STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In an essay in Foreign Affairs last spring, I wrote about the obstacles impeding the emergence of a more liberal polity in Egypt. Although popular demands for political change have intensified in the past decade, the prospects for reform remain dim.
Over the years, foreign observers have argued that Egyptians favor political change by parsing the statements and actions of Egyptian activists of all stripes: the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, a small group of liberals, Nasserist holdovers, judges, bureaucrats, and labor protestors. But these observers have never been able to identify an actual pathway to political reform. In fact, Egypt’s political order has produced a system that seems impervious to change. The Egyptian regime of President Hosni Mubarak has proven adaptable to both internal and external pressures, not brittle and vulnerable to political challenges.
In the last six weeks, however, two new developments have emerged with the potential to affect Egypt’s political trajectory dramatically. In early March, Mubarak underwent an operation to remove either his gallbladder (according to the German hospital) or a benign tumor (as reported by the Egyptian press). He remained in intensive care for five days and continues to convalesce in Heidelberg University Hospital. Regardless of what ails him, Mubarak is now 81 years old, an age when people can die suddenly or never recover from seemingly routine illnesses or medical procedures. His extended stay in Germany has left many Egyptians wondering not only whether he will run for reelection in 2011 but who is actually running the country right now. Mubarak’s illness has served to only intensify the decade-long national discussion of who will be his ultimate successor. Although the mechanics of the transition appear to have been determined, there remains uncertainty about precisely who will follow Mubarak. Much of the publicly available evidence, however, suggests that it will be his second son, Gamal Mubarak.
Perhaps more important was the return to Egypt in February of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic