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Stage set for political dynasty in Egypt?

NBC News Charlene Gubash reports from Cairo on the latest cabinet reshuffle and the rumors that Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, is his all but anointed successor.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's eldest son, Gamal, center, attends a midnight mass on Coptic Christmas Day last year.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's eldest son, Gamal, center, attends a midnight mass on Coptic Christmas Day last year.Amr Nabil / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

When some Egyptians are asked how they would feel about Gamal Mubarak’s succeeding his father as the next president of Egypt, they don't mince words. "No, no, no, I wouldn't accept it," declared a grandmother, who wishes to remain anonymous. "He has no experience. He is still naïve. President Mubarak has had a long experience and passed through wars. They would force people to accept Gamal. I wouldn't be happy to have him as a president." 

But Tarek Nassar, a young businessman, thinks the younger Mubarak is just what the country needs. "I would love if Gamal Mubarak would be president. First of all, he is very educated and has spent 70 percent of his life in the diplomatic kitchen. He is open-minded and young. All the educated young generation wants him to be president."

Nassar had occasion to meet Gamal Mubarak when they both worked at Bank of America. "He is very low profile," said Nassar. “Very smart and professional, honest, straightforward — we need someone like him." 

The question of who will succeed Egyptian President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has been pushed to the forefront again by the president's recent back surgery and persistent rumors about his health. 

Each time Egypt’s head of state, age 76, suffers a health scare or assassination attempt, the nation holds its breath because Mubarak has no designated successor.

Democratic process main priority
Egypt's intelligentsia, whether they like or dislike the junior Mubarak, are more concerned that the succession be democratic.  

Senior analyst Gamal Abdel Gawad wants to see an election with more than one candidate. "I believe sincerely [Gamal Mubarak] can run for president in an open election and win. If this is to happen, it would open a large highway for political development in Egypt." 

Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of Al Ahram Weekly, simply asks that the process be democratic. "The only government change that is exciting is where people bring about the change. My interest is democratizing. I don't worry about which authoritarian takes the lead."

Unlike former presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser, Mubarak has declined to appoint a vice president since he took office in 1981. When asked why he has not named a deputy, Mubarak has responded that he hasn't found a suitable candidate yet. 

He has also contended that the absence of a vice president will not impede a smooth transfer of power since the constitution ensures that if a president were to die in office without having named a vice president, the speaker of parliament would assume responsibility for 60 days until the parliament elects a new president, who must then be endorsed in a referendum.

But a growing number of people believe that Mubarak’s refusal to appoint a vice president arises from the simple desire to see his youngest son, Gamal, take his place. And to name a vice president at this late stage would be tantamount to naming the next head of state.

New ‘Gamal-friendly cabinet’
To many analysts, the latest evidence of Gamal Mubarak's growing power is the recent appointment by his father of a Gamal-friendly cabinet. Critics believe that Mubarak has smoothed his son's path to the presidency by placing his son's colleagues in key positions, while sidelining some of the old guard. 

One opposition newspaper ran the headline "Gamal Mubarak's Government.”  But others believe the new cabinet has been installed in order to stimulate Egypt's moribund economy. 

"We should have had a new cabinet much earlier, because the former one didn't perform the right way," said Gawad. "Everyone was dissatisfied." 

Gawad contends that people are reading too much into the new appointments. The cabinet, largely composed of diehard ruling party members, is imbued with the reformist, liberal vision in economic and public policy embraced by the young Mubarak. 

Seven of the new ministers appointed also serve on Gamal's influential Policy Council, which formulates policy for the ruling National Democratic Party and, some say, for the country.  

Three of the new ministers have been referred to as his "lieutenants" in the media. Many reflect his ethos: They are young, savvy, reform-minded technocrats from academia or business who have worked or studied in the West.

One of his closest colleagues, Mahmoud Mohieddin, is the head of the newly created Ministry of Investment Development. Mohieddin, 39, got his Ph.D. from Warwick University and teaches economics at Cairo University. 

Another close associate, Rachid Mohammed Rachid, 49, heads up the newly combined Ministry of Industry and Foreign Trade. His impressive credentials include advanced management studies at Stanford, MIT and Harvard.

