Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 December 2005 - 4 January 2006
Issue No. 775
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An elusive success

While many think he will be the next president, is Gamal Mubarak's future really that clear?

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Gamal Mubarak

The picture of Gamal Mubarak on the front page of Al-Ahram was unlike anything seen of the man before. The 42-year-old younger Mubarak was attending an election rally in Al-Minya during the first round of the parliamentary elections, when he was caught on camera, smiling while chatting with an NDP supporter. The photo was in stark contrast to the all too familiar picture of a detached and pensive Mubarak that has accompanied news about him ever since he came into the public eye back in 1998. It is an image that, to a great extent, has shaped the public perception of who Gamal Mubarak is.

Last month's parliamentary elections saw, perhaps for the first time, the same individual mixing with the masses and in close contact with the constituency his party claims to represent. Attending public rallies and addressing NDP supporters was one attempt by the NDP spin machine to repackage the younger Mubarak as "a man of the people", rather than a man waiting to become president, which is the image most Egyptians have of him.

Much has been written about the ways in which the younger Mubarak rose to power and how he is being groomed to succeed his 77-year-old father. Not all the stories concur with each other. But the consensus is that his profile rose dramatically in a very short period of time. Although much has been said and written about his background -- the economic skills or lack thereof; expertise; political orientation; his close associates; who he mixes and socialises with; the way he does business; and even matters of the heart -- rumours of his recent engagement made front page headlines -- the ambiguity which surrounds the younger Mubarak remains. "Who is Gamal Mubarak?" prominent writer Magdi Mehenna asked rhetorically. He wasn't necessarily in search of answers; this was more of another attempt to break the wall of secrecy surrounding President Hosni Mubarak's younger son. Such ambiguity is further compounded by the fact that the younger Mubarak rarely gives interviews to the local press (he made a rare TV appearance on a youth programme some two years ago).

When it comes to the foreign press, he is exceptionally generous. In its last issue, Fortune magazine cited Gamal Mubarak among "the 10 people to watch" in the coming 75 years. Describing him as "president in waiting", the magazine went on to say that Gamal is regarded as an economic reformer with a worldly outlook. "Some believe he has the capacity to do what his 77-year- old father could not -- make Egypt a workable model of tolerance, freedom, and prosperity." The magazine predicted that even if he did not become a household name in the next 75 years -- he is already, at least in Egypt -- what he does now will have a "lasting effect". Along with Gamal Mubarak on the magazine's list were US senator Barack Obama as well as the South Korean stem-cell researcher who soon thereafter was revealed to be a fraud.

For the most part, the younger Mubarak's public appearances have consistently fed speculation that he is being groomed to succeed his father, something that both the president and son vehemently deny. In almost every press conference held by the younger Mubarak, no matter what the issues at hand are, the most asked question, in various forms, is about him succeeding his father. On Google, the search terms "Gamal Mubarak and succession" are likely to get more hits than "Gamal Mubarak and reform".

One observer cynically noted that, "if he ever does go down in history, it will be as the person who wanted to create hereditary rule, turning the Egyptian system into a monarchical presidency." Protest movements such as Kifaya helped emphasise the image of younger Mubarak as a president waiting in the wings. Its slogans and banners have also helped create a popular mood resentful of any succession scenarios. Gamal has found himself at the heart of a war of words between the anti-Mubarak protest movements and pro-Mubarak supporters.

Gamal's associates credit him for the series of ideological changes that have taken place in the NDP. They believe he has a bold vision to liberalise the Egyptian economy, and has had much influence on drafting the party's policy papers. His critics argue that he parachuted onto the NDP without going up the ladder step by step, and that the Policies Committee, a policy-making body within the party, was set up only to provide a niche for the younger Mubarak's political ambitions; that he lacks the political expertise to run a country as big and difficult as Egypt, and has been dependent on his father's post rather than his own political skills. Basically, for many Egyptian intellectuals, particularly in opposition circles, the younger Mubarak does not generate much enthusiasm.

