Tag Archives: Egypt

The International Relations of the Middle East after the Arab Spring

A version of this article first appeared in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East Regional Overview, January 2012.

Regional relations after the Arab Spring: the multi polar Middle East

By Christopher Phillips

In the 1960s an American political scientist, Malcolm Kerr, coined the phrase ‘the Arab Cold War’ to describe the regional rivalry between two blocks of Arab states each backed by superpower patrons. Mr Kerr accepted that this rivalry ended in the 1970s but in the first decade of the 21st century several commentators claimed that, following increased US intervention after 9/11, once again the Middle East was being divided into two blocks and a new Middle Eastern Cold War was taking shape. This bipolarity saw one camp led by the US and its principle allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – face down a second, self-styled ‘resistance’ camp composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militia/party, Hamas. As in the 1950s and 60s, these two blocks found themselves competing in numerous minor conflicts, political battles and the media, in a bid to dominate the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine forming the key battlegrounds.

The Arab Spring has changed this. While Israel and Saudi Arabia persist with their old narrative about the threat from Iran, in reality the popular uprisings of 2011 has changed the environment around all three states. New actors that had previously stood back from the region, such as Turkey and Qatar, stand to increase their influence and clout as a consequence of the unrest while formerly influential states such as Egypt and Syria look set for prolonged instability and weakness. Alongside this the global context has changed. The emerging BRICS powers have enhanced their influence and importance, at the very moment that the US and EU appear weaker following internal economic turmoil. The result is that instead of two clear blocks competing, the Middle East after the Arab Spring looks set to be multi-polar, with many different regional and global powers vying for influence in the different political and, possibly, military conflicts that the uprisings have created.

Regional winners: Turkey and Qatar

Turkey is one of the big winners from the Arab Spring. Even before 2011, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy had expanded its political, economic and cultural influence in the region considerably. The Arab Spring has boosted this further. Firstly, Turkey has mostly found itself on the right side of events. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the first foreign leader to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to quit and he eventually turned on Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in favour of pro-democracy protestors. Secondly, most of the moderate Islamist parties that are now likely to dominate the Arab world, such as Tunisia’s Ennadha and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the combination of Islam, democracy and economic success modelled by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, is their goal. Although some of its business links with these states may be lessened in the short term as they undergo transition and some economic difficulty, in the longer term Turkey can expect to translate its early support for and ideological affinity with the new regimes into strong relations and enhanced influence.

The other big winner is Qatar, which had also expanded its regional influence prior to 2011. With its security guaranteed by hosting the US military and its oil and gas-based economy booming, Qatar has used its wealth and media influence, primarily via its satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, to punch above its weight. The government reacted quicker than most to the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, which is theoretically independent but rarely contradicts its parent state’s wishes, led reporting on the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and helped it spread across the region. Similarly, Qatar led Arab League efforts against Mr Qaddafi and Mr Assad. Some accuse Qatar of hypocrisy for being vocal on Libya and Syria yet quiet on similar unrest in its ally, Bahrain. Others claim Qatar is using the Arab Spring to spread an Islamist agenda, particularly in Libya and Tunisia where it is rumoured to have financed Islamist political parties. Both accusations may be true but Qatar is primarily opportunistic. The region is changing and Qatar has been among the quickest to realise that it is well placed to fashion a future that will enhance its interests.

Regional losers: Egypt, Syria, Israel

The states that have experienced wide-reaching change are likely to be weaker in the short term as they focus internally. Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, have never been particularly influential in the region, however. Egypt’s weakness on the other hand, as the most populous Arab state and formerly a lead player in the US’ bloc of allies, will be felt. Despite the post-Mubarak military government negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit in October, its involvement in Arab-wide concerns has lessened. Even if elections go smoothly and a democratic order takes shape, it is likely to be several years before Egypt returns to its previous role of a leading power in the Arab world. Syria’s ongoing unrest and the realistic possibility that Mr Assad will also soon be toppled have removed another traditionally powerful voice from regional politics. As the main Arab partner of the Iran-led resistance bloc to American hegemony in the region, the Assad regime has long held influence beyond its borders, notably in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. After the Arab Spring however, as the regime slowly crumbles, Syria is likely to become an arena for competing regional powers itself.

