Envisioning an Alternative Egypt, post-Mubarak

Ahead of Egypt's elections, a veteran Cairo commentator proposes alternatives to Mubarak's regime.

Mohammed Hassanein Haikel does not rest for a moment. At the advanced age of 86, he continues to sketch the peeling face of Egypt, sharply criticize the policies of Hosni Mubarak, the peace process with Israel and Egypt's relations with the United States. He is interviewed regularly on the Al Jazeera network and has become the oracle whose prophecies are sought out by all.

Haikel was nurtured by Gamal Abdel Nasser and for 17 years was the all-powerful editor of the influential Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, and his status and influence cannot be summarized in the title journalist or political historian alone. Haikel is the philosopher in an era where even the Mubarak regime, the object of his critiques and sting, does not dare touch him.

Last week, he once again shook up Egypt when, in a lengthy interview with the Egyptian paper Al-Masri al-Youm, he stated that Gamal Mubarak is unfit to succeed his father. "I think an injustice has been done to this young man. They forced him on the public, and now he must deal with waves of opposition. What is important now is that they do not present him as a candidate for president, even if he is the most suitable person in Egypt for the job, because he is now blemished; just as a judge removes himself from the bench when the case requires him to judge his brother."

"It is not his right to be a candidate because he is not an ordinary citizen - they give him what is not given to others - after all, President Mubarak himself said that Egypt is not Syria and that in a republican regime, there is no room for hereditary transfer of power. They tell us we have elections, but is it a coincidence that the president's son is portrayed as the most worthy to be the leader of Egypt?"

Next year elections for the Egyptian parliament are expected and in two years, a presidential election. Mubarak, who has been in office for 28 years, does not intend to retire to his home and occupy himself by tending the garden. It seems he is more active than ever. Trips abroad are only becoming more frequent and his political involvement in regional problems does not stop for a moment.

Yet even though the reports on Mubarak's health have quieted down, the question of Egypt's leadership continues to trouble and concern decision makers in Washington. Indeed publicly American spokesmen deny that the administration is occupied by the question of succession in Egypt, but American sources confirm that the matter of the next generation in Cairo is a subject of discussion in several internal forums.

After a series of "election failures" in the Palestinian Authority and Afghanistan, and fear of a delay in the elections in Iraq and their results when they do take place, there are also some in Washington who feel that elections in Egypt many yield "undesirable" results, and that the lesser evil is the continuation of the Mubarak family reign. This is all the more so given that Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa recently joined the list of contenders and stated that he is no less qualified than Gamal Mubarak to run for the office of president.

But while Washington, and certainly also Israel, is occupied by the succession issue in Egypt from a security and diplomatic perspective, Egypt is more concerned with its survival as a state that can provide its citizens with a suitable standard of living, reasonable services, jobs and an education to meet modern needs.

A new government system

Amid all these concerns, Heikal swept in and made a revolutionary suggestion in the interview: "We must establish a council of experts that we will call 'the council of the state and the nation's faithful,' whose job it will be to formulate a new constitution and prepare the transition period between the current government regime and the new system."

According to his proposal, well-known figures in Egypt will serve on this council, such as Ahmed Zewail, the 1999 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry; the renowned heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub; Amr Moussa; Minister without portfolio and director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services Omar Suleiman; and also Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Heikal explains that these personalities, by virtue of their age and status, are not looking for a job and will not want to be president of Egypt, but they will be assigned the task of preparing Egypt for its transfer to the younger generation. "They are leaders who can take Egypt from the stage of despair it is now in to the stage of hope."

It is interesting to note that at the beginning of the month, the Egyptian opposition announced that it would like ElBaradei to be the next president of Egypt. ElBaradei panicked. He immediately announced that he is canceling his planned visit to Egypt because of the impending "election buzz," and in order not to stir any thoughts that he really does plan to run in the elections.

Heikal, in his cleverness, did an interesting thing. When he proposed his candidates for the "council of faithful to the state and constitution" - a fictitious entity whose creation is doubtful - he effectively stated who he does not see as fit to be president. All those people now realize that they expect Heikal's critique to lash out at them if they do decide to run for president. Not that this would be enough to prevent Moussa or Suleiman from contending, but their calculations will have to take into account supporters of Heikal's ideas.

And what about Mubarak? Heikal has designated an important job for him as well. He suggests that Mubarak supervise the creation of the "council of the faithful to the state," and that he be the one to ensure the transfer of power to the next generation. "It will be his last job and the best possible service the president can give his country," he says.

After all, according to Heikal, Mubarak has done other service beneficial to Egypt until now. It is doubtful whether Heikal's proposal will receive any serious attention from Mubarak, but it has already added another dimension to the buzz surrounding the upcoming elections: a larger list of candidates for the office of president.