What distinguishes Mubarak’s current manoeuvres from both his own earlier tactics and predecessors’ actions is the extraordinary degree of uncertainty surrounding his regime’s future. This does not mean that it will collapse any day now. It means that the regime is on the cusp of a very risky succession. With Hosni Mubarak’s rapidly advancing senility and Gamal Mubarak’s incremental supremacy, the moment of power transfer is imminent and its direction appears clear. But there are so many wild cards and possible eleventh-hour developments at this juncture that the only certainty is that extraordinary uncertainty will accompany the process of succession.
A Risky Proposition
Succession is always a tetchy matter for undemocratic regimes, but the danger is even more acute in this case where the man in charge has hogged power for 26 years without cultivating a successor other than his own dull and despised offspring. To thicken the plot, the succession scheme appears to involve elections as both the mechanism and the legitimation of the power handover. How else to interpret the engineering of new constitutional rules to disqualify the regime’s most effective electoral opponent (the Ikhwan) and defang effective electoral monitoring (by the judges)? But as we know, elections are an extraordinarily complicated, exhausting project involving intricate coordination between many sites and very high levels of uncertainty. It’s as if Mubarak’s regime picked the most risky successor possible and planned to install him using the riskiest method possible.
If we adopt the logical though not inevitable scenario that Gamal is the heir apparent, what Mubarak and his newly nuclear son have going for them is the tacit endorsement of foreign patrons, principally the Americans, the self-interested enthusiasm of a circle of crony businessmen, and the co-opted top officials of the sprawling bureaucracy. That leaves organized sectors of the domestic public to be neutralised and/or crushed. As for the preferences and proclivities of the rest of the population, that is a total enigma.
Thus, the official retaliation against university students for organizing free and fair parallel elections; the crackdown on the Ikhwan for making trouble in parliament and generally acting like a real political force; the ostensibly legal throttling of the Karama and Wasat parties; the low-intensity battle against recalcitrant judges waged by the new strongman Minister of Justice, and of course the brazen plan to doctor the 1971 constitution. These strikes are needed not simply because many of these sectors are deeply opposed to a Gamal Mubarak presidency, and not simply because all are campaigning for honest and fair elections, but because the regime feels the need to signal toughness. It fears that its opponents will catch whiffs of its vulnerability during this transitional phase and attempt to use it to their own advantage. Like an ageing neighbourhood bully who lives by the credo of force, Hosni Mubarak’s regime is all about projecting strength.
Signalling toughness is especially critical given the steady stream of crises over the past year. There’s the cascade of transportation disasters starting with the February 2006 al-Salam 98 ferry sinking and the August Qalyoub train collision; the socio-economic fallout from the avian flu outbreak, the spring 2006 pro-judges’ street protests; the remarkable string of labour strikes in 2006 and 2007; bloggers’ and independent newspapers’ broadcasting of citizen torture in police stations; protests over the construction of mobile phone towers, and the recent scandal over collusion between the Health Ministry and a Gamal crony in disseminating contaminated blood bags.
For the most part, these are separate incidents, but their rapid cascade and government agents’ entanglement in each heighten the ambient sense of an embattled regime unable to control society. To make matters worse for the architects of succession, Egyptians have been a very contentious lot for some time now, yelling and screaming and complaining in a most unbecoming manner. They’ve been downright impudent and grabby, wanting rights and dignity and independence and fairness and so forth. And they’ve been organising to get those things. That can’t be allowed to stand.
