Who will succeed President Mubarak?

Published January 23rd, 2003 - 02:00 GMT

The Internet is giving Egyptians a place where they can debate a burning issue few dare to address openly: the possibility that their president is grooming his son to succeed him. .‘‘We call on all parties, political forces, civil society ... to stand up against this plan,’’ says ‘‘No to hereditary rule in Egypt,’’ a petition in Arabic that has attracted more than 1,000 signatures since it appeared online last month.  


Senior government officials are often criticized in public and in the newspapers in Egypt, but 74-year-old President Hosni Mubarak and his decisions remain virtually sacrosanct. Dynastic succession is not unusual in the Arab world — Kings Abdullah of Jordan and Mohammed VI of Morocco are the two most recent. But among Arab republics the only son who has succeeded his father into the presidency is Syria’s Bashar Assad.  


So, the notion that 39-year-old Gamal Mubarak may be the next leader of the Arab world’s most populous country is much discussed in Egyptian quarters, despite denials by both Mubaraks.  


The Internet is not a reliable measure of public opinion, especially considering that fewer than 1 million of Egypt’s 68 million people have access to it. Repeated e-mails from The Associated Press to the organizer of the petition, listed as Ayman Salama, went unanswered. But in a country where government approval is needed to collect signatures in public or conduct a telephone survey, the very existence of the petition is significant.  


Hosni Mubarak has dominated Egyptian politics since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981. He has no vice president, and he has not said whether he will run again when his fourth term ends in 2005, nor has he publicly named a successor. His National Democratic Party holds a large majority in Parliament. Parliament nominates a candidate for president and the public then gets to vote for or against the choice. In 1999, Mubarak won another six-year term with nearly 94 percent ‘‘yes’’ votes.  


Gamal Mubarak 

Gamal Mubarak’s public profile has been growing in recent years. The tall, clean-cut bachelor worked as an investment banker for Bank of America in London and is said to be close to business circles. He heads the Future Generation Foundation which aims to prepare young Egyptians for the job market.  


Last year, during a Future Foundation conference, Gamal Mubarak was shown on television mobbed by thousands of cheering young men and women. He joined the ruling party in 2000, and has since spearheaded a party internal reform campaign. Last year, his father appointed him head of a powerful party policy committee.  


The eighth general convention of the ruling NDP, which ran from Sept. 15-17, 2002 was hyped in the press as something quite dramatic. Egyptian newspapers predicted a clash between the party’s “old guard,” championed by party secretary-general Youssef Wali, and the “Young Turks” gathered behind Gamal. 


Wali, already widely despised because as minister of agriculture he helped to foster ties with Israel, was on the defensive after the arrest of his right-hand man in August on corruption charges. Gamal had been stumping throughout the country, knocking the NDP for its undemocratic ways. 


At the end, Wali was brought slightly down to the rank of deputy chairman in charge of internal affairs. He was replaced as secretary-general by Information Minister Safwat al-Sherif, who, like Wali, has held top party rank since the 1980s. Parliamentary affairs minister, NDP assistant secretary-general, and ruling party old guardsman par excellence Kamal al-Shazli, also tapped for downfall, likewise kept his post. Gamal was given the newly created assistant secretary-generalship for policies a modest promotion. 


Sensitive succession issue 

But the succession issue is a sensitive one. Many commentators believe that Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt’s best-known political dissenter, ended up in jail in part for suggesting on television in 2000 that Mubarak’s son might one day succeed him. After the Mubaraks denied the succession rumors, it pretty much closed the subject for the Egyptian media. The Internet, however, is hard to control — although Egyptian police monitor it.  


Most of those who signed the petition were anonymous or used what appeared to be nicknames or one name only. ‘‘No to Gamal, no to his father, and no to the poverty they brought on us,’’ said a comment signed “Ragaei.” “I commend your courage and nationalism,” wrote “Retired Egyptian Ambassador.” Writer Alaa al-Aswani says many others oppose a father-son succession, but are not heard. He doubts the petition will have much effect, saying ‘‘such democratic tactics’’ don’t apply in Egypt.  


The only Egyptian newspaper to report on the petition was the weekly left-wing opposition al-Arabi, which asked whether those behind it were responding to American calls for more democracy in the Middle East — something Egyptian intellectuals have criticized as meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. In an open letter to Hosni Mubarak, also published in al-Arabi, leftist Fuad Kamel said appointing his son president would be a misuse of power.  


President Mubarak appears to be as cautious in promoting his son as he is in everything else, but he may indeed wish to see Gamal as his successor, and may still attempt to nominate him as such.  


However, the Egyptian leader apparently has yet to overcome the considerable resistance within Egyptian elites. While some may look forward to Gamal as perhaps being more forward-thinking than his father, others consider it virtually an insult to have the elder Mubarak, who can claim some credibility as a strongman from having commanded the Egyptian Air Force in the 1973 war, pass power to his former banker of a son, an Egyptian commentator has written. (Albawaba.com) 

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