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U.S./World

Mubarak elite key to reform hopes

| Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011

WASHINGTON — Seeking reform in Egypt, the United States increasingly is counting on a small cadre of President Hosni Mubarak's closest advisers to guide a hoped-for transition from autocracy to democracy.

It's a plan that relies on long relationships with military men and bureaucrats who owe their professional success to Mubarak's iron rule. To the regret of some U.S. diplomats, it's a plan that steers around the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist political movement that almost surely would play a central role in any popularly chosen government.

Not that Washington has much choice.

Mubarak has so smothered potential political opposition that there is no clear alternative for the United States as a bargaining partner, even if dealing with aging Mubarak stalwarts reduces America's credibility with Egyptians fed up with the Mubarak era.

The Obama administration's telephone diplomacy last week was indicative of the American strategy to keep Egypt from tearing itself apart.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Omar Suleiman, Egypt's 74-year-old intelligence chief who became vice president last week. Defense Secretary Robert Gates chatted with his 85-year-old counterpart, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the situation with Egypt's top military official, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, 62. Another key figure is Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a 69-year-old former Air Force chief.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website encapsulate part of the problem with trusting these men to be the head ushers of democratic and economic change.

Beyond the generational split with young protesters disgruntled by years of harsh unemployment, inequality and political repression, the Mubarak men belong to a military elite whose wealth and power are inextricably linked to the 82-year-old president.

"Egypt's military is in decline," a 2008 U.S. cable states, summarizing a series of conversations with academics and analysts. The memo cites a professor in Egypt as saying, "The sole criteria for promotion is loyalty and the ... leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being 'too competent' and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime."

Yet the military's authority remains strong and its interests in Egypt vast. Mubarak built an army of almost a half-million men that holds large stakes in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries.

A diplomatic cable describes large land holdings of the military along the Nile Delta and the Red Sea, and suggests that the top brass would not be served by important change toward democracy and freer markets.

Most analysts agree that the military "generally opposes economic reforms," according to the U.S. diplomatic correspondence.

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