Mum and daddy want him to be president, Egypt's republic be damned. The family butler, Ahmad Nazif, while polishing the silverware says, “Is it really forbidden for a son of a President to be active politically? You should focus on the process, not on the people.”
Gamal Mubarak’s smashing little lecture before the American Chamber of Commerce at the posh Four Seasons Hotel was peppered with very correct catchwords and phrases: “International best practice,” “efficiency,” “transparency,” “accountability”, “Egypt’s political future should be one of greater political competition,” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I don’t doubt that Gamal bey hired the best American PR firm that the Egyptian people’s money can buy to spin and sell his modernised, free-market autocracy….Yet Mubarak fils’ speech is remarkably irrelevant to current political developments. Gamal evinces an astonishingly blithe attitude to the fundamental politico-economic concerns of Egyptians at this moment, opting instead to outline what he called his party’s “big picture of change.” But anyone with half a brain knows that the big picture is not what the NDP thinks. The big picture is how the Mubarak regime will respond to the dovetailing of sophisticated modes of domestic political mobilisation with persistent international pressure. So far, the regime with all its resources has shown a complete lack of aptitude at managing mobilisation. The even bigger and far more fascinating picture, however, is how swiftly and dramatically the Egyptian polity is changing. A quick review of May’s events makes this clear.
But here’s what I’m wondering. Gamal bey gets to be ferried about town delivering lectures and speeches about his “visions” and “big picture of change.” He likes to hold forth at the most swanky, decidedly non-public fora of super-luxury hotels, American universities, American business conclaves, and assorted other venues inhospitable to the vast majority of Egypt’s people. But I’d like to know: what mechanisms are there to hold Mr. Gamal Mubarak to account? I understand that his daddy created a “Policies Secretariat” tailor-made for him, but can Secretariat members or other NDP joiners hold him to account, elect him, dismiss him, etcetera? I know that technically, he is “elected” by the NDP’s “membership”, but that’s neither here nor there.
I mean, surely Gamal bey understands that a basic prerequisite of the democracy he likes to talk about is election and accountability. But as far as I am aware, he is neither elected nor even subject to any internal party scrutiny, much less a general vetting by the Egyptian people. He was selected by his father, with a wink-nod by the American government, though it seems the Bush people are now quietly backtracking from that colossal blunder, or at least sending very mixed signals. Surely Gamal bey knows that politics is not business, and while the CEO model may fly in the business circles he’s most comfortable in, it has no place in the realm of politics. Real politics, that is, not politics à la NDP.
A Thought Experiment
My father too can wake up one morning and decide to appoint me “Head of the Policies Secretariat” of a hodgepodge assembly of crooks, opportunists, and academic sycophants called the “National Democratic Party.” Then I can share my unsolicited deep thoughts with the rest of the world about how Egypt should be run. I’d get my picture taken looking very dull and rarely smiling, so burdened would I be with the responsibility of uplifting the retrograde Egyptian people. I too would be able to pretend that the “National Democratic Party” is a real political party, that it’s separate from the state, and that I’m its ambitious young “reformer” battling the demonic “old guard.”
One “Stanley Reed in London” would proclaim, “A few years ago the NDP was a shambles,” but I Baheyya the valiant “rebuilt it into a serious force that now draws business leaders and academics as members.” As a presumptive moderniser, I would have so much fun whipping up all kinds of phony stories while the world hangs on my every word. American journalist Mary Anne Weaver would breathlessly gush over how I’m “particularly comfortable in hand-tailored suits of fine English cloth and in supple, hand-stitched Italian leather shoes.” (The Atlantic Monthly, October 2003).
When I’d be asked those annoying repetitive questions about my competence and background, I’d sigh wearily and explain patiently that Egyptians live in an authoritarian society, and must be led by a firm hand while their know-better rulers put together “the building blocs of a democratic system.” When I’d be challenged to defend my shallow and unimaginative views, I’d resort to my favorite stock phrase: “These are matters of concern which it takes time to discuss.” When I’m really cornered, as I was about police violence against anti-war protestors in 2003, I’d offer glib non-answers: “You will find that proportionally the number of clashes in Egypt was much lower than in other countries.”
When I’d be asked about constitutional reform, say in September 2004, I’d shrug: “not part of the NDP’s current priorities.” But then a few months later I’d be all agog, “For the first time in Egypt’s political history, and as a result of a constitutional amendment approved by a majority of the electorate in a public referendum, direct elections for the office of the President will be held this September.” When I’d be asked what I like to call “the classic question,” I’d get all huffy and indignant and shoot back at the insolent reporter, “This is a classic question to which I will give the answer I have rehearsed hundreds of times: my focus is change in the NDP. We are focussed on policies and strategies, not on individuals."
