When Egypt goes to the polls in 2011, the outcome will show whether the statism practised by President Mubarak can assert itself – or the neo-liberal elite supported by his son Gamal Mubarak. Stephan Roll reports on a dramatic conflict that is set to determine the country's fortunes
Whether Gamal Mubarak will be the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) candidate in the 2011 presidential election is one of the most discussed questions in Egypt today. Campaigns have sprung up in Egypt and abroad to collect signatures in support of his candidacy – an apparent attempt to counter similar campaigns in support of former International Atomic Energy Association head Mohammed ElBaradei, and perhaps to force the ruling elite's hand – but they are a side show.
Much more crucial will be President Hosni Mubarak's state of health, the degree of unity within the elite regarding Gamal's candidacy, and the future course of the country. For the first time in Egypt's modern history, the business elite are playing a role in the succession question, but it is still not clear whether that role will be decisive.
The stalled rise of the new guard
The new guard of businessmen affiliated to Gamal, which saw a remarkable rise inside the NDP from 2000 onward and has dominated the cabinet since 2004 under the leadership of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, recently seems to have peaked. Particularly in the last two years – coinciding with the global recession and increasing protests at the new guard's neoliberal economic agenda – there has been a shift inside the NDP.
While President Mubarak has headed the party since 1981, the party's six-member general secretariat shows an even balance between the old guard represented by Secretary General Safwat al-Sharif, Presidential Chief of Staff Zakaria Azmi, and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Shehab, and the new guard represented by Deputy Secretary General Gamal Mubarak, Secretary for Organizational Affairs Ahmed Ezz, and Secretary for Information Ali Hilal al-Dessouki.
Old guard figures dominated the NDP congress in 2009 much more than other gatherings in recent years, and Safwat al-Sharif reportedly played the primary role in nominating NDP candidates for the June 2010 Shura Council elections. Regarding policies, old guard NDP leaders have become publicly critical of the Nazif government's reform plans, provoking a slowdown in the government's privatization course.
The role of the state within the economy
The old guard's motivation within this power game is transparent. The new guard stands for an economic course that benefits the business elite and restricts the role of the state within the economy. This hurts the interests of the old guard, whose most important source of power has been the state, including the inflated public sector and bureaucracy.
Leading members of the old guard have resisted the rising influence of the "political businessmen" who have intensively supported Gamal Mubarak's political career. Among the prominent examples of businessmen close to the NDP who have accumulated vast wealth due to economic reforms are steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, ceramics businessman Muhammad Abul Einein, and the two tycoons Mohamed Mansour and Ahmed El-Maghrabi.
Zakaria Azmi has led the resistance to such newcomers via his various functions as presidential chief of staff, NDP deputy secretary general, and member of parliament. Azmi engaged in verbal confrontations with NDP businessmen during parliamentary sessions, and it was probably due to his advice that President Mubarak has so far retained certain senior government officials. They include Chairman of the Central Auditing Agency Gawdat al-Malt, who has criticized the new guard's reform agenda, and Central Bank head Farouk al-Okdah, who has remained politically independent of Gamal's group.
Azmi's greatest success, however, was the weakening of the powerful Alexandrian business shilla (clique) within the cabinet, which included Minister of Transport Mohamed Mansour, Minister of Housing Ahmed El-Maghrabi (Mansour's cousin), and Minister of Industry Rashid Mohamed Rashid.
According to press reports, Azmi played a decisive role in the forced resignation of Mansour as transportation minister in 2009 following a serious train accident. Azmi is also rumoured to have been behind the highly publicized presidential decree cancelling a land deal that involved Palm Hills Development, a company in which the Mansour and El-Maghrabi families are the main shareholders.
The military as holder of the balance of power
So far, the military leadership has kept out of the power struggle between old and new guards inside the party and the government. In general, this neutrality seems to serve the interests of the old guard, as a positive signal by important military officers regarding the new guard and Gamal Mubarak would certainly give them a boost. There are several reasons for this neutrality.
First, President Mubarak has worked assiduously at cultivating political neutrality and absolute loyalty to the president in the military for 30 years, and it has become an ingrained habit.
Second, many officers might share the concerns of the old guard regarding the new guard agenda, which would lead logically to eventual limits on the power of the military and its many economic and other perquisites.
Third, there are many personal connections between the old guard and the military leadership. Zakaria Azmi and Safwat al-Sharif, for example, have military backgrounds and are from the same generation as Director of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman, with whom they have worked for decades.
Finally, there might well be individual ambitions within the military regarding the presidency; the name most often raised in this context is Air Marshal Ahmed Muhammad Shafiq, the former Egyptian Air Force commander and current Minister for Civil Aviation.
Gamal in the middle
Gamal Mubarak thus faces a dilemma: if he breaks away from his current supporters to cultivate the support of the old guard, for example by cooling his enthusiasm for the neo-liberal economic course, he is in danger of turning the powerful business elite against him (as well as going against his own instincts).
On the other hand, if he retains his current supporters, the resistance of the old guard and possibly the military against his presidential ambitions could intensify. The old guard and the military could push for a transitional successor to President Mubarak – for example the powerful and Omar Suleiman, who apparently enjoys some popularity due to the perception that he is not corrupt – but whether this person would vacate the position for Gamal in the future would be far from certain.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for late November will be an indication of the trend within the NDP and could change the current power configuration once again. If candidates supported by the new guard were to win a clear majority of NDP seats, this could help Gamal to marginalize the old guard and enhance his chances of becoming the ruling party candidate.
Recent reports about candidate registration, however, suggest that many old guard members want to run for parliament, and their names will not be easily deleted from the nomination list. In any case, the ailing Hosni Mubarak might well decide to run again in 2011 if his health permits, keeping the decade-running battle over succession going for another year or two.
This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin.
Stephan Roll is a researcher with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de