January 17, 2004 | Broadcast

On the Line

Host: Heba El-Shazli, what are the prospects for what’s going to happen in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak is no longer in power?

El-Shazli: Well, I think that’s the million-dollar question. My colleagues here would also agree that there’s been a lot of speculation over the last few years, but thinking about it, it’s actually not terribly unusual in Egypt’s history because I think when [Anwar] Sadat became president, or before he did, it was again, “Who is going to lead?” You know [Gamal Abdel] Nasser was such a great leader and so on and so forth. At this point, much has been written in the newspapers and all the various mediums that the Presidents son, Gamal Mubarak, is the anointed one, or the appointed one and slowly we have seen his rise from just being a banker in England to joining the party in an influential manner, being in an important committee, leading actually, some reforms. How effective he has been, again, I think is a very important question and I’d be interested to hear my colleagues’ points of view on that because many think that he hasn’t been very effective because the old guard who’s been there for many, many years will not allow him to be.

Host: Let me ask Mamoun Fandy that question, what kind of roll was there for Gamal Mubarak?

Fandy: I think I take President Mubarak at his word when he said there is no hereditary rule in Egypt. He said this to the Egyptian radio two weeks ago. And I take him seriously on that. Now, the question is, is that, really despite this announcement that President Mubarak made, the rumor is still there in Egypt, talking about Gamal Mubarak as the next President of Egypt. And I wrote an article about this in Asharq Al-Awsat in Arabic, raising the question of what keeps that rumor going. And I looked at the Egyptian society itself. In the Egyptian society, it’s not uncommon for hereditary rule, not at that level, at the presidential level, but at all strata of the Egyptian society, you find power handed from father to son. I mean, if you study the ministry of foreign affairs in Egypt, you find every second secretary is the son of an ambassador before. If you look at the whole diplomatic corps, it is just that few families in Egypt that are doing exactly that, with not only government, but if you look at the opposition, the Islamic groups, the Muslim brotherhood, the leading movements, you find the man who used to be the main guide, the spiritual guide of the Muslim brotherhood, Mamuun Hodaiby, who died last week, is the son of Sheik Hossain Hodaiby, who was also one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood. So you find all these family networks throughout opposition as well as government. And this is why I think most people cannot call this issue in Egypt, because those who are throwing stones at the government, also they have their own houses made of glass.

Host: Let me ask Andrew Apostolou. Will there be some hereditary transfer or would it be Egypt’s other practice of at least at the presidential level of one military man after another. Is there any talk though of there being any actual democratic action that might choose a leader after Mubarak?

Apostolou: Well, I don’t think anybody is seriously expecting a democratic transition. There’s maybe mechanisms on paper, but it’s not going to happen. Let’s remember that Egypt has only been run by three men in the last fifty years. It’s a remarkable form of stability, but it’s exactly the sort of stability that President Bush now says he’s against. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in the wider region, family succession is common and there is a possibility of such a succession in Libya, which is worrisome if you consider that the son’s nearly as crazy as the father. We had a successful dynastic succession in Syria, where you have a very weak president who’s basically controlled by daddy’s cronies. We would have had it in Iraq but the hundred and first airborne intervened and stopped that. And of course we’ve had dynastic succession in Azerbaijan, where interestingly the former president there said exactly what Mr. Mubarak has said, which is: “My son will not succeed me” and low and behold he has. Indeed, why not in the Middle East, even in Greece we now have the possibility of the previous Prime Minister who would himself — he would be the grandson. So this little family thing is quite common. And so, I would expect that it’s a possibility and that Gamal Mubarak might be a candidate if the elite can’t agree on another candidate. He might be a transition candidate.

Host: Heba El-Shazli.

El-Shazli:: There can also be a two-step approach too. Something I have heard is that there’s, a person could come in, let’s say more immediate and then down the road, let’s say five years, could be Gamal Mubarak. What’s been happening over the last five years is very slowly and very quietly there’ve been changes in the military, people retiring early and sort of trying to pave the road, if you will. You might have heard there was an article in the Atlantic Monthly a few months ago [October 2003] where Omar Suleiman, who is the head of the intelligence — all, sort of, intelligence services — and who played an instrumental role in protecting or helping president Mubarak in the Addis Ababa attack, is elevated. And somehow people are thinking that he.

Fandy:: He’s the number two, the caretaker. [inaudible]

El-Shazli:: Exactly, caretaker, and then Gamal Mubarak comes second.

Host: Let me ask you Mamoun Fandy, if you have a state, the main criticism of which is that you have the security apparatus that enforces a lack of dissent, is it necessarily a good idea then if it looks like the head of security is the man who may be in line to take over?

