Two chapters in the chronicles of modern Egyptian leaders narrate the story of two men and the sea of change separating the nature of the country’s political leadership in 50 years. Generations apart, both men are influential politicians with wide aspirations, a penchant for change and the spirit of youth. The first is Gamal Abdel-Nasser (ruled 1954-1970) and the second is Gamal Mubarak, Egypt’s current quasi-president and, most probably, the next resident of the presidential palace.
While Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s ascendancy to the presidency was based on his own merit, political authority was handed over to Gamal Mubarak on a silver plate. In the late 1940s, Nasser formed – and led – the clandestine Free Officers movement that overthrew the monarchy smoothly in 1952.
The group expanded to include more than 250 officers, kept its secrecy for years and seized power without firing a shot, quite an exception by the standards of conventional Third World coups.
Hence, Nasser’s rise to the presidency came as a result of hard work, minute planning, a sense of initiative and a great deal of risk-taking, and the whole venture was motivated by the “noble cause of purging foreign troops and eliminating the rotten regime. Even though the revolution has, in the eyes of many, deviated from its initial goals, nobody denounces the necessity of ending the rule of Mohamed Ali’s family whose last monarch had saved no chance to prove his incompetence and ignorance.
Gamal Mubarak’s tedious tale includes none of this. His hard work was, instead, limited to the arena of wasta, the magical solution utilized mostly by the incompetent to transcend the law in their quest for benefits. Furthermore, in contrast to Nasser’s snail’s pace, the impatient Gamal Mubarak was carried by a spaceship to the higher echelons of the National Democratic Party (NDP). He joined the party in 2000, straight into the General Secretariat, a position senior members have strived for decades to get hold of in total vain. Just two years later, a new secretariat was designed and set up specifically for him. Gamal commanded the Policies Secretariat that was, then, portrayed by the NDP’s Secretary-General Safwat Al-Sherif as the party’s “heart and brain. A few days after his 42nd birthday, the whiz kid was further elevated to the position of Deputy Secretary-General, just two steps away from the man at the helm.
To profess that the rise in the chain of command of Egypt’s clogged political system was an accomplishment born of the golden boy’s genius and talent reflects either a fatalistic type of naivety or a callous attempt at deception.
Furthermore, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s early and profound interest in politics is all too known. He was arrested during an anti-British demonstration at the age of 16, prowled around the underground world of revolutionary movements, and moved about Egypt at length in his early years. In the Palestine war, Nasser’s battalion survived a 10-week siege in Al-Faluja and got a hero’s reception back home. Afterwards, Nasser indulged himself with creating and reinforcing the Free Officers movement that, in due course, changed the face of Egypt and the whole Middle East. In brief, Nasser’s life was, at all accounts, rich, dynamic and adventuresome.
Gamal Mubarak’s life journey took on a different course, one that is staid, banal and unlikely to produce a deep understanding of the country’s complex realities. Living behind the gates of presidential palaces under heavy security measures (ever since Hosni Mubarak was appointed Vice President 32 years ago) inhibited his social activity and provided him with little inspiration. In addition, it was not before his late 30s that he showed any serious interest in politics. By that phase in life, Nasser had already nationalized the Suez Canal Company and emerged as the mythical hero of the Arab world, a second ‘Saladin’ who would restore ‘Arab dignity’ and bring about independence from the great powers.
The absence of democratic practice notwithstanding, the popularity of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s political and ideological choices in the early years of the revolution gave him a mandate to proceed with the line of policy he had articulated and effectuated. His authority in Egypt – and beyond – closely corresponded to the “charismatic type of authority elucidated in detail by the German sociologist Max Weber in his masterpiece “The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. In fact, if Weber’s theory needed an ideal case study in the Arab world, then Nasser would be its best candidate. In contrast, Gamal Mubarak is the paragon of toying with politics with no cover of legitimacy. His wide prerogatives are, indeed, unconstitutional and had stirred relentless public condemnation. To compensate for that deficiency, the wunderkind was introduced by his bird-brained entourage as the architect of future political reform, the only savior of Egypt’s democracy against the heavy odds of tyranny and repression. But, ironically, the aspirant to injecting democracy into the congealed blood of the authoritarian state has never been elected by the people. Instead, he was parachuted into Egyptian politics by mere virtue of kinship. Even to the blind, five years in power have visibly shown that the lame “reform from within rationale was just a smokescreen shrewdly used by Gamal’s henchmen to buy more time while authoritarianism endures and a hereditary republic approaches.
Apparently, no substantial change followed the sidelining of the party’s “old guard from positions of authority. Gamal Mubarak and Kamal El-Shazly essentially represent – despite the visible difference in façade – the two sides of the same coin. The “new thought slogan propagated by Gamal’s team scores high on the scale of political slogans, promising progress and emancipation of the chains of despotism. But, in reality, it is a cheap replica of the old days’ defunct slogans; it hypnotizes masses while authoritarianism reproduces itself in a new dazzling outfit with excessive make-up and lots of accessories. Mournfully, some booby-traps in Egypt are disguised as heaven-sent gifts.
On the personal level, Gamal Mubarak is a decent and well-educated man who has probably loads of good intentions, qualifications that make him an impressive groom for many brides other than Egypt. Whether the President is grooming his son as successor (as the hawkish opposition papers assert) or the son hardly convinced his father to join the party (as the President once claimed), the discussion of Gamal’s political career was confined to the domain of the small family, a painful reminder of the ways national issues are resolved in royal families.
One certain aspect of royal families is that they are glued to power like flies to fluorescent. Boutros-Ghali acknowledged that power is like alcohol, both are tragically prone to addiction. In this context, it is worthwhile to remember that Gamal Abdel-Nasser resigned after the humiliating defeat of 1967. He believed that a successor who was on good terms with the Americans would be in a better position to regain the occupied territories.
On the other hand, Gamal Mubarak’s thirst for political power will, if the current trend continues, lead to a father-to-son transmission of power.
In other words, Gamal Abdel-Nasser divested himself of the presidency to set his country free, while Gamal Mubarak will, by climbing to the presidential seat, enslave the country to a notorious hereditary republic precedent. The former resigned despite his glaring accomplishments in economy, development and foreign policy. And the latter is adamant about satisfying his political ambitions, in spite of the drastic failures of previous NDP governments in quite everything they undertook.
The American novelist Herman Melville argued that the meaning of anything is deserved by contrast, for “nothing exists in itself. The Arabic saying also goes that “things are differentiated by contrast. The power of contrast is, indeed, mind-boggling. Digging into the chronicles of Egyptian politics does provide some go
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo.