The long-held suspicion among Egyptians that President Hosni Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal to replace him one day is crystallizing into a widespread belief. There are now signs that “one day” may be as close as next year.
As President Mubarak hosts the next round of peace talks in Sharm El Sheikh today, some say he’s sending a message to both the Americans and the Israelis that Gamal is the safest choice to preserve Egypt’s peace with Israel, which is deeply unpopular among the Egyptian public, and its role in shepherding the negotiations.
In recent weeks a group has been plastering posters in low-income Cairo neighborhoods with the slogan “Gamal Mubarak: dream of the poor.” With a presidential election scheduled for next year and concerns about the health of the 82-year-old leader, the posters are taken by many as the first salvo in an election campaign for Gamal.
Gamal also accompanied his father to Washington for the launch of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks earlier this month. That led to a flurry of speculation that the elder Mubarak was seeking President Barack Obama’s blessing for hereditary succession in a nation that receives more than $1 billion in US aid each year.
Both Mubaraks have denied a succession plan. But the talk grows louder each year. President Mubarak has not named a vice president since he took power nearly 30 years ago, creating confusion over what would happen if he dies in office. Many Egyptians are deeply opposed to Gamal inheriting power, and say that would push Egypt farther away from democracy.
“There are many signs that the regime is very much insisting that Gamal Mubarak will take over,” says Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University and a vocal opponent of hereditary succession.
Since 2000 Gamal has climbed through the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and now heads the powerful Policy Committee. Recent constitutional amendments were passed that allow for "competitive" presidential elections, but give the ruling party's candidate a clear advantage.
The recent moves, says Prof. Nafaa, "are a step for marketing him. ... they are preparing the theater” for the transition. He does not think Hosni Mubarak has yet made the final decision on whether to run in next year’s elections, however.
But many Egyptians see proof in Gamal’s recent trip to Washington that the president has made a decision. While it wasn't the first time Gamal accompanied his father to the US, and a State Department official said the younger Mubarak did not attend any meetings at the State Department or the White House, that has not stopped Egyptian rumors that he met with the key players in the peace process.
“My analysis is that the Israelis are convinced that Gamal will be a guarantee that the peace treaty with Israel will be preserved and respected, and otherwise there might be a risk,” says Nafaa.
Gamal campaign posters not ripped down
One sign that seems fairly concrete in a nation where conspiracy theories abound is the fact that the posters endorsing a Gamal presidency have not been torn down by the regime. When similar posters appeared recently urging Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to run for president, they were quickly removed by state security. Gamal’s photo, however, continues to gaze down on Cairo residents.
The NDP has distanced itself from the group that put up the posters, which is led officially by a former member of a leftist opposition party, Magdi Al Kurdi. But where the campaign gets the money to hang posters and for events like handing out meat in a poor neighborhood is unclear. One member of the campaign says privately it's backed by Ibrahim Kamal, a prominent businessman and member of the NDP’s Policy Committee, but the campaign officially denied this.
Nafaa says the group may be an effort by businessmen in the NDP, who would benefit from Gamal’s policies, to pressure President Mubarak to step down and allow his son to run for the presidency next year. Much of the support for Gamal, who leads Egypt’s economic liberalization program, comes from wealthy businessmen in a country where about 40 percent of the population lives on $2 a day. Others consider the campaign a trial balloon to gauge public support for the president’s son.
“This is plan B for President Mubarak,” says Prof. Sayyid. “He does intend to become the candidate of the NDP, but if his health deteriorates or he is incapable of becoming the candidate, some kind of popular support will have been built for Gamal Mubarak.”