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Gamal Mubarak: Egypt's Next President?

Omar Cheta, May 22, 2007

Gamal Mubarak, assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), stands under a poster of his father, President Hosni Mubarak, in the Party's headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Hosni Mubarak has consistently evaded questions on who will succeed him as president of Egypt. Mubarak, who celebrated his 79th birthday on May 4, has ruled Egypt for over 26 years but never appointed a deputy. Since 2000, when his youngest son, Gamal, left a seemingly successful career as an investment banker in London to become a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in Cairo, rumors about hereditary succession have surfaced. Speculation has been further fueled by Gamal's meteoric rise in the ranks of the NDP, becoming assistant secretary-general in the short period of six years. On his father's birthday, Gamal, 43, married Khadiga El Gammal, the daughter of Egyptian businessman Mahmoud El Gammal, thus renewing the debate about his political ambitions.

A couple of days earlier, Gamal agreed to a television interview in which he denied ambitions to hold "any executive position." But this denial was not enough to stem speculation. Journalist Ibrahim Eissa, a frequent critic of Mubarak, who was recently sentenced to one year in jail for insulting the president, told the Los Angeles Times (May 5) that this denial was not serious and that Gamal maintained an ambition to succeed his father. Eissa's belief is not altogether unreasonable.

In spite of Gamal's unambiguous denial, it is noteworthy that he has been initially vague about his future plans. When asked whether he was going to run for president in a press conference in 2003 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., he avoided answering the question, stating instead that he knew that it was a matter that people talked about. In the following year, he said that it was too early for him to make such a decision, although his father had publicly asserted at least twice that Gamal would not be his successor.

Regardless of Gamal's statements, then, does his recent marriage bring him any closer to the presidency? Abdel-Wahab al-Messiri, an intellectual best known for his studies on Zionism and more recently as the general coordinator of the popular opposition movement Kefaya (Enough) insists that tying the knot is a formality, but a necessary one, for a presidential candidate. The majority of observers remain reluctant to link the marriage to eventual succession. Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, described Gamal's marriage as "a long time coming" that was not part of a succession scenario, but maintained that Gamal has the presidency in mind. Hassan Nafaa, the chair of the political science department at Cairo University, also saw no such link, but noted that Gamal is careful in every possible way not to harm his chances to become president.

It is not surprising that observers view Hosni Mubarak's and his son's statements with suspicion. After all, the government does not enjoy a high level of credibility, in light of difficult economic conditions and serious limitations on civil liberties. Very conspicuous is the complete absence of a convincing scenario for peaceful transfer of power when President Mubarak passes away (or, theoretically, steps down).

Gamal Mubarak remains a likely candidate for the presidency. Protestors of the authoritarian nature of Mubarak's regime from across the political spectrum resent this situation. Magdi Mehanna, author of a popular daily column titled fil mamnu' (In the Forbidden Zone) argues that Gamal only stands a chance if elections are held during his father's tenure, which will be a legalized form of hereditary succession because he lacks a popular base of support.

It is noteworthy that the regime has been careful to marginalize any possible competitor to Mubarak (and Mubarak Jr.). In the late 1980s, Abdel-Halim Abu-Ghazalah, minister of Defense and chief of the Army at the time, was forced to retire, probably because of his increasing popularity within the military. In 2001, foreign minister Amre Moussa who became very popular among Egyptians, especially for his remarkable public persona, was nominated by Mubarak to lead the largely ineffectual League of Arab States. Echoing this theme was an editorial in the independent al-Masry al-Youm, appropriately titled, "If not him, then who?" in reference to the lack of competitors to Gamal Mubarak.

This scenario is plausible but is it stoppable? Robert Springborg, who heads the Middle East Institute of the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London, argues that it is not. According to Springborg, there are no constitutional objections. In addition, the United States may have implicitly accepted Gamal as a possible heir when President Bush met with him in the White House last year.

Domestically the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has repeatedly made the point that it is avoiding any confrontation with the regime. Most recently Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Futuh, a senior member, said that they were not concerned about who would be the next president but rather with political reform at-large. This banned but visible party that holds roughly 20 percent of the seats in Parliament has adopted a policy of gradual, slow advancement.

On the ground, opposition parties failed miserably in the 2005 presidential elections, the first time they were allowed to nominate candidates. These parties have not improved their position since then, as indicated by their equally abysmal performance in the most recent parliamentary elections in which they collectively won less than two percent of the total vote.

The only name that is often mentioned as a plausible presidential candidate is that of General Omar Suleiman, Head of Intelligence. Not much is known about Suleiman, 70, beyond the fact that he is an official who plays an active role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and more importantly between the different Palestinian factions.

Hisham Kassem, publisher and vice president of the liberal opposition party al-Ghad, told the British Telegraph that Suleiman is the most likely candidate because of his military background, while "Gamal's political career [will end] when his father dies." Since the declaration of a Republic in Egypt in 1953, all four presidents who have ruled the country came from the military establishment.

It is most likely that the next president will come from Mubarak's close circle. This clique is the only political group that will be able to mobilize the massive state apparatus, win the support of the business oligarchs and secure the neutrality of the army. What Hosni Mubarak is counting on is the unity of this clique when it is time for succession. Read this way, the name of the next president remains rather secondary.

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