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memri
July 24, 2000 No.
31

Egypt's Succession, Part I: Will Egypt Follow Syria's Precedent?

By: Yotam Feldner*

The Egyptian media's discussion of Bashar Assad's succession of his father in Syria raised the question whether this phenomenon could also happen in Egypt. Discussing the possibility that Mubarak's son would come to power in Egypt, some Egyptian journalists sarcastically recalled the Caliph Mu'awiya bin Abi Sufyan, the Ruler of Damascus and founder of the Umayyad dynasty, who became the first Muslim leader to hand rule to his son.[1] Sa'id Isma'il, a columnist for the government daily, Al-Akhbar, mentioned him in his article "Once Upon A Time" and concluded: "I don't know why it came to my mind… all of a sudden, for no reason it just surfaced in my memory."[2]

Speculation about Mubarak's Son as Successor

President Mubarak's intentions regarding his successor are unknown and some suspect that he intends to transfer the presidency to his son, Gamal. This assessment is based on two factors.

First, in February 2000, Gamal Mubarak, until then a businessman, was appointed to the General Secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party and was invited to participate in the economic cabinet.

Second, President Mubarak, unlike his predecessors Abd Al-Nasser and Sadat, has not appointed a Vice President in his 19 years as President, even after a 1995 assassination attempt. The appointment of a Vice President in Egypt marks the appointee as the successor and President Mubarak claims that he avoided this because he does not want to impose a specific candidate on the Egyptian people.[3] Mubarak's refusal to appoint a vice president was interpreted by some as an intention to leave the position vacant for his son.

In the past, Egypt's press has generally avoided discussing the issue of Mubarak's succession. However, once the succession in Syria allowed the Egyptian press to discuss the issue of "dynastic" succession in a republic as a matter of principle, the discussion soon shifted to a debate of the Egyptian case.

The Government Press Legitimizes Hereditary Succession

Unlike the Egyptian opposition press which published many articles denouncing the non-democratic succession procedures in Syria - the government press, and more strikingly the senior columnists, kept a low profile during the first few weeks after the death of Hafez Assad. The Egyptian government press published long reports describing the highlights of Assad's 30 years in power and the economic challenges facing his son and successor. "The legitimacy of Bashar Assad," wrote Ihsan Bakr in Egypt's leading daily, the government paper Al-Ahram, "will be determined by his commitment to rescuing Syria from a painful economic reality, to cleaning the dens of corruption, and to establishing a modern regime based on transparency, democracy, and real pluralism, while observing human rights, without renouncing basic Arab [political] principles."[4] Bakr's statement was indicative of the Egyptian government media's prevailing line that future policies - rather than the past procedures that brought him to power – should determine Bashar Assad's legitimacy.

Ultimately, however, the opposition press managed to force a public discussion of the succession on the government press as well. At this point, the government press revealed its acceptance of the Syrian arguments for the succession procedures, particularly the claim that safeguarding "stability" supersedes all other considerations.

"Anybody who is familiar with Syria, knows that there was no alternative but to have this quiet and swift transfer of authority," wrote columnist Muhammad Abu Al-Hadid in Al-Gumhuriya, "the alternative was a catastrophe."[5] Before Hafez Assad became president, Syria witnessed many revolutions "and the joke was," Abu Al-Hadid adds, "that any citizen who could wake up earlier in the morning, could become President of the Republic. All it took was two tanks, one to go to the President's House and the other to the radio station to declare a new regime."[6]

Others preferred to view it as an internal Syrian affair. Muhammad Wajdi Kandil, a columnist at Akhbar Al-Yaum, for example, wrote: "The Syrian people have a right to choose their president and Syria has the right to secure the stability and the quiet transformation of power from Assad the first to Assad the second."[7]

The government press' understanding of Bashar Assad's succession procedures was meant to signal solidarity with Syria. In addition, any criticism of the Syrian process could have been interpreted as an implied disapproval of Gamal Mubarak. This was a risk the government press preferred not to take.