Crushing the Ikhwan
Embarking on an electoral-hereditary succession means eliminating your most potent electoral rival. Hence the regime’s current crackdown on the Ikhwan. But there’s just one annoying kink: the Brothers are stronger today than at any time during Mubarak’s tenure. This is because of their relative success over the past ten years in building bridges with key actors: voters, nationalist and secular intellectuals and competing political forces, foreign parties, and their own sprawling membership base. Before and after their stunning performance in the 2005 elections, the Ikhwan put considerable effort in a reputation-building project aimed at normalising their position in Egyptian political life and transcending the silly but real constraint of their nominal illegality. They built effective, regularised links to constituents, courted secular rivals and assuaged their fears, and piqued the interest of foreign governments, whose agents began to probe the possibilities of engagement with the officially banned group. Equally important, the Ikhwan in the last few years have been working on their internal organisation. They have tried to re-establish ruptured ties between the leadership and rank-and-file, and worked to manage ideological, generational, and personality conflicts among their top decision-makers.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why this would constitute a nightmare for Hosni Mubarak. The Ikhwan’s capture of 88 seats in the 2005 vote was very inconvenient, causing the shaken regime to postpone municipal elections to avoid a damaging repeat, and to gain some breathing space to cook up the succession scheme. At first, the counter-mobilisation against the Ikhwan was predictable, reinforcing the group’s plucky underdog image and increasing public sympathy. In spring 2006, hundreds of Ikhwan were arrested for months for participating in the pro-judges’ protests (including Essam al-Eryan and Muhammad Mursi). Then, in a repeat of the 2005 vote, the government came out in full force to block the group from participating in the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce elections.
In April, to prevent professors affiliated with the group from holding faculty club elections, Alexandria University administrators locked the campus gates; professors had to convene their general assembly in the open air on the corniche. Meanwhile in parliament, the Ikhwan’s 88 deputies have been complicating the regime’s command and control tasks in this important arena, constantly sparring with Speaker-for-life Fathi Sorour and pressing parliamentary investigation of such inconvenient issues as very high-ranking official malfeasance in the Salam 98 sinking.
But it was an incident that took place on 10 December that was the regime’s real opportunity to roll back Ikhwan gains. On that day, Ikhwan students at al-Azhar were protesting their university administration’s obstruction of student union elections. During the protest, a contingent of students performed martial arts exercises, their faces swaddled in black, Hamas-style. Seizing this heaven-sent gift, the regime orchestrated a highly organised campaign in all of its publications and broadcast outlets designed to repel and frighten public opinion, just when it had gingerly begun to accept the group. The regime’s agents (from the president of al-Azhar University to State Security investigators to the lowliest government scribe) successfully portrayed the Ikhwan as a sinister, secretive organisation methodically infiltrating all critical societal institutions with the intent of taking over the country and turning it into an Islamic caliphate. Naturally, the specific context of the students’ act was obliterated to sow indiscriminate mistrust and fear, especially among those segments of the public that had always eyed the Ikhwan with some suspicion.
The spectre of the group’s 1940s violent wing was craftily invoked, in one fell swoop erasing years of work by the Ikhwan’s members to fend off claims that they’re nourishing militant underground cells ready to strike at the right moment. It was only a logical step for the government to then round up the organisation’s best cadres and send them to a military tribunal that would reliably put them behind bars for at least three years, thus depriving the group of critical skills and assets and fomenting internal dissension and confusion.
Abetting the regime’s offensive was the flustered response of the Ikhwan’s leadership. First they wrote off the martial arts exercise as a harmless skit, then they pooh-poohed it as a silly act by immature students, then they compelled the students to issue an ‘apology’ (thus reinforcing government claims of a militant organisation run by a handful of shadowy decision-makers), then they said they would form an official political party, then they backtracked and denied this. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Hosni Mubarak’s regime has wrought permanent damage to the Ikhwan’s carefully built political reputation. What the regime has done is recoup some of its own reputation for effortless control. This need to project strength is vital when considering the government’s unexpectedly non-violent response to striking workers.
