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Democracy First

It’s been a while since guest poster doga has written here, but today he is back. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is 81 years old, and has held power since 1981. Nearly everyone believes he is grooming his son Gamal to succeed him. What does this mean for Egypt, and how should the outside world react? doga addresses these questions below.

Not long ago, Egypt hosted a remarkable musical event conducted by the celebrated Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. This concert had the direct support of Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosny, who is currently a candidate to be the next director-general of UNESCO. At the end of the event, those present, including a large part of the Egyptian elite, gave their guest a standing ovation, and during a press conference the world-famous conductor expressed his hope that Egyptians, Syrians, and others would visit Israel to express their points of view.

Although certain Egyptian intellectuals announced their rejection of this cultural exchange with Israel for reasons that are well known in the Arab world, others — we could say the majority — supported this event, justifying their support by saying that there is a large difference between Israeli artists and intellectuals who support peace in the Middle East, and those who promote war. For me, this is a debate that leads nowhere.

What is noteworthy about this event is that it follows criticism of the Egyptian response to the recent Israeli attack on Gaza. While the whole world was protesting this war, others were protesting the Egyptian regime in particular, due to its tacit support for the conflict in closing its border to the Palestinian people. Even though the Egyptian political class believes itself to be committed to peace in the region, and even though it invited an Israeli known for his commitment to peace to conduct a concert there, we mustn’t be fooled into believing that Hosni Mubarak is acting in good faith in regard to the Palestinian cause. Rather, there is a profound change underway in Egyptian politics, most likely due to self-interested calculations. I think it’s obvious that this political change would not be occurring without the emergence of new interests that have created the need for a revision of Egypt’s political strategy.

It is clear that the government of Hosni Mubarak is in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains the principal counterweight to the power of his regime. Moreover, we can see in a glance that the Islamic government in Gaza scares the Egyptian state, because of its alliances — both ideological and otherwise — with the Muslim Brotherhood. It follows that the Israeli war on Gaza gave Mubarak the opportunity to strike a blow against Hamas, the friend of his enemy the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Islamic movements throughout the region are an ongoing challenge to Arab leaders. In Egypt, Mubarak’s desire to transfer power to his son Gamal is well known, but without the help of the heavyweights of the region including Israel and the United States, this transfer could not happen peacefully. Thus it seems clear that Mubarak in his recent policies is trying to build international consent for the transfer of power to his son, since helping Israel or fighting Islamic movements builds his legitimacy in the eyes of the great world powers. Moreover, the Israeli security services remain the most powerful in the region, and certain politicians like to insist that the Israeli security services play an important role in keeping friendly Arab leaders in power, among them Mubarak.

I believe that the Barenboim concert is one aspect of this political strategy, namely an attempt to win global support for the transfer of power by showing a false face. It’s clear that a large part of the Egyptian cultural elite has expressed its strong support for Gamal Mubarak as their next president. For example, Adel Imam, Egypt’s best known actor, believes that Gamal Mubarak will be the best possible president for Egypt, after his father of course. In any case, the transfer of power in Egypt will be a test for promoters of democracy everywhere, whether in the Arab world or in the world as a whole, especially for President Barack Obama. Obama has promised a change in America, so let’s hope that this change will be reflected in a revision of American foreign policy. Instead of supporting these dictatorial leaders, America must give priority to democratic choices, because peace will never develop in an environment ruled by political systems from the Middle Ages.

It will be necessary sooner or later to normalize relations with Israel, so as to have neither permanent conflict nor permanent hate in the region. But before that, we must first protect ourselves against a new dictator. That’s where we should be directing our energies and our pens, rather than getting sidetracked from the real issue by insisting on an Israeli boycott. I wonder what the Arab cultural and political elite has done for the Palestinians, beyond insisting on an Israeli boycott and applauding their own leaders? A just peace in the Middle East cannot exist without Arab governments freely chosen by their people, so it’s in the interest of all who support the Palestinian cause to first demand a democratic transition, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.