On the streets of Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak is jokingly referred to as Egypt's "last pharaoh." He has held the Egyptian presidency for 28 years and has yet to name a successor. But with the presidential election scheduled for September 2011, the country is abuzz with talk of who will replace the aging leader. That is, assuming Mr. Mubarak chooses not to run.
Egypt's elections are neither free nor fair, and experts agree that just as in ancient Egypt, a dynastic transition is likely. This year, not 2011, will effectively be when Egypt's next president is decided, because any contender would have to start soon to have chance.
Who's the front-runner?
Gamal Mubarak is Hosni Mubarak's youngest son and is widely tipped to replace his father. Gamal worked as an investment banker in London before returning to Egypt to enter politics. In 2002, he was named to the policy secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Widely credited with introducing a series of economic reforms and liberalizations, he has strong ties with Egypt's business elite. Despite being unpopular with the citizenry, Gamal has assumed an increasingly public role and the state-controlled media frequently features photos of Gamal.
Who are the potential challengers?
There are few people who could legally stand against Gamal Mubarak, due to candidacy requirements set by constitutional amendments in 2005 and 2007. But with elites throwing their hats in the ring, rumors are flying about who could mount a challenge to the Mubarak family agenda.
Mohamed ElBaradei is a name that keeps cropping up: In December, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and 2005 Nobel Prize winner announced he would run for president given guarantees of a free election. When he flew into Cairo on Feb. 19, hundreds of supporters greeted him, some holding signs that read: “Yes: ElBaradei President of Egypt.”
But he has set conditions for considering a candidacy that haven't existed in an Egyptian election since the 1950s. His goal does not seem to be to become Egypt’s president, but rather to bring democratic reform to the political system. In any case, it does not seem likely he will receive the constitutionally mandated endorsements or win enough of Mubarak's supporters to his side.
"If we're looking at potentials for elite conflict or elite defection, we just don't see it," says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University. "ElBaradei came out and said 'I'll run for president,' I didn't see a single person ... come out and say, 'That's a good idea, I'm with Baradei.'"
Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's intelligence chief, hasn't announced interest in the post, but is assumed to be the powerful military establishment's man. All three presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy have been members of the military. If the military ultimately wavers over Gamal Mubarak's civilian background, Mr. Suleiman may emerge as a contender.
What obstacles face the Mubarak family as they try to engineer a power handover?
Gamal Mubarak's unpopularity is his Achilles' heel. The regime has tried to craft a "man of the people" persona for him by sending him to Egyptian soccer matches and flashing photographs of him with the national team in the state media.
But popularity isn't likely to be much of a factor in the election. "What perhaps is the greatest achievement of the effort to have Gamal Mubarak succeed Hosni Mubarak are those constitutional amendments, because they render succession far more likely [and] make any particular alternative unlikely," says Nathan Brown, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "And the more inevitable this seems ... the more that the Egyptian state institutions will simply rally around Gamal Mubarak because there's no alternative."
Experts say popular opposition from fledgling pro-democracy movements will not amount to much on election day. "There's no national movement that's emerging from popular circles that has proven effective at even remotely slowing down the Mubarak potential succession," says Mr. Stacher. Instead, he predicts low voter turnout and a rigged election.
The regime's largest political competitor, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, is not expected to pose a threat to Gamal, since the 2007 constitutional amendments outlawed registering a political party based on religion. "[The Muslim Brotherhood] are not in any position to do anything," says Mr. Brown. The Brotherhood "is if anything kind of ratcheting down its political involvement, not abandoning politics but ratcheting it down."
Is there a wildcard?
The military. Traditionally the kingmaker of Egyptian politics, Egypt's past three presidents – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak – all came from military backgrounds. Gamal's civilian background may stir a backlash. While the military's agenda remains opaque, experts argue that if they had a problem with Gamal's ascension, he would never have made it this far. In fact, his candidacy may place the military exactly where it wants to be: controlling things behind the scenes.
"The military finds itself in a very, very good position and that actually taking power could be more detrimental to their situation than what they already have," says Stacher. "Because theoretically the spotlight will be on Gamal Mubarak, any failures of that state will fall on Gamal Mubarak and the NDP. The military is already running things, they don't need somebody in a uniform standing at a podium explaining Egypt's policies when Gamal Mubarak can do it in much better English."
Could Hosni Mubarak try to stay for a few more years?
Yes, President Mubarak has never officially stated he will not seek another term. In a 2006 speech, he declared he would run Egypt until his "last breath." He would be 89 at the end of another six-year term. Despite almost disappearing from the public eye, fueling questions of who is running the day-to-day operations of the Egyptian government, the country remains plastered with billboards of a youthful looking Hosni Mubarak.
"I think it is quite possible that he [Mubarak] would seek another term. Both Nasser and Sadat served until they died. Hosni Mubarak has definitely scaled back his public activities, he seems to be a little bit more of a disengaged figure in terms of day-to-day politics in Egypt, but for him to actually step down as president would be unprecedented," says Brown.