Pharaohs-in-Waiting

Who will succeed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as the ruler of the world's most populous and important Arab country?

This past January, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's aging President—increasingly lonely in the splendid isolation of the palaces from which he reigns—made an astonishing remark on national TV. It came during the Cairo International Book Fair, the Egyptian capital's cultural event of the year, which Mubarak uses as an occasion to meet Egyptian intellectuals. The seventy-five-year-old President was particularly irritable that morning, one of his aides told me. With war imminent in Iraq, and with growing pressure from the Bush Administration for "regime change" elsewhere in the Middle East, most particularly, at the moment, in Iran, Mubarak felt ever more under siege. His old order was being vanquished; anger on his streets was raw and rife; and the time appeared to have come to implement democratic and economic reforms, something he had tenaciously resisted. He didn't particularly enjoy meeting intellectuals, especially when his popularity was diminishing at home—and now also in Washington. Indeed, to many of those assembled in the fair's main hall, Mubarak seemed to be walking perhaps the most precarious tightrope he had ever walked. As he made his way through the crowd, a prominent writer asked him if it was true that in an effort to avert war in Iraq, Saudi Arabia had attempted to persuade Saddam Hussein to step down.

Mubarak, normally a man of stolid demeanor and few words, looked genuinely startled. "Impossible!" he replied. "No President ever steps down!"

Egyptians were incredulous. After twenty-two years, Mubarak already was the longest-serving President in their country's history, and popular anger against his regime was on the rise. Although Egypt is nominally a democracy, a government-controlled committee has vetted new political parties for a quarter of a century—and has refused every application except one. Mubarak has presented himself to Egyptian voters for six-year terms an unprecedented four times—but in referenda in which no opposition candidates were permitted to stand and voters simply had the choice of voting yes or no.

During Mubarak's rule the real arbiters of power have changed little. Ever since he took over the presidency, in 1981 (after militant Islamists assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat), Mubarak has led Egypt as the head of a narrow ruling circle of military officers and security and intelligence men. Sadat was part of that same circle, as was his predecessor, the legendary Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in 1952 led a secular, Arab-nationalist revolution that today is exhausted and in steady decline. And yet, although his regime has for some time been authoritarian, surrounded by corruption and political stagnation, and inclined to suppress dissent by often unsavory means, the United States until recently was content to let Mubarak reign supreme, and indefinitely. In exchange, Mubarak, a former commander of the Egyptian air force, transformed Egypt into Washington's second most important strategic partner in the Middle East. On assuming office he immediately reaffirmed Egypt's commitment to its peace treaty with Israel, re-established his country as the leader of the Arab world, and set to work behind the scenes as a mediator in the ongoing quest for a larger Middle Eastern peace. Over a decade ago he, more than anyone else, gave legitimacy to the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War. He not only moved quickly to persuade several Arab states to join the coalition following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but also dispatched 36,000 soldiers to the battlefield and provided the United States with overflight and basing rights. For all intents and purposes, Mubarak remade Cairo into the hub of U.S. policy in the Arab world; and for his efforts he has been rewarded handsomely. Egypt today receives more U.S. foreign aid—worth some $2 billion a year—than any other country in the world except Israel.

But not all is well in Mubarak's Egypt. Little of the billions of dollars in aid the country receives each year has ever trickled down: per capita GNP is frozen at about $1400 a year, and half of the population is illiterate. The political system has ossified. And although Mubarak boasts of Egypt's stability, his people—some 70 million, a quarter of the Arab world—have lived under an official state of emergency for all but eight of the past sixty-four years. Half of all Egyptians have never known life without it; and there are now nearly twice as many Egyptians as there were when Mubarak assumed power. The number of Cairenes increases by nearly a thousand every day; the total number of Egyptians grows by more than a million every year; and the amount of resentment and disillusionment in the country has grown incalculably.

These emotions are being exploited most effectively by the country's Islamists—in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, which in recent years has established itself as an increasingly appealing political alternative. During the buildup to the Iraq War, I spent a month in Cairo—where I lived more than twenty years ago and have visited regularly since—and I was struck more than ever before by how Islamic the city has become. Large numbers of women now wear headscarves, or hijabs; some wear veils. Many men sport full Islamic beards. Indeed, even among Egypt's wealthy and Western-educated professionals, long favorably disposed toward the United States and secular politics, I noticed a resurgence of religious piety. I was also struck by the extent to which the city seemed angry and out of control—as was made clear earlier this year, when a pro-Palestinian, pro-Iraq, anti-government demonstration brought some 20,000 protesters onto Cairo's streets. "Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!" the swelling crowds shouted as they hurled rocks at the police. The government responded brutally. According to human-rights groups, hundreds were arrested and dozens tortured.

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Mary Anne Weaver is the author of A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam (1999) and Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan (2002). Her article "Blowback," about the emergence of Osama bin Laden and the rise of global militant Islam, appeared in the May 1996 Atlantic.

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