Fandy:: Well, I think this is why we need to actually sometimes shift the discussion of who comes next and look at in what ways can we get rid of who comes next? The mechanisms, I’m not sure, I’m not worried about, actually, the entrance of whoever comes next. I’m very concerned about the absence of institutions that guarantee safe exit for number two within a democratic process.

Host: Let’s talk about that. To what extent is there room for anything that can be described as real democracy in Egypt right now?

Fandy:: Let me just say what is there, very quickly. Right now we know on paper, and we know with practice when Sadat assumed power, when Mubarak assumed power after Sadat that the head of the Parliament becomes the president of Egypt for sixty days. And then, the parliament would nominate candidates. And usually it’s the vice president who would be rubber-stamped, but mainly, legally you’re supposed to get two-thirds of the votes of the parliament. So it’s not a popular election. It is a parliamentary election of the president. Right now the National Democratic Party – that’s the ruling party of Egypt has more than two-thirds of the vote. So whoever comes from the military or from a security apparatus, or whoever the party nominates is the likely winner in this case. And I think the issue of Egypt is not procedure of democracy. It is not elections. It is not free press. It’s the values of democracy, the absence of democratic values. And this is where I mention the idea of “familism” that people talk about, is that the values of democracies themselves do not exist even in the opposition. Those opposed to the current regime do not practice the values of democracy. They don’t have a forum actually to discuss who is their leader. We’ve seen, [this week] there was a transition of power in the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party in Egypt, the main force in Egyptian politics if you will. When the head of the group died, there was no election. There was a basically just a designated individual, Mr. [Muhammad Mahdi] Akef, who took over. So, unless we push for the transformation of society at the level of values, where democratic values are practiced from school, from grade school up to the university, up to syndicates, up to the press, that’s the whole issue.

Host: Well let me ask Andrew Apostolou on this, is this a which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg kind of problem and where do you fall? Do you need to get the habits of democratic mind first or the institutions of democratic practice?

Apostolou: This has been one of the great debates in the last twelve or thirteen years since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and all these aid programs and civil society building, etc. And there is a sort of slightly simplistic approach now, which is, we go in and teach them civil society, then hopefully they have free elections. Well, I don’t know about other countries, but where I come from in Britain we had to have a couple of civil wars first and cut some kings heads off and this sort of thing. But eventually, we had democracy. I mean, it takes time. And I what would say is that what we really need is the one thing we can try and enforce is some form of accountability. And the problem for example happening in the wider region for, say, Iraq, the moment is that Iraqis are very worried that when we have the first set of elections, it may be two years time or whatever, they’ll be the last elections. And that’s the fear. It’s the knowledge that there will be subsequent elections, the knowledge that you could lose an election, that you won’t wind up in prison after an election. That’s what accountability and that’s what makes democracies all about. And having that broader framework, look at Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe, many people in the beginning said was going to turn out to be an absolute disaster. It’s turned out not to be because it’s been the welcoming arms of the European Union and all those sort of programs and help and assistance and scrutiny. And in a sense we’re only starting now trying to do that in the Middle East. And we’re faltering frankly, because, if you look at President Bush’s speech, it’s all well and good saying Egypt must take the lead, but then when you take a soft approach to Saudi Arabia, everybody in the region turns around and says, “Aha”. So democracy for everybody but not for your Saudi chums. And we have to have a fairly even approach.

Host: Heba El-Shazli, what do you think is more important or of equal importance, the mechanisms or the habits of mind?

El-Shazli::I would say absolutely [yes] to values, very important and institutions. Values, if I may expand, the ideas of, as you said, transparency, tolerance, participation, citizenship and what that means, all those things, if you take actually the word democracy, and if you take it apart, if you will, because you throw that word around and we seem to all understand or have an understanding of what that means. But what does it mean, it means that I can participate in determining what my fate is as a citizen in where I live. That I can tolerate your opposition to my idea. We can agree to disagree. Those kinds of things have to be practiced, have to be practiced over and over again indefinitely from the young age up to the older. Institutions, absolutely, you have to build institutions that embody those values and therefore then will continue to provide that it is not one last election and that there will be other elections.

Host: In Egypt right now, how much room is there for the kind of dissent that naturally comes when you have people willing to disagree with one another?

El-Shazli:: Within a very limited square and very limited framework. I understand that there are chat rooms, that the internet and cyber cafes are busy. Young people are on-line, they’re talking. I understand from some friends that people are already talking “no we don’t want a referendum in 2005.” Okay, that’s good, but it’s in a small [section], those who have access to computers for example, things like that. There are some N-G-Os.

Host: N-G-Os being?

El-Shazli:: Being non-governmental organizations that compose part of civil society if you will, that are trying. One for example is the one that is fighting for the rights of prisoners and against torture and jails — Hamed Zeid, for example. They’re doing very good work, but again it’s limited. There are others. But, my question to them actually is are you connected to the street. Are you connected to the ordinary man and woman, ordinary Egyptian? And are you reflecting their hearts and minds and their desires? There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done. A lot of organizing that needs to be done.

