Obama and Egypt's Coming Succession Crisis

Following Barack Obama's election, Jeffrey Azarva discusses the foreign policy issues in Egypt that the new administration will face and strategies the administration might follow for a symposium in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

Research Fellow
Jeffrey Azarva

While President-elect Barack Obama has expounded on how he would deal with many of the region's challenges, his record on Egypt is a blank slate. This will not remain the case for long. Egypt may not be a priority for Obama today, but his administration will soon need to plan for a leadership change there that will do much to determine the country's long-term stability.

Today, Egypt is entering a period of flux and a changing of the guard is bound to happen on Obama's watch. Egypt's octogenarian president, Husni Mubarak, whose reign has now spanned five U.S. presidencies, will soon depart the scene either of his own volition--his current term ends in 2011--or following his inevitable death or disability.

That much is certain. But what remains a matter of conjecture among Egyptians is who exactly will follow in his footsteps. Indeed, the question of succession has dogged Mubarak for years because of his refusal to anoint an heir or appoint a vice president--the office through which both he and predecessor Anwar Sadat ascended to the presidency. Since 2000, that vacancy, coupled with the meteoric rising of his son's political star, has fueled talk of a dynasty in the Arab world's most populous country.

Should Gamal end up succeeding his father, such an approach would leave U.S. options between a rock and a hard place.

Mubarak has disavowed such talk, but his actions have done little to scotch the rumors. Since acquiescing to Egypt's first competitive presidential election in 2005, he has consolidated power and worked to orchestrate a hereditary inheritance. In 2007, his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) railroaded constitutional amendments through parliament that curbed political competition and reinforced the high threshold needed for presidential candidacy. The fact that today Mubarak's son, Gamal, is one of only a select few who meet this criteria is no accident.

However, Gamal's coronation is not inevitable. While the former investment banker has cultivated an image as a Westernized, pro-market reformer, he lacks a military pedigree. In a country where every president since the 1952 revolution has risen from the armed forces' ranks, this is no small shortcoming. Given Gamal's civilian background, it is a good bet that Egypt's generals not only view him as unseasoned, but as somebody who is loath to safeguard their considerable economic perquisites. Whether they would take his succession lying down is thus very much open to question.

Why should any of this concern Obama's incoming administration? It is not because succession will unhinge Egypt from its Western moorings--few believe Egypt's Islamists would seize power in the event of a leadership struggle. Rather, it is because post-Mubarak Egypt could begin a long descent into instability and even Islamist revolution over a number of years.

With few peaceful outlets for dissent, more than 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and a government increasingly unresponsive to its citizens' most basic needs, Egypt is sinking into turmoil. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the regime's obsession with succession is mortgaging the country's future. Should Mubarak's successor eschew reform or not manage crises well, Egypt's long-term stability will be at stake, a situation which could have a bigger effect on the Arab world's direction since the Iraq War or any other current issue.

What can the next White House do about succession? As of now, the short answer is not much: In both Cairo and Washington, Gamal appears to have cemented his front-runner status. Despite holding no government portfolio, he has spoken with senior Bush administration officials since 2003 in meetings interpreted as a tacit endorsement for his candidacy. Given Egyptians' protestations about U.S. "interference" in their affairs, the Obama administration should be wary of wading any further into this debate.

Unfortunately, should Gamal end up succeeding his father, such an approach would leave U.S. options between a rock and a hard place. The Obama administration would be left in the unenviable position of either backing Gamal's succession or standing aside as it occurs--responses that will both be construed as a failure of U.S. democracy promotion in Egypt and simultaneously a sizeable part of the aggrieved population blaming the United States as the regime's sponsor. However, the options are not equally bad: because Arab leaders will be taking a cue from Egypt's succession, Obama's administration would be better staying silent lest it convey the wrong message.

Yet, that does not mean it should stay on the sidelines all together. The Obama administration should use the post-transition period to reprioritize the need for reform. Here, U.S. pressure will be critical; whoever succeeds Mubarak is unlikely to make a significant break with the past. It will thus be imperative that Obama prod Egypt on several fronts to help lift it out of its paralysis.