The last thing the regime wants is a labour mutiny on its hands when all its energies need to be devoted to engineering succession. So aggrieved labourers need to be neutralised. I don’t think anyone has failed to notice the comparatively ‘soft’ manner in which Mubarak’s regime has handled the series of worker strikes at textile and cement factories and the national railways. This is noteworthy not just because of the contrasting gruffness with which Muslim Brothers and judges have been treated, but because of Mubarak’s past handling of organised labour action: the 1984-1987 wave of worker protest was met with swift police violence, mass arrests, and grave legal reprisals: in 1986, striking train drivers were referred to a High State Security court (it eventually acquitted them).
There’s one obvious reason why labour is treated differently: the regime’s security agents calculate that it would be suicidal to put down thousands of very angry labourers radicalised by years of substandard work conditions, maimed by avoidable workplace injuries, and steeped in a culture of collective action and protest. Putting down a few dozen white-collar demonstrators in the centre of the capital is easy, but wading into a sea of livid blue-collar protesters is another story entirely. Violent suppression at one plant could unleash a hellish cycle of copycat strikes, increased public outrage, more violence, and real instability that could seriously threaten regime survival.
There’s another important element in this wave of strikes that distinguishes it from past waves and gives the regime pause. Workers are not only demanding fair wages, payment of delayed bonuses, safer working conditions, and more benefits. And they’re not just blaming management anymore. They’re making concrete moves to recall their local union officials by organising massive petition drives for votes of no-confidence, and failing that, they’re threatening to simply withdraw from local union membership. Why does this matter? Because for as long as they’ve existed, the local unions have served as critical levers of state control over labour rather than as mechanisms for the representation of workers’ interests. The present wave of worker strikes is intimately connected to workers’ struggle for real representation.
Last year, workers began their collective action in the run-up to trade union elections to gain some leverage during a vote they knew would be cooked. When, as expected, independent candidates were barred from running and the same old cronies were elected, workers resumed their strike action. Their goal is to overhaul the structures that ostensibly represent their interests but in reality work to monitor their behaviour and abort incipient collective action. This is deeply threatening to the regime: a gathering mutiny against local union officials strikes at the heart of the state’s control and command structure over the critical sector of labour.
Thus, in a manner not seen in other areas of Egyptian politics, high-ranking officials have personally and publicly intervened to negotiate with and cajole striking workers, promising to deliver their unpaid bonuses and incentives in hopes of snuffing out grievances over representation. Everyone from the chairman of ETUF to the Minister of Labour to provincial governors have waded into the midst of the strikers, laden with conciliatory words and promises and a generous smattering of paternalistic discourse, as when Aisha Abdel Hady volunteered the information that Hosni Mubarak cannot sleep at night if he feels there is a single unhappy worker. Madame Abdel Hady has also recently exhibited a strong allergy to the term “civil disobedience.” During a parliamentary discussion of a possible wave of societal disobedience led by striking workers, she firmly averred that “civil disobedience” is not part of the make-up (khameera) of the Egyptian worker.
Mubarak’s regime knows that we know that it has conceded to worker demands, and that this knowledge might provoke other forces to engage in collective action to gain concessions from a regime that has built its reputation on never negotiating. So it is of critical importance that it apply maximum toughness with the one other sector that can make a credible bid at negotiation: judges. Indeed, one reason why Minister of Justice Mahmoud Abou el-Layl was removed was that he showed too much readiness to negotiate and give and take with judges. His replacement is a perfect embodiment of the credo of non-negotiation.
Mamdouh Marei’s personal style and professional background are all about issuing orders: as a person, he’s brusque and bossy. Professionally, he does not practice collegiality but is condescending and supercilious, qualities he acquired from years at the helm of the judicial internal affairs department in the Ministry of Justice. Let’s not forget that his recent term of service as Chairman of the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) drove a huge wedge between him and thousands of reformist judges. All in all, he is the perfect candidate for the job of quashing the movement for judicial reform and clean elections.
Marei and his bosses know from last spring that a PR campaign to discredit reformist judges will carry no weight with a public that adores and idolises leaders of the judicial independence movement. So Marei has cunningly selected an alternative, much more effective plank: judicial modernisation. Under this general rubric, Marei will focus on three tracks: judicial training, services and support, and the induction of women into the profession. How will these fragment and weaken reformist judges?
First, Marei will hitch onto the genuine problem of the abysmal training judges receive to push the idea that judicial supervision of elections should be at the bottom of judges’ priorities. Judges belong on the bench, not in the polling station, goes the technically correct argument. Instead of being drawn into the exhausting minutiae of electoral disputes, judges should focus their energies on professional development and the Ministry will help them do that. Judges who insist on “one judge for every ballot box” will appear to be ignoring their duties and ‘becoming involved in politics.’ The judicial training argument has real potential to divide the clean elections movement because it resonates with a strong current of opinion among judges.
Marei’s second strategy is to erode the mobilising potential of judges’ Clubs, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. To this end, he has already started installing all sorts of critical judicial support services within courthouses (especially primary courts) so that judges won’t ever need to go to their Clubs for bank services and loans, housing and mobile phone benefits, and a host of other auxiliary services. At the same time, earmarked Ministry of Justice funds to the Clubs are being dried up or cut off altogether, and public utility companies are instructed to cut off or scale back water and electricity service. However, reformist judges are very alert to this strategy and have counteracted Marei’s actions by unanimously voting to raise individual monthly dues to their Clubs from £E2 to £E20.
The third strategy portrays the regime as the progressive, courageous champion of women’s rights valiantly resisting sexist, exclusionary judges who preach democracy and reform but refuse to allow women entry into the judiciary. Women’s accession to the judiciary in Egypt has been a hot button issue among judges for at least 10 years, eliciting very strong feelings, with a minority of ardent supporters and a majority of variously motivated detractors. Marei has already selected 124 women legal officers for qualifying exams and training in the National Center for Judicial Studies in preparation for their admission into the profession. By playing the woman card, the regime burnishes its own reputation, casts doubt on the integrity of its judicial critics, and drives a wedge between pro- and anti-women judges within the judicial reform movement that the regime hopes will block further collective action.
It’s far too early to call Marei’s strategies unequivocal successes or failures. So far, he has managed to bring together the conventionally separate administrative judges with the rest of the judicial corps in unified opposition to his policies and tough guy persona. The cynical bid to appear as the champion of women’s rights is waved off by judges as Marei’s toadying to Suzanne Mubarak’s wishes, and of course Suzanne’s imprimatur is a political kiss of death. Whether the regime will attain its real objective of wresting electoral supervision away from the Judges Club and entrusting it to a pliable central Commission remains an open question.
Savouring the Irony
Would Mubarak’s regime be crushing the Ikhwan, containing judges, and managing labour unrest if it wasn’t embarking on a delicate, very unpopular, and sure to be undemocratic succession? Absolutely. The difference that succession makes is that all of these manoeuvres become matters of political survival rather than garden variety political management. By raising the stakes, the regime unwittingly invites political challenges, unforeseen alliances, unexpected mobilisation, and acts of political adventurism and risk-taking unlikely in normal times; think of Ayman Nour’s gamble for the presidency that catapulted him from a small-time politician to a heroic national figure and international cause célèbre. Even if the succession proceeds smoothly, the post-succession days, weeks, and months promise to be full of turbulence as the heir works to consolidate his rule in the all-important early phases.
How ironic that in attempting to secure his regime’s survival, Mubarak is actually ushering in one of the most uncertain political junctures in Egypt’s republican history. It’s just like when his amendment of Article 76 to transfer the presidency to a handpicked successor actually turned into multiple opportunities for political mobilisation and societal protest. I’d like to think that the perils of succession might also hold the possibilities of an incrementally more democratic politics, with new actors plunging into the fray, old actors reinventing themselves, new alliances struck, and more competition in the political arena. Prescience or wishful thinking? I can hardly wait to find out.
*All Photos from AP.