Israel may not have faced domestic instability due to the Arab Spring but it ends 2011 considerably weaker. It still has the region’s best military and a thriving economy, but it is increasingly isolated. Even before 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had fallen out with Turkey and was relying increasingly on US diplomatic cover rather than building regional support. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this isolation. The new government in once-reliable Egypt looks likely to be a more hostile Islamist-led regime. Although Syria is an enemy, it was at least predictable and stable, and a civil war may threaten Israel’s north-eastern border. Even the friendly Hashemite regime in Jordan may have to make concessions to its revived Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to abrogate the Jordan-Israeli peace. On top of this, the threat of popular unrest has finally brought together the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity agreement, to Mr Netanyahu’s chagrin. Furthermore, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the democratic opening in Egypt is likely to boost Hamas in time for Palestinian elections in 2012. Isolated Israel may soon be entirely surrounded by unfriendly Islamist governments, forcing it to either compromise or become ever more insular.

Rivalry re-shaped: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves simultaneously enhanced and impinged by the Arab Spring. When unrest began, some feared Iran would be the main beneficiary. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the Arab Spring was modelled on the 1979 Iranian revolution, while Iran’s enemies claimed it was all part of an Iranian plot. Iran did little to dispel this when shortly after regime change in Egypt it sent military ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years. Yet whatever gains Iran may have made in Egypt and elsewhere were undermined with the outbreak of violence in Syria, Iran’s main ally. The fall of the Assad regime, or even its survival but in a weaker state, will be a major blow to Iran’s regional influence. Its supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon will be cut while its other ally, Hamas, has shown sides of abandoning the pro-Iran axis for the emerging Sunni Islamist-led governments. Iran will not necessarily be weaker, having already reconfigured its regional approach by strengthening its influence over Iraq as an alternative Arab ally to Syria. However, the days of a fixed pro-Iran block of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas seem over. Iran looks likely to continue its cold and proxy wars with its regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the Arab Spring has created a new, fluid regional scene for it to work in.

Saudi Arabia’s position is equally mixed. In a reversal of Iran’s experience, when Mr Mubarak fell and there was serious unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, the Saudis looked unnerved. To prevent what it perceived as Iranian influence from spreading, it took action to consolidate power in the ‘near abroad’. Troops were sent to Bahrain, US$20bn was promised to boost Bahrain and Oman, an active role was played to broker a solution in Yemen, which was also facing unrest, and Gulf Cooperation Council membership was offered to Jordan (and Morocco). However, as events have shifted Saudi Arabia looks more secure and finds itself in an unfamiliar, more assertive role. Although the ageing rulers seem keener to focus on internal succession issues than the region, there remains an obsession with the Iran threat. The weakness of the Assad regime has offered a chance to flip Syria away from Iran, and Saudi has joined Qatar in pressing the Arab League to hasten its fall. The willingness of its long-standing ally, the US, to abandon Hosni Mubarak in February, looks to have worried the leadership, and its willingness to fill the regional vacuum left by Egypt may come from a fear that if it does not act, its interests will suffer. This is unlikely to translate into any serious intervention outside of the near abroad, despite its historical links to Egypt’s Salafists, except for arenas such as Syria and Iraq where the Iran threat is high. Saudi Arabia is therefore likely to play a somewhat more assertive role than in the past, though mostly to defend itself from Iran in the wake of the collapse of the previously strong US-Israel-Egypt-Saudi axis.

The global powers: The West steps back, the BRICS step up?

Facilitating the shift towards a multi-polar Middle East has been the shift in global context, both before and after the Arab Spring. A combination of military overstretch after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economic slump and a revived isolationism in domestic politics meant that the US was already weakening in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this, costing the US one key ally, Hosni Mubarak, and unnerving another, Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Mr Obama was able to score a few populist victories in the early days of unrest, eventually calling on Mr Mubarak to step down and approving military action in Libya. However, any enhanced goodwill that this might have bought the US was undermined by its approach to Israel, notably Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, which stripped away any pretence that the US can be a neutral arbiter in the region. Of course, the US is not retreating from the Middle East and with its military bases in the Gulf – though not Iraq – and key economic and diplomatic relations will continue to be an important power. However, the diplomatic hegemony the US enjoyed in the 1990s and the military hegemony it attempted in the 2000s looks unlikely to be a feature of the post-Arab spring world.

