The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks posted a batch of diplomatic cables on Friday detailing Egypt’s use of a decades-old “emergency law” to restrict freedom of expression, the regime’s efforts to portray itself as America’s “indispensable Arab ally” and President Hosni Mubarak’s plan to position his son, Gamal, as his eventual successor. The dispatches were released as massive protests rocked the country and set up violent clashes with Egypt’s state police.
The cables also contained some striking details regarding the regime’s view of Egypt’s opposition parties, the role of the military in securing a peaceful transfer of power and the eventual prospects for long-sought democratic reforms. A former official of the ruling National Democratic Party and minister in Mubarak’s cabinet, for example, called the country’s opposition movement “weak” and described democracy as a “long term goal” in one diplomatic memo from 2009.
The ruling party insider, Ali El Deen Hilal Dessouki, is also quoted as assuring U.S. diplomats that the Egyptian military would “ensure a smooth transfer of power, even to a civilian” — a reference to the youngest of the 81-year-old Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal Mubarak, a former international banker who has in recent years asserted his political influence in the country more aggressively.
The Egyptian military is seen in the cables as central to the moderate government’s political stability, which is now being challenged by protesters who have defied Mubarak’s regime and clashed with state police across the country. The protests are inspired in part by the revolution in nearby Tunisia, where activists have successfully ended the decades-long rule of authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In the cables, Dessouki and other Egyptian officials are seen as dismissing the possibility that similar strife could take hold in Egypt.
“Widespread politically motivated unrest, he said, was not likely because it was not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality’,” U.S. diplomats wrote of a 2009 meeting with Dessouki. “Threats to daily survival, not politics, were the only thing to bring Egyptians to the streets en masse.”
Egyptian officials also assured their American allies in the cables that the country’s security forces would be capable of quashing any pro-democracy protests that might break out around the 2011 presidential elections, which are scheduled for later this year. “The real center of power in Egypt is the military,” Dessouki is quoted as telling U.S. officials.
The conventional wisdom that Egypt’s military wields most of the political influence in the country — and that it would ensure a smooth transition of power to Mubarak’s son — is now being challenged by the protests, which have roiled the country and suggest that some degree of political reform may be unavoidable. There are already conflicting — and unconfirmed — reports, for example, that Gamal Mubarak has fled Egypt for the United Kingdom, casting doubt on his position as Egypt’s heir apparent.
The cables also contain details regarding the Egyptian regime’s use of a decades-old “emergency law” to suppress opposition activity and critical opinion. Egypt has been under an almost-continuous “state of emergency” since 1967, giving the regime broad powers to restrict freedom of expression and assembly and detain suspects indefinitely, without cause. Security forces have used the emergency powers, for example, to crack down on Egyptian bloggers. As one U.S. official noted in a 2009 cable, “the role of bloggers as a cohesive activist movement has largely disappeared, due to a more restrictive political climate.”