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Egyptians Looking for Clues About Their President’s Plans
Egyptians Looking for Clues About Their President’s Plans
President Mubarak, 81, who has held office for nearly 28 years, has given no indication that he plans to retire, and his allies have suggested that he is likely to serve another five-year term when his current one expires in 2011. But he has looked weak and in poor health, particularly when standing next to a youthfulPresident Obama in their recent meeting here, many local commentators said.
Friday, July 10,2009 10:29
by MONA EL-NAGGAR New York Times

President Hosni Mubarak’s recent frailty, the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and persistent reports in the state-controlled news media about plans to dissolve Parliament have combined to provoke a bout of speculation as to whether Mr. Mubarak will step down and, if he does, who will succeed him.

President Mubarak, 81, who has held office for nearly 28 years, has given no indication that he plans to retire, and his allies have suggested that he is likely to serve another five-year term when his current one expires in 2011. But he has looked weak and in poor health, particularly when standing next to a youthfulPresident Obama

 in their recent meeting here, many local commentators said.

“The laws of life have brought the moment that can no longer be delayed, forcing us to discuss the issue of the alternative,” wrote Hossam Abdel Baseer recently in an Egyptian opposition daily, Al Wafd.

Speaking about Mr. Mubarak’s eventual replacement has always been taboo, but recent events have forced the subject to the surface.

Over the past two months, more than 130 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including three of its leaders, have been arrested and accused of belonging to an outlaw organization. The Brotherhood, an Islamist group, is legally banned, but it is tolerated and carries out a variety of religious, social and political activities in plain view. Its members run as independent candidates for Parliament and constitute the largest opposition bloc, with 88 out of a total 454 seats.

The suspicion is that the government has moved to try to neutralize the Brotherhood so that it will wield less influence in the issue of succession, should the president become incapacitated, decide to step down or die.

More than 30 of those recently arrested, including Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is a member of the group’s guidance office and secretary general of the Arab medical union, are facing the additional charge of money laundering.

At the same time, there is widespread speculation — fueled by reports in the Egyptian news media — that some members of the governing National Democratic Party are pushing for a presidential decree to dissolve Parliament so that a more compliant legislature can be seated before the question of succession comes up.

There are two main succession possibilities in circulation, one involving the president’s younger son, Gamal, and another the chief of military intelligence, Gen. Omar Suleiman. But government officials said that there was no way to know whom the military would back or if there was a powerful figure in the wings.

“This moment is not a regular moment for people; everyone is looking out for what will happen after Mubarak,” said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, a former member of the president’s party who is now in the opposition. “The thing is, no one knows what will happen.”

This is not the first time the state of Mr. Mubarak’s health has come into question. A newspaper editor was charged with damaging the nation’s economy after publishing an article in August 2007 that said that the president was ill and that his aides were concealing it. The article did not offer details of the supposed illness.

This latest round may have been touched off by Mr. Mubarak’s appearance next to Mr. Obama, but it has its roots in a personal shock. Not long before Mr. Obama’s visit, one of Mr. Mubarak’s two grandchildren, a 12-year-old boy, died unexpectedly. By all accounts, Mr. Mubarak doted on the boy and was devastated by his death, canceling a planned visit to Washington — his first in five years — and disappearing from public view for about two weeks.

He resurfaced to receive Mr. Obama but did not go to the airport to greet him. Then, when Mr. Obama’s motorcade arrived, Mr. Mubarak decided not to walk down a flight of stairs to welcome him, but instead waited for Mr. Obama to stride up.

“People might be worried that the country would have to go to a presidential election at any moment, given the fact that he is 81 years old,” said an Egyptian political analyst who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “And there were signs that he might not be in very good health.”

Mr. Mubarak has never appointed a vice president. If he dies in office, then the speaker of the Parliament, a veteran party leader, Fathi Sorour, would serve as an interim president until an election could be called. With no real political parties here, an election would effectively be a formality to install the candidate selected by Mr. Mubarak’s party. Gamal Mubarak is a high-ranking official in the party, but there remains no guarantee that the old-timers in the system or the military would go along with his ascension, political commentators said.

President Mubarak himself, the only one who currently has the authority to decide on his succession, has not made any public statements addressing the recent arrests or the speculation about a decree to dissolve Parliament.

Party leaders have not confirmed — but also have not denied — the talk of dissolving Parliament. “It is his constitutional responsibility that enables him to determine when this is necessary,” Mr. Sorour, one of the most prominent members of the governing party, said last week in the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram.

Opaque remarks like that, as opposed to outright denials, have only deepened the suspicions of many Egyptians, who in the customary absence of hard information are quick to deal in speculation.

“It is a very disturbing mood with a lot of unnecessary uncertainty and vagueness,” said Makram Muhammad Ahmed, a columnist for Al Ahram.

But no one is expecting definite answers anytime soon.

“The Egyptian political system is a highly personalized system where the personality of the president plays a very important role,” said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American Universityin Cairo. “The decision of who is going to be president of Egypt is taken within a very small circle and very often is an individual decision by the incumbent president himself.



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