Prominent writer Salama Ahmed Salama does acknowledge that Gamal Mubarak played "an important role" in restructuring the NDP, and in the selection of a number of figures who were promoted to top ministerial posts. His influence on Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's cabinet and most likely the one following it is all too clear. "Gamal's role in political life is not over yet," Salama told Al-Ahram Weekly. He believes that the younger Mubarak's public appearances in mass rallies during the parliamentary elections were only meant to project an image different from the prevalent one. "He has been subject to much criticism about the way in which he entered the party. His participation in mass rallies was to show he can have a popular base, and can connect with the people," Salama said.

The latter point is arguable. Gamal Mubarak's detractors argue he has not made serious attempts to reach out to the masses, and surrounds himself with businessmen and academics who are clueless about the basic concerns and aspirations of ordinary Egyptians.

One weak point in the younger Mubarak's ascendancy to power was clearly exposed during the parliamentary elections when, according to Salama, Gamal failed to exhibit a serious commitment to implement a democratic transition. "He cannot be described as a liberal in the true sense of the word," Salama said.

Gamal's most difficult political moment came during the parliamentary elections, when his much-hyped reform vision was put to the acid test of cold domestic politics. Mubarak's performance during the election was, in Salama's opinion, very disappointing. "When the results brought victory to the Muslim Brotherhood with 34 seats in the first round, Gamal suddenly disappeared from the scene." Salama added that had the younger Mubarak been a political animal, he would have stayed aboard instead of pulling back at a moment when his party was suffering heavy losses. "Such an attitude," said Salama, "clearly exposed his political naiveté, as he does not confront problems at hand."

The most damage to Gamal Mubarak's so-called reform agenda came when his party resorted to the old vote-rigging tactics people thought had long disappeared with his "New Thinking" slogans. It started to look like "Old Thinking" was the only method the party knew how to use in its efforts to put the brakes on further Muslim Brotherhood progression: by putting the electorate under security siege, and giving security apparatuses a free hand to run the election show. Whether Gamal Mubarak had a say in the heavy-handed security tactics employed during the poll is not clear. What is indisputable is that many violations did occur.

In Washington, what Gamal Mubarak stands for in some circles might not be to his liking. According to one Washington-based political analyst, DC's policy community is divided: many in the administration and in think tanks still believe that Gamal Mubarak can promote liberal reforms and modernisation without destabilising the political system. "Of course they are less friendly to the succession scenario, but they favour Gamal Mubarak over a representative of the security apparatus when Mubarak senior leaves," the analyst said. This group believes that the US can better cooperate with someone like Gamal Mubarak and his group, as compared to the military establishment or one of the old guard. However, there are others -- whose opinions the analyst says are becoming increasingly influential in the administration and the policy community -- who consider Gamal Mubarak lacking. "The performance of the NDP in the parliamentary elections, and the fact that five years of reforms within the NDP led to a worse result (32 per cent of seats in 2005 as opposed to 38 per cent in 2000 elections) in 2005, give this second group more reason to doubt Gamal Mubarak's role."

Common arguments in this regard, the analyst adds, are that he is not committed to reform; his young guard is marginalised within the party; he lacks popular appeal; and at the end of the day his influence in the last four-five years is yet to generate any serious breakthrough with regards to reform. Basically, he is not delivering, and the idea of him becoming the new president is not very appealing. The State Department is more in favour of a young liberal reformer from outside the establishment. Whether or not the younger Mubarak will gain favour as his father's succesor depends, according to the analyst, on securing Egypt's stability, continuity of its regional role and a degree of political openness without embarrassing the US. "Gamal Mubarak has to demonstrate his ability to be instrumental at these levels," the analyst said.

According to Salama, if there is one thing Egyptians have learned in 2005, it is that the country has moved beyond the issue of succession. "People have learnt a lesson from what happened in Syria. They saw how weak the regime became after the succession issue. That's why I believe the popular will against a repetition of that scenario is getting stronger by the day. And that is the only guarantor that it will not happen."

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