Groomed for succession   
Gamal Mubarak, 41, began his career as an investment banker before entering politics at the urging of his father. He studied in Egypt, obtaining his business administration degree and an MBA from the American University of Cairo. 

But his career as an investment banker took him to London, where he worked for six years with Bank of America while setting up a financial investment company called Medinvest Associates Ltd, of which he is the chairman. 

People began to suspect he was being groomed for the presidency when he was appointed to the general secretariat of the ruling party in 2000. His increasing presence on TV and in the newspapers led people to the same conclusion. He has also become an increasingly common figure at his father's side, leading a delegation abroad and heading up a conference at home.

But even skeptics who initially doubted President Mubarak would dare to impose his son as the future president began to wonder when he appointed Gamal in 2002 to the third most powerful position in the party: secretary general of the policy committee. 

Observers are waiting expectantly for the upcoming party congress in September to see whether President Mubarak will decide to run for another term in 2005 and if he will appoint his son to the highest post in the ruling party: general secretary.  

Gamal Mubarak's three trips to the United States have also raised eyebrows and speculations. Many here feel that since he is neither an elected or appointed government official, he has no right to meet foreign members of government in an official capacity. 

Yet as the leader of a high-powered delegation to the United States in 2003, he met with Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.  An articulate, confident English speaker, with a reformist's vision for the future, Gamal has been well received in Washington. 

Repeated but qualified denials by both father and son that Gamal is seeking the presidency have failed to convince the public.

During a visit to Washington, young Mubarak was asked about his political intentions. He responded, "As far as my political ambitions are concerned, I'm pretty satisfied with what I am doing now…. Neither the president nor I would agree that I seek, accept or be offered an executive post while my father is the chief executive." 

While Mubarak has gone on record insisting that "talk of inheritance of power in Egypt is nonsense,"  he has also said that his son has the right to run for the presidency like anyone else in the country. 

Lacking military experience
Some argue that Gamal Mubarak is an unlikely choice as president because he lacks military experience. All of Egypt's four leaders since 1952 have come from the ranks of the armed forces. They doubt Gamal Mubarak would get the crucial support he needs from the military. 

If the past is prologue, Omar Suleiman, the head of the Egyptian Intelligence Department, would be a likely successor. He has played an unusually high-profile role in negotiating a truce among Palestinian factions and Israel and has a close working relationship with the president. In charge of intelligence for over 10 years, his security credentials are impeccable. 

But those who want more democratic reform see Gamal Mubarak’s non-military background as a plus. They believe someone from the civil sector is more likely to reverse decades of heavy-handed government control. 

"There is a tradition of the president coming from the army for more than 50 years, but on the other hand, his vision for reform favors him as a viable candidate. He appeals to the young," said Gawad. 

But critics say that while Gamal Mubarak champions economic reform, he is less interested in the kind of serious political reform that would weaken the supremacy of the ruling National Democratic Party and challenge his father's monopoly on the presidency.

Reformist, to a point
Gamal Mubarak has begun a dialogue on reform, and supported political and social reform within limits,  but just how far he is willing to go in responding to the startlingly frank demands of the Egyptian people is an open question.

At a forum on reform sponsored by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, Gamal Mubarak was asked whether more than one candidate would be allowed to run in the next election. He evaded the question entirely.

When asked whether martial law would be lifted, he detailed a list of decrees that have been repealed but said that those aspects of emergency law dealing with national security and terrorism would remain. Martial law, in effect since President Anwar Sadat's assassination, gives the government sweeping powers to arrest and detain individuals without due process and to prohibit public gatherings.

Gamal Mubarak and his group are reformists, but only to a point, according to Shukrallah, the Al Ahram Weekly editor. "They are modernists, more fluent in English and other languages, educated abroad, belonging to the younger generation. They are more open to Western management techniques, more exposed to Western culture and definitely economic liberals. But it does not mean that they are liberal in the sense of being democrats, and that is the confusion," said Shukrallah.

Some Egyptians fear the apple will not fall far from the tree. "It would not be good if Gamal becomes president. It is going to be the same policy as his father," complained Aly Said, a plumber. 

While most analysts agree that the choice of a successor has not been made, they strongly believe that President Mubarak should name a vice president. 

"The clock is ticking, and he should do something," cautioned Gawad. "For the sake of stability of the country and to allow people to predict what will happen."