Can a man who was born in 1952, when the army took over power, and the new cabinet he leads as prime minister, curb the powers and corruption of the military dictatorship that has persisted since then, as claimed by the hype surrounding the recent dismissal of the old government?
Can a man who was born in 1952, when the army took over power, and the new cabinet he leads as prime minister, curb the powers and corruption of the military dictatorship that has persisted since then, as claimed by the hype surrounding the recent dismissal of the old government? The answer is clearly no, partly because he and his ministers have no power to introduce constitutional amendments without Mubarak's approval. More seriously, they also have no effective control over the military and intelligence establishments, the bureaucracy or the rich and corrupt business class that is allied closely with them and with Jamal Mubarak, the president's son, who is widely expected to become president after his father. The joke is that Ahmed Nazif, the new prime minister, has no power to tackle official corruption without seeking presidential permission to do so, although his surname in Arabic means "clean".
When Nazif, who was minister of communications in the old cabinet, was appointed prime minister by Mubarak on July 9, the impression was given that Nazif would be free to choose his own ministers. But almost half the ministers who had been dismissed were reappointed (albeit mostly to different portfolios); it was clear that Mubarak and Jamal had the main role in the appointments of ministers to the new cabinet. Those who argue that Jamal played an effective part cite as proof the youthfulness of the new ministers, and that several of them are his own "henchmen", as some of them have been described. The average age of the outgoing ministers was well beyond the compulsory retirement age of 60; the former minister of justice, for instance, is 82. Some had been ministers for more than two decades. It is not surprising that the 52-year-old current prime minister was the youngest member of that cabinet. Nazif is one of Jamal's close associates, which explains why he was chosen to go with him to the US last March.
Another aspect of Jamal's influence over the new government is that its plans for reform were prepared months ago by teams of "experts" in the ruling National Democratic Party, under his supervision. An ambitious young man who is panting to inherit the presidency from his ailing father cannot possibly approve plans for reform that might even remotely and indirectly block his ambitions. Mubarak himself will not brook any reforms that will prevent him from passing power to someone he trusts; if that someone is not his own son, then it must be someone from the military establishment or the intelligence service, who is or has been deeply involved in his criminal abuses of power (in particular to suppress the Islamic movement in Egypt). This explains the speculation that the most likely successors are Jamal or Omar Suleiman, Egypt's chief of intelligence.
For many years Mubarak has been ruling under a state of emergency, which he exploits to act against opponents of his regime, particularly Islamic activists. Torture is rife in prisons and government security centres. According to Egyptian human-rights groups, there are more than 70 different methods of torture in use in Egypt, and the number of people being detained and tortured at the moment is 1,124. The human-rights groups, which held a debate on the issue in Cairo on July 11, accuse the government of not being serious in its plan to end the abuses, which they have described as worse than those taking place in Abu Ghraib (outside Baghdad, Iraq), where Americans torture Iraqi detainees. Earlier, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood declared that, although it was subject to horrendous harassment, the Ikhwan would not be intimidated. On February 12 (the 45th anniversary of the judicial murder of Shaikh Hasan al-Banna shadeed, the Ikhwan's founder) Muhammad Mahdi Akif, the group's current leader, said in a statement that those who believed that the crackdown on the Ikhwan would succeed in suppressing the "Islamic current" in the country were quite wrong.
There is no doubt that torture is indeed rife in Egypt, and that the government values and uses its dictatorial powers, as Islamic activists, political opponents and critical journalists know from bitter experience. A knee-jerk response to criticism or opposition, for instance, is to ban the newspapers or groups that have the courage to speak out against the rulers and their policies, or challenge them in any way. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed for a long time, and the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi is now banned for its strong criticism of the government's subservience to the US, of its stance on Palestine and of its barely-disguised cooperation with Israel. Abdul-Bari Atwan, its editor, and the Egyptian writers who contribute regularly are highly critical of Mubarak's presidency and his foreign and domestic policies. But they are not unfair in their analyses and censure, so Egyptian readers heed them, which angers Mubarak and his cronies the more.
The government's tendency to ban newspapers is encouraged by its success in turning the best of the Egyptian press into rubber stamps for official policy. Al-Ahram, for instance, used to be highly regarded, not only in Egypt but throughout the Middle East, but is now a consistent and shameless supporter of the president and his family, and of their loyal officials and supporters. In almost every issue the services of Mubarak, his wife Susan and son Jamal to the nation are covered prominently on many pages. Al-Ahram even found space to cover Susan's accomplishments when it was trumpeting the virtues of the new government and its reform plans; in addition South Korea's rulers' comments on her role in advancing the position of women in Egypt were included.
Al-Ahram and other pro-government newspapers and media have reported Mubarak as saying that the main task of the new government is to bring about economic improvements and end poverty for the poorer classes. But the contributions and actions of the new ministers in charge of the economic and financial ministries, and of Jamal's "henchmen", are all subject to Jamal's approval and his father's. The pro-government media have also reported Mubarak as saying that the new government should carry out human-rights reforms. They also praised the recent appointment of half of Egypt's 26 regional governors by Mubarak, but most of the new appointees are military and intelligence officers: a clear indication that the role of the intelligence and military establishments in governance will not be diminished, regardless of rhetoric.
While it is possible that some Egyptians might have been encouraged by the "new reforms", it is clear that most of them resent the corruption, torture and monopoly of power by the few and the consequent loss of respect abroad for their country (particularly in the Muslim world). Their anger and resentment will not vanish as a result of reforms that they can see clearly are superficial and useless. Mubarak’s government faces the prospect of unrest and resistance that might even conceivably break its hold on political power in Egypt.