To his supporters he is a voice of reform in a stagnant country. To his detractors he represents the ruling elite responsible for the stagnation of the Arab world's most populous nation. However one looks at it, there is no denying that Gamal Mubarak is a powerful force in the National Democratic Party that has been in control in Egypt for three decades.
This was all the more evident in the voices of both support and discontent at the NDP annual congress last month, to the extent that in the run-up to the congress the Egyptian secular opposition launched a new slogan: "Mayihkomsh", which translates into "He's not ruling". Perhaps taking a step back allows us to be able to assess the situation more objectively.
That his father, Hosni Mubarak, is president should not disqualify Gamal Mubarak from contesting a future election for the presidency. After all, even in the world's two biggest democracies that is not unheard of. In India, Jawaharlal Nehru was the country's first prime minister, a position held later by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. In the United States, the country's sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of the second president, John Adams. More recently, George W Bush's undisputed second election came only 12 years after his father left office.
In a true democracy there should be nothing stopping Gamal from becoming Egypt's president. He is an American University of Cairo educated technocrat and a former London banker. He has been active in the political sphere in his country since 2002, as head of the NDP's policies secretariat. So there shouldn't be anything to stop him from running - except that there is.
Paradoxically, the policies of the ruling NDP and its leaders are probably the biggest hurdle stopping Mr Mubarak from fairly contesting future elections. If the president and the NDP are confident of Gamal's credentials and success then they should encourage him to run in an open arena.
Creating a free and fair electoral process is not the impossible task that some Arab regimes scaremonger their citizens and the West into believing. In Egypt, for instance, there is a rule that a presidential candidate has to have led a political party for one year. That should be removed, along with the rule that only parties that have existed for five years can contest an election.
The requirement that a presidential candidate obtain the signatures of 250 parliament members should also be scrapped. The disqualification of Ayman Nour, the only candidate to contest an election against a sitting president, must be lifted. And the state-controlled media must cover the campaigns of all candidates fairly. All this should be complemented by sweeping electoral reforms, such as limiting the presidency to two terms and lifting the emergency law, which has been in operation since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
To deal with the perceived threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, an electoral law could be introduced to compel parties wishing to offer candidates for election to publish a clear manifesto of their policies on various issues. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, like Hamas in Gaza and other extremist Islamist movements, suffers from a lack of vision and has no agenda that states how they wish to govern.
Their positions on women rights, trade ties, the peace treaty with Israel, education and labour rights, among other issues, must be unambiguously stated before they field candidates. It may very well turn out that ordinary Egyptians are not as comfortable with the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood as the latter believes.
Democracy isn't merely about electing a representative. A large component of it is knowing what that representative stands for in detail. This is possibly the most powerful element of the US democratic system. Candidates are grilled for months on end and no issue is too trivial for them to discuss and take a position on. The result is that American voters hold extensive knowledge about whom they are voting for before an election. An independent media largely free of government interference will ensure that this is possible in Egypt.
Ultimately, Egypt should not take the path that Syria took in 2000. Back then the Syrian regime installed the late president Hafez al Assad's son as new life-long leader of the republic. In fact, like Gamal Mubarak, Bashar al Assad is an intelligent and educated man who could have had a serious shot at winning a fair election had the country ever held one. Today, Arabs across the region have passively accepted that presidential inheritance is the unavoidable destiny of other Arab regimes such Yemen, Tunisia and Libya - all of which are so-called republics.
Today, Hosni Mubarak is at a fork in the road. If he takes one path, he could be the man who inherited the presidency, avoided fair elections for decades and (like too many other Arab leaders) was emotionally attached to power until his passing away. If he takes the other, he could be the man who inherited the presidency, avoided fair elections for decades but then decided to introduce sweeping electoral reforms and stepped aside to see democracy in his country flourish in his lifetime.
Who knows, maybe his son Gamal could be fairly elected as the next Egyptian president after all.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 15th November 2009
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