(Before Backchannels went live earlier this month I wrote a few "test" blogs. This was written on December 14 and seems worth posting now given events in Egypt).
"Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society's elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises."
But most of the interest comes in the realm of everyone in Egypt's favorite parlour game -- speculating on whether Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's son, is the president in waiting. Issandr El Amrani is closely following the release of WikiLeaks cables focused on Egypt and neighboring Arab states, and if you want to keep up with it I suggest you follow his excellent blog and twitter feed. I found the links to these cables thanks to him.
This cable, from then Egypt Ambassador Frank Riccardione in 2006, is in Captain Obvious territory, but still fun since it's a candid look from the inside on efforts to groom Gamal to succeed his father Hosni. For almost a decade now, speculation has been that Mubarak, who will be 83 at the time of the presidential election next fall, wants his son to succeed him.
It quotes Osama el-Ghazaly Harb, who had resigned from the ruling National Democratic Party that year, as saying the Party's reform process "was merely a vehicle for Gamal to promote his political career." Ambassador Riccardione writes: "Despite the sniping of many Egyptian opinion-leaders, and a more general public hostility (echoed by many of our contacts) to Gamal's possible presidential succession, there are few other obvious contenders for the post." The cable says that Suzanne Mubarak, Gamal's mother and Hosni's wife, is his principle champion, and has stood in the way of alternatives.
"Her power and influence, many argue, are keys to Gamal's viability. Sources tell us that she has kept Mubarak pere from naming a Vice President," Riccardione writes. At the time, his assessment was that the politicians and powerful businessmen around Gamal were gambling on economic reforms as a platform to creating popular legitimacy. "The way forward for Gamal currently appears open," he wrote.
"Gamal and his ambitious allies, such as MP and NDP figure Ahmed Ezz and economic reform ministers such as Rachid Rachid and Youssef Boutrous Ghali, are apparently banking that structural economic improvements will deliver tangible benefits to the masses, and build a support base that extends beyond affluent business circles."
In the years since, Egypt's economic growth has improved, but average real Egyptian wages have fallen, miring millions in even deeper poverty. I was in Egypt last month. On the street, distaste for Gamal has risen with his public profile.
Another Riccardione cable from 2005 summarizes a meeting between Gamal and Liz Cheney, Vice President Cheney's daughter was at the time a senior State Department official focused on democracy promotion in the Middle East (a policy effort largely abandoned in President George W. Bush's second term). Ms. Cheney pressed Gamal on the recent presidential election, which had been rife with fraud and had extremely low turnout, largely because most Egyptians see no point in voting in elections with pre-determined outcomes.
The younger Mubarak seemed to dismiss concerns about the fairness of the process, and blamed low turnout on overzealous monitoring of the polls by independent judges (who the government soon removed from a position to directly oversee elections, one reason that this years parliamentary election was dubbed by outsiders as the "most fraudulent in decades.")
Cheney asked Egypt to allow for international observers -- a request ignored then, and in subsequent elections and "pressed Gamal to identify areas that he though could be improved in future elections." Gamal responded in part, according to Riccardione, that the problem was independent supervision. "He blamed the low turnout of the presidential election (about 7 million voters or 23 percent) on overzealous judges supervising the September 7 ballot who had, allegedly, refused to allow more than one voter at a time into polling stations."
I covered that election. In fact, there was wide-spread vote buying for Mubarak and intimidation of observers and supporters for opposition candidates. Gamal told Cheney that concerns about vote-fraud were "unfounded."
The overall impression is of friends and allies around Gamal mobilizing, even five years ago, to strengthen his presidential ambitions and to freeze out the "old guard" in the ruling party, who favor a presidential succesor with a military background over Gamal, who has an investment banking background.
Minister of Tourism Ahmed Maghrabi told Cheney that "members of the new guard received loud and prolonged applause whenever they took the podium at the party congress," Riccardione wrote. "The reception for old guard figures, by contrast, was muted and polite. Judging from this, Maghrabi said, 'I don't think the old guard will be with us much longer.'"