That president Husni Mubarak of Egypt has been planning for some time to ensure that he is succeeded by his 41-year-old son Jamal, when he eventually retires, has been clear enough to leave no one in any doubt. But recent local, regional and international events have caused him to throw caution to the winds and accelerate his plotting to ensure that Jamal will not face a credible challenge at the presidential elections in 2011. Postponing local elections that can lead to the emergence of such credible candidates, enhancing Jamal's status in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which he already controls, and stepping up his propaganda are only some of the steps he has taken recently to turn his dynastic ambitions into reality.
Despite his promise – made during his recent presidential race to promote democratic practices – Mubarak has ordered the postponement of local elections, which were originally scheduled for April. His decision to postpone the poll by two years was approved by the upper house of parliament on February 12, and later by the lower house. It was not surprising that the move was seen widely as an attempt to preserve the NDP's monopoly on power, and to block the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) from promoting an independent candidate for the presidency. It was equally widely seen, and criticised, as a clear abandonment by Mubarak of his recent presidential-campaign promises. One of the many critics of the move as a betrayal of the president's promises was Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist and analyst of al-Ahram daily, which is not generally critical of Mubarak or his government. “The obvious big picture is that many of the promises made by Mubarak throughout his campaign and his programme for political reform have not come through,” he said. “They are being delayed and there is no clear mechanism for carrying them out. All they are doing is postponing.”
Not surprisingly, Egyptian officials denied that the postponement of the elections is a departure from the president's democratic promises or plans. Souliman Awad, the president's spokesman, for instance, said, “This is part of the attempt to decentralise the government,” adding that it was “part of the reform president Mubarak promised.” That this was unconvincing was reinforced by contradicting statements made even by certain members of the ruling NDP, such as Osama al-Ghazali Harb, who suggested that the move was directed against the Ikhwan. Harb, who is also a political analyst at the government-funded Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, was unambiguous in his criticism.
“Of course it's because of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen,” he was quoted as saying on February 14. He added: “The last parliamentary elections proved that the NDP is much weaker than anyone predicted. All other parties are disappointing beyond imagination. The only alternative that is capable of filling the vacuum and of challenging the NDP is the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen.”
The obvious reason for the government's fear of the Ikhwan is that it made enormous gains in the general election late last year, increasing its presence in the 444-seat parliament from 15 to 88. It is, of course, true that the NDP holds more than two thirds of the seats, having the parliament in its total control, and was, therefore, able to secure approval for the Bill proposing the postponement of the local elections. The Ikhwan is also very popular among ordinary Egyptians because of the extensive social and charitable services it provides. It is also seen as totally free of corruption, unlike the government and its organs, including the NDP. This explains why the local elections had to be postponed, for if held candidates backed by the Ikhwan would have swept to victory and raised its ability to field a presidential candidate in 2011. As Dr Hala Mustapha, a doctor at the al-Ahram Centre, said on February 15, local elections would provide the Ikhwan with a route to contest the next presidential elections.
But the postponement of the local elections was not the only measure Mubarak took to increase the chance of his son winning the election in 2011. Only days before the postponement of the council elections, he purged the NDP, promoting Jamal to the position of deputy leader and dismissing many senior members. He replaced those whom he had dismissed with businessmen who are known to indulge in corrupt practices. According to the report on the purge in al-Hayat daily on February 3, the promotion of Jamal stunned Egyptian political circles, despite the fact that he is anyway in control of the party for practical reasons, and the political leaders know that. What stunned them was the obvious readiness of Mubarak to advance his son's cause without any subtlety – particularly at a time when he was widely suspected, and openly accused, of planning to ensure Jamal's succession.
Among those angry about the promotion, and have willing criticise it, is Aziz Sidqui, a former prime minister and campaigner for democratic change. Immediately after the announcement of the changes, he said that they were undoubtedly directed at raising Jamal's chances and ensuring that he would succeed his father to the presidency. Accordingly, he called on Egypt's political circles to overlook any differences between them and resist this attack on the prospects of political reform.
Interestingly, the US government also announced – though almost inaudibly and at a low level – that it was opposed to the postponement of the local elections. This weak reaction was made in an attempt to rescue the vanishing credibility of the US government's programme for the introduction of democratic rule into Arab countries. The fact that the US should first make its own society and practices more democratic was, however, made plain by the widespread reports by the media and human-rights organisations of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Iraqand of neglect of Black Americans who fell victim to hurricane Katrina in the southern states. Egyptians are in any case aware of the widespread murder of Iraqis by Americans, ofWashington's backing for Israel's repression of the Palestinians, and know that the US government cannot really be much exercised about their democratic rights. Perhaps Mubarak was happy about the US's reaction because he wanted to show that he is no friend of the US.