President Husni Mubarak has turned one of the most powerful and influential Muslim countries into Uncle Sam's errand boy – humiliating Egypt, its people and Muslims at large in the process. The time is coming to be rid of him, his colleagues, collaborators and intended successors. He has wielded absolute power since succeeding president Anwar Sadat in 1981, although he is seeking a fifth term in office at the ripe age of 76 years. All he can show for his long years in office is the successful suppression of Islamic groups, the total corruption of the country's political, economic and judicial systems, and the unflinching promotion of US and Israeli interests in the region. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, thanked him in public recently for leaning on Palestinian Islamic groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to agree to a ceasefire deal they would have preferred to reject.
Mubarak naturally, but unconvincingly, rejects all these charges. He argues that his relations with the "world's only superpower" are on an equal footing and get Egypt international prestige and US$2 billion every year (second only to the US's aid to Israel). His links with Israel, moreover, are mainly through Washington, he insists, and are designed to promote the early creation of an independent Palestinian state. As for the suppression of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition organisation in the country and the oldest Islamic group in the world), he simply says that he has no patience with terrorists, and that in any case the country has a free democratic system. The government-owned media automatically support his position and arguments, while the weak private sector is suppressed and denied access to public assistance.
But public pressure has recently forced Mubarak to announce a constitutional amendment that purports to allow, for the first time, political rivals to contest the presidential election – an announcement that at first surprised Egyptians but which has turned out to be utterly cosmetic and superficial. The proposed amendment does not remove or modify the laws that ban the Ikhwan, and allows judges to rule against those who have the effrontery to oppose the ‘great leader'. As it stands, the proposed amendment is no obstacle to Mubarak's pursuit of a fifth six-year term, or to his plans to be succeeded by Jamal, his son.
The recent release of Ayman Nour, the member of parliament and leader of the opposition al-Ghad (‘tomorrow party'), does not of itself show the president's intention to order the release of the many politicians – particularly members of the Ikhwan – who are still in jail. Nour, imprisoned in February for declaring his intention to stand in the presidential election in September, was released on March 12; he immediately said he would still stand in September, although he is sceptical about the chance of anyone but Mubarak winning. Nour was released on the insistence of the US government, which is keen to take credit for the "spread of democracy in the Middle East". Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, for instance, cancelled a planned visit to Cairo in protest against Nour's detention. The US government later praised both Mubarak's dubious constitutional amendment and Ayman Nour's release.
Opposition leaders and analysts are sceptical of the proposed election, and dismiss the public commitment of Mubarak and Bush to a "fair contest" as a cynical ploy. The US government does not see such contests as serving its interests in the region, as any reasonably free poll will bring in Islamic or nationalist leaders who are committed to serving their people's interests, and opposed to the US's imperial dictat. But local opposition to Mubarak's fifth term, and to his plan for Jamal to succeed him, is intense: public demonstrations and protests are gathering force and are expected to increase in the near future.
Taking note of public opposition, Mubarak has not so far formally announced that he will stand in September; some analysts suggest that he is preparing for his son to stand instead. Mubarak would obviously prefer to get a fifth term: that would give him more time to remove the visible signs of the widespread public corruption his 24-year rule is responsible for. His immediate removal from office would almost certainly lead to subsequent prosecution not only of him but of Jamal, who is the head of Egypt's ruling party. Prosecuting Mubarak will also bring to light the details of his conspiracy with the US to suppress Islamic groups in the Middle East and to help Israel to stand up to the Palestinians' resistance. That is not in the interests of the US, and Bush is virtually certain to help Mubarak to avoid such a fate.
The Egyptian people, however, appear to be determined to get rid of him, although that might take time. The US government's clear attachment to Mubarak's plans are certain to strengthen that determination. Bush, who is renowned for his regime-change policies, is in this case opposed to regime change because it would be by the people, instead of being by theUS and its allies.