The son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a group of close associates have moved into key political positions that put the younger man in line to succeed his aging father at a time when the government has taken steps to block opposition rivals from challenging the heir apparent.
Last month, Gamal Mubarak rose in the hierarchy of the governing National Democratic Party, whose grass-roots organization underpins his father's rule. He was named one of three NDP deputy secretaries general, and 20 of his associates took other high-ranking posts in the party. Mubarak had served as head of the party's policies committee, which helped fashion economic reforms.
Mubarak and his backers displaced some, but not all, of the veteran NDP activists known collectively as the old guard. Political observers saw in the move a gradual shift toward putting the NDP at the service of the president's son.
'A vehicle for succession'?
"Who can deny this is anything but a vehicle for succession?" said Hala Mustafa, an analyst at the government-financed al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
With the opposition on the defensive, there seems to be nothing blocking Mubarak's path to the presidency. "I don't see anyone who can stop him," said Joshua Stracher, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who studies the Arab Middle East.
Egypt has been singled out by President Bush as ripe for democratic reform. On a recent visit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed general criticism of the pace of change in the country, saying there had been "disappointments and setbacks" last year. She said she discussed these with Egyptian officials "as a friend, not as a judge."
A few days later, President Mubarak told an Egyptian newspaper that Rice was "convinced by the way political reform" was proceeding in Egypt and that during her visit, she "didn't bring up difficult issues or ask to change anything."
During a quarter-century in power, Mubarak, now 77, never named a vice president, unlike his two predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the event he dies in office or resigns, elections would take place within two months. Theoretically, under rules decreed by Mubarak last year, multiple candidates could run to succeed him. However, the chances are shrinking that anyone but Gamal Mubarak will be able to launch an effective campaign, observers say.
Opposition in disarray
Following weak showings in last fall's parliamentary elections, legal opposition parties, long hobbled by laws restricting assembly and speech, are in disarray. Only the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in a strong position, winning a fifth of the legislative seats despite violent efforts by police to block voters from reaching the polls. As a religious-based party, the Brotherhood was formally banned from participating but fielded candidates as independents.
The government recently undercut the Brotherhood by postponing municipal elections scheduled for this year. The two-year delay denied the well-organized group a chance to make yet another electoral splash. Moreover, for the Brotherhood to eventually sponsor an independent presidential candidate, the nominee would need approval from municipal councils, all of which currently are dominated by officials who support President Mubarak, and elements of parliament.
The election delay was announced only a few weeks after Gamal Mubarak publicly supported the ban on political activity by the Brotherhood.
"The question of how we should deal at the political and legal levels with attempts to circumvent the national consensus that bans religious parties is on the table," he told the state-run Roz al-Yusef newspaper. The Brotherhood, he said, "has no legal existence, so from the legal point of view we must deal with it on that basis."
The government also cracked down on democracy advocates. Last month, three magistrates who had complained of fraud during the parliamentary elections were questioned by police because they publicized alleged wrongdoing at the polls. Under 25-year-old emergency laws, it is a crime to besmirch Egypt's image.
Meanwhile, the second-place finisher in last year's presidential election, Ayman Nour, is serving a five-year prison sentence on charges of forging documents. Human rights groups say the charges are trumped up, and a chief witness in the case told the court that police forced him to testify against Nour.
Nour is also being investigated for other alleged crimes, including assaulting an NDP member and setting up a statue in a public square, which, under Egyptian law, can qualify as an offense against Islam. Last month, police questioned his wife, Gamila Ismael, for allegedly assaulting policemen.
Nour won only about 7 percent of the presidential vote. Since then, his Tomorrow Party has fallen apart. Observers say that by daring to run for president, he offended Hosni Mubarak. "Mubarak has it in for Ayman Nour," said Hisham Kassem, editor of the independent Masri al-Yom newspaper.
Gamal Mubarak's political and personal moves are now observed with intense curiosity by the press and the public. When word spread of his engagement to the daughter of a tourism and construction magnate, "the way the state press celebrated the news it looks like they are crowning him, like a royal wedding," Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a human rights activist, told reporters.
Mubarak, 42, is surrounded by a group of devoted supporters who have taken to what Egyptian analysts call "managed reform." Some call the group a shilla , Arabic for gang. The group includes businessmen, academics and Egyptians with political pedigrees in their families. Most are in their late thirties or early forties; many were educated and worked in the West. English is their second language.
Among the most prominent are Ahmed Ezz, a steel and ceramics magnate who is newly in charge of overseeing membership in the NDP; Rachid Mohamed Rachid, a former chief executive of Unilever Egypt who is now minister of trade and foreign investment; Mahmoud Mohieedin, a former finance professor who heads the NDP economic policy committee and is also investments minister; Finance Minister Yousef Boutros-Ghali, son of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former U.N. secretary general; and Mohammed Kamal, a Cairo University political scientist who heads efforts to re-indoctrinate NDP members in a bid to modernize the party.
Kamal, the unofficial spokesman, said the group defined itself as an outward-looking alternative to political Islam. "We don't want to be associated automatically with the West, but we think it is okay to look outside of Egypt for solutions," he said. "New blood means people with fresh ideas as well as the political experience."
An unknown factor in Gamal Mubarak's apparent drive for power is the attitude of the military and security services. The military has supplied Egypt's last three presidents, including the elder Mubarak, and it is not clear whether it would accept a monarchical-style succession.
"I don't think Gamal can make it," said Kassem, the newspaper editor. "His group calls itself reformist, but it is based on simple nepotism, with Gamal at the center. When the father goes, this group could quickly lose altitude. Everyone will be yelling 'Mayday, Mayday.' Not a happy situation."