President Mubarak's health came back in the spotlight when Mubarak's grandson died in May and Mubarak senior had to postpone his visit to the United States. In the very few public appearances which he has made since then, Mubarak looked tired and exhausted. After all, he is 81 years old and has been in power for the past 28 years. When President Obama visited Cairo to give his speech to the Islamic World last month, the American President made a stop at Mubarak's palace before the speech. Racing the stairs to greet his Egyptian host, the young American President made many Egyptians feel that it was time they had a generation change. Mubarak was waiting for his guest at the top of the stairs, hardly moving at all.
Within a few days, the Egyptian Parliament session was abruptly ended prematurely and rumors flew that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was about to nominate its candidate for the next Presidential Elections. The Presidential Election is not due till 2011, but perhaps Mubarak senior just felt that he had enough. Only a few months ago, Mubarak had vowed to stay in power until the "last heartbeat"! Mubarak assumed power in 1981 in the wake of President Sadat's tragic assassination at the hands of the very Islamist factions he empowered and used to combat opposing socialist and Nasserist political factions in the 70s. Sadat was shot during a Military Parade commemorating the 6th October (Yom Kippur) War. Speaking to a shocked Nation in '81, Mubarak vowed to stay only for two terms and work diligently to restore social peace.
Four terms or twenty four years later, Mubarak was grooming his son to run for Presidency in 2005 when an unexpected rival appeared on the scene. Ayman Nour, then a bright Parliamentarian, lawyer and a journalist, challenged Mubarak and his son. Gamal Mubarak had conveniently just turned 40, the legal age for obtaining a special driving license that would allow him to navigate his father's big machine. After being groomed for several years to take his father's driving seat, Mubarak had assumed that his son was ready. The NDP, however, ran a number of secret opinion polls and to the mentors' dismay, the approval ratings of Mubarak, Junior, were alarmingly low.
The Kifaya protest movement and El Ghad opposition party made a point to reject the idea of Mubarak bequeathing power to his son. Kifaya (the word in Egyptian language literally means "enough") also sought to end Mubarak's reign. Unhappy about this unplanned turn of events, Mubarak, who had already started to show signs of old age, having then recently fainted during a parliamentary speech, had to drag himself to run for a fifth term. Mubarak, the father, had to save the regime's 53-year grip on power and buy his son, Gamal, some time to improve the ratings.
Gamal Mubarak had been controlling things since around 2003. He installed his "own" government in 2004 with members of his own guards, the "Policies Committee", and later managed to oust old veterans such as Kamal El Shazly who had been instrumental to his father, for decades, in controlling the Parliament. Gamal placed his own men, such as Ahmed Ezz, in the seats of power and started to beat a path to Washington DC in "official" State visits although he had no formal official position. His visits were designed to convince the Americans that he represented their only hope for Egypt to continue to honor its peace commitments with Israel. That only he and his men can guarantee free market economy policies in Egypt and that the regime which his father controlled is the only alternative to Muslims Brothers' reaching power.
In July 2004, a new cabinet was appointed, headed by success-oriented Ahmed Nazhif, who as a minister of a newly created Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in October 1999, managed to achieve a quantum leap in Egypt's communication infrastructure and digital readiness. Nazhif's cabinet included several members of Gamal's NDP Policies Committee. Nazhif managed to implement long-awaited liberal economic reforms. Lowering income and business tax to a flat 20% as well as gradual reduction of custom tariffs stimulated economic growth. GDP growth however did not reach the majority of Egyptians. The lucky few who benefited from growth placed pressure on the market, such that prices of basic commodities soared beyond the reach of millions of Egyptians whose incomes remained stagnant at best. During the past three years, Egypt witnessed 3000-5000 protests related to low wages, high prices and deteriorating living standards.
As economic liberalization was not matched by political reform, accountability or governance, corruption reached new heights as many members of the NDP Policies Committee reaped the rewards for their loyalty to Mubarak Junior. One member who is accused of running a monopolistic steel conglomerate, which he had built by acquiring a state-owned steel manufacturer allegedly at a fraction of its real value, became responsible for drafting the anti-monopoly law, as head of the parliamentary committee. Rachid, Minister of Trade and Industry, wanted the law to encourage executives or business owners involved in monopolistic practices to come forward and report foul play in exchange for immunity. The steel tycoon insisted that snitches must also be punished if they decided to blow the whistle! The tycoon, who has been bank-rolling the NDP for the past few years won. On that sad day, Rachid had to sit out the session in absentia. Ahmed Nazhif and his cabinet had to learn their limitations. They were expected to promote growth and deliver economic development without touching the turfs of the corrupt tycoons surrounding Gamal Mubarak or Mubarak himself. The technocrats who made up that cabinet soon realized that real reform was way above their heads.
Another prominent member of the Policies Committee made billions of pounds buying millions of meters of state-owned land at extremely low prices, and erecting massive real-estate development projects on these lands -- selling each home for millions of pounds. When this real-estate tycoon was accused of conspiring to have his ex-wife, a singer, murdered in Dubai, a media blackout was imposed for over a month on the investigation and a wild PR campaign was launched in the state-owned media to portray the suspected tycoon as a philanthropist, a devoted family man and a patriot! Rumors then came out that the Rulers of Dubai and UAE had to intervene personally with Mubarak to make sure that a serious investigation took place. Only then was the NDP PC tycoon indicted and brought to trial.
These and many other counts of corruption and abuse of power have sadly managed to give "liberal" policies a bad name amongst Egyptians who now think that Liberalism is equal to nepotism; where state-owned lands are siphoned into the hands of the ruling elites who manipulate the political scene to advance their lucrative monopolies. Privatization has come to mean state-owned assets being sold at a fraction of their value to proteges of the regime and those willing to share dividends and show their loyalty.
Gamal Mubarak always visits Washington accompanied by those businessmen who stand as the sole beneficiaries of the regime's survival. Well-dressed and fluent in English, they go a long way in convincing their hosts of just how smart and popular Gamal Mubarak is. Some American officials are starting to believe that myth. But no one seems to ask the obvious question. After five years in office, virtually sub-ruling Egypt while his father provided political cover, does Gamal Mubarak qualify for a second term? Put in a different way, after 30 years of father-and-son ruling, does the Mubarak Dynasty qualify for a sixth term?
The Writer is a Co-founder of El Ghad Opposition Party in Egypt.