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.

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