Sunday 28 February 2010

Who Will Succeed the Pharaoh?

The reports last week of the return to Egypt by former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei, caught my attention. During his 12 years as the head of the IAEA, he was a public figure and, particularly in connection with his work on the Iranian nuclear program, captured many world headlines. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 added to his international standing. There is the impression that certain elements of Egyptian society have been waiting for his triumphant return to his homeland for some time. ElBaradei has been mooted as a possible future president of Egypt, something which ElBaradei himself appears willing to contemplate. But how realistic is this possibility?

The current Pharaoh of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for almost 30 years. He assumed the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He was "re-elected" in 1987,1993, 1999. These "elections" involved being elected by the Peoples' Assembly (which is controlled by his National Democratic Party) , and then confirmed by a national referendum. The Egyptian constitution, which was in place at the time, restricted anyone from running against the president in the referendum. In 2005, a constitutional change was passed which allowed for multi-candidate presidential elections. The election held in 2005 saw Mubarak use every state tool and trick in the book available to him (legitimate and otherwise) to secure himself victory in a "democratic" election. According to the official results, Mubarak gained almost 90% of the votes cast with a voter turnout of little more than 20%. The runner-up in the election, Dr. Ayman Nour, was arrested after the vote and sentenced to five years hard labour after being convicted of forgery.

Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt by presidential decree for 29 years. The state of emergency, which was declared following Sadat's assassination, has never been lifted. As president, Mubarak appoints the prime minister and cabinet. If there is dissatisfaction, or if things are not undertaken to the president's liking, he will accept the resignation of the prime minister and cabinet, and appoint a replacement. By convention, it is the president who controls defence and foreign affairs policy and the prime minister manages day-to-day affairs including the economy. During the time of Mubarak's presidency, he has appointed 7 prime ministers. Even though the position does exist, Mubarak has never appointed a deputy president.

Mubarak and his family have become entangled in corruption scandals. It is reputed that his sons Alaa and Gamal have been favoured with government tenders and privatisations. Political corruption appears widespread, with imprisonments and detentions without trial commonplace. It is charged that the Interior Ministry is an engine that has been constructed to support the continuation of the Mubarak presidency in Egypt. Transparency International, an organisation addressing corruption around the world awarded Egypt a Corruption Perceptions Index score of 2.8 out of a possible 10 awarded to clean countries, giving Egypt the 115th position out of 180 countries in their report.

The Pharaoh is now 81 years old, and even though he will continue to hang on to power for as long as he can, even he cannot continue in the job forever. Inevitably, attention has turned to speculating about who his successor could be. Mubarak's elder son, Alaa, left the political scene in 2000 which was the same time that younger son, Gamal, began making his presence in the National Democratic Party felt. This has resulted in the accusation that Mubarak is grooming Gamal to take over the presidency from his father. Although this has been denied by both father and son, it is difficult to escape the feeling that this is the case.

When Mohammed ElBaradei returned home last week after more than 20 years of living abroad, the succession discussion was instantly reignited. Due to having lived outside of Egypt for so long, he is untainted by the widespread corruption that dogs the Egyptian political scene. He is viewed as the saviour of Egypt by the democratic movement. In his first televised interview since returning to Egypt, ElBaradei criticised Mubarak by saying that Egypt has stagnated under his presidency, and that corruption is rife.

Examining this situation from an Israeli angle changes the view somewhat. Israel's relations with its Arab neighbours are considered in fairly black and white terms. With some neighbours, Israel has peace and with others not. In these terms, Israel has peace with Egypt and no conflicts of any significance have arisen between Egypt and Israel during the period of Mubarak's presidency. The peace treaty signed by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, has held. Even though it would be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that trade between the two countries has blossomed or that tourism between the two countries has multiplied, sometimes less is more. In Israeli terms, a peaceful border is more than we could have expected, and this is considered as successful as can be anticipated. In addition, there has been increasing cooperation between Egypt and Israel on the important matter of the Gaza Strip. Gaza, with a lengthy Egyptian border and numerous tunnels that have been dug under the Egyptian border fence for the supply of arms and domestic goods, presents almost as much of a challenge to Egypt as it does to Israel. Although Egypt has not succeeded in putting an entire stop to anti-Israel activities in Gaza, there have been efforts on Egypt's behalf to assist Israel where possible.

So how does Israel view the possible successors to the Pharaoh? Israel has already experienced situations of family successions, of sons succeeding their fathers, amongst its neighbours. In Jordan, Abdullah took over after the death of his father Hussein, and Bashar is ruling Syria after the death of his father Hafez. In both cases, the sons concentrated their first efforts on strengthening their ruling position in the country before addressing other issues. In both cases, the sons continued their fathers' policies towards Israel. If Gamal was to succeed Hosni and continue the current Egyptian policy towards Israel, this represents a level of stability for Israel's relations with Egypt, and this would be welcome.

If, however, ElBaradei or another democratic candidate was to succeed Mubarak, the implications for Israel would be less clear. In his role at the International Atomic Energy Agency, I never really got the impression that ElBaradei had a great deal of time for Israel. Even when the agency was discovering new Iranian nuclear facilities and was not gaining much cooperation from Iran in allowing further international investigation, somehow ElBaradei always appeared unwilling to address or acknowledge the threat that this presents to Israel. It was only right at the end of his tenure, when the facts were so overwhelming, did we finally see ElBaradei make a clearer stand on this matter. Perhaps he knew that he was leaving his job, and did not care about the consequences of such a stand? It is hard to know.

Although I am a supporter of democracy, it feels strange for me to be saying that I am not such a great supporter of democracy for Egypt. The reason is not that I am anti-democracy, not even for the long-suffering Egyptians who may not be quite ready to confront this style of government. The reason is simply because of the uncertainty that the introduction of democracy in Egypt would bring to Israel. This is especially true if somebody like ElBaradei is crowned the new Pharaoh. At this time, when Israel is already fighting a war on two borders, a democratic Egypt is a scary prospect.

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