Walk Like an Egyptian


Lebanon's daily Al-Nahar has a front-page article in its Sunday edition (in Arabic), written by its correspondent in Cairo, describing the resignation of Ibrahim Sa'da, chairman of the board and editor in chief of the state-owned daily Akhbar al-Yom. The writer sees the event as a sign of growing disarray in the Egyptian leadership, but also a reflection of the tension caused by President Hosni Mubarak's efforts to have his son Gamal succeed him.

Sa'da as well as the editor of two other government papers, Al-Ahram and Al-Goumhouria, have come under pressure from journalists to resign, given that all are older than the mandatory retirement age of 65. All are also close to Mubarak, so that the efforts to dislodge them are also, partly, ways of expressing displeasure with the regime.

However, here is where things get complicated: Sa'da, in his resignation letter published on the front page of his newspaper, criticized, among others, the Politics Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), headed by Gamal Mubarak, as well as the secretary-general of the NDP, Safwat Sharif, who as information minister once ruled supreme over Egypt's media, and President Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, who is believed to be pushing Gamal's succession with maternal fervor.

In other words the row is essentially a regime affair. The struggle for succession is being depicted by Gamal and his allies as a generational struggle, something familiar to those who follow politics in Syria, where Bashar Assad has been dining out for the past five years on the notion that progress is being blocked by an "old guard." Perhaps it is somewhat, but, as in Syria, proponents of this convenient line rarely consider whether father-to-son successions in a republic are in any way signs of newness and "modernity." Indeed, neither in Egypt nor Syria had family succession been a norm since independence; on the contrary, before Bashar, and now Gamal, the idea was unheard of.

One optimist is Rami G. Khouri, my colleague at the Daily Star, who has just published a column suggesting that Egyptian politics are awakening after a half-century of slumber. The reason? American pressure on the Egyptian government (and Rami has been a perennial agnostic about Bush administration policy in the region):

In the meantime, the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States had generated a new foreign policy in Washington that suddenly equated Egyptian reform with American national security. The U.S. and Europe softly pressured and nudged Egypt toward democratic reforms, including via direct telephone conversations between President George W. Bush and Mubarak, and some private dressing downs of senior Egyptian ministers by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington.

Egyptian activists took advantage of the space that opened up to challenge the regime peacefully. They started raising issues that had been taboo, like the fate of Egyptians in police detention for years. Even members of the establishment who want change became active, such as former Prime Minister Aziz Sidqi who heads one of the many reform groups now active in the country.

Other observers are more skeptical. The head of the Middle East program at an American think-tank told me last week that the Egyptian regime would only give in where it felt it could do so, without prejudicing its control over society. He said that the U.S. administration was willing to accept cosmetic democratic changes in exchange for heightened Egyptian cooperation on counter-terrorism.

The key question is whether change can be calibrated without the Egyptian regime's, at some stage, losing control of matters. The optimists see any change as creating momentum for more and better; the pessimists believe that well-calculated, ultimately "absorbable" concessions by the regime can, in fact, undermine such momentum. With Mubarak now 77 years old, we may not have to wait long to see who's right.