It is always amusing to see how authoritarian regimes endow themselves with the trappings of democracy – a party, parliament, “elections” – as if they somehow confer legitimacy to otherwise undemocratic governance. In Egypt, the 28-year rule of U.S.-backed president Hosni Mubarak is a good illustration. Although Mubarak claimed election victory in 2005 and his “National Democratic Party” (NDP) holds a majority in parliament, since assuming power in 1981, his government has been most notable for political intimidation of opponents, suppression of dissent, and silencing any and all who dare challenge his authority.
Egypt indeed has become the epitome of a police state. Mubarak has never ruled a day without the powers bequeathed to him by Emergency Law. Instituted immediately after Anwar Sadat’s assassination, these wide-sweeping measures allow his State Security forces to arrest any person without warrant; indefinitely detain any citizen without charge; try civilians in military court; censor the media; restrict political organizations’ freedom of assembly; and tightly curb what the media is permitted to broadcast or publish – all powers of which Mubarak has taken full advantage. Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is officially banned and its members routinely arrested, jailed and tortured under its mandates.
Questions about Mubarak’s potential successor – a subject normally off-limits to public or media speculation – came to a head this week when the NDP held its annual party conference (in direct violation of Egypt’s constitution, Mubarak has never appointed a vice president). Would he announce his intention to seek re-election in 2011 or would his 46-year-old son Gamal, widely believed to be his political heir apparent, declare his own candidacy?
Before answering, it is prudent to recall how Hosni Mubarak behaved during the country’s first direct, multi-candidate presidential election in 2005.
Amidst charges of vote-rigging (the government predictably prohibited outside election monitors), Mubarak won 88 percent of the vote, while his main challenger, Ayman Nour and his Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party came in a distant second, garnering a mere seven percent.
Recognizing, however, that Nour had the potential of posing a significant challenge to Gamal in a future election, he was thrown in jail on trumped-up forgery charges shortly thereafter. After being tortured for four years, Nour was finally released in rapidly declining health this February (only to be attacked a few months later when a man on a motorcycle ignited a flammable substance near his face, burning his head. Nour blamed regime elements for the incident).
Gamal Mubarak currently heads the powerful policy committee of the NDP, and his hour long address to party members could have doubled as a stump speech. But in the end, neither he nor his father would state their intentions for 2011.
It should be understood that simply positing that Hosni Mubarak may be paving the way for his son to succeed him comes with its perils. In 2001, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s prominent political dissidents, was sentenced to seven years in prison 2001 for alleging Mubarak with doing just that (he was later acquitted in 2003). Ibrahim wrote in 2007:
“Like other autocrats with declining legitimacy, Mubarak is trying to tighten his grip on power. His family is grooming 44-year-old Gamal to succeed his father. Any real or potential competitors, especially ones with charisma and name recognition, are to be defamed, jailed, driven from the country or otherwise eliminated.”
Since his release, Nour has organized a coalition of opposition groups comprised of leftists, liberals and Islamists, calling itself The Egyptian Campaign Against Presidential Succession; all are united in opposing Gamal’s apparent ascension to the presidency.
It only took a week after the announcement of this coalition’s formation before State Security forces raided Nour’s offices and assaulted party members gathered there.
Other names for the 2011 presidency beside Gamal being floated include Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammad ElBaradei, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, and current director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services Omar Suleiman.
But in Egypt, where the political infrastructure is so intertwined with the state security apparatus, there will never be open and fair elections, despite the senior Mubarak’s proclamation they would be “clean and free.” The only realistic possibilities outside himself are Suleiman, or most likely, Gamal.
Just as with King Abdullah of Jordan, Bashar Assad of Syria, and the current grooming of Libya’s Saif Ghaddafi, it will be a dictator’s son who assumes power; a “candidacy” endorsed by Washington, and one in which the Egyptian people, regrettably, will have very little say.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.