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Egypt Faces Political-Economic Tensions


Egypt has detained or arrested numerous opposition activists and journalists in the past few weeks for allegedly defaming President Hosni Mubarak. While on a recent trip to Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concern about the arrests. Egyptian authorities say it is an internal issue and subject to due process. But most analysts see the crackdown as an effort to ensure a smooth political succession once Mr. Mubarak's term ends.

Among those arrested are several independent newspaper editors charged with defaming the country's 79-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, and spreading false information about his health. Some have already been tried and sentenced to one-year prison terms, which they are appealing.

Steven Cook, an expert on Egyptian affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says that what many analysts call "Egypt's succession crisis" is one of the drivers behind the arrests. "This crackdown has been going on for the better part of the last year. And as Egypt enters the beginning of the post-Hosni Mubarak period, I think there's an effort underway to crack down on dissent as much as possible. The Egyptian government is trying to set the stage for a leadership transition that is smooth and uncontested. And, of course, the person consistently cited as the most obvious and likely candidate to succeed President Hosni Mubarak is his second son, Gamal Mubarak," says Cook.

A New Mubarak?

Rumors of Hosni Mubarak's alleged ill-health are not new. They resurfaced in late August, prompting speculation that the ruling National Democratic Party might nominate Gamal Mubarak at its congress next month as the party's candidate to succeed his father at the end of his term. Many experts say the move would also enable Gamal Mubarak to run as a presidential candidate if his father decides to step down.

But scholar Michael Dunn of the Middle East Institute here in Washington dismisses any possibility of that happening before President Mubarak, who was reelected two years ago, finishes his term in 2011. "Part of this [congress] may be an attempt to put the institutional party apparatus in place to make it more likely that Gamal will succeed [his father] if something happens sooner than at the end of Hosni Mubarak's term," says Dunn. "If, in fact, he has been having health problems or if any of these rumors are true, they may be a little bit nervous that it would be harder to hand off. I think they are working on a timeline of having Gamal ready to step into his father's shoes when his father completes his present term."

Political Dissent

Although most analysts say Egyptians take it for granted that Gamal Mubarak will be their next president, some experts view the recent crackdown on dissent less as a succession issue than as a backlash to progress made in recent years toward opening up the political system to allow multi-party participation.

Amr Hamzawy of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the Egyptian government has been nervous about the opposition since the banned Muslim Brotherhood fielded a number of independent candidates in the 2005 parliamentary elections and made unexpected gains.

"Before the parliamentary elections, the ruling National Democratic Party controlled more than 90 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly, the lower chamber of the Egyptian parliament. After the elections, we had 25 percent opposition representation, the highest since 1977, since party-pluralism was introduced," says Hamzawy. "And out of 25 percent, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to get 20 percent. And independent opposition movements were being formed and becoming more visible. So the regime felt insecure. And since then, it has been trying to undermine this level of dynamism and to drive it back."

Egypt and the West

Some Egyptian political activists argue that the absence of serious Western pressure has encouraged Cairo to target the opposition. Many analysts say Egyptians generally have the impression that the United States, in particular, has abandoned support for democracy in their country, despite U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent criticism of Egypt's human rights record.

But historian Joel Beinin, Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, says the U.S. reaction to Egypt's domestic situation has been muted since Islamists made significant gains in the 2005 legislative elections. "I think it seems pretty obvious - - at least it seems so to everyone here - - that the U.S. has decided that it prefers the stability in the region and prefers that Egypt continue to play the role that it is playing in the Arab-Israeli conflict [peace process] to having any form of democratization in Egypt."

But intervening in Egypt's political process is a delicate matter, some analysts say. And that, adds Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts Washington in a difficult position. "If it does signal its preference of who might become the next president of Egypt, it will be criticized for involving itself in Egyptian domestic affairs. But if it doesn't, it seems to be condoning what seems to be an inherently anti-democratic process, which some in Egypt would read as what the United States wanted anyway: 'They wanted Gamal Mubarak to become president for purposes of continuity and stability.' The United States is really not in any good position here."

Some experts say that beneath the political veneer, Egypt's crackdown on dissent stems from economic inequity that has led to a wave of labor strikes in recent years. Many observers say the government's economic liberalization program, while improving the country's overall economic performance, has left many people behind.

Inflation in Egypt topped seven percent last year, according to the World Bank. The poverty rate, which stood at 16 percent at the beginning of the decade, is at least 20 percent of the country's 75-million people.

But some experts note that Cairo's liberalization program does not necessarily include democratic reforms. Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "We have solid economic policies that have been pursued in Egypt in the last four years. They will take time to trickle down to poor segments of the population, which is why we have been seeing labor unrest and riots in many parts in Egypt," says Harzawy. "But this does not mean that the political track will go hand in hand. The legacy of Egypt has been a legacy of separation between liberalizing and prioritizing the economy, while keeping politics under control and under the sway of the ruling elite."

Most analysts say Egypt's political opposition has been severely weakened and has little chance of challenging the current Mubarak administration. Most agree that this paves the way for Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father as Egypt's next president.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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