Host: Mamoun Fandy, is there room for these kinds of N-G-Os to take their issues and their dissent to the street and make that connection?

Fandy:: In the neighborhood, Egypt is better than the best to some degree, but one has to acknowledge that the central problem for the whole neighborhood that’s called the Middle East or the Arab world specifically is what I call the authoritarian software. There is a software that’s being uploaded to the minds of people from grade one and this is where education matters a great deal, transforming the education system is the key for democracy because you need to rewrite that software and make software that’s democratic software. The hardware is not the problem. It’s not about building bridges and electricity as everybody says. Actually there is a defunct software. We talk a lot about veiled women, but the problem in the Middle East is veiled states. The states are totally covered and the lack of transparency that Heba was talking about. So, most issues are being transformed to areas where the discussion is harmless. Veiled women, I know it’s a very important issue, but for me as a citizen, I care about the transparency of the state, that the state should not be veiled. The women can do whatever they want. It’s their choice whether they are veiled or unveiled, but the state has to be totally transparent. Most Middle Eastern states are not transparent. And we have to focus on issues of transparency. We have to focus on democratic institutions. We have to focus on rewriting the authoritarian software. We have to also remove a general atmosphere of intimidation. There are people who are activists, N-G-Os and others who are under constant attack in the Egyptian press sometimes. These are, some newspapers, they call them “haphazard newspapers,” but they are basically rabid in eating people up who are pro-democracy. The case of Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a point of worry. He could be killed not because of any kind of oppression but because of a general atmosphere where his name was constantly on the press, that he’s “a traitor of Egypt” and so on and so forth. So, you have to value life.

Host: Let’s talk about Mr. Ibrahim a little bit. Andrew Apostolou, isn’t there case to made that his having been freed by one of the courts in Egypt is a positive development at least for that court exercising some protection of civil rights?

Apostolou: Well, it’s a positive that cancels out a negative, so it depends on your point of view. I had the good fortune to meet him last year and you know, he’s an elderly gentleman, and although he was not put into the part of the prison where the Islamist prisoners are and where they’re treated extremely badly, nevertheless, you just meet the man and you can see that putting this man in prison is an atrocity. And the fact of life is that he should never have been in, in the first place. It took considerable pressure, the United States basically had to remind the Egyptian government that it signs a very big fat check every year to get its attention. Now, the fact of life is that the Egyptian government puts itself in that position by taking that money. And I think what’s happening at the moment is that there’s a growing realization in the Middle East that the United States is starting to change it’s attitude. There’s too much debate on “neocons” and “neoliberals” and all this sort of nonsense. I think there’s a general shift in attitude here, not just in the U-S actually, but in places like the U-K as well in understanding that we do need some sort of change in the Middle East. We’re not quite sure what sort of change, how fast we want the change, but we need change and Iraq is step one. And that’s going to shake things up and the consequences of Iraq are going to play out over many, many years and people in Egypt hopefully are going to start taking things into their own hands.

Fandy:: Democracy is really a key concept that Andrew talks about. Really there are two key concepts here throughout the Middle East, that’s peace that regulates the relationships among states in the regions and reform or democratic reforms that regulate the relationship between governments and their own citizens. These are really the two key concepts that the whole region basically will be dealing with for the next twenty years. How do you deal with the issue of peace and peace with Israel in particular as well as peace amongst all the Arab states that [are] fighting over their borders and then democratic reforms that regulate the relationship between those who are on top at the helm of the state and their own people and if they don’t do that for the next ten years, they have a serious problem.

Host: Heba El-Shazli, I’m afraid we only have about a minute left, but on this question that Andrew brings up of people getting the sense that the U-S is serious about this change of attitude and tolerance toward authoritarian governments, do you think that people in Egypt, the elite there are coming to believe that the U-S is serious about that or do they think that this is something that’s going to go away?

Al-Shazli: A good friend who’s a publisher of a magazine in Egypt, I heard him on the news, right after the Bush speech in November. And it’s cautious optimism. Sounds great, but let’s wait and see. Put your money where your mouth is.

Host: Mamoun Fandy, we have about 30 seconds. Do you think that people it’s serious in Egypt?

Fandy:: I think there is a great deal of hope but really the United States, particularly in Egypt, lacks any kind of credibility. The trust of the United States has been broken for a long time and the United States has to really work hard at really convincing ordinary people.

Host: I’m afraid that’s going to have to be the last word for today. I’d like to thank my guests: Heba El-Shazli of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs; Mamoun Fandy of the United States Institute of Peace; and Andrew Apostolou of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can e-mail them to [email protected] For On the Line, I’m Eric Felten.