November 3, 2009

The Best Defense is a Good Offense



Observers of Egyptian politics had predicted the annual convention of the ruling National Democratic Party would address the issue of "succession." Would Gamal Mubarak be annointed by his party as the presidential candidate for the upcoming elections in 2011? Would his father retire, and make sure the transition is smooth? Or would Hosni Mubarak assert himself as the president of Egypt until death do them part?

For the speculators, the convention appeared rather underwhelming. The anticipated speeches by the Mubaraks and Ahmad Ezz, the NDP's billionaire secretary-general of coordination, left the questions unanswered. The clouds surrounding the future of post-Mubarak Egypt still loom large. What most NDP officials did in their speeches, however, was wage scathing attacks on the opposition, with the popular Muslim Brotherhood receiving the lion's share. To be sure, Hosni Mubarak's speech amounted to no more than a statement rehashing his old cliche's about Cairo's paramount regional influence. The others did the dirty work.

The attacks on the Muslim Brothers were unprecedented, and visibly prearranged. Having arrested many senior members of the Islamist group, including prominent moderates, the Mubarak regime seems to be turning up the heat even further. The convention included threats to arrest the group's supreme guide, confiscate its possessions, block its media access and ban the organization from partaking in the next parliamentary elections. This escalation does not seem to be justified by any recent conduct on the part of the Ikhwan. On the contrary, Mahdi Akef's tenure as a supreme guide is characterized by timidity and indecisiveness. The Brothers did not react meaningfully to the arrest of many of their senior members. They have even ruled out the possibility of contesting the 2011 presidential elections. So, what is this all about?

Two reasons come to mind. First, the Mubarak regime has been studiously working to pave the ground for Mubarak, Jr. to assume power after his father. The NDP-dominated Egyptian parliament introduced a constitutional amendment guiding presidential elections that is custom-tailored for Mubarak's son. The presumed successor has also made numerous trips to Western capitals, most notably Washington D.C. to reportedly win their support for him. The Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest, best-organized and most popular opposition group in Egypt, constitutes the single foremost obstacle to the Mubaraks' plan. The regime is wary of their reaction to the prospective succession, and would rather not make deals with them to facilitate the process. By waging a verbal offensive on the group, the NDP hopes to neutralize them out of the upcoming transfer of power. The idea is that the Islamists would opt for their classic model of social charity rather than active political participation. If the Brothers refrain from intervening, there will be no strong hurdle to the Mubaraks remaining in the 'Orooba presidential palace.

Second, the Ikhwan are undergoing internal turmoil. Having not taken noteworthy measures to protest the arrest of leading members, many cadres are starting to question the leadership, a hitherto taboo within the 91 year-old organization. Additionally, Akef surprised the groups' members by announcing his intention to retire from the supreme guide position, a decision not made by any of his predecessors. Speculation is aplenty regarding the person who would replace Akef. The NDP wishes to capitalize on this sense of uncertainty within the organization, and force them to be preoccupied with their internal affairs for a while.

The NDP's recent escalation against the Muslim Brothers seems to be driven by anxiety about the prospects of ensuring a smooth power transition from Hosni Mubarak to his son as much as by the Islamists' weak leadership. The plan misses two critical aspects about Egyptian politics, however. First, the Muslim Brothers will continue to remain the most potent and popular political force in Egypt for the foreseeable future, thanks in no small measure to the services they provide to the populace. Second, Mubarak and his son are profoundly resented by Egyptians who are exasperated with their ever-declining living standards, and diminishing political freedoms. The Muslim Brotherhood may be neutralized when the transition occurs, but will Egyptians?

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