Egypt 2008: Death of a president

dies suddenly in 2008 and the presidency is up for grabs, KM peers into the future…

Caution: This is a simulation

After his landslide victory in 's first multi-candidate elections in  2005, Hosni became one of the first democratically elected dictators in the world. However, this and fifty khamsa wa khamisas could not ward off the evil eye and, in the otherwise uneventful summer of 2008, the Hoz finally lost his last major battle… against life itself.

Despite the façade of since the first multi-candidate elections, which Mubrak had won by 79% of the votes and a voter turnout of 50.4%, the passing of the longest-ruling Egyptian president had been carefully prepared for. Most people had grown to accept that the gumlukiyya (‘republicdom') and a ‘like-father like-son' hereditary presidency was not the scenario Hosni had in mind… yet…

Mubarak, whose ultimate dream to die in power had come true, masterminded a more intricate ruse.

Mubarak had always refused to appoint a vice president. At his in 2008, the parliament speaker was Safwat as-Sharif, the one-time best friend of Mubarak, who had lost his pre-eminent role as minister of information and was sidelined to the backwaters of the consultative Shura Council following the demise of the Atef Obeid government but saw his fortunes improve in the wake of the 2005 victory which he helped engineer.

Intelligent choice!

Knowing that his son Gamal Mubarak would not be able to contain the public upheaval his death would inevitable cause, Mubarak Sr had to rely on his old army network. He had stipulated by presidential decree that his friend and ally in the defunct peace talks, Omar Suleiman, would be the interim president for a two-year period. Suleiman having once been an army officer and having moved up to the top of the mukhabarat (intelligence) infrastructure, was not exactly a spring chicken either.

Due to his powerful position and unmistakable charisma, Suleiman would be capable of keeping the boat steady. But at the same time, his move to the intelligence apparatus had gained him the eternal suspicion of the pure-blooded army brass, such as Major-General Hamdi Wahiba and Minister of Defence Mohammad Hussein al-Tantawi. These two veterans had always claimed rank three and two in the presidential heirs' hit parade. However, Wahiba never gained as impressive a following as al-Tantawi and Suleiman.

al-Tantawi was not chosen because of his ill-health, even if he had been at the same level of sickness for the past decade and a half. A more compelling reason, however, not to select al-Tantawi, was his capacity to whip up a following for his presidential successor stemming from military ancestry. Although military presidents are the rule in Egypt, the fifth president of the Republic of Egypt was destined to be a civilian.

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Safwat as-Sharif, longing for the final approval from Hosni Mubarak and vain enough to be satisfied with being king for a day – well, actually, interim president for six days until the successor was appointed – bowed his head and obeyed his sublime master. He would ‘convince' the parliament to accept Omar Suleiman as president.

Dead good at his job

Egypt witnessed its fourth major funeral, and thousands of people came out on to the streets. But singing legends Umm Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez, and former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, would for all eternity beat Hosni in the post-mortem popularity stakes. Anyway, a lot of people on the streets were just out there because Cairo couldn't digest its population of 25 million anymore.

One thing the now-deceased Mubarak Sr should be proud of is the skill with which he made Egyptian people just not care all that much. For decades, Hosni managed to keep the most populous and potentially the most promising country in the Middle East at just the right level of stagnating progress or progressing stagnation. He deftly maintained a carefully analysed level of malcontentment and frustration, a mix of religiousness and Islamist-bashing, which was occasionally interrupted by limited episodes of homegrown and violently repressed public demonstrations.

It was with this attitude, and a healthy dose of scepticism which is also a common Egyptian trait, that Safwat as-Sharif's announcement of the new ad-interim president was welcomed. No one was really moved by it, just as most people were not moved by the death of pharaoh Mubarak, he just left some numb void in their lives, because they had got used to the guy.

However, the cleverness of appointing the intelligence chief, who had long been slated as one of the possible successors of Mubarak Sr ­– in the albeit unlikely case Gamal would not succeed his father ­– had yet to become clear. Even though Mubarak had always denied Gamal would be his successor, no one had really believed it. So, the surprise factor took the few looking for some good old revolution, or at least public uproar, off-guard.

