatives to keep open the possibility of an opposition success and a democratic future. Many Egyptians are fond of quoting a verse from the Quran when things go wrong: "It may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not." We might do well to remember that now.

Tarek Masoud is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

This article is based in part on remarks at a POMEPS panel at GWU.

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The Middle East Channel

Best option: dignified failure

The entire U.S. administration's Middle East A-team--President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell--is defying the mass majority of political analysts by dismissing the status quo in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, and insisting that the latest round of Palestinian-Israeli direct talks has the potential to lead to an agreement which will resolve the conflict. I have a deep fear that they may be correct in predicting an agreement will be signed, but I do not have an iota of confidence that it will end the conflict.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic predicts that the current peace talks will hit a cement wall before the one-year time frame expires. The numerous explanations for the predicted failure are all sensible given the region's track record. International law is blatantly ignored, the logic of might is right trumps justice and the international community continues to turn its back to its own obligations toward the occupied Palestinian people.

On the Palestinian side, reality is a mix between frustration, despair, disunity and betrayal. The Palestinian negotiating team claims to be a legitimate leadership but there is not one functioning institutional body that can claim to be the source of their self-defined legitimacy. This quasi-leadership understands its legitimacy crisis so well that only a few months ago they were forced to cancel legally-required municipal elections out of concern of losing, even though Hamas was boycotting the elections--so much for Palestinian democracy.

The fear is that the Palestinian negotiating team is in their final round in the game of political survival. If these current talks do not reach an agreement--any agreement--the only way for Mahmoud Abbas and his cohorts to remain in office will be by way of the barrel of a gun, similar to how most other Arab states exist today.

However, the Palestinian people are not your average Arab population; they understand that their demise was not served up at the hands of the Palestinian leadership, legitimate or otherwise. First to blame is Israel for its dispossession of Palestinians and what is commonly referred to as military occupation. The 1948 dispossession took place in broad daylight for all to see, although many preferred blindness. Israel was created on the remains--both living and dead--of Palestinians, leaving some 5 million refugees dwelling in squalid refugee camps for over 60 years and many others displaced in their own homeland. It is no wonder that Israel fears for its security.

The military occupation part of Israel's crimes against humanity began in 1967 and is becoming less and less recognizable with every new Israeli settlement and violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. International law defines military occupation as a state of affairs which is temporary by nature. After forty-three years it is becoming much harder to classify Israel's occupation as temporary. As a matter of fact, the occupier, Israel, has dumped volumes of professional media spin over the past four decades to convince the world that the lands in question are in fact "disputed" and not militarily occupied. If the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are not occupied, then what are they? Are the negotiations launched in Washington D.C. aimed at ending an internationally-recognized (and U.S. recognized) military occupation or are they rearranging some other reality which is yet unnamed?

If we view the facts on the ground in Israel-Palestine for what they are today, then only one word applies: apartheid. Realizing this reality as apartheid is not new. President Jimmy Carter referred to it in his recent book title; past Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak both spoke the "A" word as being the direction in which Israel is heading.

True, apartheid is best known for its application in South Africa and for its ultimate collapse there. However, the system of apartheid did not stop with its failure, it moved on to be defined in international law for what it was: a crime. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defined the crime of apartheid as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity "committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime." If this definition does not reflect what Israel is doing to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel proper, then blindness reigns supreme.

Thus, if these current direct talks are aiming to produce an agreement that ignores or attempts to coexist with the unrelenting, slow-motion, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that Israel continues to this day, then it will be worthy of merely a few photo-ops that will be forgotten before the negotiating teams return to their respective homes. Even the creative idea floating around of using a failure in the talks to get the UN to admit Palestine as a state--if it does not remove the underlying system of apartheid--would merely be rearranging the legal status to serve the continuation of Israel's crimes against humanity.

The most dignified failure these talks can hope for is that the international community finally come to its senses, preferably with the U.S., and passes a UN resolution with specific punitive actions that identifies the status in Israel-Palestine, all of historic Palestine, for what it is: the crime of apartheid.

Only when the definition of the problem is crystal clear can we formulate an appropriate solution and have renewed faith in the international community's ability to act on what it knows very well to be reality: that Israeli actions over the last six decades have nullified the two-state solution. A new model of co-existence must be envisioned, a model built not on racism, separation and exceptionalism, but on mutual and equal human and civil rights across all of Palestine and Israel.

If the current peace talks surprise the world and result in a true sovereign Palestine, free of Israeli control and domination, then I'd be happy to be mistaken; if not however, it's time for the world to at least call reality for what it is. Anything less is an insult to our collective intelligence.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant living in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994).

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