Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Cairo Communique: Egyptians Question Whether Syrian Example Will Set Precedent for Mubarak Succession

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Cairo Communique: Egyptians Question Whether Syrian Example Will Set Precedent for Mubarak Succession

Article excerpt

CAIRO COMMUNIQUE: Egyptians Question Whether Syrian Example Will Set Precedent for Mubarak Succession

Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.

The death of Syria's Hafez Al-Assad, like the lightning collapse of Israel's proxy South Lebanese Army, caught everyone off guard. Yet Egypt was one of the quickest of the region's political players to grab the situation by the horns.

Egypt is desperate to ensure that Syria stays within Cairo's orbit. The Egyptian media made a huge fuss over the death of Assad who, like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was a former air force pilot. Mubarak's entourage was the first to pay its respects at Assad's funeral and the first and foremost to speak in support of his successor son, Bashar.

Mubarak even took Palestinian President Yasser Arafat with him on his flight from Cairo to Damascus. Arafat apparently feared that Syrian officials would try to insult him by sending only a low-level official to receive him on his arrival. By "presenting" Arafat to the Syrians in this way--the first time Arafat stepped foot in the country since he was evicted in 1983, at the height of his 30-year estrangement from Assad--Egypt was working from the outset to draw Syria further into the "pan-Arab" group of countries in the region, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

What Cairo and Riyadh certainly do not want to see happen is for Syria's young new leader, who already seems to be on friendly terms with Jordan's 30-something King Abdullah, emulate Hashemite Jordan by going "soft" on Israel. For Egypt, this means making sure that Israel does not succeed in imposing its economic and political hegemony on the region--something Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa made clear at an Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs conference in early July.

"For sure there are some internal, regional and international forces that don't want Bashar Al-Assad to take power in Syria, because these forces are against the policies of his father in general," Mubarak confidante Samir Ragab wrote in the state-owned Al Gomhouriya.

Cairo is doing its best to make sure Bashar isn't tempted to give up on those policies, either. "Whatever the West expects of the new rulers in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Syria, only the interests of the nations concerned--and not pressure from the West--must determine the future course of events," wrote prominent columnist Salama Ahmed Salama in Al Ahram of June 22. "The Arab regimes have spent over half a century resigned to the priorities imposed by the West. In other words, they have acquiesced to the imposition of the Arab-Israeli conflict as their first priority, at the expense of economic development, political reform, and the building of societies in which citizens are guaranteed freedom and dignity. It never occurred to anyone that only strong, free nations are able to fight for freedom, to safeguard their countries and to resist plans of expansion and occupation of other people's land."

FUTURE QUESTIONS

For politicians and ordinary citizens alike, however, Assad's death has raised the controversial question of "the succession" in Egypt. The 72-year-old Mubarak has consistently refused to nominate a successor. Although an energetic and hands-on leader, Mubarak was the target of a major assassination attempt in 1995, and Egyptians really don't have a clue whom the inner circle that runs the country has in mind as his successor.

It was telling that, the day after Assad's death on June 10, Mubarak convened an emergency meeting with all those officials and ministers who matter. The "committee" which will surely decide who takes over included Defense Minister Hussein Tantawy, speaker of parliament and caretaker president in the event of Mubarak's death Fathy Sorour, top presidential aides, Interior Minister Habib Al Adly and Foreign Minister Moussa.

The fear brought on by the passing of power to Assad's son in a nominally secular republic like Syria is that Mubarak is seriously considering having his banker son Gamal--respected in economic circles and known to the Clinton administration via his high-profile role in the Egyptian-American Presidents Council--take over the reins. …

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