Living Under an Ailing President


The beginning of the final chapter in Mubarak’s presidency

Regardless of what one may think of Mubarak’s 30 years presidency, his surgery in Heidelberg, Germany last March sets a new phase in his presidency, and possibly dominating his legacy. On March 6th, Mubarak has undergone a successful surgery in his gall bladder. Since then, he has spent three weeks in Germany, followed by 40 days in Sharm El-Sheikh recuperating. On April 15th, he conducted his first cabinet meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh. On the following day, news emerged that the French President Sarkozy has postponed a planned trip to Egypt due to Mubarak’s health.

These events usher the beginning of the final phase in President Mubarak’s reign – “living under an ailing president”. His level of involvement in running the day to day activities of the state will be in doubt. Other decision makers will evolve, and the consolidation of power that he has amassed over the past 30 years may start to dwindle. Over the past decade, Egypt was run by a family trio: the President’s son, Gamal Mubarak, has been running the economic portfolio, the First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, has been running the social portfolio, and the President himself has been running the security and international affairs portfolio. This division of power has created an interesting dynamic in the Egyptian politics. Egypt’s economic agenda has been driven by liberal policies of privatization, empowering the private sector, and the growth of monopolies connecting power and money. Egypt’s social policies have been primarily stagnant and declining on a daily basis. And Egypt’s security and foreign policy has been conservative and pro-status quo, a landmark of President Mubarak’s approach to governing over his 30 years reign.

I have always doubted Gamal Mubarak’s ability to gain control of Egypt’s presidency after his father, primarily because he does not control the security portfolio in a similar way to the economic portfolio. Now that President Mubarak’s presence and ability to govern may decline slowly over time due to his health condition, the question will be how this security portfolio will be governed? One scenario is that it will remain in the hands of loyalists to President Mubarak, primarily his Intelligence chief Omar Solaiman, and the Minister of the Interior Habib Al-Adly. Another scenario is that Gamal Mubarak will start to play a more active role in this area. So far, the former scenario seems to be the case, which many read as an indication that President Mubarak has not really made his mind yet about passing the presidency down to his son. Any changes in this scenario over the next weeks or months may give a strong indication on where his mind is, and how the transition process will play out.

Either way, the current situation of an ailing president and the growing popular discontent will open the doors for other influential players to enter the political arena. El-Baradei was the first high-powered player to do so; Amr Moussa has given vague indications of similar interests. Once people observe the regime’s reactions to these “test balloons”, others may have the guts to take similar moves, especially some popular establishment insiders who are not comfortable with the way the presidential transition scenario is taking place, and may provide alternates for the political and economic elite to rally around as an alternate to the Gamal scenario.

A second consequence of living under an ailing president is the beginning of de-consolidation of power. Over his 30 years reign, President Mubarak has accumulated and consolidated power to a level that is envied by a Czar or King. As his level of involvement in the public scene and the day to day decision making process declines, this power will slowly be acquired by other actors within the government, as well as other institutions. The level of this de-consolidation of power will depend on how much longer he will stay in power and his health conditions during this period. An extended period under an ailing president may lay the ground for a more dynamic, vibrant, and possibly violent political process in the post-Mubarak Egypt. A quick transition may enable his successor to quickly consolidate power and maintain the strong authoritarian regime.

Amin Elmasry. April 2010.

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