Death of a president and its unfathomable consequences

By Khaled Diab

If exaggerated rumours of President Mubarak's become fact, where will the end of his one-man show leave ?

25 March 2010

Egypt's President  has appeared on state television in a bid to lay to rest premature rumours of his death. The Egyptian leader is currently in Germany recovering from surgery on his gall bladder.

Since news broke of his “routine” surgery on 6 March, Egypt has been filled with speculation about the real state of Mubarak's health and, with reports that a benign tumour was also removed, there have even been wild rumours that the president is actually dead and that the government has been covering this up to buy time.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the Egyptian stock exchange lost around 5% but the latest footage has brought calm to the jittery market.

While the death of a president would be disruptive in any country, in Egypt it carries a special significance because Mubarak has been the only show in town for the past three decades and the ageing and ailing dictator has no clear successor.

At nearly 82 years of age, Baba Mubarak, as he is mockingly known, is certainly no spring chicken and could die at any moment. With such a realistic prospect on the horizon, many Egyptians are rightly apprehensive about what would happen if the president suddenly passed away before next year's presidential .

In Egypt, the state of the president's health has long been something of a taboo, with journalists running the risk of arrest for broaching the topic, and so this newfound openness is actually arousing suspicion in some people's minds.

“The fact that they are releasing news about Mubarak's health is an improvement,” Kholoud Khalifa, a young Egyptian journalist, said. “One reason for this is that Mubarak has now fully groomed his son, Gamal, for the top job,” she speculates.

So, what would happen if the president were suddenly to breathe his last?

While many Egyptians are hopeful for change, as I highlighted in a recent article, they do not realistically expect the dawn of – at least, not full democracy – once Mubarak is out of the way.

“We are not a revolutionary people. Anything that can be counted as revolutionary change in this country is almost invariably brought about by a small minority,” my friend Ahmed opined over dinner in a Cairo restaurant.

Many reform-minded Egyptians disagree with this received wisdom. “The regime has so suppressed opposition and ingrained apathy in the masses that people no longer believe they can change anything,” assesses Khalifa.

Based on conversations with numerous people, it would seem the most expected scenario is the emergence of a Mubarak dynasty, in the guise of son Gamal, albeit with a more democratic facade. The current constitution, which was rejigged in Mubarak's favour before the last elections in 2005, states that, in the event of the president's sudden death, the speaker of the house – Ahmed Fathi Sorour, a staunch Mubarak loyalist – would hold executive power temporarily, until elections can be called.

“There will be elections, most certainly, but how democratic they will be, no one can tell,” said Ahmed. “I think will be the [ruling] National Democratic party‘s candidate, and the NDP candidate will most likely win – and fair and square.”

This is partly because Egyptians, sceptical as they are about and politicians, would rather the devil they knew, and partly because the officially approved opposition does not possess a viable candidate.

Miriam, another friend, believes this is no accident. “The NDP has stacked the system and the odds so in its own favour that its candidate will win without the need for any actual, crude cheating,” she observes.

And considering Mubarak's tight grip on power in Egypt for the past 30 years, a surprising number of ordinary Egyptians would freely vote for his son in free elections, despite the growing power of the “anything but Mubarak” movement.

Moreover, Gamal, with his background in banking, is a popular choice among Egypt's business elite. “Economists and anyone who is in business would be quite happy for Gamal to take over because he will provide the kind of continuity and stability, as well as the economic competence, the Egyptian economy needs to thrive,” the head of an Egyptian stock brokerage firm told me.

In addition to Gamal's perceived safe pair of hands, my brother Osama believes this backing for the Mubarak clan is also a manifestation of some kind of Stockholm syndrome among a hostage population half of which has known no other leader. In fact, Osama would not be at all surprised if, despite the current apathy towards Hosni Mubarak, there would be a significant outpouring of public sympathy for him once he died.

Personally, though I am no supporter of Gamal Mubarak, if he becomes Egypt's next president through free and fair elections, then I can at least draw comfort from the fact that Egypt will be well on its road to democracy.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 19 March 2010. Read the related discussion.

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