Sunday, 30 January 2011

After Mubarak - Mubarak?

Egypt’s “People Power” revolution seems to have shaken the foundations of the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak. President for thirty years, Mr Mubarak has found that even putting his army on the streets of Cairo has not quelled popular discontent.

But the Egyptian people lack a Mandela-style popular leader to replace Mubarak. Neither the ex-weapons inspector Muhammed El Baradei nor the US and Soros-backed opposition groups led by men like Ayman Nour enjoy much popular name recognition or support outside the educated elite.

All that unites 80 million Egyptians is revulsion for their autocratic leader since 1981.

Mubarak’s deep unpopularity has been exposed for all to see. But happens next? While all eyes have been on the street protests it looks as though the Egyptian Army was staging a silent coup d’etat. They have pressed Mubarak into appointing his intelligence chief as Vice-President. This means if Mubarak resigns, a military man will replace him.

The new Vice-President, Omar Soleiman, has served as intelligence boss for twenty years. Will the street protestors accept him?

A big component of the crowds have been supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have no reason to like the new Vice-President and many reasons to fear him. He led the crackdown on radical Muslims in Egypt. He is politely called "intelligence chief" by Western journalists and "respected" but the respect felt for him is best understood when translated from the Sicilian. Soleiman headed what in Saddam's Iraq or Assad's Syria would be labelled "the feared Mukhabarat" or secret police. His no-holds-barred approach to dissent in the past silenced many critics of Mubarak once and for all.

But Western diplomats and Israeli politicians know and like Soleiman as an urbane negotiator. With him heir to the hated “Pharaoh” Mubarak, Washington and London can breathe easier. The Middle East’s key country will be in safe hands. But will the people of Cairo calm down? Mubarak has signalled that he will leave office at the latest when his term expires this November. How many Egyptians will want his Vice-President to slip suavely into his place?

Rumours abound that Soleiman had planned for this moment. His group of seniot security officials regarded Mubarak's preferred successor, his son, Gamal, as a playboy who could not be relied on to exercise power effectively. He could lose control because of the nepotism required to install him. The generals did not want a succession like that but don't want the regime - their regime - to fall.

Many other "People Power" revolutions from the bloody fall of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 to the so-called "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003 have seen regime-insiders use the cover of popular protest to ease an elderly dictator aside. In June, 1990, Romania saw a brutal crackdown on those who still took People Power seriously. It was not until November, 2007, that Georgia's President Saakashvili sent his security forces out on the streets to smash opposition there.

Will Egypt's revolution avoid that kind of cynical cosmetic change? The risk must that if “People Power” simply replaces Mubarak with his chief enforcer until now, Egypt will explode uncontrollably next time. Replacing Mubarak with Soleiman as the man the West can do business with, could mean the next-but-one Egyptian president is no friend of ours.

Oxford historian, Mark Almond, is Visiting Professor in International Relations at Bilkent University, Turkey.

(A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Mirror on 30th January, 2011.)