Politicising the Family, Personalising Politics
Because my father doesn’t happen to have waltzed in to the position of president but instead is an upstanding private citizen, and because my father respects and loves the Egyptian people and doesn’t hold them in contempt, and because my father understands and values the meaning of democracy, he would never do whatever he damn well pleases and expect to have the world take him seriously. Most of all, he would never try to privatise the Egyptian state and bequeath it to his family and cronies (he has no cronies, thank God). So mil akher as we say, who is Gamal bey Mubarak, and why should I believe anything he says? And who cares what he thinks? And how is it that an absolutely unaccountable, unelected, unworthy, illegitimate, unqualified, and uncongenial banker has taken center stage in our public life and proceeded to instruct us on the future of our country? ‘Agabi.
If Gamal’s mum thinks he’s the cat’s pyjamas, by what right is this private family affair foisted upon the rest of us? Personally, I think Gamal Mubarak is a poser. He’s both haughty and none too bright, a lethal combination. His statements are utterly perfunctory and derivative, with about as much profundity as the maxims in Chinese fortune cookies: “as we work to realize that future, we will also seek to renew our partnership with society.” When they’re not lifted from the latest PR manual or “governance” phrase book, his statements are astonishingly dull and formulaic. And when he’s trying to woo American officials, businesses, and media, he slips into Americanisms that he hopes will make him more endearing to them: “As far as my political ambitions are concerned, I’m pretty much satisfied with what I’m doing now,” he promised on a 2003 mission to the U.S. Sorry, Gamal, bas dammak te’eel awi, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Call me slow, but I’m still shocked by the elementary fact of the Mubaraks’ limitless powers to translate their private family ambitions into public policy. Neither Nasser nor Sadat ever went this far. Since 2000 when the precious dauphin was appointed to the NDP’s general secretariat (right, by papa), he’s been an unwavering presence in our public life. That our political life must now revolve around Gamal Mubarak is more than intolerable, it’s incredible. What’s even more incredible is how massive amounts of resources are being funneled into marketing Gamal, especially internationally. Most incredible of all is doormat Nazif’s comment to the newspaper USA Today, “Gamal has declared he will not run for the presidency this time. But Gamal is an Egyptian. He has the right to run. Of course, it's unheard of in any country in the world that a son of a president becomes president.” My word, I’m ever so pleased when Doktor Nazif attempts to be clever. It fills me with boundless confidence in his abilities to selflessly embrace his duties as chief toady, and to do so with an unfailing smile and an impeccably self-effacing manner. Carry on, Doktor Nazif.
Personal opinions aside, the important point is that we address the roots of the Gamal Mubarak phenomenon, not accept it as a fait accompli and bicker over whether he’s good or bad. Nothing offends my sensibilities more than the utter contempt for the intelligence of the Egyptian people represented by the Gamal Mubarak project, but the project is merely a symptom: of the extreme personalisation of political power, of social privilege run amok, of the normalisation of nepotism in every profession in Egypt today, of an unprecedented level of derision in the state’s dealing with society. We should never lose sight of the original ailment and debate mere effects (and this is as much a reminder to myself as to others).
To ground the discussion more concretely, and having already underlined what I strongly feel is a necessary sense of outrage about the Gamal Mubarak “issue”, let’s review some basic conditions that must be fulfilled before Gamal can legitimately enter politics.
The emergency rule which we’ve lived under continuously since 1981 must be repealed forever, along with “Emergency State Security Courts”; Hosni Mubarak must cease to be president of the NDP and president of Egypt, and these two posts must never be occupied by the same person; Suzanne Mubarak must divest herself of all public posts (chairwoman of the National Council of Women, Egyptian Red Crescent, “Inetgrated Care Association,” etcetera etcetera); the Mubarak family must submit to a public auditing of its finances from the year 1975 (when Mubarak was appointed vice president) to the present; all the laws restricting public assembly, association, and speech must be repealed (73/1956, 40/1977, 96/1996, 84/2002), the Shura Council must be abolished, all elections (local, parliamentary, and now presidential) must be supervised by the judiciary and managed by a truly independent electoral commission with constitutional status; identical air time must be given to all candidates; and no administrative acts are to be immune from judicial review.
And that’s just for starters, I didn’t include fundamental constitutional reforms required to break the stranglehold of the presidency on the other two branches, and additional matters of state structure (military prerogatives, the status of internal auditing institutions, the perquisites of the police, etc.) But the above conditions are a decent start in my eyes; if they are fulfilled, only then is Gamal welcome to show his mettle in the public arena, meaning he has to put himself through a truly competitive election.