Al-Wafd Begins the Attack

The newspaper that led the opposition attack against the succession in Syria was Al-Wafd, the organ of Egypt's largest opposition party, which has a secular nationalist orientation. Al-Wafd's columnists were merciless in their writings on this issue. One columnist compared the Syrian succession to the cloning of the sheep Dolly.[8] Another columnist, Majdi Muhanna, wrote that, "Had Socrates, Plato, and the rest of the ancient Greeks lived among us today, they would declare their renunciation and abnegation of democracy …in the last fifty years our heads were filled with slogans about the corruption of the monarchic rule... All of that is gone with the wind. Monarchic rule is back in republican guise. It seems that the Arab people and citizens are their rulers' guinea-pigs; it seems that they don't have a will of their own, nor honor, nor the right to choose their rulers."[9]

Al-Wafd's Editor in Chief, 'Abbas Al-Tarabili, who was the sharpest critic, addressed the reasons for the Syrian people's peaceful acceptance of the succession: "In so called democracies, that are in fact 'republic-monarchies,' things are detached from the public legitimacy, because the people, having been brainwashed for many years, are forced to agree [to the succession] or because a ruler we know is better than someone we do not know..." [10]

Writing about Bashar while Thinking of Gamal

Many columnists wrote about the Syrian succession phenomenon while discussing its possible reoccurrence in other Arab countries. Most writers agreed that at least three Arab "republics" are in advanced stages of hereditary succession: Yemen, Iraq, and Libya.

However, "Most, if not all, of those who objected to the succession procedure in Syria," wrote columnist Suleiman Al-Hakim, "objected, in fact, to a similar scenario in their own countries... that interests them more than Bashar's case in Syria."[11] For Egyptian readers it was clear that the subtext of the discussion of Bashar's succession was the possibility of Gamal Mubarak's succession.[12] Al-Wafd's Majdi Muhanna added: "The goal of writing about Syria is to prevent the repetition of this scenario in other Arab countries, since the Syrian legal and constitutional state of affairs is identical to that of Egypt and the way the candidate for presidency is elected is identical in the constitutions of both states."[13]

Therefore, Al-Wafd's Editor in Chief, 'Abbas Al-Tarabili, demanded that President Mubarak appoint a Vice President promptly, knowing that this would foil the promotion of Gamal Mubarak to the succession: "Despite what President Mubarak has said a number of times regarding succession in accordance with the constitution, the Egyptian people are entitled [to see] these declarations followed by actual measures... we wish that you [President Mubarak] would stabilize your regime by appointing whoever you see fit as vice president so he can learn from you and learn how to run [the country] by your guidelines, and move Egypt forward in your own way."[14]

Al-Tarabili was criticized by another opposition activist, Editor of the left-wing Al-Ahali, Nabil Zaki, for his willingness to accept the arbitrary appointment of a successor by President Mubarak as long as it his not his son, Gamal.[15] Al-Tarabili, apparently realizing he had made a mistake, changed his mind in another article that called for both the president and the vice-president to be elected in free elections.[16]

Member of the Higher leadership of the Al-Wafd party, 'Izzat Saqr, reflected the opposition's desperation about the Egyptian regime. "The question of who succeeds President Mubarak testifies to the infantile nature of a people who need a father," he wrote, "This people is like a herd of sheep that needs a shepherd, or slaves seeking a master with a whip... even if we find an angel to take power after President Mubarak he will turn into a dictator and a tyrant like the others. The problem is not in the quality of the president but rather in the nature of our regime."[17]