The diminishing power of the US leaves space for other powers to fill, although the neighbouring European Union (EU) is unlikely to be one. Despite being the Middle East’s largest trade partner, the EU has rarely made that clout count, and is even less likely to do so now as it faces economic crisis. Individual states, notably Britain and France, have attempted to play a leading role, particularly in the actions taken in Libya and Syria, but without the military support of NATO and the US, their role will be limited. The emerging BRICS on the other hand, do seem likely to enhance their position. Russia under Vladimir Putin has already revived some of the USSR’s former prominence in the region, expanding its economic, military and diplomatic presence in Syria in particular. The reluctance to approve UN resolutions on Libya and the steadfast refusal to do so on Syria suggests that Russia seeks to guard its expanding strategic regional position. The other BRICS, China, India, Brazil and South Africa seem to have restricted their regional involvement to the economic sphere for now. Unlike the western states, these powers seem willing to offer trade and cooperation without the human rights and democratic strings attached. As western influence continues to wane and the economic clout of these states grows further, an enhanced role for the BRICS in the future would seem more appealing. However, a return to patron-client relationships is unlikely. The multi-polar nature of regional relations described above should dictate the shape of international involvement, rather than the superpowers’ grand strategy as in the Cold War or the short-lived War on Terror.

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has unsettled the Middle East’s international relations, by catalyzing existing trends and creating new challenges. The rise of Turkey and Qatar, the isolation of Israel and the diminishment of the US has increased, while the sudden weakness of Egypt and Syria has been unexpected. The Saudi-Iran rivalry continues, although the relative power of each state and the arena in which they compete has been transformed. The bi-polar regional order of the past decade – a Middle Eastern Cold War between a US-led block and an Iranian-led alliance – is coming to an end, making way for a multi-polar arena in which regional and, to a lesser extent, global powers will compete.

Historical parallels have their limitations but shed some light on what this new era might be like. If the 2000s were the second incarnation of Malcolm Kerr’s ‘Arab Cold War’, then perhaps the post Arab Spring Middle East of the 2010s may come to reflect the ‘Struggle for Syria’, outlined by Patrick Seale. Seale noted that in the Syria of 1945-58, a weak Syrian political system came to be the battleground for the leading regional powers of the day, with different political groupings each backed by separate governments. This trend has already been repeated at least twice before, in the Lebanon of 1975-90 and in Iraq from 2003-today. With Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen soon likely to join Lebanon and Iraq on the list of weak states in the Middle East, the potential for them to become new arenas of competition for the stronger states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Israel, is increased.

Arab Spring: Coup d’etat or Revolution?

Part of the series ’10 myths about the Middle East’ in this month’s Majalla:

Within days of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt, memorabilia of the popular anti-regime protests that preceded his downfall went on sale in Tahrir Square, the scene of the largest demonstrations. Pin badges and T-shirts, embossed with Egyptian flags proudly boasted of the “2011 Egyptian Revolution,” reinforcing the narrative already adopted by the international media that a popular revolution had toppled the Egyptian president, just as it had his Tunisian counterpart a month earlier. Yet such an analysis glosses over the back-room politics and shifting alliances among the elite and their international backers that actually transformed popular unrest into regime change. As has since been seen in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen, in the months after Tahrir, widespread anti-regime popular unrest alone may prove incapable of toppling dictators if it lacks the support of key sections of the elite, notably the military.

The involvement of the military in the ousting of the only leaders to be toppled thus far, raises questions about how “revolutionary” the Arab Spring has actually been. Among the many frustrations voiced by activists who took to the streets against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, has been the amount of power wielded by the military in the post-ouster states. Though both the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have fashioned themselves as the “guardians of the revolution,” activists have subsequently complained that the army has hijacked popular unrest to safeguard their own privileged positions. In Egypt, since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February, the army has broken up further demonstrations and arrested hundreds, the same as the Mubarak regime did in its final days. With the interim government, guided by the supreme military council, pushing for constitutional changes and elections that aren’t as deep or as transformative as ardent democrats demand, the situation in Egypt appears at times more of a coup d’état than a revolution.

However, it remains too early to write off the revolutionary potential of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere. That departed leaders were ousted by military coups, albeit under popular pressure, does not delegitimize claims that a revolution has taken place. Many celebrated revolutions in history were the result of coups rather than widespread popular unrest, such as Egypt’s own in 1952, Iraq’s in 1958 and, further afield, the Bolshevik’s October 1917 Revolution. What makes them revolutionary or not is the extent of the political, social and economic change that follows rather than the exact method of regime change. For the Arab Spring it is too early to say. Perhaps the elites of the old regimes will remain in place, under the protection of a military that seeks to pay only lip service to the democratic changes demanded by the street. Alternatively, after this adjustment period, the old pillars of the deposed regimes may be gradually whittled down as widespread political and economic transformations take place.

