Egyptian Succession in the Spotlight



By Andrew England
(Financial Times)

Ibrahim Issa, an outspoken editor of an independent daily newspaper, has long been a thorn in the side of the Egyptian leadership.

But earlier this month the veteran journalist seems to have pushed the regime to its limit when state prosecutors announced they were referring him to trial after he and his paper published articles about rumours related to the health of Hosni Mubarak, the president.

Activists see the case as part of crackdown on the media, while the government accuses Mr Issa of publishing false information and rumours in bad faith. What is certain is that he touched on one of the most burning topics facing Egypt today – who will succeed Mr Mubarak.

For several years there has been speculation about how much longer the president, 79, will go on, and whether his son, Gamal, is being groomed to succeed him. Recently the gossip intensified and lasted for several weeks.

Such was the clamour that Francis Ricciardone, the US ambassador, felt the need to distance himself from reports linking him to the speculation; while Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, told worshippers that “Islam and all heavenly religions prohibit promotion and fabrication of false rumours”.

The fact that the rumours lasted for so long indicated that many no longer believe their government’s statements, analysts say.

The speculation is fuelled by uncertainty and a lack of transparency. It is the first time Egyptians have not known who their leader’s chosen successor is since the Mohammed Ali dynasty of the 1800s, says Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr Mubarak, who has been in power since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, has never appointed a vice-president.

“If the president disappears suddenly and there is a conflict in the top this will affect the interests of Egypt,” said Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

It would also affect the west’s interests. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation with 79m people, a key US ally, and is one of only two Middle Eastern states to have reached a peace agreement with Israel.

Under the constitution, if a president is permanently disabled the speaker of parliament takes over with elections held within 60 days. Yet there is no standby candidate within the ruling National Democratic Party, with the exception of Gamal, who was promoted to be the party’s assistant secretary general in early 2006 but has always denied presidential ambitions.

Another great unknown is the stance – and influence – of the military and security services; would they accept Gamal, a young civilian, as commander in chief?

Since officers overthrew King Farouk I in 1952, Egypt’s three presidents have been military men.

“Egypt never was a military regime but all the time the military is playing the important role in the background. All the time they are here, but they are not clear in the theatre,” Mr Rashwan says. “I think they will play an important role. But we don’t have any information about how they are thinking.”

The prosecutor’s statement against Mr Issa claimed the rumours caused investors to withdraw $350m (€248m, £173m) from the stock market, although economists say this was linked to global market volatility.

Egypt has been attracting increasing amounts of foreign direct investment, with $11bn in the financial year to June. Still, investors do consider the succession issue “political risk”.

David Lubin, an economist at Citigroup, says the main factor is uncertainty.

“The risk isn’t easily quantifiable because we know so little about the underlying politics of the succession process. In addition to this, Egypt’s institutions are in some ways ‘Mubarak-shaped’, so it’s possible that the nature of Egyptian politics could change in a post-Mubarak era,” he says.


Editor given two-year jail term

The editor of an opposition newspaper and two journalists were on Monday sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly publishing lies about the justice minister.

Human rights activists said the case was the latest example of a campaign of harassment against the media, which has been increasingly critical of the government.

Earlier this month four editors were sentenced to one year in prison for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his son, Gamal.

Anwar al-Hawari, editor of the al-Wafd newspaper, and the two journalists were allowed to remain free after Monday’s verdict on bail of E£5,000 ($900, €640, £446) pending appeal. They were also fined E£2,201 each.


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