Dumber Than Mubarak?

01/30/2011 06:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A new vice president will not solve the Egyptian crisis.

There is a long running joke in Egypt about the shortage of vice presidents. In the 58 years of post-colonial history there have only been two. The story goes that Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the revolution that overthrew the monarchy, was determined to find a less talented deputy, who would make him look good by comparison. It was a challenging task, but eventually Anwar Sadat was located and duly appointed. Following Nasser's death, Sadat assumed the presidency and set out on the same but now far more challenging task. It took some time, but in the end Hosni Mubarak was found and sworn in. Mubarak, in turn, set out on the same quest 30 years ago, when he became president after Sadat's assassination. He has been looking for someone dumber than him ever since.

What may have begun as superstition over the inevitability of vice presidents assuming the top job, was more recently the object of intense speculation about Mubarak's goal of establishing a family dynasty. The fact that even at 82 he had not filled the position was read as a sign that he either intended to die in office, or bequeath it to his son, Gamal Mubarak -- or, more likely, both. It was one of the many reasons that brought people into the street in mass protest. The very real possibility of a dynastic succession was one of the clearest messages to the Egyptian people that their future was not in their hands.

During his time in office, Mubarak has evolved from a colorless air force officer to a leader with a pharaonic streak, and a taste for social engineering on a grand scale. Apart from building cities from scratch, his most ambitious project was to free Egypt from the confines of the Nile valley by diverting the river's water into the Western Desert. It is a feat of engineering on a scale with the pyramids that has already consumed a significant amount of the country's wealth, and would require even more of its most precious natural resource. The conclusion of the project would be a massive transfer of population to the new civilization, either willing or unwilling. The Toshka project, as it is known, has both domestic and international critics. Egypt's neighbors to the south have made it clear that anyone using more than their fair share of the Nile river would be considered a casus belli. Yet like the pharaohs before him, Mubarak has not relied on any form of national or international consensus to legitimize his most cherished projects.

The naming of Omar Suleiman as vice president has ended any speculation about Mubarak's dynastic ambitions. The chances of Gamal Mubarak succeeding him now are very remote. This latest decision was clearly made under pressure, and had less to do with concern about upstaging the president, and more with the very survival of the ruling National Democratic Party, and its vast system of political patronage. Mubarak is looking less and less useful to the latter, and the question now is not when but how he will exit. His one overwhelming argument which silenced all critics of his extended rule, that he was a vital bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, has been undone by the character of the popular uprising. It is the nightmare scenario that he undoubtedly dreaded: there was a revolution in Egypt, and the Islamists failed to appear.

They may be preparing to sacrifice Mubarak to appease the crowds, but there are unmistakable signs that the regime is busy inventing a new argument for their ongoing monopoly on power. Omar Suleiman has the appearance of being the Vladimir Putin of the current crisis, emerging to restore order after a period of chaos. Like Putin, Suleiman comes from state security. He is best known for keeping the president safe, a ruthless campaign against the Islamic opposition and making sure the Egyptian border with Gaza remains sealed. He is the perfect candidate to play the role of the strong man.

The only problem is that the demonstrators are not calling for a strong man. There is the recognition that, like Tunisia, much of the chaos is being manufactured. The protestors have taken charge of their own security. There are reports of citizen patrols, and Coptic Christians protecting Muslims as they pray. As Mubarak reaches the limits of his power, the people who have seized the streets have only begun to test the bounds of what is possible. There appears to be widespread consensus, cutting across both class and religious lines, about the goals of the uprising. Mubarak is the epitome of everything they want changed, but appointing a vice president that is not his son, or even his removal from power, will not be enough to address their grievances. The demands posted on the internet are unequivocal, and they call for the complete dismantling of the National Democratic Party apparatus.

Vice presidents have a bad reputation in Egypt, and there is nothing to suggest that the newly appointed one will redeem the position. Despite the curfew, none of the protestors are going home. It is now a test of wills, with the constant threat that the regime could resort to violence to end the demonstrations. There is also the hope that Suleiman will be smarter than the rest, and place the will of the people above his own political survival.