ايه أجمل من جمال؟

What with Lil’ Wayne’s new album coming out last week, it seemed only natural to revisit his catalogue and its lasting contributions to Arabic song. In particular we were drawn to his brilliant commentary on the hyper-extended greeting sequence, with which we’re sure many of you are familiar. We write, of course, of Lil Wayne’s “’عامل ايه؟”

It seems, however, that Tarek Masoud may have heard the lyrics differently, as an ode to the heir apparent. He apparently heard “Gamali, Gamali” (sample lyrics: “I’m a Young Guard Gamallionaire/tougher than Captain Mamdouh’s eyewear”…“What’s a goon to a goblin?”…“I’m okay, but my pops’ sick” )  In short, a modern-day “O Captain, My Captain” (or is that “O Hosni, My Hosni”???)

That was an awful lot of throat clearing but you know what DJ Kool always says… (sample lyric: “We never let the blog magnetize me no more”)

As for the article itself:

Masoud sets his article up as an opposition between “some democratic ideal” and four options:

  1. Gamal
  2. Hosni
  3. (stony-faced apparatchik-like intelligence chief) Omar Suleiman
  4. military coup

He immediately dismisses what many, including us, saw as Mohammed ElBaradei’s initial promise, since he has spent most of the time since his initial return to Egypt acting out the chorus of an old Tribe Called Quest song, and not tending to his flock in Egypt proper.

That’s fair enough. His dismissals of the other options aren’t nearly as convincing. Essentially the only thing holding the article together is the idea that it’s better to have a civilian dictator ruling Egypt than a military dictator. Thus Mubarak pere is rejected because he would probably die in office, and a new president chosen by “a shadowy conclave of generals, ruling party notables, and big businessmen.” This group would not, Masoud maintains, choose Gamal, but rather someone like old-stony face himself, Omar Suleiman.

A few problems with this argument: First, Gamal’s businessmen cronies have likely earned a place at that table. They are, after all, big businessmen. Second, we don’t think that the generals take their orders from the US, but some friendly advice would certainly be imparted. We’re sure Suleiman would be acceptable to the US, a well-known quantity, as it were, Gamal likely would be even more acceptable. The argument being that Suleiman is rather too important as a regional troubleshooter to take on the presidency, what with Sudan falling apart and the Palestinians in disarray. (We expect these storylines to continue to play out well into the future.) And we’re sure the US has better relations with both the military and Gamalist businessman class than with the fusty old NDP old guard (aka ruling party notables).

Let’s suppose, for an instant, that the US does not exert significant influence and the military sides with the NDP old guard and opts for a steady hand at the till. Let’s call this scenario Safwat’s Last Stand. Would it not be a better outcome for democratization than Gamal winning the presidency in a rigged election? All the old vs. new guard tensions minus the calming influence of Hosni Mubarak sounds like just the kind of scenario that might lead to a genuine democratic opening, creating the kinds of intra-elite rifts of which democratization drives are made (RT @jbrownlee). One might even go so far as to say that the NDP old guard wants Hosni to run for another term next year, because this scenario is just about their only hope for medium-term longevity.

Finally, we obviously know nothing about the Egyptian military other than what little we do know. But we would guess the last thing the military wants is to insert an officer into the presidency, which would just complicate things, serving to tarnish the military’s relatively sterling reputation in the eyes of Egypt’s civilian population. Furthermore, even by the debased standards of US foreign policy in the Middle East, we’re not sure policymakers would welcome a military president brought to power by a coup. Thus we would expect the army, to guarantee the dollars keeps flowing, to appoint a civilian or at the very least hastily organize some flawed elections to give our man in Cairo a democratic patina. Much better, in the final analysis, to appoint a civilian who will leave military prerogatives undisturbed. A civil-military showdown, if one is to occur at all, will come only after a semi-successful transition to democracy.

We’re not saying that we expect any of these scenarios to come to pass, only trying to complicate the simple if Hosni dies, then Omar Suleiman reigns causal chain.

Which leads us to Masoud’s preferred option, namely Gamal running for and winning the presidency. The professor offers a number of what we would term silly reasons for his stated preference. First is that a civilian president will not command the blind loyalty of the armed forces, and thus be less likely to rule with an iron fist. Last we checked, however, it was the interior ministry, not the armed forces, on the front lines enforcing NDP rule in Egypt, even if the army remains the ultimate guarantor. We don’t see why the interior ministry would be any less pliant in Gamal’s hands than in those of his father, and we’re frankly surprised at this elision of the roles of the armed forces and the interior ministry.

The second silly reason is that Gamal would be the first civilian president to come to power via an election. This may well be the case, but we wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hosni Mubarak is still alive for the 2011 election, which would cause us to put an extra-large asterisk next to this civilian election. In fact, Masoud just about admits as much. elected in an inheritance of power scenario.

Then there’s a bunch more stuff about the symbolism of a civilian president contesting an election, which we can safely say is nonsense, particularly as Gamal’s first campaign would very likely be undertaken while his father was still alive. This eventuality would stimulate two outcomes: His father’s explicit blessing would undermine the old guard, allowing Gamal to begin consolidating power around himself. His father would remain to act as Gamal’s consigliere to the military, were they to be in any way miffed about inheritance and/or a non-military president. The longer he stayed around, the better for Gamal’s long-term prospects.

Which brings us to the next point: Where Masoud sees six long years of potential organizing by Egypt’s (notoriously fractious) opposition, we see six long years of power-consolidation, patronage-network building and all the other perks of unchecked power. In our view, the shorter the next president has before facing his or her first election, the better.

In conclusion: Contra Masoud, we believe that Gamal running for president in 2011 would be among the worst possible outcomes for future democratization efforts in Egypt, particularly if his father is still alive. The best possible outcome would be the incumbent’s expiration well into his next term, and the old guard’s weaseling its way into power. Second best would be Gamal’s coming to power with little time to prepare for a new election. Third best would be the incumbent’s expiration in the immediate run-up to the election, leaving a power vacuum in his wake. As others have pointed out, the fact that Gamal will have to face future elections isn’t exactly exciting news, nor should his potentially having to be re-elected be seen as some possible democratic catalyst, any more than the Wafd Party having a new leader signals an opposition renaissance.

***

Late update: The new Wafd leader who Masoud mentions as a possible future anti-Gamal candidate, al-Sayed al-Badawi, recently purchased leftist newspaper al-Dustour. This morning Egypt awoke to the news that al-Badawi had fired certified opposition icon Ibrahim Eissa from his position as Editor-in-Chief of said newspaper. The step was apparently taken after the regime pressured Badawi not to publish an op-ed by Mohammed ElBaradei and Eissa stood by his decision to publish.

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