Hosni Mubarak, the octogenarian President of Egypt, should avoid two opposite pitfalls. He should not persist with his apparent attempt to make his son Gamal into his successor, and he should not open up a power vacuum by declaring an instant democracy. The courageous demonstrators in the streets are expressing genuine grievances, but they do not yet constitute a basis for a new government.
The present regime derives from a military coup of 1952, in which a faction calling themselves the Free Officers seized power. Mr. Mubarak, a former air-force general, is only the fourth president of this regime and by far the longest-lasting. This political order is still based on the military. What is often called the “ruling” National Democratic Party has little strength of its own.
Attempts to convert first-generation tyrannies into hereditary monarchies are rarely, if ever, successful; Aristotle knew that many centuries ago, before Oliver Cromwell’s feeble son Richard and the feckless Jean-Claude “Bébé Doc” Duvalier helped confirm the point. Gamal Mubarak is not part of the elite of the armed forces and not likely to command their allegiance. Whatever his good qualities may be, his ascent is a conspicuous instance of favouritism, in other words, of corruption.
Mr. Mubarak would be shrewd to designate as his successor a senior figure, part of the existing establishment but hostile to corruption and open to liberalization. This new leadership (a presidential election is scheduled for September) should remove restraints on the freedoms of speech, press and assembly, but not rush into a new parliamentary election or constitutional amendments. They should show genuine vision and enact a program of gradual reform.
The West is justifiably apprehensive about Islamists leaping into the breach. The demonstrators do not appear to be expressing Islamist militancy; they are protesting against corruption, poverty and lack of public services. Though economic growth in Egypt has been quite healthy, most Egyptians are not experiencing its benefits.
But the Muslim Brotherhood is the only well organized opposition party, though in the last election, after it boycotted the second round in protest, it lost almost all its 88 MPs (out of 518), who had sat nominally as “independents.” The officially recognized opposition parties are small and weak. The Brotherhood stood aside from the protests for some days, but now has given them backing – to take effect after Friday prayers. If the essentially secularist military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak crumbles, the Brotherhood could take over by default.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Muslim Brotherhood created what is now called Islamism: a religious revival that proposes to adapt to modernity while building shariah law into the state. By way of the sinister reactionary intellectual Said Qutb, the Brotherhood is unmistakably a direct ancestor, not only of Hamas, but also of Al-Qaeda.
On its face, it is rather a staid, perhaps even a fusty organization, but that might change very suddenly if the daunting force of the established order were to disappear. Moreover, some hitherto little known Islamist faction could seize the initiative – as a point of comparison, the Russian Bolsheviks were once quite obscure, compared with the widely supported non-Marxist Socialist Revolutionaries.
The current Egyptian parliament was elected in 2010, for a five-year term, but whoever is president can dissolve it. Under the present circumstances, there ought to be a new president this year, presumably from the NDP, but he or she should allow a range of genuinely independent political parties to form before instigating a new parliamentary election.
It is good that Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has returned to Egypt. In early 2010, he proposed a coalition of his liberal allies with the Muslim Brotherhood, against Mr. Mubarak and the NDP. If that was ever realistic or wise, it is no longer so. Mr. ElBaradei needs to be part of a solid and effective liberal-democratic party that can compete for votes against the Brotherhood. To form such a party will take some time.
The stakes are huge. Egypt has a position of cultural leadership in the Arab world, quite apart from its large, dense population and its amazingly long recorded history. Its international importance is most vividly seen in the delicate balance that exists between Israel and Egypt with respect to Gaza (until 1967, part of Egypt). The whole Middle East will be at risk if Egypt takes a wrong course.
The Egyptian demonstrators deserve great praise for putting the Mubarak regime in question. This 57-year-old dictatorship should not panic, but retreat in good order, allowing a smooth transition to democracy.