More than 650 Egyptian politicians, intellectuals, and activists faxed a petition to the AP the other day demanding that Hosni Mubarak not stand for yet another term as President when his current mandate ends next October. Seeing such a broad-based coalition for reform is a heartening sign, and I certainly hope that either Bush or Kerry backs them (at least privately) over the next bit.
Just a couple of caveats, though. First, while this kind of petition is really great to see, the Egyptian political system offers very few points of entry for popular demands to be heard. That's why the petition goes to the Associated Press, in the hope of drawing Western attention and convincing American and European audiences to pay attention. Inside of Egypt, most of these politicians and intellectuals and activists are in a pretty weak position after several decades (especially post-1991) of heavy handed repression. The reformist petitioners are smart to take their appeal to an international audience, but it's also a sign of their weakness.
Second, a historical note. Many analysts of Egyptian politics feel that the steam went out of the Mubarak regime in 1993, when he broke his original promise not to rule for more than two terms. That promise, along with the relatively liberal rule of the 1980s, had led many Egyptians to see Mubarak as reasonably legitimate. But after he broke his vow and stood for the 1993 referendum - at the same time as he prosecuted an ever more ferocious campaign against Islamists and severely circumscribed political freedoms in Egypt - he lost what popular support he once had. All this just to say that the question of whether Mubarak should stand for re-election is not a new issue in Egyptian politics, but rather one that has been aired and debated before... and where ultimately popular opposition didn't affect Mubarak's decision. Maybe this time it will be different - he is 76 years old, after all.
Which brings me to the main point: there have been a lot of rumours going around for some time that Mubarak's son Gamal is being groomed to replace his father. Gamal Mubarak has been pumped up, oddly enough, as the "reform candidate" - how the son of the dictator becomes the candidate of change is a bit mind boggling, but there it is. The argument is that Gamal is committed to a more liberal economy and is impatient with the stagnation which besets the Egyptian political system. Any other plausible candidate to replace Hosni Mubarak would presumably come from one of the entrenched power centers, and would therefore stand against reform. Thus, Gamal Mubarak becomes the only hope for change.... like I said, bizarre, but there it is. This petition, then, could very well serve Hosni Mubarak's interests rather than challenge them, if it allows him to set in motion a process by which his son replaces him, seemingly in response to popular demands for reform.
UPDATE: Issander el Amrani has a different take: "The left and the Islamists have taken some time to get together and find common ground, but at least they finally have. The group that’s still missing, though, is precisely the one Western powers would most like to see succeed the military regime: the “liberal” businessmen who have been nurtured for years as a rising force in Egyptian politics and are now – to a certain extent – represented by Gamal Mubarak and his cronies."
The absence of "liberal businessmen" on the list of signatories would seem to cut against the "reform petition as a stalking horse for Gamal Mubarak" hypothesis. But I'll still leave it out there. (link to Amrani, and further comment, via our good friend prakitke).