Thursday, December 23, 2010

Son of Mubarak: Succession Without Success?

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By Barry Rubin

Some of the more interesting Wikileaks concern the U.S. diplomatic perspective on the succession in Egypt from President Husni Mubarak to his son, Gamal. Let’s remember that Egypt is the single most important country in the Arabic-speaking world. Dramatic instability there would be disastrous for U.S. interests. And it might happen.

Even compared to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Egypt has been remarkably passive in the region’s international affairs over the last two decades. It has not acted as one might have expected, by taking the lead in organizing the Arab nationalist opposition to Iran and revolutionary Islamism.

But Mubarak has certainly been aware of the threat. While Jordan’s King Abdallah compared Iran to an “octopus” reaching out its tentacles to seize control of the region, Mubarak called it a “cancer.” A U.S. State Department cable of April 28, 2009, reports:

“President Mubarak has made it clear that he sees Iran as Egypt's—and the region's — primary strategic threat. His already dangerous neighborhood, he has stressed, has only become more so since the fall of [Iraqi dictator] Saddam [Hussein], who, as nasty as he was, nevertheless stood as a wall against Iran, according to Mubarak. He now sees Tehran's hand moving with ease throughout the region, 'from the Gulf to Morocco,' as he told a recent congressional delegation."

Yet Mubarak also stresses the immediate danger is not so much Iran getting nuclear weapons as it is Tehran’s subverting almost everyone else in the Middle East:

"While he will readily admit that the Iranian nuclear program is a strategic and existential threat to Egypt and the region, he sees that threat as relatively 'long term.' What has seized his immediate attention are Iran's non-nuclear destabilizing actions such as support for Hamas, media attacks, weapons and illicit funds smuggling, all of which add up in his mind to 'Iranian influence spreading like a cancer from the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council countries] to Morocco.'"

But President Barack Obama also frightens Mubarak:

“[The Egyptians] are worried that [the United States is] going to strike a 'grand deal' with the Iranians....The prevailing [Egyptian government] view remains a principled rejection of any diplomatic rapprochement."

Sounds like Mubarak’s been writing Rubin Reports! Or to put it another way, Mubarak (and the Saudis, Jordanians, and others) are more worried about Tehran than is the United States. Well, they should be! After all, not only are they closer to Iran but they are also dependent on U.S. protection. Nowadays, that's enough to scare anybody.

But the 82-year-old Mubarak won’t be around too much longer. The assumption is he will give the presidency to his 46-year-old son, Gamal Mubarak. Yet even now Gamal remains only the head of the ruling party’s policy committee and is its assistant chairman. He has not been given any high-ranking governmental responsibility.

In 2011 there will be a presidential election. Will Husni run for reelection again or will he give the spot to his son and retire? If Husni, obviously reluctant to yield power, doesn’t make that transition the country will possibly face instability.

Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone wrote in a May 14, 2007 memo:

"[Gamal’s] power base is his father, and so while he could conceivably be installed prior to Mubarak's death, the task would become far more difficult ...once the pharaoh [Husni] has departed the scene.”

Opposing Gamal, say American diplomats, are Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. I can attest from personal experience that Suleiman loathes Gamal. To give you a sense of how deep this runs, one of Suleiman’s agents always refers to Gamal as “the boy.” The State Department also worries that mid-level officers might some day try to stage a coup.

The most worrisome line in the cables—and remember this for future reference—is the warning that Gamal will be "politically weaker" than his father and thus eager to sound anti-American to build popular support. I was a bit surprised at this point since Gamal is very Westernized and attuned to business. But perhaps this assessment makes sense.

With both Egypt and Jordan run by “princes” who are very lightweight (King Abdallah of Jordan is no King Hussein and one seasoned Western observer recently described him as more British than Arab), the leadership forces on the Arab anti-Iran, anti-Islamist side will be pretty weak.

[By the way, if you are keeping track, only 270 shopping days until Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's birthday. I understand that his friends and colleagues are taking up a collection to get him a nice nearby country or two as a present.]

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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