Thursday, September 10, 2009

Decoding Egypt:In search of a political Abu-Treika

By Nael M. Shama - DNE, First Published: September 10, 2009

The current weakness and fragmentation of opposition parties and the nonchalance of public opinion suggest that perhaps nothing can disrupt the plan to groom Gamal Mubarak to the presidency in Egypt but a charismatic figure whose exemplary character can awaken people and mobilize them in defiance of the state.

Egypt, one can argue, is in need of a political Mohamed Abu-Trika. The 30-year-old football player has turned into a real legend in the last few years. This is not only due to Abu-Trika’s exceptional skills on the pitch, which helped his team (Al-Ahly) win 18 titles and Egypt’s national team win two African Cups. It has more to do with his rare personality that combines exceptional kindness, decency, and modesty, qualities that bestowed on him unprecedented popularity among nearly all Egyptians.

A character with such undoubted recognition is badly needed in the political sphere if Gamal Mubarak’s ascendance to the presidency is to be thwarted. However, there is a stark scarcity of charismatic leaders in political opposition parties. For example, the power base of Mahdi Akef, the octogenarian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is confined to the members of the MB. Liberals, leftists, Copts, and wide segments of women will not elect the leader of a movement that invites religion into politics, and relegates women to a secondary position in society.

Likewise, the chances of Ayman Nour, who came second to Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, are minimal. Nour was portrayed by some Western commentators as Egypt’s Nelson Mandela, but he is seen in Egypt as a replica of Lebanon’s vocal Walid Junblat. He is powerful enough to be a trouble-maker, but he is personally weak and politically fragile to contest the prevailing balance of forces. Divisions within the ranks of his party (and his family) further weakened his position.

This scarcity of popular figures could be partially explained by the fact that incapacitating charismatic figures, who could have jeopardized Mubarak’s hold on power, has been a longstanding strategy of Mubarak’s regime. The sidelining of Field Marshall Mohamed Abu Ghazalla (Egypt’s strong Defense Minister in the 1980s), Amr Moussa (Egypt’s Foreign Minister from 1991 to 2001) and Kamal Al-Ganzoury (Egypt’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999) are three cases in point.

The need of popular leaders could not be more imperative today. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, and the regime is adamant about pushing Gamal Mubarak to the seat of the presidency. To be able to overcome the alliance of the formidable state, the ruling party and the business class, Egypt needs a popular leader, whose competence is not questionable, and who is free from any aura of corruption, and likely to receive the support of diverse, and conflicting, political forces and social groups.

To many observers, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the 2005 Noble Prize laureate, meets all these criteria. Being an astute diplomat with long experience in international affairs will secure him external support if he gets elected. In addition, and because ElBaradei is independent of the petty rivalries of Egyptian political forces, and free from any ideological affiliation, he will likely be supported by these forces, at least for one term that could herald Egypt’s transition to democratic rule. Such an approval will be easier to obtain if Gamal Mubarak’s bid in the upcoming presidential elections is unchallenged.

It could be rightly argued that ElBaradei, and many other suitable candidates, do not meet the rigid conditions spelled out in Article 76 of the constitution, which was notoriously amended in 2007 to facilitate Gamal’s takeover of power, and exclude potential rivals. In heated moments, however, constitutional constraints count less than overwhelming popular support, particularly if this support is channeled through an administrative body, such as a coalition of all opposition parties from right to left.

If Gamal makes it to the presidential palace, he will not owe his seat to popular support or admiration, but to people’s apathy and the absence of real contesters. Therefore, the duty of all Egyptians at this critical juncture is to find apt and honorable candidates and back them up in the quest to hamper a father-to-son transmission of power in the 60-year-old Egyptian republic.

Otherwise, Egyptians will live to see the proud nation of Egypt slip into a hereditary republic, or a mere real estate whose ownership is smoothly transferred from father to son whenever he wishes.

Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He could be reached at: nael_shama@yahoo.com