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Democracy

Mubarak shouldn't bank on unlimited support from Egypt's military

President Mubarak's grip on power rests solely on the willingness of the country's military to back him, an Egypt expert tells Deutsche Welle. But that willingness could soon reach its tipping point.

protestor holding flag with words die for something better than live for nothing

Egyptians are fed up with their leadership

Bruce K. Rutherford is the author of "Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World" (Princeton, 2008). He is an associate professor of political science and director of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Civilization Studies Program at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

Deutsche Welle: Despite continuing mass protests in Egypt calling for his ouster and global leaders urging restraint, Hosni Mubarak seems determined not to budge and cling to power. Can you shed some light on the personality and politics of Mubarak as a way to help us understand what makes him tick?

Bruce K. Rutherford: Probably one of the core considerations for Mubarak at this point is that he wants to preserve his personal dignity and avoid the humiliation of being forced out. In practice what that means he probably would like to stay at least until September when his term expires and there are new presidential elections at that time. And the question is whether he will be able to do that.

To the demonstrators in Egypt, but also to many outside observers it seems clear that Mubarak can’t stay in office. What makes him convinced that he can hold on to power and what’s your assessment of his situation?

In terms of how long he can last the key actor of course is the military and the extent to which the military is prepared to go to contain and put down the demonstrations. If the demonstrations continue - and they continue to involve large numbers of people - there will come a point where the military has to decide whether it's prepared to use live fire against those civilians.

We know very little about the military, but my guess is that they will be hugely reluctant to fire on civilians. The military is a very respected institution and very much sees itself as an institution that is protecting the Egyptian people. I imagine it's highly unlikely that the military would use significant force against civilians and it's at that moment when senior military leaders would essentially make clear to Mubarak that there are limits as to how far they will go keep him in office. And that's the point when Mubarak would exit. But as far as I can tell we haven't reached that point yet.

Egypt's history with leadership transitions isn’t a happy one. Originally Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his father, but he apparently has already fled the country. Instead President Mubarak just picked a close personal ally Omar Suleiman as his vice president. Is he a likely successor who would be accepted by the people and bring change to Egypt?

Hosni Mubarak

Mubarak's days in the seat of power appear limited

I think he is certainly Mubarak's choice to be the successor and you are right that Gamal’s star has now set. I think it's extremely unlikely that Gamal would become president. It is very clear that Mubarak would like Suleiman to succeed him. Essentially the scenario that Mubarak is trying to set up is that Mubarak completes his term in September and Suleiman then runs to succeed him in September.

The question whether Suleiman is popular or not is an interesting one and it's difficult to assess. Suleiman is a very respected figure within the Egyptian government. He's been at a very senior level for many many years and has handled very difficult and delicate subjects, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and trying to mediate between the different factions of Palestinians and also between Palestinians and Israelis.

But he is very much a regime figure and it's a question of whether the public and the demonstrators really demand a fundamental change in the character of the regime. And if that's what they are looking for than Omar Suleiman is not the right person to do that. Suleiman is very much Mubarak's man. He does not represent the inauguration of a new era in any sense in regard to Egyptian political life. And the question is just how far the demonstrators will go insisting on a new era, new faces, new people, new priorities in their leadership.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has also said he would be ready to lead an interim national unity government. As someone who has lived abroad for a long time, does he have the standing and reputation in Egypt to head a new government?

That's a very good question and we really don't know a great deal about the degree of ElBaradei’s popular support, but he is widely known. And the fact that he commands international respect is something that matters in Egypt. Egyptians value the way they are perceived by the outside world and ElBaradei not just having been head of the IAEA, but also having won a Nobel Prize gives him great stature.

The other consideration is that he is not tainted by any association with the Mubarak era and the corruption and abuse that many people associate with that government. So when one looks across the political landscape at this point if you are looking for a plausible alternative to Omar Suleiman going forward, ElBaradei is probably the most likely one.

What role could the Muslim Brotherhood play in your opinion in a possible leadership shake-up?

That's a fascinating question and it's worth noting that ElBaradei has reached out to the Brotherhood in the past. ElBaradei's political career in Egypt began about a year ago and one of his first steps when he arrived back in Egypt was to meet with Brotherhood leaders and to hold rallies organized by the Brotherhood. And he was reaching out to them when the Brotherhood was facing intense repression. So he gained some credibility with the Brotherhood because he took that risk at that moment in time.

And he can plausibly serve as a bridge to some degree between more secular-minded Egyptian reformers and more moderate thinkers and activists within the Brotherhood. And it's important to note that there are moderate thinkers and activists in the Brotherhood. This is not a radical Islamic group. The Brotherhood has participated in elections for a number of cycles, they have produced very extensive campaign documents that have been quite moderate in their content in terms of calling for political and economic reform.

So this is not a radical group, this is not al-Qaeda, this is not Khomeini (late Iranian revolutionary leader - ed.). It's a group that is beginning to move on a trajectory that I think resembles to some extent the Islamists in Turkey and what eventually became the Justice and Development Party (or AKP, currently in government - ed.) in Turkey.

What do you then consider the most likely leadership transition scenario for Egypt right now?

If I were a betting person I would think Mubarak might be around for another couple of weeks and then we'll start to see a transition that at least includes ElBaradei. I don't know if ElBaradei would lead it, but I think there will be an effort to reach out to him simply because he is the only figure that to any degree represents the anger that is being expressed on the streets and provides at least some leadership and some coherence to what is otherwise a very inchoate movement.

Therefore in the interest of stability it would make sense for Mubarak and his inner circle to reach out to him at this juncture and perhaps create some sort of government that includes both Suleiman and Ahmed Shafik, the new prime minister as well as Mohamed ElBaradei.

Interview: Michael Knigge

Editor: Rob Mudge

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