Daily Sun, February 2nd., 2011
M Serajul Islam
After 30 years of absolute power, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak is fighting for his political life. The effects of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that ended with his fellow dictator Mr Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia after 23 years of dictatorial rule has now reached Egypt where more than a 100 demonstrators have been killed with the disturbances in the streets getting stronger.
In panic moves, the President has reached out to the military and intelligence to help him tide over the predicament into which he has now fallen. He dismissed the Government and named former Air Chief General Ahmad Shafiq as the new Prime Minister. He followed this by naming General Omar Suleiman, a close confidant and chief of intelligence, as the Vice-President. General Suleiman had persuaded President Mubarak to travel in an armoured car on a visit to Ethiopia in 1995 that saved his life as the car in which he was supposed to travel was riddled with bullets.
Only a few months ago, the President was in full control to do pretty much what he liked with the politics of the country. In the parliamentary elections, his intelligence and security services ensured that the ruling National Democratic Party did not have any opposition. By intimidation and outright fraudulent means, the NDP returned to power with 420 or 81 percent of the seats with 68 going to independent candidates. The Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd Party that had chances of winning some seats were forced out of the election process.
The President and his intelligence and security forces indulged in more than the usual arm twisting tactics in the last elections as he had in mind the desire of passing the mantle of power within the family. The chosen successor was Mr Gamal Nasser, the President’s younger son whom he had carefully nurtured for the post by placing him at key posts in the party over the last decade and more. Unlike his predecessors who had a Vice-President as the heir-apparent, President Mubarak dispensed with the post upon becoming President. In fact, he was able to become the President without any questions asked because he was President Sadat’s Vice-President at the time the latter was assassinated in 1981.
President Mubarak’s decision to name General Omar Suleiman as the Vice-President after refusing one for the last 30 years reflects a few realities. First, his situation is desperate as he attempts to save himself from the fate that has befallen former Tunisian President Ben Ali. Second, it has ruled out the possibility of President Mubarak handing power to his son who has since left the country, overtly on some official errand but in reality to safety. It has also underscored the fact that politically he and his regime have long since lost the people’s support and confidence. The NDP that is supposed to have support across the country having won the last elections so overwhelmingly has simply vanished. Even the police have reportedly joined sides with the demonstrators.
Thirty years of systematic and ruthless subjugation of political opposition has left Egypt without any political party or organised political force to lead the country once the regime of Mubarak is toppled. Some quarters have therefore expressed the apprehension that the banned Muslim Brotherhood that has organised itself outside politics in professional and other bodies would seize power and lead Egypt towards Islamic fundamentalism. In Cairo’s Tahreer Square, where the demonstrators assembled, the members of the Brotherhood were clearly visible in quite a significant number together with women clad in the veil and praying. However, the majority of the demonstrators as seen on TV coverage are young people together with people of other ages representing Egypt’s largely secular population.
The entry of Noble Laureate Dr Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the people’s upsurge is encouraging. In an interview to CNN, Dr ElBaradei has said that he is leading all groups in Egyptian society. He added that the aim of the movement is to bring down the dictatorial regime and hold elections soon afterwards to bring to office a government that is truly the people’s choice. Since expressing his intention for contesting the next Presidential election from which he was subsequently technically ruled out, Dr ElBaradei has captured the attention of many Egy-¬ptians as their hope of ending dictatorship in the country.
For the moment though it is the military that is holding the power and the public seems to be accepting it although the presence of General Suleiman is not something that they like because he led the oppressive security forces with which the regime has subjugated political opposition over the years. This notwithstanding, there is apprehension that if the demonstrations spread further or the military is compelled to shoot and kill, there could be pressures from the middle and lower ranks of the military that are conservative with Islamic preferences unlike the upper brass which is largely secular and pro-west.
The next few days will be crucial for Egypt. If the military succeeds in holding on to power without the need to kill any more demonstrators and could blame the earlier killings on the security forces, then there is chance that they could oversee a peaceful transition out of the present impasse. A breakdown of military authority leading to further chaos and bloodshed could set the stage for a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood with their social organisation already in place and with their banned political leaders waiting in the wings to come out and take charge with the security forces on the defensive. The chances of Dr ElBaradei gaining power as head of an interim government and oversee a democratic election is also possible because the United Sates and the western powers could very well negotiate with Egypt’s military to put him as the head of an interim government to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from making a bid for political power.
In any of the above possibilities, President Muba-rak’s best option seems to hope for a safe exit for himself and his family. In General Suleiman; General Ahmad Shafiq and two other Generals who hold behind-the-stage power in Egypt today, namely Defence Minister Moham-med Hussein Tantawi who controls the Republican Guards and Lt General Sami Anan, chief of staff of the armed forces, he has his trusted Generals and allies to give him that exit if they themselves can hold on to power.
President Hosni Mub-arak for all practical purposes is now in the twilight days of his 30-year-long stranglehold on political power of Egypt.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt and a former secretary.