Wycliffe Jean ‘Freedom’ (Song for Egypt)

Very catchy little piece from the former Fugee and Haiti presidential wannabe which, though a little cliched at times, does seem to capture the feeling of we outsiders looking in at the remarkable events in Egypt at present.

Egypt Protests: Is Syria next?

The incredible scenes in Egypt today have led several commentators to speak of a possible ‘domino effect’ in other Arab authoritarian regimes. I have long written about this phenomenon and am not surprised that events in Tunisia have spread to Egypt and beyond. Arab identity remains important in the region, recently buoyed by the internet and satellite television like Al-Jazeera, and the impact of Arabs in one country successfully overthrowing a dictator can inspire other Arabs still suffering under authoritarian rule elsewhere. Whilst it is still far from certain that ‘regime change’ will occur in Egypt, many are already suggesting Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are the next candidates for similar transformations. Lets examine Syria in particular and consider the likelihood of it following Tunisia and (possibly) Egypt.

The case for the Syrian domino falling

Syria shares many characteristics with Egypt that might suggest Bashar al-Assad could suffer the same (possible) fate as Mubarak. It too is effectively a one party state, ruled by the Ba’ath party since 1963. Like the NDP in Egypt, the Ba’ath has lost any of its original ideological motivations and primarily acts as a defender of the status quo and the regime. Like the NDP ordinary Syrians resent (and privately mock) the party, which is seen as nepotistic, preferential and one of the few routes to personal advancement. Syria too suffers from terrible corruption that, as in Egypt, many resent. Syria recently finished near-bottom of the World Bank’s report on business-friendly countries. Figures related to the president or from his dominant Allawi sect, such as his cousin Rami Maklouf, own large companies many of which are granted government monopolies. On top of this, Syria like Egypt has its economic problems, with increasing numbers of people suffering from recent economic reforms that have cut previous subsidies on basics such as bread and oil and have left the poorest elements of society poorer. Unemployment is high too, though nowhere near the levels of Egypt.

The other major disadvantage for Syria is that its population, perhaps more than any others in the region, have been encouraged to feel a sense of Arab identity by the regime for decades. If the ‘democratic domino effect’ has an impact, it may well be felt extra strongly in Syria simply because there it will be harder for the regime to argue the Egyptians and Tunisians are somehow different to the Syrians, given they have been encouraging the reverse for generations. The sight of Egypt, ‘Umm Dunya (the mother of the world), becoming democratic could well encourage Syrians to demand the same.

The case against Syria being next

There are also key differences between Egypt/Tunisia and Syria that may cause events to unfold differently. One key difference is that President Bashar al-Assad is relatively popular. He is still seen as quite a new leader (having been in power 11 years as opposed to Mubarak’s 30 and Ben Ali’s 23) and is regarded as a moderate, approachable reformer. Assad successfully transcends resentment against ‘the government’ and ‘the party’ by most Syrians you speak to and retains a popular image of someone who is trying to reform Syria and move it forward but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime. If any protests do occur in Syria it is quite possible that people will call on Bashar to reform the regime himself rather than step down.

In relation to this, Syria has another advantage that its foreign policy is relatively popular on the streets. The continued war with Israel is widely supported and the regime successfully exploits this to justify the lack of rights and democracy. Indeed, when there was last movement for greater openness, The Damascus Spring of 2000-01, ‘national security’ and the conflict with Israel were the primary reasons given by the regime to justify repression. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia had this escape clause.

Another keys difference is that the economic situation is nowhere near as bad as elsewhere. Whilst Syria is not a wealthy country and has a lower GDP per capita than its neighbours, wealth is more evenly spread and far fewer people live below the poverty line (11%) than in Egypt (20%), Jordan (14%) or Yemen (45%). Moreover, Syria has only just begun a process of economic reforms that many (though not the very poorest) are still hopeful about. Though Egyptians saw 30 years of capitalism and external investment not bringing them rewards, Syrians are relatively new to infitah and still see it as a progressive force rather than something to resent.

