Egypt at the Doorsteps of a Major Transition
As President Hosni Mubarak 81, ponders over his ebbing leadership role, many Egyptians, and indeed regional and international observers are closely watching events in this geopolitically important nation.
Although Mubarak is once quoted as saying that 'he would rule Egypt until to his last breath', indications show that age, and his grandfatherly status seem to mellow this view. Some close associates to the Presidency indicate that the issue now is 'that of him leaving a good legacy'. Perhaps closest indication on this are comments from his ever faithful wife Suzanne Mubarak. She has repeated said that 'Egypt is not a dynastic nation', when asked about plans of Mubarak fronting his Son Gamal. It will therefore be interesting to watch events, should Gamal be fronted by the ruling party in Egypt.
In my view the Mubarak family is largely thinking about their good position in Egyptian books, rather than clinging on to the presidency beyond 2011.
So, where then does the new president come from, if Mubarak is not defending this seat in 2011? There are no clear answers yet on the horizon on this matter. But some re-alignments are beginning to emerge among opposition and also within the ruling party.
Although opposition's momentum seems to be rallying around Mohammed ElBaradei, it is still too early to clearly tell, or predict the direction Egyptians will take in the upcoming next year's elections.
Each election process in Africa and Middle East has a life of its own.
However, the 67 year old ElBaradei with international credentials seems to have energized the opposition. What is most noticeable about his approach is the cross cutting appeal to all on the plight of the average and ordinary Egyptian. He seems to have effectively done this without being condescending to Mubarak or to the ruling party. He appears to appeal to the cause of the Arab world given the subtle western policy in the Middle East.
But many on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and along the banks of the Nile are beginning to ask 'where was this man all along?' Or 'what specific past contributions has he made here in Egypt during his time abroad?' Other questions emerging include: 'Can this man lead us to our next level of development?' or 'Can this man manage the complex side of people issues or is he just a technical leader - full stop?'
These may seem very simple questions to outsiders, but to ordinary Egyptians answers here are very important in determining if ElBaradei is a worthy candidate. It is also here, where his appeal of minds and hearts of ordinary Egyptians will be tested. But, it is here that the ruling elites in Egypt are likely to come up with a formidable new candidate against ElBaradei.
Generally, I think Egyptians will be looking to candidates that best capture their psyche as well as deep empathy. Among issues expected during this transition include economic progress, freedom of expression and the strategic role of Egypt in the Arab world on the Israeli - Palestinian question.
The Israel - Palestinian question is even strong because Egypt as a largely Sunni Arab would like to prevail over the competing Shia influence lead by Iran.
Yet, the deeper compelling point all Egyptians will be seeking, is a candidate that 'brings back the Egyptian glory as seen in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. A period when Egyptian culture, education and way of life, was the most coveted among all in the Middle East.
In other words, Egyptians are looking this time for a renewed role in the Middle East.
As political voices set agenda 2011, Egyptians will keenly listen on how important issues are being competitively addressed.
Although significant progress has been achieved on freedom of expression, the opposition is likely to mount pressure for further opening of this window. Yet, the ruling elites will point to the plethora of voice-able critique seen across Egyptian press and over talk shows within Egyptian media. In fact in this respect Egypt has a commanding 'free press' in the Arab world, enviable only to the Dubai and Lebanese press freedom.
So, the challenge here will depend on how both sides position themselves in carrying forward freedom in place at the moment. On this front, the current ruling party has some edge over the opposition. Part of the opposition is viewed by some Egyptian as more reclusive freedom-wise.
However, the opposition's strength will depend on how well they highlight strategies to overcome the repressive detention practices, and the iron handedness of the Egyptian internal security forces. Most recent example here is the arrest of author on ElBaradei's autobiography.
Moderating Middle East Matters
Reasserting Egypt's regional and global role will be a major issue in this transition. It appears Egypt will need to work hard to reposition its leadership on the Israel - Palestine question also on other Middle East issues.
