The final cut
examines opposition claims that reviving Egypt's nuclear programme is one more step on Gamal Mubarak's journey to the presidency
That the National Democratic Party's fourth annual convention ended without any radical shifts in policy was hardly surprising. The one bombshell, however, was the announcement, by Gamal Mubarak, head of the NDP's Policies Committee, that a peaceful nuclear programme was again being considered after being shelved for two more decades. Egypt closed down its last nuclear reactor in the mid-1980s, in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, and until now has shown no inclination to invest in nuclear facilities.
The fact that it was the younger Mubarak who broke to the Egyptian public and the world the news that this nuclear-free era may be about to end was immediately interpreted as one more step in his being groomed to take over from his father, an attempt to build a public image for Mubarak by allowing him to spearhead a national project. "If this is not a vehicle for succession then what is," commented one analyst.
Not so, insist NDP officials, who say the announcement came as part of an ongoing review of energy supplies.
Few doubt, though, that younger Mubarak's statement at a conference during which he emerged as a dominant figure within the NDP, has thrown oil onto the already fiery debate over who rules Egypt and how. And it is hardly a secret that many within the party are whispering that his ascension to Egypt's number one job is a fait accompli.
The move, believes one analyst, was clearly intended to co-opt a policy that is assumed will go down well with the public and thus build a popular consensus around the figure of the president's younger son.
The announcement followed the younger Mubarak's attempts to distance himself from Washington. During a meeting with foreign politicians attending the NDP's annual conference, he lambasted the US administration, saying US policies in the region had provided a fertile breeding ground for extremism. "We reject visions from abroad that attempt to undermine Arab identity and joint Arab efforts," he said, and in a clear message to the White House included "the so-called Greater Middle East Initiative" among those visions.
Pro- Gamal Mubarak newspapers moved into an overdrive as they strived to project an image of the younger Mubarak defying Washington. He was even quoted in the daily Rosalyousef bashing an American broadcaster because: 'Americans do not listen enough'. His remarks, said one American journalist, were an attempt "to build a public image and restore some credibility".
"These declarations have nothing to do with gaining credibility and [the nuclear announcement] came in the context of discussions relating to our energy needs," says Mohamed Kamal, an influential member of the NDP's policies committee. "Gamal Mubarak's statements are a reflection of party policies."
Kamal, a close aide of the younger Mubarak, criticised the way the conference had been reported. "There is an obsession with Gamal Mubarak in the media and they tend to explain everything he does as an attempt to get closer to presidency."
There was nothing new, he continued, in criticising US policy in the region. "We have always made our position clear on US regional policies and make no secret of the fact that a lot of mistakes have been made in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and most recently in Lebanon."
Some, however, argue that this heralded a break with a long standing tradition of courting the US. 42-year-old Gamal Mubarak has for long presented himself as the champion of the NDP's reformist wing. He has also been careful to show himself, in Washington at least, claim the opposition, as a reliable friend. Indeed, it is almost an article of faith among opposition politicians that younger Mubarak has been seeking to garner American backing for his ascendancy to power, and many believe a deal has already been struck between the US administration and the Egyptian regime on their preferred succession scenario.
The messages coming from Washington, however, speak of a different reality. A former US diplomat, who served in Cairo, dismissed allegations that the administration has backtracked on its promotion of democratisation in Egypt, arguing that the dilemma facing Washington is that "they are not sure what to do about the situation in Egypt". And while the former diplomat says recent remarks by President Bush praising the group of young reformers surrounding Mubarak may have given the impression that the administration is beginning to believe that there are good guys and bad guys within the Egyptian regime, the reality is more nuanced. "There is a much clearer view that both are connected and that the young reformers bear equal responsibility for the lack of the political will to carry out democratic reforms," the diplomat, who asked her name be withheld, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "They have proved no less autocratic than the old ones."
Washington, says the diplomat, still regards the issue of succession as taboo. "They think it is too sensitive an issue for them to interfere and influence though the administration is being advised to make up its mind before it is too late and before it is confronted with an unexpected scenario."
But for Cairo University's political science professor Hassan Nafaa, the younger Mubarak's recent criticism of Washington was only part of a "blackmail game".
"They think that by adopting a harsh tone against the US they are increasing their chances to bargain with the Americans over the succession issue." Autocratic Arab regimes, he believes, long ago recognised "the US does not want to establish real democratic systems in the Middle East and is only using democracy as a tool to blackmail". The Egyptian regime's response, he says, is "either you accept the succession scenario or else the Brotherhood will be the alternative."