Elbaradei challenges Mubarak's succession plan for Egypt

India retains influence due to its size, vibrant economy and democratic form of government. But Egypt — the largest Arab country with a population of 82 million and once the powerhouse of pan-Arab nationalism — is being challenged for Arab leadership by tiny Qatar, with an indigenous population of 3,50,000 and a big purse. Qatar has captured a leading role by patching up disputes between Lebanon’s political factions and mediating a peace deal between Sudan’s warring parties.

Egypt has failed to reconcile with the Palestinian Fatah movement, which administers the West Bank, and Hamas which rules Gaza. There are many factors contributing to Egypt’s decline: the rapid growth of its population, mass poverty, misrule, corruption, and alignment with the US and Israel. While all these factors have combined to rob Egypt of its former status as the leading Arab power, the 1977 address to the Israeli Knesset by then President Anwar Sadat and his 1979 peace treaty with Israel have had the greatest impact.

The region’s violent history of the past 31 years has demonstrated the correctness of the saying, “Arab world cannot make war without Egypt, or peace without Syria.” Once Cairo took itself out of the Arab military front, Egypt lost its leadership position because the Arabs had no deterrent power.

This gave Israel’s army a free hand to wage war on the Palestinians and Lebanon and bomb Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel did not lead to the conclusion of a treaty with Syria or a settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians. If there had been comprehensive peace, Egypt would have been the undisputed leader of the Arab world rather than shoved to the sidelines.

Egypt’s ‘separate peace’ with Israel and the billions of dollars it received from the US as reward have compelled Cairo to adopt positions toward the Arab-Israel conflict which have put the government at odds with Egyptians and compromised the country’s regional and international standing.

Egypt’s standing has declined sharply since the government appeared to side with Israel when it attacked Lebanon in 2006 after the Hizbollah movement seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. The rate of decline accelerated after Cairo castigated Hamas rather than Israel during Israel’s 2008-2009 onslaught on Gaza.

During the 22-day assault, Cairo outraged many Egyptians by closing its only crossing into Gaza to doctors, food and medical supplies and journalists. Since then Egypt has cooperated with Israel in its blockade of Gaza and attempted to halt the smuggling of essential goods into Gaza through tunnels under the strip’s southern border with Egypt.

Creaking infrastructure

Meanwhile, on the econom1ic scene, the government has cut subsidies on bread and other basic foodstuffs and introduced free market reforms which have made the rich richer, the poor poorer and weakened the middle class. Although the Egyptian economy is growing at a rate of 4.5-5 per cent per year, there is little trickle down effect or investment in the country’s creaking infrastructure.

To cope with criticism and pre-empt unrest, the government has cracked down on democracy activists, dissident political organisations and labour unions. Consequently, the regime of President Husni Mubarak who succeeded the assassinated Sadat in 1981 is now at its nadir.

Mubarak, 82, who recently had surgery in Germany, has lost his grip on Egypt’s politics. The return home of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Elbaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has unsettled the regime because he is seen as an alterative to Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son who is being groomed to assume the presidency.

Elbaradei has formed the ‘National Front for Change’ with the aim of effecting constitutional reforms which would enable independents to stand against candidates of the ruling National Democratic Party. Hundreds of Elbaradei’s supporters took to the streets last month to protest government policies; scores were arrested.

Mubarak has promised fair parliamentary and presidential elections this year and next, but the auguries are not good. The regime has already, reportedly, ‘fixed’ the June election to the powerless Shura (Advisory) Council. Meanwhile, Gamal Mubarak, 47, chairman of the ruling party’s policies committee, has begun visiting villages to court voters ahead of the presidential poll. At present, all four potential challengers, including Elbaradai, face disqualification.

While the recuperating Mubarak received a stream of Arab well-wishers at his residence in the resort city of Sharm el-Shaikh, his first non-Arab visitor was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Mubarak urged him to refrain from taking unilateral measures that would disrupt US-mediated talks between Israel and the Palestinians and warned him not to threaten or attack Lebanon or Syria. But Mubarak has no means of exerting pressure on Netanyahu to follow this advice.

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