Although tiny Qatar seems to have taken a 'leading' regional diplomatic influence, opportunities still exist for Egypt, given its proximity to Israel, and its general good will in USA, the European Union and Arab world.
How well Egypt will manage its diplomatic transition remains to be seen. But, generally it does appear that a two prong strategy is likely to be pursued by the contending political positions.
Indications seem to point to growing need for Egypt to work closely with the Saudi Kingdom in pushing for the moderate Sunni view. This is critical in overcoming Iran's radicalised Shia view resolved in seeing the 'destruction of Israel'. On this front, Egypt has supportive diplomatic links, and also tough negotiators like Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian Intelligence and Security Chief. These are easily acceptable to both Palestine and Israel.
What is also clear is the growing need for Egypt to play a more significant role on other regional issues. These include finance, economic and development of the Middle East. This is a niche Egypt has dismally performed over the last decade. Yet, opportunities here exist given that it is the largest Arab population and also the most well educated in the region.
It will be therefore interesting to see who the opposition or in the ruling elite will be selected in this coming transition. ElBaradei is a formidable diplomat, although his grasp of intricate Middle East issues is yet to be tested.
Among the high circles in Cairo, it is rumoured that Omar Suleiman would be the best replacement to Mubarak, given his diplomatic and military credentials. This view is supported by Egypt's historical reality, where past leaders had served in the armed forces.
But, this transition may be different. It appears Egypt is moving on to a new page. ElBaradei is very popular and so is the current Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, at least within the business and middle class. Both are intellectual persons that have not served in the forces. However, for them to qualify, the constitution will need to be modified for them to campaign as presidential candidate, if indeed they are selected by political parties.
Jostling over the Economic Agenda
As the opposition sets agenda on economic issues, ruling elites headed by the current Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif are likely to proclaim progress achieved over the last 4 years. Among these include inflation reduction; automation of government services, Better IT services across the country, and significant growth in the industrial and service sector.
However, economic challenges still remain given the high unemployment rate, currently at 9.4%, of the total 80 million people. It is a top agenda matter for both the opposition and the present government.
Although economic growth remained steady at about 4.5 %, this has not kept pace with the 650,000 new job applicants that arrive each year. The agricultural sector is calling for increased production but with improved government support, against a background of sharp rise of food costs in Egypt. On housing, there is a growing demand - where on average over 2.5 Million houses each year are required for its middle class. This target remains a challenge, although Egyptian construction industry is the largest in the Middle East.
Intense political competition is likely to emerge, as they seek attention and support from influential Egyptian business community. The business community on the other hand may use this to consolidate influence, as well as see how best to position policies supportive to Egypt's trading status within the region and beyond.
Overall, the political class will be confronted with the need to increase development along the Nile among the marginalised poor farmers and urban poor. There will be need to balance these, with Egypt's emerging regional role as the most diversified service and industrial sector in Middle East. In other words, Egyptian global firms like Orascom that has most recently expanded acquisition of a fertiliser firm in Holland will wait to hear what transition offers are on the table.
Tourism as a major employer at 10.9% of the total workforce is likely to play a stabilizing role among opposing candidates. The political classes are likely to explore ways for continuity, here, given that 11.1 million tourists arrived in Egypt in 2009 translating to foreign exchange revenue earnings at US $ 10 billion the same year.
The Egyptian Diaspora will be an equally important voice of moderation in this transition. Their remittances stood at US $ 4.36 billion in 2009. Majority in this group would like to see continuity of policies pursued by Ahmed Nazif that include increased freedom of expression and investments.
Given this context, it will be interesting to see how El Baradei's team comes up with a formidable policy strategy or how it intends to sell it. Egyptians will keenly watch this, in light of achievements made by Ahmed Nazif's Cabinet.
What is emerging in Egypt is clear, the evening of the Mubarak are here. Choices will have to be made in the near future beyond his presidency. The challenge now within the political class is to avoid rocking social and political stability Egypt has seen over the last 4 decades.
Patrick Khamadi is a Policy and International Development Advisor, at Nate-care Development and can be reached at [email protected]