Cairo is burning–in installments. It is a distinctively Egyptian joke, resonant as it is with politics, history and resignation. Last year, several of the city’s landmark buildings burned under mysterious circumstances. In August, the top floor of the Parliament’s Shura Council went up in flames as firemen, apparently short of adequate water supplies, looked on. A month later, the National Theatre was gutted. In November, thugs attacked the offices of the opposition El Ghad party with blowtorches while party members huddled inside and riot police stood by.
Cairo’s immolation, the quip suggests, is a parody of the January 1952 blaze that consumed much of the city’s commercial district and sparked a revolution. It is a tribute to the past and a morsel of wry humor from a people laid low by President Hosni Mubarak and his sclerotic, oppressive regime. As the country prepares for national elections in 2011, which Mubarak may or may not contest, the suspicious combustions have yet to kindle a popular uprising. But dissatisfaction with his rule and the prospect of a dynastic succession in a country that long ago overthrew a monarchy could make for a messy transfer of power in the Arab world’s political epicenter.
The 80-year-old Mubarak has long depended on Egyptians’ passivity–not to mention the implicit green light from Washington to persecute and incarcerate with impunity and the billions of dollars in annual subsidies guaranteed by the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. But the former air force chief, who came to power after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, is stretching the limits of his nation’s good humor. His estrangement from the citizenry widened with his declaration of war on Hamas during Israel’s winter assault on Gaza, and his circle of advisers, like a noose, has drawn tighter.
Mubarak has not announced if he intends to stand for another six-year term in elections scheduled for 2011. He may abdicate to an army general or the head of state security, or transfer power to his son, Gamal. One of the only public references Mubarak has made to the prospect of transition was in 2007, when he assured his former military colleagues that he would die in office.
Political observers are about evenly divided over whether a military man or Gamal will succeed Mubarak. Ibrahim Issa, the outspoken editor in chief of the daily newspaper Al Dustour, leans toward the brass. “There will be a struggle between the generals, the businessmen and the bureaucrats,” he says. “The businessmen are hated, and the bureaucracy can’t bear the idea of chaos, so the army will win. And why shouldn’t they? They rule the country anyway.”
Issa is a portly man with black horn-rimmed glasses, a droopy black moustache and kinetic eyebrows. His office walls are covered with life-size portraits of fellow revolutionaries Che Guevara and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and he is possessed of an authentically rapier Egyptian wit.
“Hosni Mubarak would never give up power,” he told me. “He’ll rule until he drops dead, and then Gamal Mubarak will be Egypt’s Prince Charles.” What about Washington? “The Americans bought Mubarak twenty-eight years ago because they believed he could maintain peace,” said Issa. “But this was the tragedy of the Shah of Iran, when Washington supported him over Mossadegh. The Americans always trade despots for stability, and they get ‘extremists’ instead.”