The army is also more closely tied to the ruling elite than in Egypt. Members of the ruling Allawi sect hold high positions in government, the party, the army, security forces and business. Whilst in Tunisia and Egypt the army are institutions that are to some extent apart from the ruling party, in Syria they are completely tied together. It seems highly unlikely that their loyalty to the regime will ever waver as was seen in Tunisia and seems to be happening in Egypt. Moreover, many of these Allawis fear their fate at the hands of the majority Sunni population if they lose power. Both Egypt and Tunisia lack these ethnic divisions that give the ruling elite even more reason to hold onto power.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Syria has far less civil society than either Egypt or Tunisia (or Jordan, Yemen and Algeria for that matter) and consequently it is harder to imagine how opposition would get organized. Recognizing just this kind of threat, Facebook was banned very early on in its existence, and the internet was allegedly shut down immediately on Friday’s day of anger in Egypt, even before there was even a whiff of copycat demonstrations in Damascus.  Similarly, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, all trade unions (which played a significant role in Tunisia) are controlled by the regime, and most content in mosques is loyalist and controlled. Whilst the Syrian security services, like the Egyptians, could well prove itself unable to repulse mass demonstration that go on for days, it is hard to see how Syrians would be able to mobilize in the same way as their Egyptian and Tunisians cousins.

Conclusion: Bashar takes the lead?

All this suggests that Syria is unlikely to be the next domino to fall, even if Mubarak does end up losing power. Damascus will certainly be nervous, and would probably prefer Hosni to stay on his throne, but the threat of an immediate overspill seems limited. However, two things may change this scenario. Firstly, if all the other dominos fall. If Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria follow Tunisia, pressure will certainly increase and Syrians, even with their like of the President and their history of relative passivity, may start to feel inspired to challenge the government if not Assad directly himself. Moreover, if those regime changes lead to stable, successful, largely democratic governments over the next few months, the pressure will be even greater. This will especially be so if they provide locations for free press where Syrian opposition can publish and have a voice closer to home than their current exile in London and Washington.

A second scenario, as optimistically suggested by Brian Whitaker today, is that Bashar will use his relative popularity and reformist credentials to bring change himself before he is pushed. This seems unlikely but if the ‘old guard’ and anti-democrats in his regime can be persuaded that the alternative is to be hounded out to Saudi Arabia like Ben Ali’s cronies, a period of limited reform – perhaps ending the state of emergency and allowing for more open parliamentary elections – is not totally inconceivable.

All of this is still up in the air, and until things settle in Egypt and Tunisia, who knows where things will lead. Today’s events have certainly changed things. How much is still to be seen.

Mubarak urged new dictator in Iraq

Surprise surprise. Wikileaks reveals Egyptian President Mubarak urged the US in 2008 to allow an army dictator to take over in Iraq. Autocratic solidarity once more… See this piece in Hurriyet:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak advised the United States in 2008 to “forget” about democracy in Iraq and allow a dictator to take over, according to a diplomatic cable released this week on WikiLeaks.

Mubarak made the comments during talks with visiting U.S. congressmen to whom he also admitted that he was “terrified” by the possibility of a nuclear Iran, in the cable sent home from the U.S. embassy.

He noted to the U.S. delegation he had advised Washington against the 2003 invasion of Iraq to depose dictator Saddam Hussein. But now that they had troops in mainly Shiite Iraq, American troops should not withdraw because that would only serve to strengthen Shiite Iran next door. “You cannot leave” because “you would leave Iran in control,” the diplomatic dispatch, dated May 27, 2008 according to the website, quoted him as saying. “Mubarak explained his recipe for going forward,” the cable said.

“Strengthen the (Iraqi) armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis by their nature are too tough,” Mubarak said in the cable. He said he would never accept a nuclear Iran and acknowledged: “We are all terrified.”

 

Fisk on Egypt after (the first) Mubarak

Robert Fisk on Egypt after Mubarak, The Independent, 24th August:

So here comes the latest Egyptian joke about 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. The president, a keen squash player – how else could he keep his jet-black hair? – calls up the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim cleric in the land, to ask if there are squash courts in heaven. The sheikh asks for a couple of days to consult the Almighty. Two days later, he calls Mr Mubarak back. “There’s good news and bad news,” he says. Give me the good news, snaps Mr Mubarak. “Well,” says the sheikh, “there are lots of squash courts in heaven.” And the bad news, asks the president? “You have a match there in two weeks’ time!”

The fact that the intelligence services ignore the usual suspects when this sort of joke is made does not signify a new freedom of speech or – dare one say it – a new democracy in Egypt. The truth is that the president, in poor health since a gall bladder operation in Germany, is a very old man who has no appointed successor and whose imminent demise is the only story in town, told with that familiar vein of cruel humour in which Egyptians are rivalled only by the Lebanese. The days when Mr Mubarak was called “La vache qui rit” (the cow who smiles) – the Egyptians know the joke in its French form – are gone.

