Hereditary Succession in Egypt

Keeping Up Democratic Appearances

Jordan has a hereditary monarchy, in Syria dictatorial power has been passed on from father to son. In Egypt, too, though formally a democracy, the handover of power is looking more than likely to be a family affair. Jürgen Stryjak reports

Hosni Mubarak on an election campaing poster in Cairo (photo: AP)
Humility is, apparently, not for Egypt's leader: The heads of state of eleven Arab nations are positioned below Hosni Mubarak, the "Leader of the Arab umma"

​​In autumn 2004, an Egyptian student magazine ran a cover story listing the contributions to human civilisation made by the Arab world during its inventive heyday in the Middle Ages. Now, the magazine went on to suggest, the Arabs were about to provide the world with yet another achievement: hereditary democracy.

Though the article made no mention of the Egyptian president, the feared handover of political power from Mubarak senior to Mubarak junior was clearly at the root of the cynicism and irony behind the protest.

Even in 2004, such student fears were not without justification. In Tahrir Square, near the Egyptian Museum in the heart of downtown Cairo, a four-storey-high poster appeared at around the same time as the article.

Image transfer à l'Egyptien

The poster showed Gamal Mubarak, son of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, alongside the five Egyptian medal winners from the Olympic Games in Athens. It had been the country's biggest Olympic medal haul for 56 years. Evidently the chance of basking in some of the reflected glory was something the regime was reluctant to pass up on.

For the country's critical intellectuals this was not simply an example of "image transfer", as it is known in advertising jargon, but rather a portentous warning and one that has triggered heated debate, a clear indication that Gamal is now being publicly groomed to follow in his father's footsteps, and proof positive of the country's final desertion of democratic principles.

In October of the same year, the "Kifaya" protest movement published its manifesto, "Egyptian Movement for Change", a document which, above all, raised its voice in protest against the possibility of presidential succession.

"Enough is enough!"

"Kifaya" roughly translates as "enough is enough". The gloomy prospect of Mubarak the younger waiting in the wings to follow on from the near quarter century of autocratic rule perpetrated by his father is one that is inspiring the protestors, a group embodying a broad political spectrum that includes the left, liberals and fundamentalist Islam.

photo: AP
Members of the Kifaya movement shout anti-Mubarak slogans during a rally in Cairo, May 2005, where the referendum to change the constitution for multi-candidate presidential elections took place

​​What followed was a brief taste of unwonted freedom for Egyptian civil society and one that in retrospect has taken on an illusory, mirage-like quality. In early 2005, Mubarak senior announced the first more or less free presidential elections, with multiple candidates, for September 7 of that year.

The leader of the liberal "Al-Ghad" party, which was surprisingly granted official approval six months ago, gained eight per cent of the votes in the subsequent election, coming second behind Mubarak. Opposition newspapers, formerly banned, were now allowed to begin publishing again, and others began to appear.

Short-lived freedom

Suddenly even the president was fair game for criticism. The country's independent media were now openly criticising him, as indeed were some of those usually loyal to the state.

In their regular speeches and interviews, both father and son have been at pains to deny rumours of any impending transfer of power within the family. This was most notable in an interview given by Hosni Mubarak on an American TV channel prior to the last presidential election.

Ayman Nour, seen through the bars of the defendant's dock (photo: AP)
Leading government opponent Ayman Nour listens to the verdict as he is sentenced to five years' imprisonment for forgery

​​Asked who, if not himself, the senior, should run for election, Mubarak answered: "Not what you think!" An answer that brought smiles to the faces of both presenter and president, though there was a hint of irritation as Mubarak added that, certain elements were using theses rumours about his son because they needed something to criticise, and to fuel their propaganda. It was something, he claimed, that had never crossed their minds.

But Hosni Mubarak has governed since 1981 and is in his fifth term of office; he will be 80 next year. Son Gamal is seen as someone who can be trusted, as efficient and a modernizer. The 43-year-old investment banker, a graduate of the "American University of Cairo", has worked in London and is favoured by the Egyptian economic elite.

The appointment of reforming economists, technocrats and managers to ministerial posts has been put down to his influence. The current economic growth of seven per cent is credited to him. Already, after a meteoric rise, he is the second most powerful man in the country.

Popular autocrat

The Mubarak family firm with the patriarch at the helm, held securely in his iron fist, guarantees the kind of stability that many ordinary people believe is necessary to steer the country through troubled waters in a region where many neighbouring countries are threatening to sink into chaos. It is by no means unthinkable, therefore, that the president's son might actually win an election.

A referendum which delivered a victory for Gamal Mubarak, even where this was due to lack of alternatives, would still, nominally, be democratic. Possibly because of this, since the autumn of 2005, the opposition has been finding itself exposed to an ever-increasing degree of repression. Civil liberties are being increasingly abused.

The beacon of hope that was the "Al-Ghad" party has been reduced to an irrelevance. On the flimsiest of pretexts the party leader, Ayman Nour, found himself the victim of what amounted to a show trial followed by conviction and a five-year prison sentence.

Tough on opposition

Independent newspaper editors critical of the regime were brought to trial and the country's constitution amended by new regulations that make it impossible for the secular civil opposition in its current weakened state to put up candidates for the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the only relevant opposition force, is tolerated, but also illegal, and so in no position to put up a candidate.

Critics of the regime such as the sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim or the writer Alaa Al-Aswani believe Mubarak is using this to frighten the West. The message is: the alternative to me is Islamic fundamentalism!

Apart from the representatives of Mubarak's ruling NDP party, there is no one who is currently in a position to fulfil the necessary conditions for presidential candidacy. Besides, the most recent constitutional amendment makes membership of a so-called party supreme council mandatory.

Putting a democratic face on succession

At the party conference in Cairo in early November Mubarak's NDP set up this very council, with son Gamal as a member – a clear step in the direction of hereditary succession in the guise of democracy as far as the opposition is concerned.

The dynamic son of the president is not without a flaw, however. He did not have a military career. A serious defect, since for decades, the political ruling class in Egypt has relied on the support of the powerful military.

The changeover from father to son, according to experts, can therefore only take place while Hosni Mubarak, former fighter pilot and head of the air force, is still alive. The next presidential elections are not scheduled until 2011.

Jürgen Stryjak

© 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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