There are two major areas where the United States should push for change: the reinstatement of presidential term limits and the licensing of political parties. A lot has been made of Mubarak's 2005 amendment of the constitution to allow for popular, multi-candidate presidential elections, but the continued absence of presidential term limits still leaves much to be desired. Mubarak has now presided atop Egypt for more than a quarter-century, longer than almost any pharaoh in ancient times. Reinstituting the two-term cap abolished by Anwar Sadat would not only allow for the peaceful rotation of power, but it would also help to undo today's perception of the president as a God-like figure.

The regime's monopolization over the party approval process must also be addressed. Today, an NDP-stacked parliamentary committee exercises de facto veto power over the formation of new parties and uses its authority to meddle in the affairs of--and effectively neuter--those it has legalized. The regime's recent implementation of a mixed electoral system that favors party-slate voting will exacerbate matters by all but guaranteeing that viable alternatives to the NDP remain stillborn. The Obama administration should thus urge that any licensing process be depoliticized.

But will the Obama administration actually pursue such change? During his campaign, Obama vowed to mend Washington's alliances. Although the United States and Egypt have often been described as locked in a close alliance, relations have soured in past years, in large part due to disagreements over the pace and scope of reform.

It is hard to envisage that the Obama administration will want to rock the boat even more by pushing for reform, particularly with the uncertainty of succession looming on the horizon.

Yet, even if Obama does prioritize political reform, he will be constrained by the realities of a tense relationship. Few issues have put more stress on bilateral ties than the U.S. annual aid program, through which Egypt has pocketed $60 billion in economic and military assistance since its 1979 peace agreement with Israel. In recent years, members of Congress have sought to condition aid as a way of expressing disapproval over Egypt's about-face on democracy. In 2007, Congress succeeded in tying $100 million in military aid to Egypt's adoption of reform and prevention of weapons smuggling into Gaza. Despite the fact that the legislation included a proviso allowing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to release the funds for "national security reasons"--a waiver she later exercised--Egyptian officials were incensed. The bill marked the first time Congress had attached strings to the aid they consider sacrosanct.

It is unlikely to be the last time either: The debate over conditionality has since quieted down, but it will soon return. The 1998 U.S.-Egyptian joint agreement to restructure the aid program over a ten-year period--an agreement that slashed economic aid by $40 million annually but left the $1.3 billion in military grants untouched--has expired and has yet to be replaced. At present, Egypt is only guaranteed to receive $200 million in economic aid in 2009, its smallest allocation ever. After that, the future of such assistance is uncertain.

Will Obama fight to keep economic aid alive? Presumably. Given his emphasis on diplomacy and pledge to play a more hands-on role in the Palestinian-Israeli arena, where Egypt has traditionally helped mediate, he would appear reluctant to raise any more hackles in Cairo. Yet, in June 2008, Obama wrote a letter to President Bush urging him to "press Egypt" to combat Hamas' weapons smuggling across the Gaza-Egypt border. As to how Bush should exert pressure, Obama did not elaborate.

In the end, however, other considerations will likely dictate whether such aid is continued. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Carpenter has noted, the Bush administration has long viewed the economic aid program as a buffer for the more robust military package--aid seen today, in part, as vital to maintaining Egypt's strategic cooperation in the war on terrorism. Obama will probably take a similar view, believing that without the cover of economic aid, military assistance will be subjected to greater stipulations.

But the reality of the matter is that regardless of whether economic aid is shelved, Egypt's continued backsliding will likely see the next Congress become more assertive--and successful--in placing restrictions on military assistance. The irony then is that while many Egyptians believe Obama's election will herald a less confrontational relationship, bilateral ties may worsen under his administration.

Of course, if Egypt's future leadership charts a path of reform, this need not be the case. The post-Mubarak era will offer a critical opportunity for Egypt's next president to thrust his country into the twenty-first century and reverse decades of stagnation. Succession, however, could be the beginning of a series of crises in Egypt and regarding U.S.-Egypt relations for the Obama administration. If the policies of Obama's predecessors are any indication, the reform agenda in Egypt will likely remain subordinated to other strategic interests.

Jeffrey Azarva is a research fellow at AEI.

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