In Egypt, the son also rises

In Egypt, the son also rises

Tall and gangly, the man on stage in khakis and shirtsleeves spoke woodenly despite the energy and friendliness evident in his audience of well-off Egyptian college students and recent graduates.

Passion flowed into his voice only when he talked about trade liberalization and market reform. His listeners at the youth forum applauded, but not as much as they had for some other speakers.

Gamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the man most widely expected to succeed him, had not made much of an impression. Then again, Egyptians say, Gamal Mubarak probably doesn”t have to.

Egyptians have never experienced a democratic transfer of presidential power. As Hosni Mubarak, 79, begins the 27th year of his rule this month, many say they expect Mubarak”s family and ruling party, military officers and security officials to decide on his successor.

If power passes to Gamal Mubarak, Egypt would join Syria, Jordan and Morocco – the latter two officially kingdoms – on the growing list of modern Middle East dynasties in which sons have taken over from fathers in governments of elites backed by the military and security services.

In Egypt, “we didn”t choose (Anwar) Sadat, we didn”t choose Mubarak, and we”re not choosing the next one,” Zakaria Nahla, a 52-year-old seller of cheap furniture, said in a Cairo market.

“We take it as a given” that it will be Gamal Mubarak, said Sayida Amin, 46, a nanny who works for a family in one of Cairo”s wealthier districts. “People don”t know who he is. We only know he”s the president”s son, and he”s imposed on us.”

Hosni Mubarak, who rose from the vice presidency when Islamic radicals assassinated president Sadat in 1981, has never appointed a vice-president or announced his preference for a successor. Under the constitution, elections for a new president must follow within 60 days if the president yields power.

Gamal Mubarak denies any interest in the presidency, but he is accumulating power in the ruling National Democratic Party and as his father”s economic adviser.

Educated in Egypt, Gamal, 43, left a job as an investment banker in London in 2000 to return home, and took a post as head of the party”s policy committee.

Gamal Mubarak is credited with helping build a team of savvy, energetic officials around his father, including Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, to overhaul the socialist-oriented economic policies inherited from former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Cautious but business-friendly changes such as cutting the overvalued Egyptian pound have helped the country achieve a 7 per cent growth rate this year and attract $11 billion in direct foreign investment. That”s up from less than $500 million three or four years ago, said Simon Kitchen, a Cairo economist.

Gamal Mubarak and his economic engineering seem remote to many Egyptians. Forty per cent live in poverty, according to U.S. figures, and 80 per cent are labelled low-income by Egypt”s government.

“Gamal has never taken a bus, never stopped at a red light, never met anyone who wasn”t cleared by security services,” said Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Cairo”s al-Dustor newspaper.

But Gamal Mubarak”s pro-market economic views already have won him the support of many in the business community, said Steven A. Cook, a specialist on civilian-military relations in the Middle East and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Salah Diab, a leading businessman, praised Gamal Mubarak for helping to bring new thinking to the country”s economic policies. But like others here, Diab said he wants Egypt”s presidency limited to one or two terms.

“If he thinks he”s coming to be the fourth pharaoh in a row” – after Nasser, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – “I don”t think that”s going to be acceptable to anyone,” Diab said.

Egypt”s military has picked the country”s rulers for more than half a century. Nasser, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak came from the officer corps, whose endorsement is still seen as essential for whoever wishes to be president.

What Egypt”s military and security services are looking for, some analysts argue, is Hosni Mubarak II – a leader who will preserve the Camp David accord with Israel and the U.S. military aid that comes with it, maintain relations with the U.S. and Europe, and continue medical, housing and other benefits for military officers.

“The security services, the army, basically are interested in maintaining the status quo,” Cook said.

The National Democratic Party is a third constituency vital for the next president.

Since taking control of the policy committee, Mubarak has helped push through initiatives expanding the party”s powers and blocking opposition challengers. Among the changes was a constitutional amendment adopted this spring banning religious political groups.

That helped shut out the Muslim Brotherhood, the country”s largest opposition movement, in June elections for parliament”s upper house after the group”s strong showing in 2005 elections for the lower house.

Across the Middle East, the sons who assumed power in the 1990s and earlier this decade did so while promising greater freedoms than their fathers allowed.

“People always think, `He uses the Internet and he speaks good English and therefore he won”t be like his parents,” but it never seems to work out that way,” Marc Lynch, a Mideast expert at George Washington University, said by telephone.