BEIRUT (Reuters) - After 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak’s ultra-cautious rule, some of Egypt’s 79 million people feel change is overdue — even his claim to be the guarantor of stability has looked shaky since a January 1 attack on Christians.
But restive Egyptians may have to wait a bit longer. Most have known no other leader than the burly former air force commander who was catapulted to power when Islamist militants assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.
“The biggest risk is fragmentation and rivalry within the ruling system, under the nominal leadership of an increasingly old Mubarak, like Tunisia in the 1980s under the late President Habib Bourguiba,” said analyst Issandr el Amrani.
The 82-year-old Mubarak is widely tipped to run for a sixth six-year term in September’s presidential election, health permitting. Constitutional rules ensure he would face no credible opponent. Speculation that he might make way for his son Gamal, a businessman-turned-politician, ebbs and flows.
Another term for Mubarak would keep alive uncertainty over who will eventually succeed him and defer any major shake-up in the way Egypt is governed, with the focus remaining on security, along with liberal economic policies aimed at high growth.
This well-tried authoritarian formula may satisfy investors impressed by Egypt’s lively performance since economic reforms began in earnest in 2004, but not everyone is convinced it can contain accumulating tensions in the most populous Arab nation.
Some of these were harshly exposed when a suspected al Qaeda-inspired suicide bomber killed up to 23 people outside a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day. The attack also blew a hole in an official myth that harmony reigns between majority Muslims and Christian Copts who form 10 percent of the populace.
Bouts of sectarian violence in recent years have undermined centuries-old traditions of relatively peaceful coexistence.
With conservative Islamic trends growing more pervasive in society, the government has failed to punish the perpetrators of previous attacks on Copts or redress Coptic complaints about job discrimination and constraints on church building.
The sectarian friction roiling Egypt coincides with social stresses that healthy macroeconomic indicators cannot hide.
The population is growing 2 percent a year and has a “youth bulge”, with some 60 percent under 30 years old. Nine out of 10 jobless Egyptians are in this age group. About 40 percent of citizens live on less than $2 a day and a third are illiterate.
A growing rich-poor divide, entrenched corruption, stifling bureaucracy and the lack of accountability or rotation of power are among the urgent challenges identified by Amr Hamzawy, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre.
“These need to be tackled, but the energy is lacking,” he said, referring to Mubarak’s leadership style.
It is not clear what might upset the political inertia.
Unrest in North African neighbours Algeria and Tunisia over unemployment and high food prices has not spread to Egypt.
Workers took to the streets in 2008 when global food prices surged, leading to shortages in subsidised bread. But the government has acted swiftly this time to reassure Egyptians.
There is no sign of a violent challenge to the state such as that mounted by Islamist militants in the 1990s in an armed uprising crushed by a formidable security apparatus.
Few Egyptians expect change to come through the ballot box, especially after a November 28 election which removed the Muslim Brotherhood and most other dissenting voices from a parliament dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).
Most no longer bother to vote. The official turnout was around 35 percent, but local rights groups put it far lower.
Prospects that a potential independent contender such as Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, might mount a challenge for the presidency have faded.
Outside pressure for political reform is muted, but even mild criticism can irritate the government, which spurned calls from the United States, Egypt’s main military ally and aid donor, for foreign monitors to observe the parliamentary election.
U.S. President Barack Obama has yet to match the demands his predecessor George W. Bush once made of Cairo in a short-lived push for democracy in the Middle East, although leaked cables show his diplomats often describe Egypt as a dictatorship.
Nonetheless, Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, has urged reforms ahead of the presidential election to “bolster citizens’ confidence in their government” and enhance its international legitimacy.
In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on December 18, Posner criticised the “troubling elections” of 2010, calling for changes including an end to emergency rule, in force since 1981.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said Egypt did not accept foreign intervention in its internal processes.
“We value our friendship with many players around the world including the United States, but we cannot allow any country to dictate to us what it wants us to do or not do,” he said.
“Political, economic and social reform has to be done in a way that preserves stability and the fabric of society. It’s the government’s responsibility to see it happens this way,” Zaki said, noting Cairo’s commitment to its human rights obligations.
Media pluralism has flourished in the past decade, but piecemeal political reforms enacted to date, such as the introduction of multi-candidate presidential elections in 2005, have posed no threat to Mubarak’s grip on power, underpinned by a military, security and business establishment.
Discontent with the government is strong among middle-class Egyptians, even though many have prospered under its economic policies, according to Gamal Soltan, senior research fellow at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“In rural Egypt you find more support for the NDP and the government,” he said. “The new middle class is demanding more efficiency and transparency, not necessarily democracy per se, although support for democracy is increasing.”
Such Egyptians are increasingly frustrated with petty corruption and bureaucratic obstacles encountered even for simple matters such as renewing a car licence, Soltan argued.
Decades of authoritarian rule have enfeebled institutions and political parties in a recipe for stagnation, despite the achievements of some economic reformers in the government.
Egypt may be ready for change. Just don’t hold your breath.