A lot of them want him dead – not out of personal animosity, but because they want political change. They probably will not get it. Telling Egyptians that “only God knows” who the next president will be – Mr Mubarak actually said this – is ridiculous. Will it be his son, Gamal? The head of Egyptian intelligence, Omar Sulieman? He’s probably had too many heart problems.

But either way, it would change nothing. Of Mohamed ElBaradei, more later. The opposition “Kifaya” – “Enough” – party is regularly attacked by the security services. Perhaps Mr Mubarak does not care.

Cairo has been labouring under an intense heat wave these past two weeks – when the local papers report it on page one, you know it’s serious – and in the foetid slums of Beaulac al-Daqrour, sweating through 47 degrees, the millions of Egyptians who live under Mr Mubarak’s exhausted rule have little time for politics.

Like the Iraqis under UN sanctions, whom the West always hoped would overthrow Saddam, most Egyptians are too weary to rise up against the regime, more anxious to protect their families from poverty than to abuse the man who leaves them in such misery. Even the open sewers of al-Daqruor have dried up, leaving a black stream at the bottom, in which barefoot children play.

Just as Victorian governments always feared revolution amid the slums of London, Manchester and Liverpool, so the Egyptian authorities have layered the slums with a carapace of competing intelligence services to ensure that no serious political opposition can be sustained amid the piety and filth of Cairo.

A splurge of posters carrying a photograph of Mr Mubarak’s 47-year old businessman son, Gamal, below the bleak caption “Gamal … Egypt” – a sad gesture to Egypt’s 28 per cent illiteracy rate rather than a chic slogan by his National Democratic Party – has been disowned by his supporters, who now oddly include a member of the opposition leftist Tagammu party, Magdy el-Kurdi.

True to the methods of all good Arab socialist movements, poor Mr el-Kurdi is to be “interrogated” for violating the Tagammu’s principles. “…We don’t support individuals,” the party’s co-founder said. “Rather, we seek democracy.”

And so say all of us. The problem with Mr Mubarak’s presidency – and with Gamal, if this is to become the second caliphate in the Middle East (the capital of the first being Damascus) – is that after decades of promised improvements, most Egyptians still feel that their country has no physical or political movement. The country’s state of emergency curbs their tongues. Poverty breaks down their energy. They have been injected with political boredom.

The rich live in gated communities outside the city; indeed, all the major hotels in Cairo have become gated communities for foreigners, tourists and businessmen and women, who breathe air-conditioning, sip cold beers beside the pool, sweep to their appointments in luxury buses or limousines. For the rich, there are tennis clubs, horse-riding, boutiques, concert performances. For the poor, there is controlled religion, Dickensian housing and television soap opera. No wonder Egyptian television is celebrating its 50th anniversary with the slogan: “We started big, and we remain big.” Big – as in fat….

Candidates for succession

1: Gamal Mubarak

Both Gamal and his father have denied that he wants to take over as president of Egypt, but his steady ascent through the country’s political life has indicated otherwise. He has long been seen within the country as the heir apparent. And a poster campaign that touted him as Egypt’s new leader had to be disowned by his party. If he did take over from his father, he would be following the lead of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who took over after his own father’s death.

2: Omar Suleiman

The senior intelligence official for Hosni Mubarak has not publicly expressed interest in the leadership position. But he is a major figure in the leadership structure of Egypt. He is involved in the constant negotations with Hamas over the future of Gaza. However, health problems, specifically his heart, do count against him achieving the country’s top job.

3: Mohamed ElBaradei

The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei has not yet confirmed whether he will stand for the presidency, but many in Egypt are hoping that he will and see him as the man to bring democratic reform to the country. Dr ElBaradei – who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 while in charge of the UN’s nuclear agency – is leading a campaign for constitutional change that has so far gathered around 770,000 signatures, and he has stated that he will only think about running for president if the election is fair.

The autocratic solidarity begins…

Last month when, ElBaradei returned to Egypt, i wrote here:

An interesting question will be what impact the run up to the 2011 election in Egypt will have on the other autocratic regimes in the region. …don’t be surprised to see subtle endorsements of Mubarak from Amman, Riyadh and the Gulf in the coming year. Maybe even from Washington and Tel Aviv. After all, who stands to lose most from a genuine democratic government in the Arab world?

And, low and behold, the BBC today report this from Kuwait:

Kuwait has deported at least 21 followers of Egypt’s high-profile opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, human rights groups say.

According to Human Rights Watch, Kuwait’s interior minister Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah said the Egyptians had assembled without permission and had criticised the Egyptian president.

It is rare for Kuwait to deport expatriates for political activities.

Shock me!