As Mubarak turns 80, Egypt faces inflation, unrest

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, now in his 27th year as leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation, turns 80 on Sunday with no clear successor in sight.

One of the oldest executive heads of state in the world, Mubarak leads a country where more than 60 percent of the population have never known any other president.

His 80th birthday comes at a time when his government of economic reformers is on the defensive, accused of failing to control prices, repressing legitimate dissent and allowing the rich to grow richer at the expense of the poor.

Here are the main difficulties facing President Mubarak, roughly halfway through his fifth six-year term in office:

Inflation

Consumer prices rose 14,4% in the year to March, the highest inflation rate in more than three years. Food prices rose by up to 50%, a hard blow to the poor, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes on foodstuffs. Mubarak responded on Wednesday by proposing a 30% increase in basic public-sector salaries, which start at about $56 a month. He told his government to find the extra revenue to cover the extra cost.

bread supplies

The Egyptian government is committed to provide bread to the poor at subsidised prices starting at about one US cent for a small flat loaf. But in recent months cheap bread has been in short supply because high prices for other staples have added to demand and because the big price differential with free-market wheat has stimulated the corrupt diversion of subsidised wheat to other uses. The government was slow to foresee the crisis but later rushed to increase production, curtail the diversion and set up more distribution points. Customers say supplies have improved in recent weeks and that the queues for bread are not as long as they were.

The succession

Mubarak has never appointed a vice-president, as the Constitution allows, nor announced any preference as to who should succeed him. Egyptians assume that the preferred candidate is Mubarak’s politician son, Gamal Mubarak (44) a former investment banker and a senior official in the ruling National Democratic Party. But if Mubarak died in office unexpectedly, rival candidates could emerge to challenge an attempt by Gamal to succeed. The attitude of the military, where all of Egypt’s presidents began their careers, is unknown.

Mubarak has had some minor health problems over the years, most notably with his back in 2004, but the leftist newspaper al-Badil noted that he remained standing for 44 minutes non-stop during a May Day event last Wednesday.

Worker unrest

For more than a year workers have gone on strike at dozens of factories across the country, demanding higher salaries to match higher prices. One of the hotbeds of worker unrest has been the Nile Delta textile town of Mahalla el-Kubra, where thousands of people rioted on April 6 and 7 in protests directed against the government. In a scene captured on camera and much viewed on YouTube, protesters in Mahalla’s central square pulled down and trampled a large portrait of Mubarak. Three people were killed and more than 150 injured in the fighting with police.

The Islamist challenge

Faced with a powerful Islamist movement in opposition, Mubarak has failed either to eliminate it by repression or accommodate it within an open political system. Instead he has kept it on the fringes of legality, giving it some freedom of movement but cracking down when he feels threatened. The outcome has been constant tensions, widespread human rights abuses, the systematic rigging of elections and the erosion of the rule of law. Mubarak’s successor is likely to inherit this morass.

Gap between rich and poor

Under the government which took office in 2004, the economy has been growing at up to 7% a year. But many Egyptians say they cannot feel the effects and the United Nations said the proportion of people living in absolute poverty increased in the first five years of the decade. As in many developing countries, the contrast is striking between the poor majority and a wealthy elite who have started to move out of Cairo into gated communities with large villas and lush lawns. The government says it will take time for growth to trickle down.

Trouble on Gaza border

Mubarak, a reluctant accomplice in the Israeli blockade of Gaza, is watching the border with the Palestinian enclave with a wary eye, fearful that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians might again pour across into Egypt, as they did in January. His government is trying to mediate a truce between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza but his influence is limited and the chances of long-term success are rated slim. His policy of keeping the border closed is unpopular at home and gives weight to the view that he is too conciliatory towards Israel and the United States. Mubarak is also under constant pressure from Israel and Washington to prevent the smuggling of arms and explosives from Egypt into Gaza—a practice his government says it is doing its best to stop. - Reuters

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