Sunday, November 1, 2009

Egypt’s Moments of Decision?

By Barry Rubin

The two main and contending political forces in Egypt—the government and the Muslim Brotherhood—are both facing the choice of a new leader. Will they make a clear decision or postpone their decisions?

Regarding the government, the ruling National Democratic Party is holding its annual meeting. Everyone is asking: will it endorse Gamal Mubarak, 46, son of the current 81-year-old president, as the country’s next leader? While President Husni Mubarak has been building up his son, the incumbent has not crossed over into definitely indicating that this is his choice of successor.

Gamal has his supporters but he could be a disastrous choice. On the positive side, he is friendly to the West, a technocrat who might handle the economy well, and a man oriented toward internal affairs who would be unlikely to cause much international trouble or seek regional leadership.

On the negative side, he might be too Westernized and not a good enough politician to rule, nor would he probably be a strong leader in opposing Iran and the Islamist forces.

The disdain in the country’s leading circles is to see—as happened in Syria—the regime become a dynastic one. The fear is that an inept or unpopular Gamal could boost the Muslim Brotherhood’s prospects for taking power in future.

The next election is scheduled for 2011, assuming Husni can continue that long, and the government’s candidate will win. But will the big decision be made now so that Gamal can start to settle into the role and neutralize any opposition while his father will be around to help him, or will it be postponed to the last possible moment—and perhaps too late—in which case there could be some serious internal rifts and a possibly unprepared successor would lead a divided establishment?

At any rate, the longer Husni Mubarak takes to make and implement a decision, the worse.

Then there’s the Muslim Brotherhood. The 81-year-old hardline leader Muhammad Mehdi Akef has reportedly stepped down and the hardline number 2, Muhammad Habib, has stepped in, though there’s confusion as to whether or not this has actually happened.

One almost never sees in the Western media either examples of the Brotherhood's bloodcurdling statemens in Arabic or of the radical proposals Brotherhood representatives make in parliament. For examples of such things see here and here. Yóu'll also be able to read more about the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in my forthcoming new book The Muslim Brotherhood: A Global Islamist Movement (Palgrave-Macmillan).

There are some relative moderates in the Brotherhood—and the word “relative” should be taken seriously—who are brilliant at international public relations. They have persuaded various journalists and think-tank types that they are actually moderate and really have some chance of gaining the leadership, both questionable propositions.

In this context, though, the line is that it’s all the government’s fault. If it only didn’t repress the Brotherhood the group would become more moderate. This is questionable thinking since a stronger Brotherhood under radical leadership would both consolidate the hard line and destabilize Egypt.

Thus, we are given various hollow promises by the self-described moderates who are happy to say what they think will sell in the West. Here’s how one recent article puts it:

"`The policies of repression and arrests make it very difficult" to move toward a more moderate Brotherhood because they strengthen conservatives in the group.”

The claim that they want to imitate the Justice and Development Party which rules Turkey is hardly encouraging given the fact that the Turkish group is moving steadily toward Islamism. In other words, it isn’t that they are more moderate but merely willing to pretend that they are so until they get into power.

Thus we are told:

“Essam el-Erian, a 55-year old doctor and Brotherhood member for almost 35 years, is widely known as a moderate voice in the organization. He has been reported to accept the principle of women and Christians running for the presidency—counter to the group's official line—to agree with greater cooperation with the West, and has been reported to say that it's time to accept Israel as a reality with a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Sure, and I had lunch with the Easter Bunny yesterday and he offered to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. Note the key word in the above paragraph—“has been reported.” Erian hasn’t said it publicly or to the reporters, he just lets it be known to those who want to think that way, in the same manner that Hamas and Hizballah drop hints that they are ready to become more moderate in English to reporters and Western officials and then make 100 extremist statements in Arabic.

The above analysis is a bit too cynical. There no doubt are Brotherhood members who are fed up and would like to see their group be more flexible but they are few in number, have no influence, and will never take over. The siren song that the government should let the Brotherhood have more freedom of action would be a prelude to disaster.

This battle between government and Egypt’s problems, between government and Brotherhood, and perhaps inside each of these two warring institutions is going to be a feature of the country’s life for years to come. We are awaiting the stage to be set for the next step in those conflicts.

There will almost certainly be a succession in Egypt in the next few months. The question is whether there will be a succession crisis.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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