It's been 14 months since Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman took 30 seconds to announce on state television that 30 long years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak were coming to an end with his resignation.
The protesters who had occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square beginning on Jan. 25, 2011, had roundly defeated one of the world’s most powerful and influential regimes. But over the next several months, even as the Egyptians voted in their first free elections in decades, a sobering reality set in: Mubarak may have been ousted but a number of his top loyalists are still actively ruling the country. People like Faiza Abou el-Naga, the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, and Hassan Ahmed Younis, the energy czar under Mubarak for 10 years who worked on building the nation’s civilian nuclear program, are still in power.
The persistent presence of these figures in Egyptian power circles, as well the continued outsized influence of many businessmen who survived the post-Mubarak anti-corruption purge, are testaments to the power of the military to prop up those that the generals trust the most. It’s also evidence of the ongoing impotence of the general populace in modern Egypt.
It wasn't a revolution but a coup, said Zack Gold, a Washington-based defense expert who focused on Egyptian politics at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. Yes, the military protected the revolutionaries [during the original protests], but they were slow to protect the revolution itself.
The Western-educated el-Naga held a number of positions in the Mubarak regime, representing Egypt at the United Nations and the World Trade Organization and as an economic liaison between Egypt and several other nations, a role she still plays. Because Abou el-Naga's job now and in the past has given her control over the billions of foreign aid money coming into the country, she is perhaps the most powerful woman in Egypt.
The wrong kind of attention was drawn toward el-Naga in February when Egypt detained 43 employees, including 19 Americans, from global NGOs, charging them with illegally funding democratic organizations after they failed to renew contracts they had originally signed with Mubarak. Members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and some Western Egyptian experts claimed that el-Naga was the force behind the incident and, more importantly, behind the xenophobia and fear of foreign aid that precipitated it.
She wants to go down as an Egyptian hero who fought against the United States and fought for Egyptian sovereignty, said Gold.
Although the situation eventually backfired on el-Naga when Egypt was forced by diplomatic pressure to release the NGO employees and she was criticized inside and outside of Egypt for stoking an unfortunate incident, her involvement laid bare the cronyism that is still at the heart of Egyptian politics.
Mubarak is still ruling in some ways and is still blocking the emergence of a new regime in Egypt, Abdullah al-Ashaal, a former deputy foreign minister, told the Washington Post earlier this year. Faiza Abou el-Naga is one of the tools in that.
In February 2011, few would have thought that Mubarak's former ministers would still be pulling the strings over a year later or that the country would be effectively ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which is itself headed by another Mubarak holdover, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. He has been defense minister since 1991.
Even fewer would believe that old friends of the president would be front-runners in the current presidential race, which concludes next month. Yet, several former Mubarak allies have made sufficiently smart political moves during the uprising that they are still popular enough today to run for high office. They include Amr Moussa, a former finance minister and diplomat who publicly supported the Tahrir Square protests, and Suleiman himself, who was Mubarak's intelligence chief and vice president during the final days of the regime.
The strength of the military, solidified over 14 months as the SCAF took total control of the economy, has ensured that these old regime figures are still around. El-Naga was close to Tantawi and the other generals years before Mubarak's resignation; her status as the gateway for $1.3 billion in military aid from the United States may have kept her in the SCAF's good graces.
Moreover, the ruling junta has so far been able to remain above scrutiny, even after last year's parliamentary elections: The people who run the country are never on the ballot,” said Joshua Stacher, an expert on Middle Eastern politics at Kent State University. “We have clean elections, the elections just don't matter.
But some Egyptians are trying to break the hold of the old guard before next month's presidential elections.. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist political party, led a parliamentary initiative to ban high-ranking members of the old regime from running, which would disqualify Suleiman and Ahmad Shafik, a former Air Force commander and the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak. The amendment was passed on Thursday by the parliamentary assembly but may soon be challenged in court.
Additionally, on Friday, thousands of dissidents gathered in Tahrir Square for Defending the Revolution protests, which directly targeted the legitimacy of Suleiman's candidacy. (Today, in a surprise move, Egypt's election commission barred ten candidates from the presidential contest, including Suleiman and a Muslim Brotherhood leader; most of these candidates are expected to appeal the decision and many observers believe that it will be overturned).
If Suleiman's appeal suceeds and he earns the endorsement and the financial backing of the SCAF, both of which are likely, the opposition will be matched against a regime ready to defend itself. And now that the constitutional assembly has been disbanded following an official complaint that Islamists unfairly dominated it, presidential powers may not be fully set until well after the vote.
Which means that if Suleiman gets back on the ballot and wins, he may, at least for some time, find himself with powers equal to those of his former boss Mubarak.