Mubarak: Egypt’s new ’pharaoh’ and great survivor

No successor named for Egypt’s Presidency, Hosni Mubarak’s new six-year term expires in 2011.

Twenty-five years after being catapulted into Egypt’s top job by the assassination of his mentor Anwar Sadat, President Hosni Mubarak has such a tight grip on power that he is widely seen as a new pharaoh keen to establish his own dynasty.

Outruled in the Arab world only by Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, the 78-year-old is one of the region’s great survivors, having escaped six known assassination attempts.

But he has done so without abandoning the groundbreaking policies of seeking peace with Israel and accommodation with the West that cost his predecessor his life at a military parade on October 6, 1981.

A committed supporter of the Cold War tilt to Washington carried out by his predecessor in 1976, it is ironically the US administration’s bid to export democracy to the Arab world that poses perhaps the greatest threat to Mubarak’s perceived ambition to groom his younger son Gamal for the succession.

Re-elected three times in uncontested elections, US pressure forced Mubarak last year to submit to a genuine contest for the first time in a presidential poll.

But the continued banning of the country’s largest opposition group — the Muslim Brotherhood — under a state of emergency that has remained in force ever since Sadat’s assassination meant he faced no challenger with broad appeal.

In parliamentary elections in December however, he conceded to domestic and foreign pressure to allow the Brotherhood to field a large number of independents who took an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats.

The father of two is married to half-Welsh Suzanne but has kept his private life carefully guarded, instead choosing to craft himself an image as father of the nation.

Large portraits of the burly leader, with his jet-black combed back hair and aquiline nose, adorn public buildings and tower above the country’s motorways, while his every move is religiously reported in the mainstream press.

He followed the programme of economic liberalisation launched by Sadat, but social inequalities have grown during his tenure and poverty is rife among the 75-million-strong population.

Mubarak, who also chairs the ruling National Democratic Party, has so far crushed in the bud any political challenge, alternating crackdowns against his opponents with conciliatory measures.

Since Sadat’s assassination, he never lifted the state of emergency and his unwieldy security services are omnipresent in every sphere of life.

Bombings hit the popular resorts of the Sinai peninsula in October 2004, July 2005 and April 2006 costing the lives of scores of tourists from Europe and neighbouring Israel.

The attacks were well-chosen to highlight the centrepiece of Egyptian foreign policy that Mubarak inherited from his predecessor — peace with the Jewish state.

Ironically Mubarak spent his early career in the military, fighting repeated wars with Israel.

After Egypt’s crushing defeat in the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel occupied the Sinai, it was Mubarak who was charged with rebuilding the air force for the October War of 1973 in which the Arab states won back some of their lost prestige.

But when Sadat decided to sue for a separate peace with Israel to regain Egypt’s lost territory, Mubarak supported his mentor and he has remained the leading Arab interlocutor with the Jewish state ever since.

Despite coming to power through his predecessor’s death, when he was vice president, Mubarak has never named a successor, fanning opposition charges that he is intent on establishing a 32nd dynasty of pharaohs.

Gamal Mubarak insists he has no ambition to follow in the footsteps of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who succeeded his late father Hafez, but the prominent platform given to the president’s son at the ruling NDP’s annual conference last month raised eyebrows even among sympathetic analysts.

Famed into his early 1970s for his love of the game of squash — he maintained his own court in the presidential palace — Mubarak has suffered a series of health scares in recent years.

But despite public pledges to name a vice president, he has yet to do so, even though he will be 83 when his latest six-year term expires in 2011.

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