Saturday, July 25, 2009

Egyptian Succession: The Crisis Waiting to Happen

By Barry Rubin

There’s one crisis in the Middle East to which attention is rarely paid but which will one day, soon, explode onto the front pages: Who will be Egypt’s next president?

President Husni Mubarak will pick his successor all by himself. And if he dies without doing so? A meeting of the regime’s elite will make the decision.

Mubarak is 81 years old, was made vice-president 34 years ago, and has served as president without any vice-president for 28 years. His health is not good but those who know how bad it is don’t say and those who say don’t know.

There are two main candidates to be taken seriously: Gamal Mubarak, 46, the president’s son who had a career as an investment banker, and Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence. For Egypt to follow Syria’s example and have what looks like a hereditary monarchy under the guise of a republic would be to invite ridicule.

Otherwise, Gamal might appear impressive on the surface to Western governments but that could well be a deceptive. When Syrian President, dictator Hafiz al-Asad decided to hand over to Bashar, he spent years preparing the ground, grooming the young man superficially, securing the agreement of the elite, and getting rid of any possible rivals. Bashar has been repressive, adventurous, murderous, and radical. He has murdered Lebanese politicians, also dispatched terrorists against Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. But from a Syrian regime standpoint, his reign has been successful precisely because he’s been so terrible in his foreign policy.

Gamal seems a nice young man, Westernized, technocratic, friendly to business. Yet in the Middle East, nice guy dictators finish up in front of firing squads, in a manner of speaking. Contrary to his reputation as monster, the last shah was closer to Gamal than to Bashar in character.

Can Gamal really control a country of 80 million people with seething poverty and a growing radical Islamist movement? He may well lack the required toughness and is certainly unlikely to become a popular figure.

And if members of Egypt’s elite don’t think so, they will try to keep him out of office and start plotting if he ever does sit on the throne, um, presidential seat.

In contrast, Suleiman, 73, is tough and street-smart. He is well-regarded at home and in the West, but how the all-important army high command feels about him is not so clear. Moreover, given his age, he would likely prove an interim president. Still, he knows how to play the Middle East political game quite well.

If Gamal can claim that he would be better from a developmental standpoint, Suleiman would do a better job in the regional and domestic security areas.

The danger to Egypt is more medium- than short-term. The country is nowhere near an Islamist takeover. But if Gamal becomes president would one be able to say that in five or ten years?

Finally, the regime elite might come together to insist on a third candidate, say a former general who has gone into administration. The timing of the decision and implementation on succession is going to be a central factor. Keep a close eye on this issue. It may soon be a crisis.

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