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A Presidential Problem

Egyptian Presidential Palace, photo: Thomas/Picasa

Egypt is at a crossroads. Over thirty years since its political system was last tested – when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated and the little known Hosni Mubarak was thrust into office – the country is facing what, from some angles, might resemble a contest.

There is ample reason to believe that the September 2011 Presidential election will be different to the 2005 vote – when the opposition failed to live up to pre-election hype and, almost without exception, failed to dent the regime’s grip on power. This time there is one crucial difference – the state of the incumbent.

The revelations in the US press in July that outline the Hosni Mubarak’s alleged failing health, along with the unofficial propaganda campaign launched in recent weeks on behalf of Gamal (the President’s oldest son) seem to imply that a transfer of power is planned for next year’s election. However, recent events have challenged western assumptions that a dynastic succession is inevitable.

Local and international media have understandably focused on the campaign of Dr Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, whose international profile has enabled him to harness public support and insulated him from the regime’s traditional means of oppression. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that ElBaradei will be able to translate the torrent of publicity into a movement capable of breaking through Egypt’s prohibitive election laws and competing for the presidency.

Alongside internal criticism of his own performance, ElBaradei has suffered from the perennial problem of uniting the opposition parties. This was brutally emphasized last week when the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s only true political opposition, rejected his plan to make a public show of strength by calling for a boycott of November’s parliamentary elections. While the group has helped ElBaradei raise close to a million signatures for his appeal against the regime, there are few countries who have democratized by petition.

The inevitably undemocratic nature of the election process means that internal opposition is likely to pose the greatest threat to the Mubarak dynasty. For this reason, serious attention should be paid to the recent launch of an anonymous poster campaign backing Egyptian Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman for the presidency, which saw the regime respond aggressively by forcing newspapers to destroy 30,000 late editions running the story.

These events expose the very real tensions that exist within the ruling National Democratic Party between the military establishment and the wealthy business elite over the father-son succession. The old guard’s wariness is driven by a desire to maintain the status quo (and the foreign aid that comes with it.) They focus on Gamal’s lack of military ties (he would be the first president without military experience,) his support of economic liberalization, and the challenge to law and order from increasing public opposition to succession.

This is where the real struggle for power will lie if Mubarak senior does not pursue another term in office.

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Take-Your-Kid-To-Work Week

Portraits of Hosni Mubarak and Kim Yong Il

Hosni Mubarak and Kim Yong-Il, courtesy of efouché/una vita a 12 volt/flickr

Do you get to bring your offspring to work once a year? Will that inspire them to follow in your footsteps or do they simply enjoy playing with office supplies and promotional freebies?

The world has seen two very inspiring dads in the past week. Hosni Mubarak and Kim Jong-Il have touchingly taken their sons along on their business trips.

Gamal Mubarak got a taste of one of Egypt’s main diplomatic conundrums: Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Let’s hope that he made a good impression in Washington – he seems pretty serious about taking over his dad’s job.

Reports from South Korea signal that Kim Jong-Un has also probably been getting a little field training with his dad. Speculations that Kim Jong-Il introduced him to the Chinese president last Friday have been making the rounds.

Both authoritarian leaders’ health is ailing, but as professional statesmen they are making sure that the succession will be smooth.

Jean Sarkozy must be so jealous. But don’t worry, good old democracies offer hereditary career possibilities, too. Just ask Uncle George for advice.

El Baradei: What Is at Stake?

Democracy or Authoritarianism? Double-headed Arrow, courtesy of Kaptain Kobold/flickr

Mohammed El Baradei, former IAEA secretary general, was recently in the headlines for a rather unexpected reason. Upon his return to Egypt from Vienna he seemed to (tacitly) accept the mantle of challenger to Mubarak rule, potentially placing him in the running for the presidency in 2011.

Does he have what it takes to take on a regime known for severe suppression and dislike of opposition figures?

He has many assets that the other (past and present) candidates do not have.

He is an internationally recognized diplomat, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and he is known for his rigorous, professional attitude. He lived for the most part of his life outside Egypt, has not been “corrupted” by the Egyptian political system and will bring fresh new air to a dusty political apparatus that has not changed since 1981.

At the same time the Egyptian political system is set up in a way that may prohibit El Baradei from qualifying for the presidential election. According to Egyptian electoral law, “Each licensed political party has the right to nominate one candidate from its most senior leadership for this presidential election [El Baradei is not a member of any political party in Egypt].  From 2011 only parties established for over five years, with at least 5 percent of seats in parliament, can field a candidate.  Independent candidates must be endorsed by 250 elected members of Egypt’s representative bodies: parliament, or the local and provincial councils.”

The tricky part is that these bodies are dominated by the governing party, the National Democratic Party, so independent candidates are very unlikely to win approval.

Earlier this year, Mubarak called for a multi-candidate election and the candidacy of El Baradei provides a unique opportunity to live up to this promise and open up the regime. Mubarak may therefore decide to amend the law and let El Baradei run. At least that is what a true democrat would do. But at the same time, Mubarak Senior needs to pave the way for the presidency of Mubarak Junior. His proclamations may therefore prove to be empty promises in the end.

This election is about much more than El Baradei against Mubarak.  The two ‘candidates’ represents two different ways of governing and will undoubtedly lead the country in two radically different directions. Egypt is at a crossroad. It needs to decide if it goes in the direction of democracy, or if it sinks down deeper into authoritarianism. » More

Big State is Watching You

Police guard on the Kasr El Nil Bridge in Cairo.

Police guard on the Kasr El Nil Bridge in Cairo / photo: Cristina Viehmann

A new report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) tells us that Burma is the worst place in the world to be a blogger.

Next on the list of countries notorious for clever intimidation techniques are the Middle East and North Africa candidates: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

I’ve just returned from Egypt, ranked 10th on the CPJ list. After my Cairo conversations with young journalists and artists, I also realized how difficult it still is to walk the thin line between the state and religious authorities in this country. Even with this, bloggers and internet artists dare to voice what they think.

Take Mohammed A. Fahmy for example, leader of the Ganzeer art project in Cairo. In his work he does not refrain from criticizing both the government and the societal or religious constraints ruling his country. Referring to a cover from a December 2004 Cairo youth magazine, illustrating the many “fine” inventions of Arab civilization, one of which is the “presidential monarchy,” I asked Mohammed: “How critical can you afford to be?”

“As critical as it gets,” he said.

Citizen journalism and artistic creation presuppose freedom of speech. Bloggers report, artists depict. Mohammed is one of those young critical voices that won’t be intimidated.

And yet, the role of intimidation remains strong in Egypt; in every aspect of life where opinions are to be voiced. A few fall prey to the oppressive state mechanisms: detention, hearings and weeks under state observation. These serve as warnings for all other critical voices out there.

As the CPJ report points out, in these countries it is enough to jail a few bloggers to intimidate the rest. It’s an oblation given for criticism and analysis to continue.

Yet even in these countries, censorship rules will not prevail. Technological advances are with the young and connected. Therefore, censors will lose the race.

In this article from the ISN Digital Library you can read how the new Arab media challenges the militaries. Also, you might want to check our Security Watch news stories, about the limits of Egypt’s cyberactivism, the Bahraini blogosphere and about how blogs and Internet forums debate political issues in Russia.

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