But even more cunningly, every Egyptian distrusts the big mysterious security apparatus. The Mukhabarat's tentacles are everywhere, from the plastic garden chairs and dodgy moustaches that, rumour has it, occupy the corner of 80% of the country's streets, to the mythical number of files that exist about every person who does not at all occasions nod silently in agreement with the regime.

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The will of the leader

When Safwat as-Sharif read out Hosni Mubarak's three-hour televised will, the one thing they believed was that Suleiman would only rule for two years. Good old Safwat would never go against his supreme leader's wishes. Of course, the (false) rumours that Suleiman was suffering from some strange cancer did their bit, too, to still popular misapprehensions…

All in all, the two-year rule of Suleiman was uneventful, and didn't lead to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, even though the refugee issue became less of a problem now that most of the older refugees had passed away. The security apparatus behaved as randomly as in the Mubarak era, but there was a difference in perception.

All of a sudden, the president's men were literally everywhere. The intelligence bit of the security services did not excel, rather the contrary, but the mysterious machine was apparently bidding to become the largest employer in the country – perhaps this was the late president's famous job creation promise in the 2005 campaign.

But there was action in the margins: the selection of Suleiman had caused a rift in the National Democratic Party. The masses of the NDP were not immune to being suspicious of the intelligence services, the army was scornful because al-Tantawi wasn't the chosen one, the previously independent candidates and ex-Muslim Brotherhood members had their own reasons not to like the security services. But more importantly, the still very young and increasingly university educated Egyptians could not identify with the old elite and the army anymore and were looking for a civilian and younger alternative.

Modernising Egypt

Enter Gamal Mubarak. The champion of the political empowerment of the youth and still the head of the NDP policy committee, saw his chance. According to some, he was the actual architect behind the first multiple-candidate elections in 2005. But now he took an even more drastic step, he had the courage to create a new party, Masr al-haditha (Modern Egypt).

This could be considered to be a major move against the establishment, just short of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to run in the elections. Unlike all of the other parties that aimed to have a go in the presidential elections, Gamal could pose a real threat to the NDP. He had one of the most famous names in the country, the backing of a good chunk of the NDP and he was perhaps the proof that political intuition might actually run in the genes.

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Additionally, he was one of the few top politicians who were not old enough to have seen the Nasser revolution and have fought in all, or at least two, of the republic's wars. Even better, he was not involved in the dwindling institution of the army at all. The army was still the biggest employer in the country and maintained a certain status with some strategic purchases from the US and ‘friendly' Arab or Muslim countries.

But it was also the most prolific case of hidden unemployment and underpaid cannon fodder. Fewer and fewer people were willing to send their sons there to earn a marginally better stipend than sipping tea in one of the civilian government offices. Outcries for civil service rather than army service were heard everywhere.

Almost democracy

Masr al-haditha started its campaign drawing heavily on the Mubarak brand and relying on the seniority, popularity and charisma of Amr Mousa who, after Hosni died, no longer felt he had to oblige the frustrating kick upstairs he'd received called the Arab League. However, considering himself too old to run in the elections, he settled for senior advisor to Gamal. In a way, he figured, he'd be the uncrowned king or ceremonial president of Egypt, while Gamal would be what Egypt really needed, a good prime minister.

So it happened that, in the almost democratic elections of 2011, Gamal Mubarak became Egypt's first civilian president, at 48, and the suspicions and predictions of many experts ultimately proved true, albeit in a very different fashion.

No vote-rigging was mentioned and election monitors did not end up in jail, but the Muslim Brotherhood would have to wait at least another six years to be able to participate in the presidential elections. That is, if they get recognition as a legal party which could then turn them into a conservative, right of center democratic party, with religious values at it core, just like many of Europe's Christian-democratic parties.  Or not…

Because maybe Hosni Mubarak, will still be alive in 2011 and feel obliged to run in the elections again.


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