Among North Africa's Dictators' Row--Mohammed VI in Morocco, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar el Qaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt--Mubarak, at 81, is the oldest, longest-serving, and next to Qaddafi (depending on Qaddafi's mood), most repressive of the bunch, though they all, with Qaddafi's exception, pay lip service to democratic and humanitarian reform to stay on the lucrative side of American aid and weaponry.
Mubarak, in power 27 years and the quote unquote winner of five consecutive six-year terms as president, is feeling his age. He rose to power as Anwar el Sadat's vice president. But Mubarak never appointed a vice president of his own, fearing that of he did so he would not only seem to be grooming a successor, but encouraging one to succeed him before he was willing. Dictators don't like competition.
But even this latest of pharaoh knows he's not immortal. Since the earlier part of the decade, Mubarak seems to have been grooming his son Gamal, now 46, for the job. Gamal's debutant ball was the 2002 National Democratic Party convention (the NDP is the president's party; it uses the word "democratic" the way North Korea and the old East Germany, among other dictatorships, have used the word: as an unfunny inside joke). Back then Mubarak père decreed the establishment of something called the Policies Secretariat and made Gamal its chief. It was a fancy way of dressing up nepotism in an important-sounding job, though in reality the job was little more than resume-padding in the shadow of the father's allies.
Egyptians like to laugh. But they know when the joke is on them, too.
In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned from running, as are any parties that hint at challenging Mubarak's rule, so it fielded independent candidates as much as the Brotherhood could within the constraints of Egypt's byzantine electoral laws--and won 20 percent of the People's Assembly. Mubarak was thoroughly embarrassed, so he decided to give his political party a face-lift. Gamal would be its Botox. Wouldn't you know it: He went and got the NDP a Facebook page, though at 179 members (in a country of more than 80 million), it looks like Gamal is having trouble making friends. He also reportedly started a Flickr page and put up a few videos on YouTube.
It's not that Gamal wouldn't make a good president, or at least a better president than his father has been. The son believes, at least outwardly, in more liberal economic policies. He is younger, more dynamic, more interested (and less fearful) of engaging in diplomacy. But say what you will: the son of a dictator inheriting power is still inheriting a dictatorship. Egypt can do better. It needs better, if it's to pull out of its phlegmatic poverty and perhaps help pull the rest of the Arab world out of its anti-democratic stupor.
The NDP is having its annual convention this very weekend. Supposedly conventioneers won't be talking succession. But like all else in Egyptian politics, there's what you say for public consumption, and what you do behind closed doors. Of course succession is on everyone's lips. It's time for strategy at the NDP.
The reason: Egyptians aren't exactly thrilled by the Mubarak dynasty. They don't have much choice. Mubarak has the guns and the torture chambers (Egyptian prisons are notorious dens of brutality). But where they do, they show it. Two weeks ago opposition leader Ayman Nour, who's known Mubarak's prisons firsthand, launched the Egyptian Campaign Against Tawreeth, or inherited power. It's a risky move. He could land in prison again. Mubarak need only wince.
But Mubarak may need to be careful, too. Too heavy a hand before the scheduled 2011 presidential election in Egypt and he may invite more formidable opponents into the race, like Mohammed El Baradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel laureate, who is Egyptian and has been under some pressure by reformists to run.
You can bet that Egypt's neighboring dictators are watching avidly. What happens to one of their own may well have repercussions across Dictators' Row. The last thing they want is an effective democratic movement that takes hold in the Arab world's most populous country--and blows westward. Not that what five men want should matter so much. What 166 million people think and live with should matter more. For now, it unfortunately doesn't, and North Africa's dictators are doing their best to keep it that way.