Egypt’s emerging political intrigue

Egypt hasn’t generated many international headlines in recent years. It’s been some time since its government played much of a leadership role in the region, and Egypt didn’t suffer as much damage from the global economic slowdown as most other emerging markets. Things have been pretty quiet. But underneath the surface, the transition toward a ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
569267_mubarak3.jpg
569267_mubarak3.jpg
Gamal Mubarak, the eldest son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, waits in a lounge during an international summit focusing on the Gaza crisis in Sharm el-Sheikh on January 18, 2009. European and Middle Eastern leaders held a summit in Egypt aimed at shoring up a fragile truce in the three-week war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. It convened as Palestinian armed groups offered a one-week truce in response to the unilateral ceasefire declared by Israel. AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt hasn't generated many international headlines in recent years. It's been some time since its government played much of a leadership role in the region, and Egypt didn't suffer as much damage from the global economic slowdown as most other emerging markets. Things have been pretty quiet.

But underneath the surface, the transition toward a post-Hosni Mubarak era is starting to get interesting. President Mubarak's son Gamal has been steadily building a case to become Egypt's next president with both his father and the country's military leadership. Despite hesitation from both, authorities pushed through constitutional changes in 2007 that smoothed Gamal's path to power. For the past two years, he has worked to persuade the military brass--Egypt's real powerbrokers--that his ambitious economic reform plans will not undermine their financial interests or political influence.

But over the past few months, two developments have created genuine uncertainty about what comes next. First, President Mubarak, now 82, has struggled with a serious illness, increasing the risk that he might be forced to relinquish power for health reasons or even die before the next election (in 2011) and before his son has closed the deal on succession. Second, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has emerged as a surprise independent player in Egyptian politics.  

Egypt hasn’t generated many international headlines in recent years. It’s been some time since its government played much of a leadership role in the region, and Egypt didn’t suffer as much damage from the global economic slowdown as most other emerging markets. Things have been pretty quiet.

But underneath the surface, the transition toward a post-Hosni Mubarak era is starting to get interesting. President Mubarak’s son Gamal has been steadily building a case to become Egypt’s next president with both his father and the country’s military leadership. Despite hesitation from both, authorities pushed through constitutional changes in 2007 that smoothed Gamal’s path to power. For the past two years, he has worked to persuade the military brass–Egypt’s real powerbrokers–that his ambitious economic reform plans will not undermine their financial interests or political influence.

But over the past few months, two developments have created genuine uncertainty about what comes next. First, President Mubarak, now 82, has struggled with a serious illness, increasing the risk that he might be forced to relinquish power for health reasons or even die before the next election (in 2011) and before his son has closed the deal on succession. Second, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has emerged as a surprise independent player in Egyptian politics.  

The past few weeks have added to the intrigue. President Mubarak, now home from hospital following gall bladder surgery in Germany, faces unprecedented pressure to send a clear signal about what he wants to happen next. The safe play would be to name a vice president from among his inner circle, someone like Security Chief Omar Suleiman or presidential chief of staff Zakaria Azmi. Either would represent continuity and reassure an increasingly anxious military. But the president appears reluctant to take such a definitive step.

He could also bow to domestic and international pressure to amend Egypt’s constitution to allow for a more open electoral process and a genuinely contested presidential election. But ElBaradei’s popularity, his unexpectedly high political profile since returning to Egypt from the IAEA, and the real possibility that he could win an open election make that decision unlikely.

As a result, Hosni Mubarak, in power for nearly three decades, will likely brush aside questions about his health and signal that he intends to run for yet another term.

That would leave Gamal in a tough spot. ElBaraadei’s rise has raised new fears within the military that Gamal is not the strongest choice. If the current president dies before the election, the military might well stage a soft coup (since legally, it’s now difficult for anyone within the ruling party but Gamal to capture the party’s presidential nomination). If the military decides this bold move would jeopardize relations with Washington, Gamal might be allowed to run and win. But he would find himself, at least initially, a president with far less power than his father has enjoyed.

Then there’s the longer-term uncertainty.  No matter who succeeds Hosni Mubarak, ElBaradei has captured the imagination of a segment of Egypt’s population hungry for change, a diverse range of supporters that includes a meaningful percentage of the public, a number of public intellectuals, and even a portion of the conservative elite. He’s also shaken things up by taking a less confrontational approach than anyone now in government to the Muslim Brotherhood, a position that Egypt’s military will not accept.

ElBaradei probably won’t run for president next year, but he and his supporters seem willing to play an interesting role in Egypt’s political future as a catalyst for anti-establishment protest via civil disobedience. These protests won’t immediately shake the foundations of Egypt’s political establishment, but it’s been a long time since the country had a relatively weak president and a potentially potent opposition.

That will make life much less predictable within what has long been one of the world’s most stable autocracies.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? (Portfolio, May 2010) 

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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