Robert Fisk: Mubarak's challenger can't rely on a fair race

World Focus: Opponents accuse ElBaradei of wanting to play Karzai in a new pro-American Egypt
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The Independent Online

What keeps old men in power in Egypt? And what keeps middle-aged men wanting power in a country whose crippled society, increasing sectarianism, brutal police force and endemic corruption is only compounded by an electoral system widely regarded as a fraud? Most Egyptians don't think that President Hosni Mubarak is immortal, even though he still reigns supreme at the age of 81. Even the pharaohs believed they would live on only in the next world.

But now the former head of the UN's nuclear agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, says that if there's a fair election next year, he might stand for president. "If" is a big word in Egyptian politics, however, and the saintly ElBaradei shows no sign of appreciating just how tough are his chances. He has called for changes in the Egyptian constitution and an end to emergency laws. But even he must realise that Hosni Mubarak will not be shaking in his shoes at this news.

The real problem, of course, is not ElBaradei's chances – pretty much nil – but Mubarak's age. Both the president and his son, Gamal, deny that Gamal wants to be president, but the son's steady ascent in Egyptian political life suggests otherwise. If he did inherit his father's throne, of course, there would be a second caliphate in the Arab world – the other being Syria, where Bashar al-Assad took over after his father's death and some deft switching of Baath Party rules.

Omar Sulieman, Mubarak's senior intelligence man – he is also involved in the constant negotiations with Hamas over the future of Gaza – has never publicly expressed interest in the presidency. Besides he suffers heart problems. Meanwhile in interviews with news agencies over the past week, ElBaradei has been waffling about Egypt's youth and the internet as organs of change. Indeed, his new coalition is called the National Front for Change. "People are talking about all sorts of things and they might go to civil disobedience if there is no change," he said. But when the opposition "Enough!" movement could not get enough support from youth in the streets of Cairo – some of its female members were assaulted by plain-clothes police officers – what chance does ElBaradei have? The internet is watched closely by the security cops, and ElBaradei is going to get no support from the likes of Barack Obama.

Many Egyptian intellectuals now suspect that the corrupted old Egyptian governments are partly responsible for the increasingly sectarian nature of disputes between Muslims and Egyptian Copts – always presented by the government, of course, as domestic disputes which have nothing to do with religion. But the alienation of the Christians and the increasingly "Islamicisation" of the country has got a lot to do with it.

The police force is virtually outside the law, and routine state violence is now accepted as a fact of life – or death. Indeed, the killing of 60 economic migrants by Egyptian police since 2007 – they were seeking to cross the border into Israel – has simply gone unreported.

Osama al-Ghazali Harb, editor of the monthly Al-Siyassa al-Sawliyya (published by Al-Ahram), traces the sectarian tensions right back to the 1952 military coup, when members of the Egyptian Free Officers had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. All the coup officers were Muslims. He points out that great harm was also done to the Egyptian body politic later when Anwar Sadat described himself as "the Muslim president of a Muslim state".

But ElBaradei has other problems. Some opposition politicians in Egypt believe that he did not do enough to prevent the US invasion of Iraq, accuse him of wanting to play Hamid Karzai in a new pro-American Egypt, and even suggest that there should be a mock trial of the Nobel Prize winner for his failure to stop the American occupation of Iraq. Egyptian politics is an unkind sport.

ElBaradei says he is trying to make the connection between economic and social development and political reform, and that "if you move into a democratic system, everything else will fall into place". But why should the Mubarak father-and-son team try to change the system?

The previous contender for Mubarak's job, Ayman Nour, was imprisoned after the 2005 election for forgery, a charge which he said was fraudulent. It might be more difficult to lock up Mohamed ElBaradei. But he's likely to find "democracy" in Egypt a more daunting task than keeping his eye on Iran.

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