But Gamal Mubarak blathering on about a competitive political process while he himself has never been vetted by any electoral mechanism is inadmissible. And sharing his “big picture” of what are really the quaint little political rules he’s come up with for everyone else but himself to follow is downright unacceptable (to put it politely). And his flat-out refusal to entertain the repeal of emergency law is revealing. If Gamal Mubarak is willing to come down to earth and compete on a level playing field with equals after a democratic transition, then ahlan wa sahlan. I’ll even dig up £E5 as my personal contribution to his campaign fund. Anything less than a truly contested election by universally accepted standards, however, would be utter absurdity and rank dynastic ambition with no place in a republic, even one as rotting and fragile as Egypt’s.
Beyond the Gamal Mubarak Project
Gamal Mubarak’s speech is remarkably irrelevant to current political developments. He evinces an astonishingly blithe attitude to the fundamental politico-economic concerns of Egyptians at this moment, opting instead to outline what he calls his party’s “big picture of change.” But anyone with half a brain knows that the big picture is not what the NDP thinks. The big picture is how the Mubarak regime will respond to the dovetailing of increasingly sophisticated modes of domestic political mobilisation with persistent international pressure. So far, the regime with all its resources has shown a complete lack of aptitude at managing mobilisation. The even bigger and far more fascinating picture, however, is how swiftly and dramatically the Egyptian polity is changing. A quick review of May’s events makes this clear.
The month opened with a crackdown on the Ikhwan that netted media-savvy member Essam al-Eryan. No fool nor stranger to the state’s machinations, al-Eryan reciprocated by declaring his presidential candidacy from behind bars, to the chagrin of both his group’s leadership and the government, the latter still smarting from Condoleezza Rice’s slap on the wrist about Ayman Nour. The Ikhwan went through some serious soul-searching in May. When their preferred method of remonstrating with the government failed, they quickly staked a claim to their share of street demonstrations, the new currency of Egyptian politics. Always image conscious, they tested out new modalities: Abdel Men’em Abul Futuh ordered a halt to the practice of holding up Qur’ans in demos. General Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef lambasted the regime in unusually tough terms, a far cry from their March offering of backing Mubarak for a fifth term in exchange for official recognition.
At about the same time, parliament unveiled the new rules for the presidential elections, which drew howls from all quarters of Egyptian society except for the NDP of course. Its wise sage instructed, “This was in no ways meant as a barrier to political parties, but rather as an incentive for them to seriously compete in elections.” As per usual, however, far more important developments were afoot. Mid-month, Egyptian judges weighed in, captivating domestic and international attention with their crystal-clear demands for fair elections and corporate autonomy. Inaccurately hyped as a “rebellion” and “revolution” of the judiciary, the judges' stand was instead a carefully measured ultimatum, rooted in years of accumulating grievances and vivid institutional memories. “The time has come to end tutelage,” vowed the intrepid Mahmoud al-Khodeiri, head of the Alexandria Judges Club.
Doktor Nazif’s goodwill trip to the United States, fresh on the heels of the judges’ stunning ultimatum, appeared to have indeterminate effects; on the one hand he was rightly clobbered by American journalists, yet in Cairo Laura Bush praised Mubarak’s “very bold step” of tailoring election rules to fit him and/or fils. While society was learning and mobilising every day, the regime betrayed startling signs of ineptitude: hiring poor Cairo women to chant that they have not been hired, renting thugs to beat up and strip men and women demonstrators in full view of international cameras, and generally hoping against hope that it can still do business the bad old way.
Here’s my personal favorite: commissioning a washed-up actor with toxic political views, a wrestler, and a putative opposition party leader to form the “Continuity for the Sake of Prosperity” (al-Istiqrar min Ajl al-Izdihar) movement. I was tickled by al-Hayat’s coverage, dripping with requisite sarcasm: “As Cairo’s burning sun shone down on the faces of Kifaya protestors as they gathered yesterday to demand that Mubarak step down, beautiful girls, tropical drinks, and the smell of grilling greeted the attendees of the “Continuity” movement’s first press conference.” (2 June, 2005).
So here’s the big picture: Egypt’s politically articulate classes are amassing ever more tactical and strategic sophistication by the day while its ruling elite is resorting to the most primitive and bumbling methods imaginable (when they’re not in deep denial, that is).The lesson? At propitious moments in history, sometimes the weak gain unexpected advantages, outperforming the rich, plumed, and powerful. In the Egyptian contest of political wills, it seems obvious to me who’s winning. A people’s revolution this isn’t, but a rightful David confronting a spent Goliath? I like to think so.