- By Blake Hounshell
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.
For Egypt watchers, thrilled as they no doubt were to read Hosni Mubarak’s private ruminations on Iran or his advisors’ insistence that Egyptian diplomacy is still a force for peace in the Middle East, we’re just now getting to the good stuff.
WikiLeaks has released a fresh batch of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and these make for much more interesting reading.
Many of them deal with the very sensitive question of whether Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, will succeed his father (one particularly frank cable calls this issue “the elephant in the room of Egyptian politics”), and there are some revealing nuggets on that score.
In one cable, Hosni regales Frank Ricciardone, then the U.S. ambassador, and a visiting congressman with some rare fatherly insights on Gamal — whom he describes as a perfectionist:
“As a schoolboy, if I gave him a notebook with one line that was not straight, he would throw a fit and demand a new one,” Mubarak laughed. Furthermore, Gamal is “idealistic” and “punctual.” Mubarak added, “If he (Gamal) says, ‘meet me for lunch at 2:00,’ he means 2:00. Set your watch by it.”
Presidential material! In the same cable, Hosni says he exercises each afternoon when he’s in Cairo, but when he retreats to his beach house in Sharm el-Sheikh, on the Sinai coast, “I just relax — no exercise.” He also misremembers Gamal’s age at one point. Here’s the best bit, tagged as sensitive/no foreign:
Throughout the meeting, Mubarak was expansive and in fine humor. He rose easily from his seat several times to point out activity on the golf course and to be photographed with his visitors. He engaged the visitors extensively on the topic of food, stressing that his favorite fare is Egyptian popular breakfast dishes, such as tamiya (felafel) and foul (beans). He ordered up a huge tray of freshly made tamiya sandwiches for lunch, and lustily consumed several.
(I had always heard that Hosni was big on shrimp while he was in Sharm, but I guess he’s got to keep it real.)
Other Cairo cables are more analytical, delving into various succession scenarios, comparing Mubarak to his predecessor Anwar Sadat, and evaluating the Egyptian military, which unnamed Egyptian interlocutors portray as “in intellectual and social decline,” albeit still deeply enmeshed in the economy.
But the question of what happens when “pharaoh” dies hangs over all. The embassy’s thinking, at least at the time the cables were written, seems to be that Gamal wants the job despite his public disavowals, and that the upper ranks of the military will ultimately accept him even though he was never an officer and doesn’t seem to have completed his Army service. As one cable puts it:
We agree with the analysis that senior military officers would support Gamal if Mubarak resigned and installed him in the presidency, as it is difficult to imagine opposition from these officers who depend on the president and defense minister for their jobs and material perks. In a messier succession scenario, however, it becomes more difficult to predict the military’s actions. While mid-level officers do not necessarily share their superiors’ fealty to the regime, the military’s built-in firewalls and communication breaks make it unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader.
Another cable assesses that, “Despite palpable public hostility to his succession, and potential stumbling blocks, the way forward for Gamal currently appears open.”
There is one main alternative possibility, spy chief and national security advisor Omar Suleiman, who appears in several of the documents. Here’s the juiciest reference (ignore the embassy’s strange spelling of his name):
Egyptian intelligence chief and mubarak consigliere, in past years Soliman was often cited as likely to be named to the long-vacant vice-presidential post. In the past two years, Soliman has stepped out of the shadows, and allowed himself to be photographed, and his meetings with foreign leaders reported. Many of our contacts believe that Soliman, because of his military background, would at the least have to figure in any succession scenario for Gamal, possibly as a transitional figure. Soliman himself adamantly denies any personal ambitions, but his interest and dedication to national service is obvious. His loyalty to Mubarak seems rock-solid. At age 71, he could be attractive to the ruling apparatus and the public at large as a reliable figure. Unlikely to harbor ambitions for another multi-decade presidency. A key unanswered question is how he would respond to a Gamal presidency once Mubarak is dead. An alleged personal friend of Soliman tells us that Soliman “detests” the idea of Gamal as president, and that he also was “deeply personally hurt” by Mubarak, who promised to name him vice-president several years ago, but then reneged.
Good stuff. (Oddly, though, the writer doesn’t note that as a military man, Suleiman isn’t currently eligible to be president — he’d have to either step down from his current position and join the ruling party for at least a year before running, or carry out some sort of coup.) [UPDATE: It seems I may be wrong on this. See below.]
Overall, the cables should put to bed the notion that the United States is plotting to install “Jimmy,” as some Egyptians jokingly refer to the Westernized Mubarak heir. As one signed by Ricciardone reads, “Despite incessant whispered discussions, no one in Egypt has any certainty about who will succeed Mubarak, or how the succession will happen. Mubarak himself seems to be trusting to God and the inertia of the military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition.”
UPDATE: Egypt expert Nathan Brown emails a correction: “The constitutional amendments of 2007 do allow for a Suleiman candidacy. There are two ways to nominate a presidential candidate. One is to have an existing party with parliamentary representation to make a nomination. The other is to gather signatures from a bunch of elected officials. Suleiman could be nominated through the latter route; that step would require (politically, not legally) that the NDP to refrain from nominating someone. I think the 2007 amendments make it most likely that either Gamal or an old-guard NDP member who is still a senior leader be named, but a non-NDP leader is still a constitutional possibility.”