Many columnists from the opposition and the government press alike refused to believe that the "Syrian scenario" could possibly be repeated in Egypt. They relied on Mubarak's recent interview to the Spanish newspaper El Pais as a proof that there is no possibility for such a succession in Egypt. At the end of this interview, Mubarak turned to the Spanish reporter and asked her if she wasn't going to ask him about the succession and immediately went on to explain: "We are not a monarchy. Egypt is a republic and we are not like other countries in the region. I cannot determine who my successor will be according to my whim. The constitution establishes that if the President is not reelected, at least one third of the MP's should present another candidate. So, there can be up to three candidates. Whoever wins the support of two thirds of the House faces a referendum. If he does not have the support [of the people] the process begins again. If I say this or that person should be my successor, the people can reject him."[18]

However, this legalistic attitude by Mubarak does not unequivocally clarify his intentions and does not rule out the possibility that Gamal Mubarak will be the successor. After all, The Syrian leadership also operated "according to the constitution" in appointing Bashar.

The renowned writer and advisor to Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, Muhammad Hasanein Heikal warned of what is awaiting Egypt in the future. "I oppose the principle of succession," he said, "It is inconceivable that someone rules for twenty years and then says he could not find anyone to replace him except for a relative." Heikal believes the Egyptian constitution does not provide a real solution if Mubarak dies: "...because the parliament in its current state cannot present any candidate for the referendum [as the constitution instructs] and the army will impose [its choice for] the President." [19]

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.


[1] Abbas Al-Tarabili, Al-Wafd (Egypt), June 18, 2000; Wail Al-Abrashi, Ruz Al-Yussuf (Egypt), June 17, 2000, and others.

[2] Akhbar Al-Yaum (Egypt), June 21, 2000.

[3] It is noteworthy that former Minister of Defense, Muhammad Abd Al-Halim Abu Ghazaleh, who for many years was perceived as Mubarak's successor, was transfered from his position in 1989 to became a "special advisor" to the president, only to be removed from the leadership in 1993. Ha'aretz (Israel), June 30, 2000.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 25, 2000.

[5] Similarly, the Director General of the Egyptian Radio, Hamdi Al-Kanisi claimed that Syria could not "tolerate additional riots that would disturb the stability achieved by Hafez Assad." Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London-Beirut), June 24, 2000. Also, Abd Al-Hadi Al-Bakkar, a columnist at Akhbar Al-Yaum wrote: "I oppose the principle of dynastic succession in a republic, but Syria had no other choice." Akhbar Al-Yaum (Egypt), June 24, 2000.

[6] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), June 15, 2000. Abu Al-Hadid adds the claim that the succession of fathers' rule to their sons is common in other republics and even in the US where "one of the leading candidates in the presidential elections is the son of ex-President George Bush."

[7] Akhbar Al-Yaum (Egypt), June 17, 2000.

[8] Abu Shafi'i Bashir, a professor of law at Al-Mansura University, as quoted from Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 18, 2000.

[9] Al-Wafd (Egypt), June 17, 2000.

[10] Al-Wafd (Egypt), June 15, 2000. Another Al-Wafd columnist, 'Adel Sabri, clarified this point: "The Arab citizen believes that the succession of rulers by their sons is unquestionable and self evident... The future may bring regimes that will be crueler and more brutal. Therefore, the Arab citizen prefers the bitter reality over the unknown." Al-Wafd (Egypt), June 17, 2000.

[11] Al-Ahrar (Egypt), June 25, 2000.

[12] "Egyptian public opinion was not directly interested in what was going on in Syria," reiterated Al-Ahali columnist Hassan Abd Al-Razeq, "rather, it was worried by the possibility that President Mubarak may appoint his son, Gamal, as a successor." Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 29, 2000.

[13] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London) June 28 , 2000

[14] Al-Wafd (Egypt), June 22, 2000.

[15] Al-Ahali (Egypt), June 28, 2000; and also Al-Ahali Columnist Hassan Abd Al-Razeq, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 29, 2000.

[16] Al-Wafd (Egypt), July 6, 2000.

[17] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 3, 2000.

[18] El Pais (Spain), May 28, 2000.

[19] Al-Usbu' (Egypt), June 23, 2000.

[Egpyt's Succession, Part II: Does Gamal Mubarak Have a Chance?]