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Egypt's antique regime

A nation at war The Tahrir Square protests are aimed at the groups who have ruled Egypt for decades. A look at three parts of Egypt's ruling class and how they are taking the revolt.

world Updated: Feb 05, 2011 23:43 IST
HTC/NYT/GNS

A nation at war The Tahrir Square protests are aimed at the groups who have ruled Egypt for decades. A look at three parts of Egypt's ruling class and how they are taking the revolt.

The elites
A prolonged collision is shaping up between a shaken but entrenched Egyptian old guard and an outpouring of Egypt's discontented over how fast and how deep the changes will be.

In a contest of image, perception and power, the rebellion pits those disenfranchised by Hosni Mubarak's government against a still formidable array built around the military and security apparatus and a fabulously wealthy clique enriched by connections with the governing party.

Both revolt and reaction have offered their narrative - change and chaos - with the Information Ministry fanning popular discontent over an uprising that has devastated Egypt's economy. But a revolution is not a referendum, and in an 11-day battle that has seen momentum shift almost by the day, each faces the resilience of the other.

Even as it sheds some support, the government remains determined not to surrender what it deems its prestige. Mubarak's leadership is one symbol of that, but even if he leaves, the old guard may well dig in to obstruct open elections and true civilian rule. The government retains a monopoly on armed violence, the state's arsenal in its hands.

Since a group of officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy in 1952, its corpulent king leaving behind a vast pornography collection, the government has sought to claim the mantle of peasants and workers.

In the past decade it has shed that pretense, concentrating its power around the military, the loathed Interior Ministry, a governing party skilled in patronage and a clique of the very wealthy, many loyal to Mr. Mubarak's son, Gamal.

Since the revolt, the military has surged to the forefront, emerging as the pivotal player in politics it long sought to manage behind the scenes.

Notably the government has begun shedding the business elite that surrounded it only months ago. Officials have announced the freezing of assets and a prohibition on travel for Ahmed Ezz, a hated steel magnate, and for Rashid Mohammed Rashid, a former minister of trade and industry, Ahmed el-Maghraby, a former housing minister, and Zuheir Garana, a former minister of tourism. "We decided on eliminating all businessmen," Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said Friday of his cabinet in an interview with Al Arabiya TV.

The generals
The Obama administration and some members of the Egyptian military and civilian elite pursued plans to nudge Hosni Mubarak from power.

The country's newly named vice president, Omar Suleiman, and other top military leaders were discussing steps to limit Mubarak's decision-making authority and possibly remove him from the presidential palace in Cairo - though not to strip him of his presidency immediately, Egyptian and American officials said.

Mubarak might be induced to move to his home at seaside resort Sharm el Sheik or that embark on one of his annual medical leaves to Germany for an extended checkup.

Such steps would provide him with a graceful exit.

"None of this can happen if Mubarak is at the center of the process," said a US official. "But it doesn't necessarily require the president to leave office right now."

Opposition leaders have insisted that they will not negotiate until Mubarak is out of office. They have been counting on the impact of his resignation to ensure that senior Egyptian officials do not try to derail the movement toward a constitutional democracy.

Leaders of the country's opposition movements are already warning of the risk of another military-backed president for life if the military elite currently negotiating a transition from Mubarak were to block broader change.

Suleiman, a former military officer, appears to share power with two close allies, defence minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, said retired General Abdel Moneim Qattou. But the three find themselves squeezed between their loyalties to Mubarak on one side and the military on the other.

The military is the swing factor. It is part of the ancien regime, a beneficiary of nearly $40 billion in US aid during Mubarak's rule, its interests span the gamut of economic life - from the military industry to housing construction, from consumer goods and resort management. Even opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has acknowledged that the military will have a key role in a transition.

The family
Mubarak's family fortune could be as much as $70 billion according to analysis by West Asia experts, with much of his wealth in British and Swiss banks or tied up in real estate in London, New York, Los Angeles and along expensive tracts of the Red Sea coast.

After 30 years as president and many more as a senior military official, Mubarak has had access to investment deals that have generated hundreds of millions of pounds in profits. Most of those gains have been taken offshore and deposited in secret bank accounts or invested in upmarket homes and hotels.

According to the newspaper Al Khabar, Mubarak has properties in Manhattan and exclusive Beverly Hills addresses on Rodeo Drive. His sons, Gamal and Alaa, are also billionaires. Amaney Jamal, a Princeton professor, said the estimate of $ 40-70 billion was comparable with the vast wealth of leaders in other Persian Gulf countries.

"The business ventures from his military and government service accumulated to his personal wealth," she said. "There was a lot of corruption in this regime and stifling of public resources for personal gain. Al Khabar said it understood the Mubaraks kept much of their wealth offshore in the Swiss bank UBS and the Bank of Scotland, part of Lloyds Banking Group, although this information could be at least 10 years old.

Professor Christopher Davidson, Durham University, said Mubarak and his family were able to accumulate wealth through a number of business partnerships with foreign investors and firms, dating back to when he was in the military and in a position to benefit from corporate corruption. He said most Gulf states required foreigners to give a local business partner a 51% stake in start-up ventures. In Egypt, the figure is nearer to 20%, but still gives politicians and close allies in the military a source of huge profits.

Aladdin Elaasar, author of The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age, said the Mubaraks own several residences in Egypt, some inherited from previous presidents and the monarchy, and others the president has commissioned.

(HTC/NYT/GNS)